Archive for July, 2012:


Why Aaron Sorkin’s Idealism Won’t Change The Real World

Can I first get this straight – I love the work of Aaron Sorkin.  Newsroom is the best thing on TV at the moment.  The dialogue is crisp, tight and admittedly slightly formulaic (but then I guess the Elizabethan press were all “Gawd, that Shakespeare guy really verdoes that iambic pentameter stuff”) .  Can I also get this straight – I am as wooly a libral as they come.  I’m the sort of person who says things like “Some of my best friends are conservatives” (I do mean it.  Some of them are)

So.

Aaron Sorkin does idealistic lead characters.  They might be idealistic presidents, idealistic showrunners, idealistic news anchors.  I was hoping the news anchor would not be idealistic.  I was hoping we would have a conflict between an idealistic producer and a cynical, hardbitten, newsman.  But three episodes in, and my hope has gone.  Now, idealists make for good heros.  Idealists stand for something, and, in the traditions of storytelling, if they stand true to their ideals, deserve ultimate success.  Idealists’ flaws also stand out, silhouetted against their principles.

Yet for Sorkin, the idealism doesn’t work.  Not quite.  There is something about it which feels forced.

And it is all due to Aaron Sorkin being a liberal.

All of Sorkin’s heros are liberals.  Sorkin’s ideals are the liberal ideal.  Even the Bill Pulman ‘I’m shockingly a republican’ news anchor, settles on liberal sounding arguments.  Characters don’t so much argue their position as they do joust for the position of being the most liberal.  It isn’t quite the America I’m used to from the news and internets.  Perhaps Sorkin feels that everyone he writes about are intelligent, young, and insufficiently rich yet to have become evil.  And that intelligent, young, not rich enough people have no choice but to be liberal.

There are intelligent republicans.  The liberal end of the media doesn’t want to show them.  The conservative end just isn’t interested in them.  But they are there.  They exist.  They are in the offices, the workplaces.  The belief that intelligence equals a left leaning outlook is just wrong.  I’ve wondered about this.  Then, watching the third episode of Newsroom there was a quote which explained it all to me.  Something along the lines of

“Facts aren’t the left.  Facts are the centre”

Aaron Sorkin believes that if everyone just got all the facts given to them, they would all become well meaning, left leaning liberals like him.

And the more I think about it, the more I think all of us liberals have the tendency to do the same.  We argue for evidence based politics.  We hate it when we get ‘fair and balance’ coverage of issues where there are facts and lies – not just two equal sides.  We shift around uncomfortably when a law is made based on a selective reading of a book written two thousand years ago, rather than on who gets hurt.  And we think ‘If only we can educate people more, this will all go away’

The problem is this is the liberal mindset.  This is what makes someone liberal.  Something else makes someone conservative.

Now, I’m going to overgeneralise a bit about republicans and conservatives.  There are lots of shades of grey here, many fine points I’m fully aware I’m glossing over.  I want to get to the heart of the matter.

Republicans don’t care about facts.  Facts are not the center.  Facts are the left.  What republicans care about is emotions.

When I described this argument to some friends down the pub, they refined it “What Republicans care about is values”

Value and emotions are they same thing.  They are the gut response to the world.  They are what you are told you need, by your heart, not your head, to feel safe.

And there is nothing wrong with values.  We’ve been guided by values for millennia.  Our values are a good heuristic for acting in a way which will keep out society together.  They have likely been honed by evolution (or, if they doesn’t make you feel good, they have likely been put there by God himself).

There is research into this.  Republicans get scared more easily than liberals – but they spend most of their time happier than liberals.  Quite possibly because they don’t fight their instincts.  Quite frankly, facts are not going to change anything.   What will change things are stories.  We’ve all seen the politicians who stand firmly on the right, decrying the fall of civilisation and blaming it on atheists, druggies, and immorality.  They quickly change their tune when one of their children comes out.  “Yeah, drugs may still be bad, but I fully support homosexual marriage” they say.  Because they’ve become part of a story.

