Category Archives: Technology

“Ironman vs. Siri” and the Mobile Battle for What’s “Cool”

Fonzi. The “Fonz”. He is one of the most iconic images in television history. His character was supposed to epitomize what was considered “cool” in the 1950’s, like a comic hybrid of James Dean, Elvis, and Johnny Cash. The only thing missing was the cigarette ~ The Fonz did not smoke (“Happy Days” was a family sit-com). But lots of other cool people smoke, and many a young person takes up smoking because they think it makes them cool. Plus it gives them something to do with their hands. The social value of smoking is a primary reason why smoking is so hard to eradicate.

Which brings me to texting. My daughters, who are in their twenties, have given me the rules. If I call and they don’t answer, I am not to leave them a voice message. That’s unacceptable. In fact, they have all told me that if I do leave them a voice message, they delete it at the first sound of my voice. No, instead I am to hang up without leaving a message, and they will see that I have called and call back. If I have something important to tell them, like “Where is the $200 I lent you six months ago and that you promised to pay back last month?” ~ I am to text it. My girlfriend’s three children, who are also in their twenties, have told her the same thing. These are the rules.

To us, this is stupid and inefficient. I don’t understand this protocol. I mean, I get that in the age of tweeting, long-winded and rambling voice messages like the kind my girlfriend leaves for her children (she ignores the rules) are uncool. Then even I want to hit the 2X playback speed button I so love on the iPhone music app, which is great for listening to Podcasts and audiobooks in half the time. Afterall, our brains process verbal input much faster than the normal speaking voice, so it makes sense that my children would want me to get to the point and get there quickly. What I don’t get is the texting rule. Why would I not leave a short, concise voice message (“Where is the $200 I lent…) while I am driving, and instead pull over and text it, or worse, not pull over and text it? The answer, I believe, has to more to do with the social value of how young people interact with their mobile devices, and less to do with the practicality of it.

Observe young people. They hunch over their smartphones, furiously pecking out text messages with their thumbs. They are blazing fast at it. They can have several text exchanges in the same amount of time I drawl out a single sentence. To them, my vocal communiques must seem glacially slow. Plus texting and tweeting looks cool. It says, “I am always in touch. Someone wants to hear from me so badly that it cannot wait, not even a second.” That exchange is the priority ~ more important than whatever is going on right around them, which is why people text at inopportune times (In the theater? Please.) They are actually communicating two ways: 1) To the person to whom they are texting and 2) To everyone around them. The message in #2 is: “You are less important.” This technique of establishing one’s place at the top of a social hierarchy is, and always has been, a way of establishing one’s “coolness.” The mobile device, like the cigarette, is just a tool in the process.

Plus texting gives people something to do with their hands, and what young people do is simply amazing. I played my girlfriend’s son at “Gears of War 3” the other day, and he kicked my ass. Again, I was way, way, waaaaayyy too sloooow. So it only makes sense that the young man would transfer his considerable hand-eye coordination skills, learned on the X-Box, to his mobile device, and choose texting, which uses the same skills, over voice interaction, which for him is slower. This brings me to voice-recognition as a man-machine interface technique, and to “Ironman 3”.

In the movie, Tony Stark designs his Ironman suit with the help of a computer, and he interacts with that computer using…his hands. We’ve all seen this type of man-machine interaction in the movies: our hero furiously wiping and swiping psychedelic images suspended in the air while indecipherable text scatters across the screen. If you are a young person, this is how it’s done! Where is voice-reco? Nowhere! That was cool over 40 years ago when Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise talked to his computer, giving it commands like “Go to Red Alert” and so forth. But voice control as an interface technique is not cool now. In fact, it is positively pre-historic.

These social factors are the only explanation I can come up with for why my software development team, which are all in their twenties, rolled their eyes and resisted when I urged them to consider voice-recognition as an interface for our next mobile app. “Not accurate enough,” they said. Right. Like “y shud we uz it 2 say ne thng prolly dum lol” is more accurate. I regularly use Dragon Dictation, while driving, to create text messages, or even short emails, which I can then quickly send at a stoplight or by pulling over. Fast. Efficient. Practical. Safe. And way more accurate than texting. But not cool (apparently). Not Ironman 3.

So our hands will be, as long as young software designers get their way, the primary way we interact with mobile devices, for some rational reasons and some irrational ones. The irrational ones bother me, as I like being efficient with my time, which means choosing the right tool for the right task. I am using a full size computer keyboard to write this post, and I am using more than my thumbs. (Free tip to Dragon Dictation ~ pay for a product placement in Ironman 4 and watch sales improve.) And the irrational reasons kill. Texting while driving now surpasses drinking and driving for fatalities. It might even kill more than smoking.

And that is not cool.


