Archive for the ‘App Ideas’ Category:


After one week of Android Wear

I decided right away to pick up an Android Wear watch – I’ve been interested in wearables since I bought a fitbit a year or so ago, and Android Wear seemed to be the next logical step.  The watch I bought was the Samsung Gear Live, but I suspect most of my comments are likely to be relevant for most of Android Wear.  So, after a week of playing with it, here are my initial thoughts:

Battery Life:  I take of my watch every evening, so it has been no problem with plugging it into a charger.  I suspect I might occasionally forget, so I’m going to possibly need a backup watch for those days.  The battery seems to easily last through my waking hours, but I’m a bit concerned about travelling with the watch as, when flying to the west cost, I’ve had days bordering on 24 hours long – which I’m not sure it will cope with.

Maps: Many people have identified the directions feature as being one of the watch’s best.  And they are right – a brief buzz on your arm every time you need tu turn a corner is much less obtrusive than having to hold a phone out in front of you.  But it isn’t suitable for driving, which is a shame, because that’s what the app defaults to.  I haven’t yet figured out how to get public transport directions on the watch  -which is a big shame, because live bus times (along with directions to walk to the nearest bus stop) would be a big win.

“OK Google” : the voice recognition is quite impressive – and certainly up to sending text messages and (using the Bunting app) tweets.  However, voice control of the watch and phone leaves a little something to be desired.  To start with, you’re only ever going to say “OK Google” when showing the watch off, or in a car or your own home – so it is really best for hands free usage – you don’t particularly want to have to press any buttons on the watch to do anything.  It is rather good for starting playing music (“OK Google, play My Life Story” gets my phone playing mixes of Jake Shillingford’s finest), but not able to pause or skip tracks using voice – which would be handy when driving.  It’s also not great for launching apps – I use an application called Dog Catcher for playing podcasts – and when I ask my watch to launch it, it opens the Play Store page for the free version, rather than noticing I have an app with that name installed on my phone.

Range:  I’ve actually been quite impressed with how far away i can get from my phone, and still have the watch working.  This has two advantages:  Most of the time, I leave my phone on my desk charging when i’m at work.  The range means I can get notifications from it in nearby meetings rooms and the office kitchen which is handy.  The range also means I can contact my phone from anywhere in my house… should I lose my phone, a quick ‘OK Google, play music’ will help me track it down.

Apps: I’ve tried a few, so far, Bunting, a neat tool for working with twitter, and Evernote are my two favourites.  IFTTT lets you add buttons to trigger tasks – I’ve added a few for putting my phone’s ringer onto silent, for instance.  But I’m sure more IFTTT functionality would make the watch more useful.  App-wise, there is lots of scope for more development here.

Notifications:  You probably want to cut down the number of notifications you receive to your phone, if you use an Android Wear watch.  But that’s a god thing.  It is quite smart at filtering out notifications you don’t need.  Over all, notifications coming to the watch is the most important part of the android wear experience, and it is probably the place app developers should spend their time improving their apps and integrating with Wear.

Fitness features:  The step tracker just works, and lets you set a daily goal.  Fine, but nothing special.  The heart rate monitor requires you to stand still while you use it – so not great for tracking how much effort you should be spending when running or walking.

The watch faces:  There are a selection of faces to choose from, and they are fine.  But there isn’t yet a face which displays an analogue clock with day and date on the screen.  I believe it is possible to write new faces, so I’m waiting for one to turn up which meets my specifications.  As far as moving between low power and high visibility modes goes, the watch is quite good at getting it right, but not perfect.  Since you need to be in high visibility mode to use voice commands, this is a bit of a distraction when driving.  The visibility of the watch screen in the sun isn’t great, but despite some sunny days, I haven’t needed to cup my hand over the screen to tell the time from an analogue watch face.

Media Control:  This was the biggest surprise when it came to a use I hadn’t thought of for the Wear.  I’m a big user of netflix with my chomecast at home, and of DogCatcher for podcasts in my car.  Both of these apps put up notifications when they are playing, to allow you minimal control… and in both cases these controls turn up on the watch face.  So should I want to pause a track or a film, I just tap my watch – no need to dig around for my phone.  While these is scope to improve these features further, they are already the functionality i use the most.