Sorkin’s characters don’t tell stories.  They spout facts.  They want to educate, when they results they want don’t come from education, but from reaching people deep down in their heart.  These are liberals doing the liberal thing of hitting their heads against a liberal glass wall, and wondering why they don’t ever get through to the people on the other side.  I’ve been guilty of this.

Very occasionally Sorkin stops writing about this own character, and makes a biopic about someone who actually did something.  Charlie Wilson’s War.  The Social Network.  These films have flawed characters.  Driven characters, with their won ideals, certainly, but real characters.  There is an extent to which these films work better than the lecture which underlies his television.  I’m more likely to learn something by watching someone struggle and fail through or succeed despite  their own character flaws, than by being repeatedly told what is right.

If I was going to fix the Newsroom, I would do just this.  Let the idealist see that idealism doesn’t work.  Let him experience  life outside of his liberal elite bubble.  knock him down.  Put him in the world of local interest pieces and personal stories.  And let him realise that, through emotions and stories, he is reaching the people who he never contacted with facts.

But keep writing the witty dialogue too.  Because frankly, that is why I’ll keep returning to Sorkin time and time again.

Some things you may not realise about Britain (if you are from abroad, watching the Olympic opening ceremony, or a particular type of Tory)

2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony (5)

So, the Olympic opening ceremony was too multicultural was it?  That ceremony which included athletes from all over the world, all together in one stadium, was too multicultural?  Its laughable.  Even a second contemplating it is too much.  Its a complaint by someone so privileged they have nothing else to complain about.  So lets not.

Lets instead consider this:  I didn’t notice any multiculturalism in the ceremony before the athletes came out.

I didn’t notice a mixed race family

I didn’t notice the lesbian kiss

I didn’t realise there was anything particularly urban about grime.

I didn’t realise that there was anything multicultural about showing the Windrush

Why?  Because all of these things are part of the culture I lived in and grew up with.  I went to school and church with second or third generation West Indian immigrants.  I have a number of LGBTI friends and co-workers.  Grime music makes me think more of the very middle class Cabaret act Frisky and Mannish than it does a rioting underclass of graffiti daubing asbos.

There is no need to complain about multiculturalism in the Olympic opening ceremony, because the ceremony was not showing multiculturalism.  It was showing one culture – the culture than anyone growing up  in Britain considers their own. It isn’t a mythical culture that may have existed 100 years ago – or in the minds of people isolated from the Britain most of us live in by public school education and cushy political or journalistic jobs. Its the real culture, the one down the road, at school and at work.

And this is Britain.  My Britain.  It is truly something remarkable about Britain that so much from so many places has become part of who we are.  It is literally remarkable.  I have many immigrant friends, and they are not shy to remark about it.  We don’t throw out other cultures, we embrace them – and offer them a cup of tea and a chicken tikka masala.

Why I want do is point out the things in the opening ceremony which I think have been missed in all the complaining about a posh man wanting to draw attention to himself.  The things which others might have missed about who, exactly, we are:

We are proud of the NHS.  I have heard people say ‘but other countries have free healthcare – sometimes better than ours’ and this is true.  We are not especially proud of free healthcare, because we consider it something normal, a bit like air and water.  We are horrified at the barbaric ways of those countries who refuse to treat people without a credit card imprint.  No, we are not proud of free healthcare.  we are proud of the NHS.  We are proud of why the NHS was created.  We are proud of the people who work in the NHS.  The opening ceremony wasn’t about doctors, it wasn’t about healing.  It was about Great Ormond Street,  It was about nurses (we are proud of inventing nursing) and it was about caring.

We have a dark side.  Voldemort.  The Queen of Hearts.  Captain Hook.  The Child Catcher.  All dark, all warped, all terrifying.  And Mary Poppins?  Perhaps Poppins is the darkest of them all.  You’ve seen the Disney Poppins,  the Americanized Poppins.  You probably haven’t read the (frankly pagan) books.  There wasn’t just a green and pleasant land, there were also dark satanic mills.  We have a pride in who we are (as misplaced as it might or might not be), but we are not especially proud of how we got there.