Kiosk Bloodshed: What Mobile Can Learn From the Cyclops of the 1990’s

If you were around then, you remember seeing them. Lonely kiosks, gathering dust, cast aside in the corner of a hotel lobby or government office, their one dead eye staring out dark and lifeless. The once mighty cyclops of the computing world, what IBM believed would be THE way the public gained access to electronic goods and services — rendered a corpse — and a grim reminder of what fate will befall your mobile app should you fail to heed the lessons of the lonely kiosk debacle of the 90’s .

What kills technology based initiatives? Two things: A failure to deliver value, and failures in usability. Kiosks that have survived into the present day deliver superb value and are superbly easy to use, and we use them all them time. The airline ticketing kiosk. Redbox. The ATM. But what about those goofy “info only” kiosks that gave us a map to a restaurant that closed six months ago? Or those whose UI made us want to smash them with a baseball bat like in the famous fax machine scene from “Office Space”? Cue “Still” by Geto Boys. Those machines died a just death, and rightly so.

History repeats itself, as they say, and so today we see mobile apps that make all the same mistakes of the 90’s. But this too shall pass, and those apps will too. In 20 years we will will look back and it will all make sense. Apps that survive, nay, thrive, will be those that deliver value consistently, reliably, and easily, and that are compelling and “insanely” easy to pick up and use. Thriving apps will enable those line of business services that are in the critical path of a company’s strategy, essential to its customers, designed for ease-of-use, and built to last.

The question is: Will your mobile app be one of them?

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The Song Remains the Same, but My World Changed

The year was 1999. The song was “Sunburst” by guitarist Andrew York of the LA Guitar Quartet. I was driving, listening to my local NPR station. Before the song finished playing I was ready to buy it, but I knew neither the title nor the artist. It took many phone calls to the DJ and several weeks to find out. There has to be a better way, I thought, and there was. That is the moment my world changed.

I was working for IBM at the time, on a team building “in-vehicle” systems (aka telematics), which are computers designed to be embedded into the dashboard of your car. Remember, this was 1999, and such systems were not common. I presented a simple idea to IBM: capture the song in flash memory inside the telematics radio and allow the listener to press a button if he or she wants to buy it, then make the song a permanent part of the listener’s music collection. This was before iPods, before internet radio, before iTunes. Satellite radio was just launching its birds. Mine was a novel idea, and IBM suspected they could patent it. They were right.

Having worked for IBM for 17 years, I knew what would happen. They would be grateful, give me a pat on the head and a $1500 check, and send my idea into oblivion. Imagine the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark“, where the crate containing the precious ark is carried off by forklift into a cavernous warehouse full of similar looking crates. Yeah, it was gonna be like that, and I knew it. IBM was then, and still is, a great company, but not an applications company. They would license the patent to others but never build it out themselves. If I was going to watch my baby grow up, I was going to have to leave IBM, and so I did.

Because IBM owns my original idea, which was for digital (satellite) radio, I had to some up with a new one: the same ability to instantly buy radio content, but for terrestrial (AM/FM) radio rather than digital. This was considerably more complex, but with the help of retired IBM senior systems engineer Bruce MacAlister and Alen Docef, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University, we figured it out. In a few months we had a working protoype. The business model came from my friend and partner Bob Griffith, then a Senior Executive with the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), and more recently with Google Radio. Bob knew squat about technology, but he knows the radio business like the back of his hand. “Make it work without station involvement,” he told us, “and focus on the ads, not just the music.” And so we did.

The idea was novel, the prototype brilliant, the business model ironclad, and the team A plus. But the venture failed. Why? Timing, and scope. We launched in March of 2000, just as the “dot com” bubble was bursting and becoming a “dot bomb.” Six months earlier and you could have raised millions by shaking a tree, having a venture capitalist fall out, showing him a “dot com” idea scribbled on a pizza box, and walked away with a contract. Now, in the spring of 2000, if you said “technology” and “start-up” in the same sentence, it had the effect of saying, “I have the Ebola virus and I’m about to sneeze.” We spent the balance of the year chasing VC’s into the hills. I gave up in December and went back to work in a cubicle.

Thinking back, I now believe the venture was far too grand in scope. It required too much capital to start, and there were too many parts that had to fall in place for it to succeed. But I had the IBM mentality of thinking big, and in those days bold, even audacious ideas, were in vogue. Today I am much more modest and prefer “bootstrapping” ventures to ones that need high dollar life support.

In the past dozen or so years, I’ve seen many try, and fail, with the idea of radio tagging. Apple has done the best, I think, the app Shazam is fabulous, and internet radio stations like Pandora and Spotify are close but need to pay more attention the the second part of Bob’s advice: focus on the ads. That’s where the money is.

I still love the song “Starburst” and remember whenever I play it. My world has changed, for the better mostly, as the opportunities to learn about and buy music are better than ever before. Ways to reduce instrusive, obnoxious ads are emerging, as I have written about in another post.
Oh, and there is one other wonderful change — I no longer work in a cubicle.

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