My conclusion is:  The watch isn’t perfect – and in a year or two, if the wearables sector takes off, we’ll probably have much better models which are more suited to day to day use.  That said, it meets my needs, and exceeds my expectations so far.  Most of the downsides I’ve mentioned are software issues, so I expect the watch on my arm to become more powerful as time progresses.  We are still in an early adopter phase for wearables, but at this point you can see a viable consumer product peeping out from the future.

I don’t want my, I don’t want my, I don’t want my Apple TV

In the late nineties, I worked for a dot com startup doing some early work in the digital set top box space.  Video streaming, personalization, web browsing.  It was the sort of thing which only became popular in the home about a decade later.  We were too early (and probably too incompetent).

These days its popular to think that the TV set is due for a change.  Some sort of revolutionary rethinking in line with what Apple have done to the tablet computer, the phone and the mp3 player.  Apple are usually considered to be the people who will lead this revolution (the rumours it will happen any day now have been around for years).  Others think Google might manage it.  And I’ve suggested Amazon could be the black horse.

But the more I think about revolutionizing the TV, the more I realise, I don’t want it to happen.  At least not like a TV version of the iPhone.

There are a few things I have realized about the television:

1. It’s a device for multiple people to watch at the same time
2. It’s about showing pictures and playing sound.
3. UIs for TVs are hard.  And generally ugly.  Your best bet up till now has been to control things with a IR remote control.  Ownership of the remote, and losing the remote have become the cliches of ancient stand up comedy routines.  We are just about entering the period when people might consider replacing their remote controls with mobile phones and tablet computers.
4. No one wants to browse the internet, read their email or post to twitter through their TV.  We might want to browse the web in order to get to YouTube or some other video playing site, but generally people prefer to read things they can hold in their hands.

It has gradually become clear to me that the home user isn’t going to be looking for a magic box – or for extra capabilities of their TV – which will allow it to take advantage of all the new content opportunities the web provides.  No.  They are just going to use their TV to watch programs with other people, together.  They won’t be installing apps on their TV. They won’t be browsing the web on it.  And they won’t be controlling their viewing with the TV’s remote.  They will be doing everything from their phone or tablet.

Think about it for a moment.  You can already watch TV on your phone.  And with airplay you can send anything you’re watching to your TV.  This is fine for an ‘all Apple’ household, but until lots of people get in on the game, I don’t see this as the future.

No the future comes with WiFi Direct and Miracast (plus a lot of extra work).

I’ve explained WiFi Direct and Miracast elsewhere, but to put it simply:  Miracast lets you beam video from your phone – or from any other device – to your TV.  Its like a wireless HDMI cable.

So imagine, if you would, the TV of the future.  It will be a box with no buttons, just a lovely display and a power supply.  Inside it will be WiFi direct ready.  (Hopefully WiFi Direct has some sort of wake on lan functionality, so that you can plug your TV in and put it in a low power mode awaiting a connection.  If it doesn’t, we’ll stick a discrete pairing button on the top)

You come in with your phone, or tablet.  You install an app – which might be something like iPlayer, Hulu or Netflix, but might also be a specialist app perhaps ‘Game of Thrones’.  How you pay for this (one off, or subscription) is up to the app publisher.  The app publisher can also decide if the app contains all the audio/visual data, or if the data will be streamed from some external source.  You play the app, and are offered a number of screens to play the video on.  You select the TV and you are away.  The video is streamed from your phone to the TV set… or better, the TV set.

This world is already (just about) possible with Miracast.  But it isn’t quite enough.  Here are some ways we can improve on things.