Our music and entertainment industries are not dead.  Yes we created the Beatles and Stones, but we haven’t stopped.  We may not be the america of world culture, but we are a cultural influence which punches above our weight.  But there were also jokes meant just for us:  the theme tune to Eastenders, the theme tune to the Archers – we take pride in the fact that some of Britishness only the British can truly understand – and laugh at.

Did I mention that we laugh at ourselves?  What other nation would have their head of state parachute into the stadium?  We can do pomp and circumstance, but Danny Boyle wisely chose to leave that at the jubilee and give us Mr Bean and bicycling doves.  Its weird. Unexpected.  Self demeaning. And so very very right.

When you are a child, you worry so much about growing up.  As a teenager, you spend your life trying to prove you are an adult.  As an adult, you spend more and more time trying to prove you know what you’re doing (because deep down, you know that you don’t)  It is only with old age that you begin to revel in yourself – using senility or eccentricity or things being different in your way to excuse your behaviour.  Britain isn’t a world power any more.  we are a small nation.  Some things we do wrong.  Some things we do right.  We still have some influence.  And we are showing our age.  The opening ceremony was about saying ‘we don’t care, this is what we’re like’

And I liked it.  It entertained me.  I think it entertained our nation.  And if anyone else got some of the jokes, and felt they had a bit of fun, thats good too.

Meanwhile, I – someone to whom sport is about a foreign as our royal family – and my  wife Adelina, born in Romania and soon to get her British Citizenship. was sandwiched between the El Salvator and Chinese delegations at the Olympic shooting yesterday, and saw the first medals of the olympics going to China and Poland.  In Woolwich.  Just down the road from where I use to go swimming, to the cinema, and to the best birthday parties (the ones in the Woolwich branch of McDonalds).

That is multiculturalism.  I kinda like it.

How to fix the A14

A5 Dual Carriageway

This post will, perhaps, be of interest to me, and other people who live near the A14 in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.  Also, maybe to people interested in road pricing strategies.  For everyone else, my apologies.

We have recently been told the A14 between Girton and Huntingdon will be improved (we’ve been told that before…)

We have been told there will be a local road between Cambridge and the Trinity Foot (sounds sane, so long as it can’t be used as a rat run)

We have been told this will be paid for by tolling (Not a terrible idea, but it needs to be done right.)

This is how to do it right:

The problem with the A14 in this area is two major roads come in (the A14 and M11) and two major roads leave (the A14 and A1(M))  But in between, what we have is essentially a two lane dual carriageway which can’t cope with the volume of traffic, and, if anyone so much as changes lane or looks out of a side window, grinds into a two-hour traffic jam.

The other problem is that this stretch of the A14 is also used as a local road bringing people into Cambridge from surrounding villages.  Specifically, almost all the people doing low paid work in cambridge have to use this route, because Cambridge house prices are affordable only by lottery winners who have also inherited sizeable trust funds.  Because Cambridge needs low paid workers to function, the toll should not be implemented in such a way as to cause them to be unable to afford to come into work.  An interesting characteristic of these workers is that they are spread far and wide across the region – so any idea of simply giving local residence a free A14 pass fails. (Though it might be a good idea to give a toll free pass to those who actually live in the villages which run alongside the A14 – I can argue both for and against this)

Lots of people think the only problem with the A14 is lorries travelling from Felixstowe.  As far as I can tell, the evidence suggests that this is a relatively minor problem.  However, if we toll the A14, we want to ensure those lorries stay on it (or other major routes) rather than rat running through unsuitable village roads.

I’m going to ignore Girton junction.  It is a dismally badly designed piece of highway engineering, which (I understand) has its origins in petty local politics.  The end results cause regular frequent accidents and delays.  Everyone involved in it’s funding, design and construction should hang their heads in shame.  It should be demolished and replace by something that works.

