Archive for the Blog Category

The web interface for my house is woefully inadequate.

Written by on October 26, 2011 in Blog - Comments Off

So Nest is the newest shiny toy for the tech industry and media to get all excited about, a ton of coverage this week — for a thermostat. Obviously some of the ardor will fade — how long can anyone stay excited about a thermostat? But I do think there is a theme here which has some enduring value. 

I’m not really that excited about the UI and learning features of the Nest thermostat. I am able to navigate my smart thermostat today, and I just don’t need to futz with it very often. In our new house it took me a couple days to get things where I wanted them but I’ve moved on and haven’t had to look back. 

But I am totally excited about the remote access for the Nest thermostat, the web interface. Our houses are the biggest asset we own, and the cloud presence of our house is either missing or spewed all around the web in random places. There are so many things I should be able to do: 

  • Remote utility management. Remote thermostat is a nice start. I want remote utility management in general — what’s the temp right now, what’s my water usage, change my temp, change my water heater temp, turn on/off my sprinklers, check my power usage, turn on/off appliances/circuits, check my usage and billing history, etc. I can get pieces of this but it is hard hard hard to get it all and to integrate it all into a single cloud interface.
  • Remote security. Webcam monitoring, alarm monitoring, history of access to house, remote door lock management. Again you can get piece parts of this but cobbling together is a significant pain.
  • Remote doorbell. When someone rings my doorbell, I want an instant notification on my smartphone, I want to see the video feed from my door, and I want to be able to talk thru the intercom. The person at the door should have no idea if I’m in my kitchen or on a business trip. This is part of the security topic but is more compelling than most of the security features.
  • Bills. Utility bills, consumption history, how I compare to others, bill payment.
  • Financial info. Mortgage status — balance, rate, is it time to refi. The estimated sale value of my house. Mortgage document storage. Tracking of improvements to the house — costs, documentation — so I can correctly calculate cost basis at sale time.
  • Service. All the warranty terms and docs for all the appliances and other features of my house. A place to track service records, to record preferred vendors, to get vendor recommendations. A service advisor — what maintenance should I expect to do in the next year based on what is known about my house — time for roof inspection, approaching lifetime of water heaters, time to repaint, what is my likely cost in the next year for all this.

You can get a ton of this info today but it is spewed all over the web. To access all the info about your house, you would have to access the Nest site, any smart metering site, a remote security site (or several for webcam, door locks, monitoring service), each of the utility websites, your bill payment web site, your mortgage provider website, zillow, redfin, etc. 

I’d love to have a portal that integrates all this via user configurable widgets into a single interface — my home at a glance. And gives me great mobile access to all the info and features. And just gets better as I add nicely designed devices into the house — a Nest thermostat, a great doorbell/webcam, internet-controllable door locks, etc.

I’m sure the Nest guys are thinking broadly about the entire space, with a general name like Nest they must have ambitions beyond thermostats. I’m excited to watch their evolution. I’d love to have better command of the largest asset I own.

I’ve never used a QR code in my life and can’t imagine why I would.

Written by on October 23, 2011 in Blog - Comments Off

Daring Fireball points to a pretty thorough takedown of QR codes as used in print ads. The original design goal — Toyota invented these to track parts — makes sense, but jamming these into consumer media is just strange.

  • Users can already type in your URL or a sentence, or speak into Siri, or do an image search with their phone. Is taking a snap of this code thing really so much better?
  • There’s a history of companies trying to stuff proprietary ID systems in between users and product/service providers. These visual codes are one such thing. AOL Keywords, RealNames are text-based equivalents. They all try to get advertisers to stuff these in ads, but I don’t see how this really serves users or advertisers, it mostly just serves the companies with the proprietary ID system.
  • Ultimately, if your product/ad/message is so forgettable that you think jamming a QR code or text string in will help, well, there is a deeper problem.

Android on Windows? Really?

Written by on October 21, 2011 in Blog, individuals - Comments Off

About a year ago Simon Crosby (then Citrix CTO)  and I talked to the folks at Blue Stacks about the concept of virtual-izing Android apps on Windows .  At first mention of it, more than a few people look at you kind of funny. But five minutes into the conversation the light bulbs start going off about the possibilities.  What hit me was the fact that the cool Android apps are real apps that, for the most part, take advantage of the local processing platform including graphics acceleration and object storage.  The counterparts to many of these apps on a Windows PC are usually web apps that are also accessible from any device.  The web apps have great reach and in general enable fuller access to certain parts of applications. The Android app design center (and mobile app generically) is much more focused on the heavily used portion of the app. This is largely due to screen real estate and the touch versus keyboard and mouse input. Navigation to what you need or want to do is heavily streamlined resulting in a simply cleaner day to day experience.