Your friend is also watching TV with you, and decides to turn the volume up a bit.  The volume is a feature of the TV, so your friend needs to tell the TV to play sounds a bit louder.  So your friend reaches for his phone.  Now, he doesn’t live at your house, so he won’t have an app for controlling your TV.  There are two solutions:
1. We insist every TV provides a common interface, so that lots of people will make TV control apps.  In which case, he can then just pair with the TV and control it that way.  But this sort of standardisation doesn’t seem to work well.  So the odds are low.  My preferred alternative is to encourage the following:
2. When your friend pairs his phone with the TV, he is told there is a web service available (providing a web server ought to be a common feature of WiFi Direct devices that need to be interacted with) and goes straight to the front page.  At the front page he is given a web ui, and a link to download a better app from whichever app stores the TV company have chosen to support.

What would be even better is if the web app worked by communicating with a simple web service.  Each Web service could be different, but so long as they were simple, hackers could work out how they functioned.  And as a result could develop control apps which work with hundreds of different TV sets – just like multi-set remote controls work today.  In short everyone would have an app which would quickly be able to decide how to control whatever TV they came into contact with – while also having a web app ui workaround in case of failure.

So, this is fine for controlling the TV.  But what about if my friend wanted to pause the show in order to say something?

My suggestion is that along with WiFi direct linking devices, you want to make some other information available.  Possibly provided by a web service as above – but ideally in a more standardized way.  I would want the TV to tell me which device was currently streaming data to it.  And I would want to be able to join that WiFi direct group, to communicate with the sender.  Finally I would like the sending device to also provide me with a web interface – so that I could control it remotely too.

In short, the TV becomes far more dumb than your average Apple TV box is today, and you rely on the smarts of the tablets that control it.  Especially since the apps on the tablets can ensure a far better user experience in the process.

From here we need to consider other devices.  I’m pretty sure the PVR as is will die.  Broadcast TV will gradually wither, and the PVR won’t be supported.  But until this happens, the PVR and cable box will be part of the home entertainment system.  And increasingly we will get video servers which will hold the video data of films we have purchased – or even, perhaps, caches for external video providers.  In any event, we will control these devices in the same way we control the TV: pairing via WiFi Direct, then a web UI and potential app downloads to get to the functionality.  These boxes will stream the video straight to the TV.

We also need to consider audio.  Right now many homes have a TV with speakers, and also a HiFi of some sort.  Let’s rethink this:  Add a few wireless speakers, and let them be sent audio by a protocol similar to Miracast (but perhaps with some additional syncing technology)  Your phone could even become a remote wireless speaker – especially useful if you want to attach some headphones without laying out wires.

At this point we have everything we need to allow app writers to revolutionise television.  I still feel there is a lack of a central TV guide – but perhaps that will be forthcoming now we know we have personal touch interfaces and no longer have to assume everything will be controlled via the screen.

Whatever, we don’t need smart TVs.  We just need good displays, and sensible use of wireless technology.  The Apple TV as is, both is too smart, and not up to the job.  Lets make it simpler, and make the interactions between devices work well.

The Ubiquitous Tablet

I’m not going to say anything about the new range of Kindles yet – that deserves consideration alongside whatever comes from Microsoft and Apple in the next month or so.  I do want to talk about the trend which is becoming clear with the pricing of the Kindle fire:  Tablets are becoming cheaper.  Tablets are going to continue to get cheaper.  We will stop considering tablets as expensive pieces of technology, and start considering them part of our lives – like we do with phones and wrist watches.

Here is my prediction:  Fairly soon, we will all own lots of tablets.  We will leave tablets littered around the house and workplace, and we will use whichever tablet is closest to us when we want to do something.

My key assumption here is that tablet UI development is not dead.  That one day, we will probably settle on a fairly common UI pattern for tablets – much as we have with the desktop metaphor for PCs – but it took us 15 years to firmly settle on the PC UI – and I’m going to guess there is another half decade before we come close to doing the same with tablets.