I’m less worried about rat running than most people – the reason is that, for a rat run to work, the cost of the time and petrol for using it must be lower than the cost of the toll.  If the toll levels are set correctly, and the position of entrances and exits managed reasonably, then rat running should be avoided – especially for lorries (which are, I guess, the major problem)

The way we toll the A14 is simple:

We use numberplate recognition systems to figure out who is using the A14.  We specifically measure where they enter and exit.  My preferred points are:

On the Cambridge side of the M11/A11 Junction

On the Cambridge side of the A14/A11 Junction

On the Cambourne side of the A14/A428 Junction

Between Lolworth and St Ives on the A14

We charge people if they travel between two of these points within a 24 hour period

This allows people to come into Cambridge and work, but to pay extra to use the A14 for long distance travel.

(You could also add road charging to Cambridge with an extension of this scheme – stick additional cameras at the park and ride boundaries, meaning people who come in from long distances outside would be better off using the par and ride – and perhaps even the guided bus – while more local people can use the roads.  Downside, cambridge residents would have to pay to leave the wider cambridge area… but if they are charging people to come into their city centre, that seems only fair)

The way you would collect tolls for this is:

Require all users of the A14 to have a prepaid account linked to their numberplate.  This will be debited every time the camera’s see someone entering, then shortly exiting the region via a different road.

This would also allow us to have a leaflet fully explaining how the charging works sent to all users (its too complicated to do via road signage)

Have extra checks at truck stops in the region – and at major docks – to ensure all lories with foreign plates are registered with the A14 scheme.

A14 improvements may never happen – and if they do, collecting tolls on it may turn out to be a political impossibility.

But if the improvements do happen, and if people follow my road pricing scheme, it might actually ally take the toll out of my A14 commute.

The Home Based Co-worker

This isn’t an idea I like.  It is not something I would ever want in my life.  But it is something which would improve the quality of my wife’s life dramatically – which has to be a good thing.

You see, Adelina, my wife, is a people person.  And right now, she is setting up her own business – which means an awful lot of working from home.  It has become clear that a lack of people in her work day means lower productivity – or higher irritability.  She has a number of ways to cope with this – her social life has rocketed into space.  But it seems to me there ought to be a solution:

“Have you considered a Co-working space?” I asked.

She had. But they cost money, you can’t choose who Co-works with you, and you have to spend some of your day commuting to them, which takes away one of the key benefits of working from home.

Then, the other night, Adelina was getting on with some work while chatting with a friend on Skype.  She got more work done than normal.  And my idea began to grow:

So – here it is:

First thing in the morning you log into coworkingfromhome.com

Coworkingfromhome lets you sign up to be ‘seated’ close to people who have described their work with similar words.  Picked similar areas of interest.  It lets you upload a photo of yourself.  And it lets you talk – by VOIP, or by IM to the people you are seated near – either as group, or directly.  If you don’t like someone you are seated near, you can block them – they’ll just see you as leaving the office, and you’ll never need to hear from them again.  Or you can mute them (and they’ll know – it’ll be like you have your headphones on)

The concept of seating is probably the thing that makes this unique – imagine an office as an infinitely long table.  When you sit down, you chose the point on the table where other people who are like you also sit.  Moreover, you choose to sit near people you’ve sat with before, if at all possible to build up a sense of community.  Throughout the day, you can simply chat as you work, without having to put much effort in to the two or three people nearest you – and they can chat to people near them.  Everyone will have a slightly different group of people their talking is carried over to, and you can always move down the table to join in what sounds like an interesting conversation (the further people are away from you, they quieter their voices are played over voip)

What you’ll wind up with is something that provides the social value of an office workplace, and perhaps even offers valuable contacts, without the need to travel.  It won’t be a replacement for real face to face socialising, but it will provide you with a stream of constant sociability, which can keep your work rate up.

And the best thing about this idea?  If I ever work from home, I won’t have to use it.  Peace and quiet – thats the dream!

