Android Beautification Project

It's a staggering triumph of product design when you can get 80% of the functionality correct for most people right out of the box. Only a small number of nitpickers and control freaks are ever going to change a product's settings from the default. The iOS persistent launcher, for example, shows the four most frequently used apps and those apps have a consistent, balanced visual feel. A spot check of my tech-savvy office shows that almost nobody has changed the default.

Android's icon design standards have been thoughtfully criticized elsewhere. Since the OS gives developers the freedom to add an alpha channel, icons can theoretically be almost any size or shape. Even Google's own in-house designs vary from 72 to 94 pixels tall. Android's style guide calls for a "distinct silhouette" and a "slight perspective" that can result in a busy look to my eye: (This was my persistent launcher bar before the Beautification Project.)

The glory of open systems, though, is that if you don't like something you usually have the ability to change it. The "holo" theme for in-app menu bar icons is a marvel of minimalist simplicity, calling for "pictographic, flat... smooth curves or sharp shapes." Nova Launcher (root not required) enables complete replacement of app and folder icons, so I swapped out the launcher icons for their closest action bar equivalents:

Aaaaah much better. This set has only two heights, one radius, and one color. We've gone from the colorful, chaotic riot of a third grader's birthday party to the elegant simplicity of a pinstripe suit. This level of under-the-hood tweakability may only matter to 2% of users, so it's not really a selling point for the mass market. But as one of those 2%, it matters to me.

In all fairness, icon customization is also possible (if involved) on iOS without jailbreaking.


Zombie Technologies Resist Disruption

Sometimes, the situation is not as dynamic as tech strategists would like to believe it is. My entry on inflection points and truly disruptive change struck the customary note of paranoia, cautioning those of us who project a growth rate and assume it will always be thus. Clipper ships, buggy whips, and telegrams are easy examples of technologies eclipsed by change. But we are also surrounded by stubbornly durable products that continue to hang around long past the point that any tech strategist would expect.

Why, for example, do FAX machines still exist? We can send PDFs around by mail, it's easy to sign and return documents completely digitally. Yet, my recent home refinance expected me to conduct the entire transaction by FAX. (I got them to accept an encrypted ZIP file full of PDFs instead.) A product manager in 1995 with a glimpse of today's mobile interconnected world would surely have predicted the death of the FAX machine by now, yet it's still a multibillion dollar (if declining) industry. The production equipment is fully-capitalized, R&D budgets are low, and demand still inexplicably exists. A generation of workers is comfortable with the equipment, and despite the hassles it is "good enough." Office equipment companies will ride this curve down the backside of the product life cycle curve as long as those thin commodity profit margins will sustain the business.

What other forms have persisted surprisingly beyond their sell-by date? Bicycle couriers? In-person equity trading floors? COBOL? The imperial system of measurement?


If current trends continue....

Will mathematical extrapolation destroy the world, harm your children, and give you unsightly skin blemishes? Maybe. One of my favorite blogs posted an insightful warning about the dangers of extrapolation. He notes that any number of advancements will, at a macro-level, follow a predictable exponential change that looks like a straight line on a log plot. These relationships can prove surprisingly stable over a period of decades or even centuries; we've been stubbornly doubling transistor counts every 24 months since 1970, for example.

The danger lies in the inflection points where the rules change and the nice straight lines bend or even reverse. Check out Dr. Murphy's plot of Atlantic crossing times, which demonstrates both errors. Extrapolations based on wind power failed with the introduction of stream, and extrapolations based on steam power broke with the introduction of airplanes. Then extrapolations based on airplanes failed when the Concorde was retired and the laws of physics interfered. (Also, it looks like he's using MATLAB for his graphics!)

In the world of strategy consulting, the CAGR (compound annual growth rate) is our bread and butter. Read any analyst report on an industry, and predictions for the next 5 years will pretty much just be a rate change inferred from the last 2-3 years. Of course we have more sophisticated tools in our bag. Sometimes we'll plot log production cost versus log units of production. Other times we'll look at technology adoption with a logistic function ("s-curve") or even a bass diffusion model. Hedge funds are constantly plumbing obscure branches of physics or math for models that will give them an edge in modeling predictably irrational market signals. But in the end, humans just expect the near future to be not terribly different than the recent past.

True breakthroughs, game-changers, and disruptions happen much less often than most marketing materials would have you believe. Just because our nice linear models can be broken doesn't mean that we should just throw our hands up and declare the world to be unpredictable. But it does mean that we need to ask yourself what will happen when (not if) our extrapolations will fail. What will break the model? Will your collateralized debt obligation explode if housing prices flatline or drop?