So what does this mean for how tablets should develop:

1.  We will not store our data on tablets.  We may cache our data on tablets, but the data will be stored in the cloud (or – possibly – on a server you own.  I think the cloud is more likely, but the geek in me likes the idea of being able to control my own data)

2.  Since I don’t think there will be just one brand of tablet, any more than there is just one brand of notebook (yes, you are allowed to use notebooks which are not Moleskines, just like you are allowed to use tablets which are not iPads), and since tablets will be interchangeably used, this brings into question native apps.  I don’t think native apps will die, but I think they will become less ubiquitous.  More and more, I foresee people using javascript and html based apps which they can access from any of their tablets.  Native apps will exist for a few purposes:

  • Games – assuming games are not streamed from your media centre box or somesuch, many games will remain native apps
  • Turning a particular tablet into a particular thing.  If I buy a 32″ tablet and decide ‘this will be my TV set’, then I might buy a specific native TV guide app for it.  In this case, the app will be an app you don’t want to move between devices – so it will be installed on a per device basis (perhaps with an access control list of approved users)

It is just possible that Android apps will become the default – but that seems unlikely.  Since you will want your personal collection of apps to move with you between devices (not having to install every app on every device), I think there will probably be initially space for an app which acts as an installer for these new apps in some way.  I don’t quite know how this will work – I’m guessing we’ll see it on Android first, followed by Windows, then Apple last.

3. Multi account tablets are not the way forward.  With tablets just lying around to be used this seems non-obvious, but my thought is that tablets should not be multi or single account, they should haves no account.  What I want is to go to a friend’s house I have never visited before, pick up his tablet and start using it – with all my apps there waiting for me.  If all the data (including your set of apps) is stored in the cloud, this isn’t a pipe dream, all it would take is some form of federated log in – I expect the best way to do this will be by bumping your NFC enabled phone up against the tablet.

You might worry that not having accounts with passwords might mean tablets get stolen.  I don’t share this worry.  Tablets are cheap, for most of the tablets we wil leave lying around and lend to friends, you won’t be bothered stealing them any more than you would steal the crockery from their dinner table.  Expensive tablets can till have some sort of pin locking mechanism before they let you in.

 

In thinking about this new, tablet, world, I’m wondering how far off we are.  Right now, I can’t see any reason why companies wouldn’t stick six iPad mini’s or Nexus 7s in each of their meeting rooms, to allow people to get to that email they need on the spur of the moment without having to bring in their laptop (and all the associated distractions).  Since these are special tablets with a special purpose (sitting in a meeting room), we might also want to install some sort of video conferencing app on them – each person having their own camera and being able to look whoever is speaking in the eye (or quickly go to another speaker and send a sidebar message), might well make multi-site videoconferences work.

We haven’t yet seem the impact of the tablet on the world.  It will be a different impact from the PC – more like the impact of the mobile phone, but without needing the mobility, since ubiquity and cheapness works just as well.  My predictions are probably conservative – but we’ll see them happening, and they’ll probably begin happening in the next few months. Give it five years, and the idea of not having a tablet to hand will be a strange as going anywhere without your mobile.

 

Rethinking Social Networks : Different Applications

 

Assuming we don’t want to replace Facebook, then we are left with trying to use social networks in other applications.  These need to be applications that lots of people are going to want to use (otherwise the social aspect is useless), which perhaps have a viral way of grabbing people’s attention (using social to sell them) and which fundamentally are made better by being social.

When I’m thinking of the sorts of application which come in and grow big, my first port of call is to see “What are geeks using right now which hasn’t caught on in the mainstream?”  There are two things that currently come to mind:

Bug Tracking Systems

and

Distributed Version Control

Now – clearly neither of these are new ideas (although I was thinking of distributed version control well before it hit the mainstream consciousness – but that’s another story).  And both of these exist to some extent outside of geekdom:  You have a certain level of version control is various word processing systems, and online data storage systems, and ticketing systems of various type exist in various industries (mainly industries with support desks).  So how do we make them different, and make them social.

Bug Tracking:

As I said, ticketing systems are used in many industries.  In my job I have to handle both the customer support ticket system and the internal bug tracking system.  In my time I’ve used quite a few bug tracking systems of various colours.  They have generally common characteristics:

Someone enters a bug into the system (we could generalise this as ‘someone enters a thing for you to do into the system’).  This raises a ticket.

They assign the ticket to the person they think is responsible

This person is made aware of the issue by an email arriving.

If they don’t think they are the person responsible, they pass the issue on to someone else (and that person gets an email)

 

Better systems let you say things like:

This particular tasks consists of multiple subtasks

and

Before I can work on this particular task, someone else must complete another task.