Why you should develop your web app in public

For mortals – those of us not gifted with insane levels of insight about how other people work – the process of design goes something like this:

Find out about a problem

Figure out a way to solve that problem

Come up with a suggested way of solving the problem

Show the suggested solution to someone who has the problem

Listen to what they have to say about it

Change your understanding of the problem

Iterate.

 

This is true when it comes to designing the next ubercool widget, and its true when designing the stodgiest piece of business management software.  It is true when designing web apps.  Unless you have a huge usability lab and can fund focus groups, your best way of testing web app ideas is to get them out there, in front of people, and see what they think, so that you can iterate and improve the design.

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and came to the conclusion that it might be a good idea to do all of your web app development in public – not just making the app available online, but also the source code.  It was an idea which gnawed away at the back of my skull, not fully formed, until I read the following article http://techblog.netflix.com/2012/07/open-source-at-netflix-by-ruslan.html and specifically the following quote:

We’ve observed that the peer pressure from “Social Coding” has driven engineers to make sure code is clean and well structured, documentation is useful and up to date.  What we’ve learned is that a component may be “Good enough for running in production, but not good enough for Github”.

I want to explore wether the benefits of opening your web app code to the world outweigh the disadvantages.

Lets start by remembering that we have had this argument before.  Back in the late nineties we were discussing wether Open Source code was the way forward.  Gradually that argument has matured, and a world without open source software would be unrecognisable – a probably significantly behind our current world.  So there is social benefit to some forms of open code – by releasing your code, and playing your part in the open source community, you are doing a good thing, and moving technology forwards.

Lets also consider that, in the case of web apps, sharing your code is not a common or usual behaviour.  There must be a reason for this (even if the reason is wrong, or out of date)  Perhaps, in looking for these reasons, we can understand why, in the net app space, people are less inclined to share.

The arguments I can think of stand as follows:

I want to get the full benefit of the code I have written.  If I were to share my code, others would be able to compete with me based on what I have written.  I might lose out to someone who hasn’t written the code.

Sharing the code, packaging and documenting the code, is too difficult or labour intensive.  It isn’t what I want to spend my time doing.

I don’t want to expose my code to the world, only the functionality, because I am scared of being judged on the basis of my code.

Opening the code might allow people to spot security holes

When writing an article such as this, it is always a worry that I am creating straw men to knock down – so I would be pleased to learn about other arguments against opening up code to the world – please mail me

The NetFlix quote adresses the argument about judgement.  By exposing your code to the world, you are forced to make the sorts of decisions about your code you would generally only make in the face of peer review.  It will lead to better, more readable, more maintainable code.  This is a good thing.  If the problem is not the quality of your code, but rather the fear of public ridicule, then I suggest that posting and being damned is absolutely the best way of getting over this.

The question of security holes is similar. We know that security by obscurity is ineffective against a dedicated attacker – all you are doing by not publishing your code is giving yourself a false sense of confidence.  By opening the code, you not only open it to potential attackers, you also open it to other people who may wish to use your code, and who may spot the flaws and help you correct them.  Open Source software has a deserved reputation for addressing security issues well – there is no reason why open web apps should not do the same.

Sharing and packaging the code is too difficult.  A while ago, I would have agreed.  But now we have github.  While github is far from perfect, all you have to do is keep a copy of your code there.  I don’t make any suggestion that you need to make your code easy for other people to use – just that you make it available.  If other people care about packaging your code, documenting it, making it nice – let them.  Thats their work, not yours.  You don’t have to become a community leader, you just have to keep on doing what you enjoy doing.

The final one of my arguments against opening your code is that you don’t want anyone else to benefit from your work.  To this I might make a few comments:

1.  You must be kidding.  Odds are your site is running on an open source language on an open source operating system.  You’re using web browsers (the majority of which are open source these days) to let people get to your site – over the internet (a technology which has had a huge amount of development form other people).  Your’re probably using open source libraries and open source databases and web servers. You are absolutely standing on the shoulders of giants.  Is you’re shitty first draft web app really that difficult to come up with, in the big scheme of things.