5 Rings, N-Screens: Tech Adoption and the 4 Year Olympic Cycle

It's an American semiannual ritual to complain about NBC's coverage of the Olympics and search out a bootleg CBC stream. The time to stop complaining is now, because the Olympic future is here and it rocks. This has long been my wishlist for Olympic broadcasts:

  • Coverage of obscure events
  • No inspirational athlete profiles or interviews
  • No pointless commentary
  • Minimal advertising
  • Available on a mobile device
  • Caching for inconveniently-scheduled events
It's painfully noncommercial. It's not what the average viewer wants. You'd think it would never happen.

But it did. NBC Live Extra hits my wishlist down to the last point. This weekend I watched time-delayed fencing and whitewater kayaking on my Nexus, uninterrupted by anything but the natural breaks between bouts or runs. The experience was glorious.

In the past I have been an Olympic curmudgeon, avoiding the saturation bombing of gymnastics and swimming. The technical infrastructure now exists to draw in an entire population of rejectors who could not previously be bothered with broad-audience scheduling decisions. The process is currently a bit techie-oriented, and most folks are still intimidated by connecting a streaming device to their televisions. Today's landscape is a bit like Netflix streaming in 2007 before Roku, XBox, and AppleTV made it easy to watch movies on the big screen. This is not the time for the brave new world of asynchronous viewer-directed scheduling of the Olympics.

That world is coming, though. TVs have a 7-year replacement cycle. The incremental cost to add "smart TV" capability to a new device is dropping to zero. Much like we recently crossed the featurephone/smartphone 50% mark, it will soon make no sense to buy a linear-only non-streaming TV or external box. The Olympics will eventually be an app on mass-penetration smart TVs that anyone can use and understand.

  • 2008 had a few limited online tools for the techies
  • This year is a strong proof of concept for early adopters and visionaries
  • 2016 will welcome the early majority of enthusiastic pragmatists by making it easy and fun to choose their own programming
  • By 2020, even the late adopters will be sequencing their favorite events (and the innovators will be live-meshing 360 degree wireframes compiled from thousands of crowdsourced cameraphones as freelance commentators compete to provide audio overlay tracks)

How many new viewers will this approach bring in? What will it do to advertising rates? How will it change the content of the mainstream network broadcast? I can't wait to find out. In the meantime, let's all celebrate the availability of wall-to-wall curling from Sochi 2014.


One Corner of the CE Space That Hasn't Converged Yet

My kayaking loadout now includes three distinct pieces of waterproof electronic gear. These provide me with communications, image capture, and navigation. The same functions (and more) are all provided by my smartphone in one handy package, but it doesn't perform nearly as well under salt water immersion. For now, I'll stuff a bunch of dedicated devices into my PFD. So many other bits of electronic ephemera have already vanished into our phones that using 3 specialized devices feels wierd.

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VHF radio

Check out this guy, for example. Yes, he's an absurdist parody. Consider, however, that today our MONDO 2000 friend could fold his money, video cam, minidisc, scanner, display, microphone, video players, cell phone, voice changer, powerbook, pager, gps, and still camera into a low-end smartphone. And by the way, he wouldn't need the now-defunct wood-pulp magazines either.

One waterproof phone may replace all that single-purpose gear someday so I'll look less like a waterproof version of the 1995 cyberdude. Anyone want to make a case for a phone with a built-in stun gun?


How Far Can (and Should) "Convergence" Go?

As electrification hit the world, we started to see more and more powered home appliances replace their hand-cranked equivalents. Motors were expensive, and a few manufacturers tried to popularize the idea of the modular "home motor" which could be moved from vacuum to blender to as needed. Motor prices quickly dropped, and today my immersion blender/food processor/smoothie mixer/hand blender all contain their own inefficiently-deployed integrated electric drive. The trend lives on today in the dizzying array of KitchenAid accessories that will happily repurpose your blender's motor into an ice cream maker or a bread kneader. But we've basically moved away from the shared motor vision.

It is with this context in mind that I look to the recently-announced padfone as well as more established category players like the atrix lapdock and the asus transformer. As mobile phones become increasingly powerful, the major value-add of a desktop/tablet/notebook/tv is in its greater output (big screen) or input (mouse/keyboard) possibilities. It's a natural geek response to be horrified at the inefficiency of duplicating multiple processors and storage arrays when all you want is a different i/o set.