 

This is starting to look like a general ‘to do’ system.  Indeed, I’m astonished when I hear that most companies don’t use a system like this to manage their projects, and keep track of things that have to be done, and when they are to be done by.  That  also suggests to me that, given a more friendly user interface, we might be onto a winner.

So we’ll start with a single user ‘to do’ program.  They can enter tasks, and mark them as done.  They can also break them down into subtasks, and put dependencies between tasks.  All that requires is a friendly UI to make everything clear.  There are good examples on the net.

Now, lets take a leaf out of tripit’s book.  When you sign up to the todo apps site, you get an email address.  You can forward any email you get assigning you things to do to that address, and it will get turned into a todo within the system (which may well be a todo along the lines of ‘TODO: Generate todo tasks from this email”).  The first social aspect is that each task will be associated with the original email – which means you can send an automated email back saying something like ‘I’ve identified the following tasks from your email – if you want to see that I’m keeping up with them, please go to this web page’.  Moreover you could only allow someone with the email address you originally identified to log in to that site (using email based authentication)

We can go further.  What if you generated a task which someone else had to do.  Now, its pretty bad form to say ‘here is something you’ve got to do, which I’ve already put into a task tracking system’) – but you could add a task ‘wait for a response from this person’ and send them a querying email from your to do system.  Moreover, if that person is already using the bug tracking system, the email could be automatically redirected to their todo list box – which would mean they would have a task that you could monitor.  If they are not using the system, well, every email you send will have an advert encouraging them to give it a try.

Monetisation could come from apps (see passim), enterprise subscriptions (will walled gardens that won’t stay in someone’s account once they leave the company and mass email subscriptions), or premium subscriptions.

 

Distributed Version Control

The concept here is there exists some sort of document (or set of documents), wherein each person can have a copy and make their own changes, then pass the document on to someone else who already has a copy of the document, who can decide if they want to accept some or all of your changes into their copy.  There isn’t one true central copy.  Also, you can go back in time and see how the document has changed.

We geeks use it to keep track of our source code.

But in the real world it would seem great for managing that big collection of stuff you have to keep track of for a project (or, on a smaller scale, for a meeting)

I see it as being like this:

I have some sort of application where I can store various pieces of text, photos, lists, links to web pages, other documents etc, and keep them all together in one place.  In the old days that place would have been a file, these days it would be a web site somewhere.  Now, I might want to let someone else look at this collection of documents, while I might want to let others edit it.  Easy – I just set it to email them links to the document – now all those people have accounts where they can take a copy of the document, and where they can edit their own copy to their hearts content - and some will also have the ability to see what changes I’ve made since – and fewer still will have the ability to suggest I accept some of their changes (it would be something along the lines of ‘Show Ben These Changes’ in the ui.  To us Geeks, I’m talking about a github pull request)

Again, it is fundamentally social – and all the app I’m describing needs to actually be is something akin to a wiki – or HyperCard.

 

Go with either of these ideas, and you have the potential to exploit the still underexploited social arena

Turn on, tune in, log out

British biometric passport

I hate logging into websites.  And I’m a master of it.  After a number of hassles with external websites revealing my passwords to the world, I now have a lastpass setup managing my login credentials and a google authenticator to keep my google identity (which is probably more important than my birth certificate) extra-secure.  And does this work?  Well, most of the time, but the other day I got logged out of a banking account and had to reregister because I got my details wrong 3 times in a row.  Was it my fault?  Well, maybe, but I don’t for the life of me know what exactly I did wrong  - or how I could avoid doing the same things wrong in the future.

I also hate writing login mechanisms for websites.  They always seem overly complicated – the sort of thing you wish could just be done better by someone else.

My first experience of a half-decent login system was with tripit.com.  With tripit, all I had to do was start forwarding emails to their email address.  I got an email back telling me I could go to a magic URL, where all my details were awaiting me.  But then it asked me to set up a password to secure it all.

