Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Growing Chasm between the Tech Press and Users

Us technology folks (fans, users, critics and developers) are living in a time when there is no dearth of tech news. As you would expect, Apple is covered in great depth and breadth by the Technology Press. As a shareholder and Apple device owner, the feverish (borderline fanatical) coverage of Apple minutiae is a blessing and a curse: Apple stock moves based on Tech press sentiment as opposed to fundamentals. The flip side is that I am perennially aware of new features, product releases, growth potential, and a constant stream of rumors and theories on what Apple will do next. I read the following every day:
  • Hacker News
  • QZ
  • WSJ
  • AppleInsider
  • BGR
  • The Verge
I will occasionally browse through the Daring Fireball feed to which I am subscribed. Therefore, I consider myself to be a curious and informed reader. Since I am now purely a consumer/user of technology, I am increasingly interested in coverage that speaks to the "User" as opposed to the "Technologist" perspective when it comes to new product announcements and launches, both hardware and software.

One of my favorite writers covering Technology is Mr. David Pogue. Mr. Walt Mossberg is a close second. I like their style because they inject humor and whimsy into what is an otherwise dull (think of the color beige) subject. Mr. Pogue, in particular,  leverages his knack for making silly and ironic videos to showcase new devices and products, thereby demonstrating to users how he uses a new product or feature as opposed to mere prose. Their focus is the user, and how technology enables users to accomplish a discrete set of goals.

Unlike these two writers, a large percentage of the Technology press these days has shifted the locus of their coverage away from users and on to what technology can and should enable in the future. This contingent of the press seems to want a death match, a zero sum game almost, between the technology Titans  – Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. Stripes and street cred are won or lost based on who predicts the winner of the next round correctly. The frenzied press coverage comes at us consumers in all formats 24x7: print, social media feeds, audio and video. This has to be a good thing, right? Increasingly, I don't think so!

Alas, the Tech Press, like Film Critics, have lost touch with consumers of technology. Most users with whom I have spoken don't even leverage 10% of the functionality in their current devices across all SKUs (mobile, tablet, laptop). They feel increasingly overwhelmed by what is available on the market, and are extremely skittish about Web-based/Cloud services. One such gentleman has four degrees, one being a PhD! When I asked him how he felt about more technology, he said he had enough to keep him busy. My wife and her family? The same response (except her 24-year old brother, of course). These folks could care less with the future of technology; they are struggling to keep up with what's already available!

Only one of the news outlets that I read balances the "User" with the "Technologist"; it is The Boy Genius Report. The writers do their best to showcase how users can make the most of Technology, regardless of vendor. Their practical articles mixed in with the chief editor's prognostications, compliments and diatribes strike a good balance without coming off as preachy, dour and heavy-handed.

The rest of the Technology Press should consider a similar approach or risk alienating a large reader group that can neither appreciate nor abide news that always makes it seem like nothing is good enough.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The 3P Theorem for Optimizing Distributed User-centric Services

There has been a lot of talk on Distributed, User-centric Web Services enabled by Artificial Intelligence lately. The fierce rivalry between Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple has shifted to this new playground, and Apple is lagging behind the competition. Facebook, Google and Microsoft (to some extent) each have a treasure trove of data gathered from users of their purported "free" services. They use this data to build deeply integrated, contextually rich services for users that enable use cases that blow Apple's current crop of services out of the water. While this lack of richness and specificity of context has been Apple's Achilles heel, I like that Apple doesn't mine my personal data to further its corporate goals. How can Apple make progress to even compete with its rivals?

After having looked at the myriad reasons as to why Apple hasn't been able to compete where upstarts like Snapchat and WhatsApp have excelled, I synthesized my findings into a theorem that I call the 3P theorem.
Introducing the 3P Theorem

When designing and optimizing massively distributed services, companies have to balance three key considerations:

1. Performance and contextual richness
2. Price
3. Privacy

The 3P theorem states that only any 2 of these 3 considerations can be maximized/optimized when building distributed, user-centric services. This theorem for governing user-centric services optimization is akin to the CAP storage optimization theorem. 

Using the theorem, let's score Apple's rivals, shall we. 

A. In the Red Corner: Facebook and Google.
1. Performance and contextual richness: A 
2. Price: Free: A 
3. Privacy: D

B. In the Blue Corner: Apple 
1. Performance and contextual richness: C 
2. Price: Free tier (higher usage incurs costs): B
3. Privacy: A

As you can see, Apple has taken the alternative approach of sacrificing contextual richness for the sake of upholding user privacy while maintaining an almost free price for all its services. Users like me like me prefer that stance, but I am, as many would say, a dying breed. Millennials, for example, have grown up with Facebook, Snapchat and Google, and couldn't care less what is done with their data as long as they continue to get free access to services. 

For Apple to get a leg up on its rivals then, it needs to increase the contextual richness and purported performance of its services. Something has got to give then, and neither scenario bodes well for Apple. 

1. Charge for services: This proposal is DOA. Few will pay for services that rivals are offering for free. Besides, overcoming technology inertia is one of the most difficult things to do these days.