As one of those geeks, I find the combination-dock concept tremendously appealing. Start with a powerful mobile phone, which accompanies me everywhere except while swimming laps. When I'm on the couch or the subway, slide that same phone into a bigger screen to create a tablet. When I need to work, tack on a keyboard and trackpad. Heck, Ubuntu even wants to let you turn your phone into a full-on linux desktop! Re-use the radio, data plan, processor, memory, and gps instead of paying for the same core components again and again. Voila, efficiency and modularity!

Tidy as the idea is, I wonder if it will have staying power. The shared components are not the major cost drivers of our electronics; the IHS estimate for the iPad 2 shows that the processor, radios, cameras and memory account for only about 1/3 of its bill of materials. (It's mostly the screen and enclosure.) Price is not announced for the upcoming padfone accessories, but the Atrix lapdock costs about the same as the netbook that it subsumes. If consumers move to such modular, configurable devices it won't be to save money.

So what are these convertible accessory-packs good for? Will the future resemble the traveler's briefcase with a phone, laptop, e-reader, and camera? Or my work station with its laptop and K/V/M docking station? I'm not sure, but it will be fun to watch this play out.


Know Thyself, With Data (Will Analytics Save us All?)

While it's tempting to focus on technology and economics, privacy and cybersecurity are probably the major blocking issues in the way of mass smart grid adoption today. These are serious issues and must be addressed, but let's remember that the flip side of privacy is data. From properly-anonymized data, we can progress through analysis, insight, and action. EnergyHub just released a fascinating report of state-by-state winter heating thermostat setpoints. It's easy to explain freezing New Englanders with "flinty reserve" or "Yankee frugality", but the greater savings realizable with a lower setpoint are probably a stronger explanation. (I'm most interested in why neighbors Iowa and Nebraska have a 4 degree differential.)

Fun as this trivial example is, it points to a heretofore nonexistent link in energy management. Any campaign for energy efficiency is going to find it hard to establish metrics and efficacy if the only feedback mechanism is monthly bills. As we move toward a (privacy-respecting, aggregate) view of energy use patterns, we will have the ability to know what works and what doesn't. That's ultimately much more interesting than just knowing that Vermonters own a lot of flannel.


Instant Photo Uploading: Using the Cloud the Right Way

Dropbox has announced an experimental build of their Android client that represents exactly how I want to share photos off my phone. I store all my photos locally on my computer and only share a small subset through flickr. Most phone-based easy sharing systems want to send your photos directly to the cloud. Dropbox's new feature will sync my photos with my dropbox folder, so I can easily move them over to my photo repository. (Or, I suppose, set up a cron job to do it automatically.) Thanks, Dropbox, for honoring my use case.

(Don't have Dropbox yet? Get a sign-up bonus here.)


Large-Format Phone Comparison: Galaxy Nexus (2011) vs Handspring Visor Edge (2001)

When the Galaxy Nexus was first announced, tech wags speculated that its 118mm screen would just be too big and clumsy to handle. As a recent owner I can report that it is large but certainly not unwieldy. In a fit of house cleaning, I dug up my very first smartphone and thought it would be fun to post some pointless back-to-back size comparison shots.

The Samsung is just a bit narrower and shorter than the Handspring, but some of that width is accounted for by the Visor's elegant stylus. The big difference is in usable space: the Nexus is all screen, and a beautiful 720p HD screen with black blacker than blackest night at that. The Visor has a tiny monochrome screen with the rest of its face taken up by hard buttons and the graffiti writing area. (Hey - don't dis graffiti. One of the first things I did with my Nexus was to install a virtual graffiti keyboard.)

Flip them on their side and the contrast becomes more stark. Handspring was founded on the idea of "springboard modules", little hardware accessories that gave you an mp3 player or a camera or any of the other million things that our phones just take for granted these days. The Edge was meant to be the slimmest, sexiest of the Visor line so its springboard modules required an ungainly "shoe" that more than doubled the thickness of the device. The one and only springboard module I ever purchased was the phone add-on, which further had its own battery pack. From the side, this assemblage was a real porker. Still, it was kind of nice to be able to ditch the phone bulk when at the office and still walk around with a svelte little metal PDA.

It was my dream that someday I could have a phone with the form factor of the unadorned Visor Edge. There you go: 10 years later my Nexus is almost exactly the same size as that device. Progress!