Ok so why bother with this on a Windows laptop or tablet?  An observation I had about two years or so ago around the activity of enterprise developers was the first thing that got to me. I’m referring here to the millions of people that work for businesses of all sizes and develop in house applications.  The best endpoint developers at the largest companies were spending the bulk of their time getting their mobile app chops together.  The tooling was kind of shaky for large team development but the best code jockeys were starting to write apps first for mobile deployment while keeping a web app hanging around for non-native platforms. What I found curious was the large number of developers targeting Android versus IOS.  I expected a landslide in favor of IOS but it wasn’t happening that way.   The enterprise shops were doing one of two things:

·         Do native Android and IOS and then web apps for everything else (I’m overloading .NET front ends as web apps here and ASP.NET is very common)

·         Do native Android and web apps for everything else

One can argue and speculate for the reasons about IOS not having the landslide but from personal experience (as an executive working at Citrix) I can tell you that Apple in general doesn’t care about enterprise developers. They won’t make their money there so why bother and enterprise developer support is expensive and certainly not sexy. Well OK is that enough to make the developers swing to Google. Google  might care about enterprises since they want to sell and office suite to them but again in general it is not in their DNA through the marrow.  If developers  made that choice based on the vendor caring about them they would be on WP7 or Blackberry. The enterprise guys and gals like deployment platform diversity. Iphone has lots of options right? You can get the blue one or the white one plus a couple of other cosmetics here and there. Suppose you want a bigger screen ? a brighter screen?  a smaller screen? Foldout key board? Something with superior battery life ? waterproof ?  better speakerphone ? some security widget?  A cheaper device ? Well then you go elsewhere and the elsewhere is largely an Android device.  Finally, the enterprise guys say the browser for iPhone and iPad is darn good. In fact its good enough to handle whatever they would write for the PC and Mac.  

Alright so the browser on Android has to get good enough at some point (hey HTML5 will fix everything) so why write native apps?  Well native apps are cool and learning to leverage a platform is cool and developers like to be the coolest developers.  It happened with PC.  I was one of hotshots sent to code PC assembler while my co-workers slaved away on mainframe and minicomputer COBOL. We were the cool guys who stayed up all night cranked out thousands of lines of code a day.  What we did was harder. We got the pay raises. We spoke in a different language. We moved to C and C++ and built the first PC client server apps right on OS metal with nothing but a network transport to help us out.  How does this translate today? The best developers will want to get the most out of the platform and will go as native as necessary to do so.  History has shown this and will repeat itself. Reach is equally important but it lacks the emotion and passion of watching your code making the platform dance.  

OK back the title entry: Android on Windows.  As a developer if I can spend all my time working on the thing I have passion for and then use another technology to get more reach then I’m all over that. I’m especially all over it if I don’t need to sacrifice the experience I’m targeting as use case #1  in order to get reach. That is, layered frameworks to enable multi-platform deployment can be OK but separate the hotshot developer from the platform .  Here lies the allure of Blue Stacks for me.  That hotshot can now take her Android code and have it run on the PC laptop or tablet with no changes and delivering the same streamlined experience she built for the mobile platform.  Sure she will have to maintain a web app for everything else but now all the PC users can get her latest and greatest whenever she moves the mobile application ahead.

The allure (for me) was for the enterprise developer.  However upon release of the pre-alpha it seems like many people just want it for all their Android apps so I was wrong but in a good way! All developers then! So yeah “really” squared.  I’m using the Android LinkedIn app on my laptop.  I like the single pane without all of the extras I would use to “manage” my LinkedIn. It is like a little news feed with laser sharp access to the important stuff. Blue Stacks went live in pre-Alpha last week.  In that week over  <a nice number with lots of zeros>  users downloaded the Android app player and are kicking the tires and then some.   I like to be wrong like that! It gets even more interesting with the Windows8 Metro  user interface where the Android apps will just take their assigned places on the canvas of the display with all the other apps (I have seen this working since I’m an investor).  Now there is a puck for Blue Stacks to skate towards.

We invested in Blue Stacks in March 2011 and are excited to see the software getting out to end users in large numbers.  New funding was announced this week including Citrix, AMD, and a player to be named later.  I especially welcome the new investors as they will help the company in driving the agenda forward not just via their investment in dollars but in real business initiative.