2. Soften stance on user privacy: While this seems like the most obvious solution, and yesterday's announcement on Differential Privacy indicates that Apple recognizes the need to gather data to tune their AI algorithms, it is a slippery slope. All along, Apple has differentiated itself by claiming that they truly don't mine user data; everything is unequivocally done on the device.

This is a very interesting space that will develop significantly over the next 6-9 months. To compete, especially in the nascent wearables space, Apple has to deliver smarter services to its users, enable sharing and social features, and create recurring revenue streams that offset sagging device sales. As of this writing, I am long AAPL, and recognize the headwinds that can slow them down. But, headwinds are simply decelerators; they aren't show-stoppers. The AAPL show will go on...

Peak Apple Isn't Upon Us

Yesterday was a red letter day for many followers of Apple's software and hardware. Developers, users and financial analysts alike listened with bated breath as Apple's top brass took turns introducing new features and incremental improvements to all its core software platforms:

1. Mobile: iOS
2. Wearable: watchOS
3. Traditional Computing: macOS (new moniker for Mac OS X)
4. Living Room: tvOS

As you can imagine, the announcement was received very differently by its two core sets of constituents: 

1. Users
2. The Press: Financial and Technical

Let me present both view-points to you:

Perspective 1: Users

From a user's standpoint, this was a great announcement. Almost all the changes announced during the keynote seemed logical and much needed enhancements to all platforms. Let's take my household for example: we have 3-iPhones, 3-iPads, 3 MacBooks, 1 iMac, and an AppleTV soon. All my devices will be better integrated, work faster, use on-device storage better (can I get a whoop-whoop for AppleFS), and last longer on the same charge. 

Additionally, the degree of change introduced yesterday varied from platform to platform. This made a lot of sense to me as a user. The most mature, macOS got a few key enhancements and a new name but not much else. Contrast that with watchOS, which got a complete overhaul! For the nascent Apple Watch platform, i.e. watchOS, I share the popular viewpoint that the device was released prematurely. watchOS was just not ready last year! Had the release version of watchOS been as capable and "full term" as the one announced last morning, the Apple Watch wouldn't have been "still born". The device's sales haven't been stellar; dare I say they have been lackluster. Apple actually dropped the price of the device less than a year after it was a year-old. This was an unprecedented move: Apple doesn't really reduce the price of a device until either a carrier decides to subsidize the device's price (in the case of the original iPhone) or it releases a new model (all device releases thus far). We have now learned of a third circumstance in which they reduce prices: pragmatism.

To summarize: Hurrah for users!

Perspective 2: The Press

In the 24-some hours since the announcement, the Technology press has been inundated with Apple doom and gloom type articles. Daring Fireball's @gruber notwithstanding, most of Apple's ardent supporters have said that the company is more into "renovation than innovation" these days. This is no different a tune from that sung since the passing of Steve Jobs. Apple under Tim Cook has been accused of improving as opposed to innovating, incrementally at that. Another accusation routinely leveled at the company has been that it has lost its edge, its mojo. They don't know how "Apple can get its groove back". Hardware-software integration and overall software usability, once Apple's crown jewel, has also come under attack of late. Popular blogger Marco Arment's now widely quoted post from last month alludes to Apple having missed the boat when it comes to Artificial Intelligence services as compared to rivals Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Ouch!

The collective press that covers Apple, as you might have figured, doesn't have the same concerns as us users. They look to Apple for leadership in every market segment, and want Apple to continue to grow their sphere of influence to encompass more domains, more devices, more users, more services, more, more... Unfortunately, Apple isn't delivering like the press wants them to; arguably speaking, they haven't delivered for a while now. Therefore, the press does what it does best: Turn on their darling in the quest for more clicks, more ads, more readership.

Is there a middle ground?

The press's expectations are so absurdly high that they are not achievable. Apple can do no right at the present moment; and while there is some truth to their prognostications of doom, I would characterize Apple's current phase of one of consolidation as opposed to feverish growth. Apple is becoming more and more like Microsoft, acting like a Blue Chip company, and shareholders should rejoice. Unfortunately, the press construes delivering value to be mutually exclusive with being charismatic. And Apple is definitely delivering value.

The broader issue here is that 2 out of the 4-platforms, i.e. 50%, have reached a level of maturity that makes it hard to truly "shock and awe" the pundits. Users will continue to buy and use these devices, but they aren't expecting significant changes at this point in their lifecycle. Take me for example: A Luddite by no means. But, even I seem to like things the way they are, and my platform lock-in is almost irreversible. While I welcome efficiency and usability gains, I would be extremely frustrated if I were faced with the proposition of reacclimatizing myself with a wholly redesigned macOS or iOS.

So, we are at an impasse.

The Path Forward

What we really need is a new interaction paradigm. The Apple Watch is the first salvo but it missed the mark. I am going on a limb here, but something like a hybrid of the watch with a Leap Motion type screen that presents a 1-way viewable hologram with which we can interact would make us rethink how we use devices to stay connected with our networks - personal and professional. Shifting the locus of the discussion to a whole new platform will allow Apple (and other companies) to put the established platforms on a continuous improvement cycle as opposed to the current pressure chamber created by lofty expectations.