2. You’re not kidding?  Right, well in that case, consider that the value of a web site is more than just the value of the code.  It is also the value of the design, the graphics, the quality of the  site’s dev ops and the community which use it.  You have the opportunity to succeed in all these areas.  If you don’t win in these areas, you probably don’t deserve to win

3. Still not convinced?  Copying the first draft of a web app is cheap.  Especially since web apps don’t generally do things which are particularly complicated – the thing that gives them value is the idea, and the way it is made available to the user (the design).  Copying design and idea – then writing code to fit is a lot easier than writing the code from scratch.  Just by putting your web app out there you are making it easy to copy – especially from the big boys you are, presumably trying to disrupt.  When you introduce a new idea, the hope is you get big before Google or Facebook notice you have disrupted anything.

4. First mover advantage works.  In the open source world we don’t often see major forks of code – and when we do, it is normally because people want to do something significantly different with the code.  This is less clear in the web app space, but let me point out an example:  Wikipedia.  Right now, I can download all the data.  I can download mediawiki. I can set up my own wikipedia.  But I won’t beat wikipedia.  Because they have the community.  Because they were there first.

5. You might benefit from other people’s code.  If they are using your code, and making changes to it, then you get the benefit of those changes.  If you want to be sure of this, release your code under an affero license.  You might also benefit from someone using your code.  Lets consider Google – lets say they decide to compete with you.  Unless you’ve got the community sewn up, you’re screwed, wether they copy your code or write their own version.  However, if your code is available, why the hell wouldn’t they try to use your code, and bring you onboard – sure it might not be the megabucks you make from creating the next big web app, but its an income based on your work, your love and your passion.

I really don’t see anything except for upsides when it comes to releasing the code which runs your web app.  All you are doing is adding to the ecosystem you draw from.  And in that sense, not only is sharing your code a logical imperative, it is a moral imperative too.

(Random question:  Why can I not fork GitHub?  It really seems like the sort of thing I ought to be able to do)

Building An Idea Assembly Line

When we look at the history of technology successes, we are reminded time and time again they come from incubator areas.  Not from the artificial technology incubators that VCs might set up to house new start up companies, but from regions which are good at incubating companies.

What these regions have are some combination of:

Universities

Big Technology Companies

Research Labs

Now – the advantage of having these sorts of institutions are they put lots of bright people together, playing with technology.  And specifically, the people they put together playing, don’t have to be entrepreneurs – they are getting paid some sort of wage (good or bad) to come up with new things.

The typical VC approach is to wait until there are companies formed by the few of these people brave enough to sacrifice their working wage and go it alone.  The hope is that the best ideas have risen to the top, and have been picked up by people capable of running companies.

But, if you talk to a VC, a common issue which causes them not to back a start up, is the poor quality of the team, not the quality of the idea.  And many many companies wind up pivoting to follow a different idea from the reason they got together.  You need a combination of good ideas and good people throughout the start up’s life.  You need the idea generators to stay in the company.  And you need a strong business team to take on the best ideas.

I wonder if the solution is to come up with an artificial equivalent of the research lab in order to breed ideas, and form teams.  I call this the Idea Factory.

Imagine an office (perhaps a big, brightly coloured open plan office – or perhaps something different) where some number of bright people are employed.  Their job is to have ideas, to prototype them, and to demonstrate them to one another. They also spend some time on building reusable frameworks to make prototyping new ideas easier and easier.

The time spent on prototyping ideas should be short (perhaps measured in days), and we should be quick to drop ideas.  People should feel free to provide support to each other, in taking the ideas they like and adding to them, or improving on them.  Forking ideas, and using their own skills, or even just making suggestions for other people to fork.

Over time, teams would grow, and some ideas would rise above others.  These ideas can then be shown to the world.  At conferences.  In papers. On YouTube. Or by going live on the web.  The question becomes ‘what is the minimum needed to get this idea out there?”