On most websites, it doesn’t matter who I am.  It only matters that I am the same person I was last time I came to the website.  Why should I have to log in?  In fact, a lot of web sites recognise me and log me in automatically if I’ve been there fairly recently

So, Idea 1:  Instead of making me sign up to a website, just assign me a cookie, and then whenever I come back in – in a day, a week, or a decade, read that cookie, and log me back in.

This is simple.  It is session management.  Website writers are going to have to do session management anyway, so why not just have two sessions – a short term ‘is currently doing a particular thing’ session and a long term ‘is still the same person’ session.

There seem to be two big problems here:  Security and Multiple Browsers

The security problem is that cookies remain the same and are passed in plaintext.  This can be resolved, in part, by making all connections via https.  All the evidence seems to suggest https-only is the way to go for lots of reasons, so this is no big loss.  As for cookies remaining the same – well, the website can always decide to change your cookie on its own schedule (so long as you log in).  And because the cookie will be website generated, it will only ever work for that website – and if that website gets hacked, well, they probably have access to everything you stored on that site anyway.  No no huge risk, so far as I can see.  (we could probably do more complicated things like making the cookie you provide a public key, and making session initiation a challenge response procedure, but that probably isn’t needed)

The multiple browser issue is harder.  If I want to access the same account from two browsers, the cookie generated account issue is a problem.  Different cookies will be generated for each browser – meaning you are a different person at work and home.  There are three ways around this:

1 – add the ability to set a username and password to your account once you have logged in.  Let people associate different browsers with the same account by then loggin in with the username and password.

2 – add the ability to associate an email address with your account.  You can then request the site emails you with a way to log you in on other machines.  Since you’ll need to do this if you have the username password mechanism, you’ll proably have to do this anyway

3 – make the problem your browsers problem.  Come up with an way of identifying the cookies as shareable, then let your browsers choose a central location to allow them to be synched.  This is ideal as it also allows browsers to let you switch between multiple accounts with the same site.

So – this seems quite simple, but it seems you still need to write code to register an email address with your site (at least until all the browsers come up with a solution to synch cookies).  My suggestion here is:

Idea 2: someone needs to generate a web service which will manage the storing of email addresses and associating them with an internal representation of user ids.  All your site would have to do for registration purposes is provide a form which sent the email address and internal id to said service.  When a user wanted to receive a log in email, you would have to provide a simple request whereby you provided the email and your sites id, and got back the internal id.  You would then look up the id, then generate an email which would lead the user to a page which would allow them to access their long term session cookie.

some bonus ideas:

Idea 3: if I send an email from my valid account to ‘logmein@whatevermywebsiteis.com’, it should, by return post, send me an email that would log me in – meaning I wouldn’t have to do any setup work’

Idea 4: You could happily sign up with multiple email addresses.  The site should only send to the email address you request.

Idea 5: If you lose control of an email address, you may need to revoke it.  The best way to manage this would be to allow you to revoke all email addresses, then let you assign them again one by one.

xoxco makes a similar argument (which didn’t so much inspire this piece, as made me think there was probably something up the tree worth barking at)

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!

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.

2 Or 3 More Quick App Ideas

1.  Bring the dating site to the app.  Let people answer questions about themselves, one at a time, as many as they like.  Don’t worry about a written profile.  Match people based on their responses (The clever idea here:  make all the questions on a sliding scale – when you’re asking what you want in a partner use a slider with two slidey-bar-things on it.  All very nice and touch oriented).  Report only matches that are good and near you.  This has the interesting property that it will find you interesting people to meet, even on holiday… we can market it to the Shirley Valentine crowd.  When both decide they want to chat, offer a text-message like interface for taking.

2.  PhotoAnything.  Take a photo on your phone.  Share them to our server.  Other people will see them (anonymised).  They then need to figure out where the photo was taken, go there, and take another, overlapping photo.  We can rate general success based on geo-location, then the original user (or other viewers) can make a more accurate yes-or-no answer.  Meanwhile we build a big cloud of photos of where people go most… which must have some use.