The company is

Follow me @frankartale

Photostream is cute, but what I really want is Aperture/iPhoto in the cloud

Written by on October 18, 2011 in Blog - Comments Off

So I don’t really get iCloud storage yet, and Photostream doesn’t really accomodate all my DSLR pictures well. So rather than just whine about what I don’t have, what do I really want?

First — I have a 203G (gigabyte) Aperture library today, that is where my primary photo storage is. Digging into this a little:

  • 54G is thumbnails, previews, cache of various sorts. 27G of thumbnails alone! Impressive use of disk space, Aperture. Clearly the team has embraced the idea that disk space is cheap and is getting cheaper. There are probably some settings I could tweak to trim the size of all this at the cost of performance, but whatever, disk space IS cheap, 30% overhead is probably not a ridiculous design objective. This is all derived data tho and could be trimmed, dropped, whatever, as I think about cloud storage.
  • My masters are 149G. A mix of RAW and JPG depending on which camera/scanner I used and how long ago I took — tending towards more RAW over time.
    • 19G from this year
    • 34G from 2010
    • 25G from 2009
    • 71G from earlier years.

Lets assume I continue to take pictures at the last 3 year average rate for some time, that is about 25gig of new photos every year, not accounting for inflation in photo size due to better quality capture chips, light field cameras, etc. OK so you probably have to assume some growth in that 25gig of new storage a year.

Cloud storage of photos — is it important? Hugely so, if my house is burning down, I do not want to be running back in to save a hard disk, photos are emotionally very important. And I do NOT want to have to pick and choose which photos I store in the cloud — too many photos, not enough time, I just want the entire set up in the cloud. I really just want my entire Aperture (and iPhoto) collection replicated to the cloud automagically. And then I need some modest access control features on the folders in the cloud so that I can share selected photo sets with family members, etc.

So I want a cloud storage solution that gives me ~200gig of storage today at a reasonable price, and if I think about the next couple years, a clear path to 300-400gig. And with good web access with some security. What are my choices today?

  • iCloud doesn’t begin to work. Aperture doesn’t really talk to it except for Photostream. The max storage I can buy is 55gig. There are no access controls. Doesn’t work along almost every dimension.
  • Dropbox. I can get 100G for $240 a year with a nice web interface and some sharing controls. I could even get the team license, store up to 350G, but for $795 a year. If I had this, I could just move my Aperture library into my dropbox folder and voila, it would be in the cloud, on my other machines, etc. However — the Aperture library folder is not really meant to be browsed by humans, the masters are chopped up into some funky balanced tree of directories. Seems like Aperture needs to learn how to work with shared storage. But I could get everything in dropbox, with a very easy UI for me, but at a high price, and probably the ability to share folders with family members would be hard to realize.
  • Well I get 50G free with their iPad offer, so they pretty much trump iCloud. I could get up to 500G in a business plan for $180/year per user. Similar pros and cons as with Dropbox, but pricing seems better.
  • Smugmug. This is what I use today. There is an Aperture plugin, I can save from Aperture. The bad part about this is that it is not automagic — I have to intentionally move folders up there, not happy about that. But — unlimited storage, at $40-150 per year for jpg, some extra cost but still cheap if you want RAW. A great interface for sharing, completely customizable, printing integration, etc.

For now …. Smugmug is the way to go, but as storage costs drop, I can see flipping to or dropbox at some point. I’d give up some of smugmug’s great interface for admin control but that is overkill for me anyway. If Apple made this all work natively in Aperture at a competitive cost, that would be fine too. For people with a more modest set of photos, the 50G free offer for iPad/iPhone users seems like an awesome option.

I’m struggling to understand why I would ever use iCloud storage.

Written by on October 17, 2011 in Blog - Comments Off

I’m struggling to understand why I would ever use iCloud storage. After a couple days of tinkering, I have two sets of data in iCloud — device backups, and Pages/Keynote docs.