And this is where the VCs come in.  VCs already know people who are good at forming businesses, people who know what to do next.  They can take a team with a good idea and match them up with the business skills they need to move one step on.

Now – the important point here is that, all the time people are working in the idea factory, they are being paid.  You want people in the factory with a range of experiences – from fresh hungry graduates, through to the world weary sorts who have seen everything and know how things really work.  So there are going to be a range of salaries. Perhaps, because the work environment is unusual, you might be able to get away with offering a lower salary then the market would usually require. The question of salaries is where the VCs take a risk – how much time and money will these people need per idea?  By the time the idea is being fitted out into a standalone start up, the risk should be much reduced, and the VCs should be happy about getting a higher rate of return.  [Also, one presumes that an idea factory would be a good source of patents, if one of the members were to be a patant lawyer]

Idea Factories might be the way to inspire entrepreneurial growth in towns currently lacking it, or for a small group of VCs to monopolise start ups (and get a better share of the equity then they might otherwise manage)

But wait – Idea Factories might not just be good for VCs.  Consider your big company – not quite a company the size of Google, but the sort of tech company which regularly takes over large convention centres to support their customer base.  These companies often need new ideas.  They could set up internal idea factories along the same lines, getting people to play with the sort of technologies they are interested in.  It would lower the risk of disruption, and – even if all the ideas came to nought – give them a way of showing they support innovation.

This is an idea which I think – based on rough estimates -  has legs and is worthy of further investigation.  Please contact me if you think you might want to play a part in bringing an Idea Factory to life – either as a venture investor, or within your company, because I would very much like to help.

Car makers heed my advice

In I Want A Different Car I said:

“If you can provide me with a way for the car to make me a coffee, so much the better. ”

Well, it looks like, yet again, captains of industry are racing to meet my every demand:

http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/07/16/the-ultimate-to-go-cup-new-car-has-espresso-maker-built-in/

(well, one demand, and not even a demand so much as a throwaway comment.  And probably not so much racing as ‘had it in the pipeline since before I wrote anything’)

Now, figure out how to fit in a desk (that doesn’t come out while I’m driving), and add a few bonus features such as ‘reliability’ and I’m yours, Fiat.

Kickstarting Commissions

Kickstarting, indie-go-going, crowd funding.  It’s the new hotness.  The next hotness will be when these sites allow people to make a commission by spreading their idea and bringing in new funders.  Suddenly there will be people falling over themselves to find the best ideas and put them i the right market place.

Thats all.  Simple idea, big promise.

Use Case : Information Capture

When stumbling around trying to figure out which combination of tablet / laptop / phone makes the most sense for me, I find it useful to consider the use cases which, at the moment, my devices don’t quite meet.  The most obvious thing that I’m missing is a good information capture device.  Here are the situations where it would be useful:

I’m called into a meeting – I need to be able to access web sites during the meeting – and perhaps run GoToMeeting or WebEx, so it’ll need to have decent web browsing facilities.  I’ll also need to be able to access (and maybe write) emails.  Finally, I’ll want to be able to type down notes as quickly as possible, without looking at the keyboard (so I’ll need the sort of feedback which only a physical keyboard can give, and I’ll want a full size keyboard, for comfort)

I’m at a conference.  I want to take notes in all of the sessions. So I need good battery life, and I also need to be able to type with the device either in my hands or on my lap.  So far, I’ve not managed to find a device which is as comfortable for taking notes on as a keyboard, and many tablets with keyboards won’t rest nicely in my lap.  Later, I’m going to want to transform these notes into documents.

After a day at a conference, I’m in my hotel room.  When I travel, I prefer not to take my main computer with me – I prefer to have something cheap, something which doesn’t have all my data on it (I have backups, so I could stomach the loss of my data – and a good quantity of my data is in the cloud, but still, I don’t want the inconvenience).  Recent experience has shown that my windows tablet (with docking station and bluetooth keyboard) does well here (though isn’t that cheap – still any tablet & wireless keyboard combo would clearly do almost as well).