3. Dating site part two:  pick who you date using a touch interface.  But when you find someone who doesn’t suit you, but you know who they will suit, you can suggest they they should meet up – which is communicated by giving that person a tag saying (” people have suggested you might match).  You can also match up any friends in your phone book – we use things like phone numbers and email addresses to see if they are the same people – so when you join, you might find lots of people have already said you should match up with someone else you know.

Added extra idea – monetise the dating app by selling ‘mystery date’ vouchers.  Each member of a couple puts in their own share, and tick the sort of thing they want to do (in fact, with idea 1, we probably know this anyway), when then use the total money to by a ‘date for 2′ voucher which has been sold groupon-style (but probably at less of a loss for the establishment).  This could be 2 pints at a pub, or a ride of 2 in a hot air balloon depending on how generous you both are. [vouchers will be picked using locality information].  Each person just gets given a location and a time (Previously negotiated) to turn up.  We profit the ad revenue.

More Frighteningly Ambitious

Continuing my discussion of Paul Graham’s frightening ambitious ideas:

The Next Steve Jobs

I don’t see how a company can set out to be the next Apple, or how an individual can set out to be the next Steve Jobs.  This isn’t the way the world works.  Apple didn’t set out to be the Apple of today.  Sure, perhaps, early on, Jobs saw the plausibility of turning computers into household appliances, but I’m guessing he wasn’t thinking of the devices we have today – because back in the early eighties, they weren’t thinkable… and Jobs was a realist – a special type of realist who knew just how far reality could be distorted in his favour at any particular point in time.  And Jobs didn’t set out to be Jobs.  Not the Jobs we knew at the end.  That Jobs was created by the successes and failures of the younger, brasher, less tidied up Jobs.

But more than anything, I dint think Jobs would have set out to be the next anything else – he would have set out to be the first Steve Jobs.

Now – there is absolutely space for people to try to bring better design to the tech industry.  and there is space fot people who want to move on the capabilities of existing technologies.  These are things we need to see.  What Jobs had was a combination of good design, a step forward in capabilities and a strong brand behind him.  The strong brand was important – the strong brand is what gave Jobs the clout to get entertainment industries and telecoms industries moving into step with him.

Getting a strong brand is hard.  But these days its easier.  Facebook might, potentially, have some of the clout we are talking about, and its still young.  But to become a strong brand quickly requires a low cost of entry for the users – and that pretty much precludes being involved in making innovative consumer electronics.

So the future of design is going to start in software.  It’ll be when one of the guys behind some particularly popular and well designed website says “screw this – I don’t want you making my site ugly” to advertisers and finds another way to make money – possibly by extending his brand into the physical world that we’ll see changes happening…

Though the other place I would look to is kickstarter and etsy.  There are more and more iphone cases and ipad covers that exude beauty.  What if one of these designers were to build a wrapper around something cheap and generic (say the Raspberry Pi) and turn it into something better.  I don’t know what that something better might be, but we are at a place where design first development of products is looking plausible.

Bring Back Moore’s Law

To be honest, i’m not hopeful that someone is going to come out and say “Look at my new compiler, it avoids all the problems with parallel processing”.  But my experience is stat you never have to solve all of the problems, just some of them.

That said, I don’t think Moore’s law is the problem that needs to be solved, when it comes to parallelism.  I think scalability is the problem.  You want a program that runs as well on 12 cores as it does on 1 core – thats Moore’s law being brought back [we all know Moore's law hasn't gone anywhere in hardware - I'm talking about getting software to take advantage of it] – but you also want a program that runs on a million cloud based servers as it does on one core.  That is a different problem.  And its a problem we’re not close to solving.  So it really is frighteningly ambitious.

Programming languages, as they have taken off in real world usage have gone from being wrappers around assembly language [C] to being more and more abstract [C++, Java], and usable [Python, Ruby] and less woried about the processors control flow and more worried about the user’s [Javescript].  Operating systems used to just cove over the complexities of the CPU, now they provide more and more abstraction – to the extent we even have hypervisors – operating systems for operating systems.  But operating systems still work like CPUs do.

There is another layer of abstraction to be jumped to.  Abstraction over the cloud.