  • I really don’t get the value of device backups. My apps are all recoverable from the iTunes store. I use primarily apps like Evernote that already store their data in the cloud so there is minimal non-replicated data on my iPhone and iPad. Music isn’t backed up, I will need iTunes Match for that some day. My photos aren’t backed up in iCloud, that is not something that is offered at all (and besides the photos on my device are a fraction of my photo content, I use smugmug and other paid services to back up all my photos). So what exactly is in these device backups that iCloud stores? and why is this substantially better than backups stored on my Mac — when will I ever use these backups? In sum — I’ve been explicit about choosing apps and configuring apps so that all my valuable data and state info is replicated and in the cloud, so that I don’t care if I lose a device (and can use multiple devices). So why should I care about device backups?
  • The other files in my iCloud storage are docs. I have Pages and Keynote docs in iCloud from my iPad. If I was purely a Mac person, and didn’t collaborate at all with people in my office and business partners who use Office, then maybe I could just use Pages/Keynote on the Mac, and the iCloud doc storage might seem pretty simple. But I use a PC sometimes to edit my docs. And so I use Office so that I can work on my Mac or PC. And so that I can, with no fidelity loss, work with my colleagues on docs they have created in Office. I guess I could still move these docs in and out of iCloud storage, but if I am going to go to the trouble of moving docs around, why don’t I just move them into or dropbox? They both have great iPad and iPhone interfaces, they work with Pages/Keynote on the iPad, I get 50G free on, they both offer sharing options, I can create folders in them to organize my docs and control my sharing (Seriously, iCloud, no folders??), they let me store any kind of doc, they have great Mac/PC clients so that I can sync my collection with local folders easily, etc etc. If iCloud didn’t have the Apple brand, we would all be laughing at it.
  • iCloud claims to store your music but practically doesn’t. I have 16,000 songs, 88G of music, in my iTunes library (and flac versions of all this but not in iTunes). 99% of it is from ripped CDs or purchased in mp3 format outside of iTunes. None of which iCloud handles, I have to wait for iTunes Match.
  • I don’t care about mail/calendar/contact backup as all mine is already stored on my Exchange server or Gmail server.

So iCloud storage is substantially worse than leading competitive alternatives for document storage; its only unique benefit is device backup, which I can’t figure out why I’d use; and it’s other features don’t really solve any problems. I am sure Apple will improve iCloud over time but as a storage solution it is underwhelming. Am I missing something? Does anyone find iCloud storage to be hugely helpful?

Thinking about gameday cell network performance

Written by on October 15, 2011 in Blog - Comments Off

When I sit in Ohio Stadium for a football game, my fancy smartphone is a useless piece of metal and plastic. Some developers have tried to come up with apps to improve the gameday experience, but these apps miss the point. With 105,000 fans in the stadium, another huge set of ticketless fans milling around outside, all the stadium staff as well as security and service staff outside the stadium — there are probably 200,000 network devices in 30-40 acres all trying to jam onto the system, and all failing. The cell network simply can’t handle the load.

Our cell networks are wonderful things, but in the build out of our networks, the notion of broadcast has been left behind. 98% of the fans want the same exact data — top 25 scores, breaking football news, in-game replays, radio game feed. And yet the cell network and data apps feed this data to each user via dedicated single-user transactions. Cell broadcast exists in the standards but is not really in use in networks or handsets. Qualcomm tried to push Mediaflo for this use but got very little uptake and eventually shut down the service.

It’s unfortunate that the idea of broadcast has been left behind. It would be hugely useful in these kinds of crowded venues. I wonder if Qualcomm might not have succeeded had they just focused on NFL and NCAA football fans — people who spend stupid amounts of money on tickets and related gameday expenses, and who would probably spend money on dedicated gameday data services. It is not an easy service to provide tho. It requires spectrum, devices using that spectrum, and local content assemblage and editorial. There may be too many moving parts. It might be easier just to truck in lots of picocells to events and say screw it, dynamically expand the cell network as needed.

Lava is an awesome product name, I want one now.

Written by on October 3, 2011 in Blog - Comments Off

Seriously, who would not want a Lava heater? I am ready to order one today.

Contrast with the “Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch”, Samsung’s latest phone. How stupid a name is this? Do they seriously think this will have lasting impact in the market? What will they call an upgraded version some day? Will they increment the S or the II or the Epic or the 4G or will they just abandon this?

I’m no product naming expert, I used to excuse myself from all naming discussions while at Microsoft since it always felt like a discussion of how many angels on the head of a pin. Ultimately good products can overcome bad names, and bad products aren’t helped by clever names. But I admire cleanliness and simplicity in names, and the Lava name is simple, evocative, and to the point. The Samsung name is ridiculous.

UPDATE: a smart guy informs me that the Samsung name of the phone is the Galaxy S II. A little long but not egregious. It is Sprint that has slapped on the “Epic 4G Touch” modifier and Sprint deserves the blame. Pro tip: if you include “epic” in the name, pretty much guarantees the offering is not epic.

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