As an added benefit, it would be nice to be able to make doodles and drawings to accompany my notes, using a pen or stylus.

My suggested solutions are:

Carry a laptop, and some form of extended power.  This would be a good reason to buy a macbook air.  But an air, or an ultrabook would not meet my criteria of being a cheap device.

Carry a netbook and some form of extended power.  Then also use a tablet for the things tablets are better for.  The problem here is that netbook keyboards are not as big as I would like.

Carry a tablet, and then use one of those pens which record what you write for making notes:  This isn’t a bad plan – although I doubt the OCR capabilities of the pen’s software.  And we could probably achieve the same thing with pen, paper and a travel scanner.

What would seem to me a better idea would be a tablet case which has a built in keyboard, and is designed to work as a laptop.  Extra marks if it can contain extra batteries to increase tablet lifetime.  We’re not just talking a tablet dock, we’re talking about something specifically designed for using on your lap, like a laptop.  The idea of it being a case more or less rules out android devices – they are just too different from one another, you would end up with some half functioning system equivalent to those suction pads you use to attach phones and GPSs to car windows.

The right sort of thing already exists for the ipad – consider for example the keyboard case from clamcase.com.  There is a japanese company selling a notebook case which also sports a  battery, but this doesn’t seem to have worldwide availablility yet.

I wonder, however, if this is an opportunity for windows OEMs who were blindsided by Surface.  Suface, no matter how funky the magnetic keyboard thing is, won’t work from your lap.  Yet a Windows RT device would meet all my needs as described above.  A WinRT laptop would have a niche that Surface can’t quite touch – and a slightly higher spec varient could easily come with a stylus.  Ultimately, a device like that might mean I would rarely, if ever, need to use a proper laptop for anything.  And also that my life in conferences, meetings, and bland corporate hotel rooms would be much improved.

 

Given the 7 inch tablet, do we still need phones?

The advantage of the 7 inch tablet over the 10 inch is that it can be taken everywhere.  My kindle (7 inch) slips nicely into a suit or coat pocket.  I’m sure it would slip just as nicely into many handbags or briefcases.  If you have a device that ges everywhere with you, and which can do cellular communication, why not use it as your phone?

You, like me, might grasp the idea that holding a 7 inch tablet to our face like a phone is a non-starter.   And you, like me, might feel that a bluetooth headset isn’t something you want to have pinned to your ear all the time.  So the 7inch phone is likely to make you look faintly ridiculous.  Maybe it’ll become fashionable, but I’m getting old and grumpy, and it is clearly more sensible to hold something chocolate bar sized to the side of your head than something paperback book sized.  If only because your arm will hurt less.

My initial thought was:  What if you could have a bluetooth handset.  Just a microphone and speaker in a chocolate bar sized box with almost infinite battery life talking just to the tablet?  I can see a market for this.

But I can also see a market for something else:

Take the same box.  Put proper cellular communications and a cheap arm processor inside.  And lots of battery.  Don’t give it a screen.  Because the owner will already have a tablet in most places they go to.  But do give it Siri.  Or something like Siri.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the iPhone nano.

The iPhone nano will do all the jobs that a phone is good at – calling people, letting you make notes and record and be notified about appointments.  But it won’t do the things that a 7 inch tablet can do better (email, web browsing, reading ebooks, watching video).  And while your 7inch is quite portable – and will go to work, to clients and to the pub with you, your nano will go everywhere with you, so you’ll always be in touch: not just in the office, but also in the gym and int the park playing with your kids.

Without tablets, the iPhone nano doesn’t make much sense.

And, given that I own a kindle, a smart phone and a 10 inch tablet, for me the 7 inch tablet doesn’t make much sense.

But a 7 inch tablet and an iPhone nano – that seems to make perfect sense to me.

 

So, given the 7 inch tablet, do we need phones?  Yes.  Most of us will need phones.  But will we need smart phones?  Maybe, but not today’s smart phone.

And, for all I know, Apple might just have spotted just this path, and already be moving in that direction.

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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