We have various parts of this.  Hadoop is the sort of engine we need inside such an OS.  The web provides us with a user interface to it.  But we don’t have the full tools.  What should happen is this:  I right a program which handles a users request, prcreeses it andprovides a response.  A simple program.  one that doesn’t worry about what else is happening.  Perhaps I write more programs to handle background activities and the like.  And I set all these programs running on ‘my cloud’ – something which I access through a browser, develop on through a browser and which looks like one big computer to me.  The cloud takes my code, and does all the work.  It figures out what the complexities are, what the things my code requires.  Where my code needs to scale by being broken down into multiple jobs.  And it compiles the code, and runs it appropriately – probably recompiling sections of the code in response to runtim analysis of modules.  The suer doesn’t have to understand how file storage is spread across a billion disks – just like right now I don’t have to understand about my single disk’s sector sizes and rotation speeds.

And yes – if it turned out that my cloud was a single corred mobile phone, then, yeah – why shouldn’t it be able to target that too?

All of this is possible, its just a huge and frightening task.  If someone were to take it on, the world would look a very different place immediately.

Ongoing Diagnosis

The problem with healthcare monitoring is – unlike most of the other ideas – it requires hardare.  And hardware is hard to make, expensive to ship, breaks, and is generally quite big.  So the problem is making light cheap healthcare sensors.  Which is something I’m absolutely not qualified to talk about.

But two things I do know about hardware are – it is cheaper to make hardware which is dumb, and it is cheaper to make hardware which is produced en mass.

Dumb hardware simply needs to communicate with software which can do the real processing – and combine the information from lots of sensors to build a bigger picture.  It may be the market itself is not in making the sensors, but it being the best diagnosis engine combining the inputs from lots of sensors and looking them up against a database.

Getting the first sensors cheap enough is a bigger problem. Were I going into this area, I would be looking at the developing world.  Right now, parts of the word are crying out for a doctor in a box.  It doesn’t need to be small enough to fit into your mobile phone or training shoe – just into the back of a Toyota Hilux.  But if it can be made fairly cheap, the market is out there – and there are Bill and Melida Gates’s who will pay you to make your product – and to make it cheaper and smaller, and more efficient.

While we could revolutionise first world healthcare (and that is probably where the big bucks are), while we are developing this, we might accidentally make the world a far beter place.

I don’t know healthcare.  I don’t know everything that can be done.  But I know that is the sort of accident I would like my startup to have.

Frighteningly Ambitious

Paul Graham has blogged about 7 ‘frighteningly ambitious’ themes for new startups – 7 themes which could lead to some form of world domination.  Interestingly many of these are themes I’ve had ideas about.  Not ideas I’ve done much with, you understand.  I’m lacking the time, energy, inclination, and most probably balls.  But I’ve thought about them.  And so, not wanting to waste good thoughts, here are the points I would start from:

Search Engines

Is the time ripe for a new search engine to overtake Google?  I for one always thought AltaVista could never be beaten, so I’m probably not the best person to ask (even though I became one of Google’s earliest adopters.  I do know what I like when I see it).  I don’t think there will ever be another Google – at least not in the same way that Google was an incremental improvement upon AltaVista and the webcrawlers which preceded it.  But maybe there is scope for another search engine done differently.

Graham suggests ‘bring back old style search’ – and I think there is a place for this.  Its a place Duck Duck Go is probably already in.  But I think its a niche.  Because people, generally, do want to find the things useful to them, not simply the best responses based on whoever has asked the question.  No.  There are two paths a new king of search could follow:

The first is to ask a question “Can we pay for search without using adverts”  or to put it another way “Are anyone but advertisers willing to pay for search?”  My guess is: yes.  But not your old style search.  If you were to provide a service more akin to Siri, there would be people (phone and tablet manufacturers, perhaps) who might be willing to pay to tie in with your back end.  Similarly, if you were to master the art of media search, then TV companies and set top box companies might want to pull you on board.  Finally, I might be prepared to pay a small amount for a really good search system which worried more about what I wanted than what ad revenue they were bringing in.  I’m probably unusual here, but if you were to give me something spectacular, there might be money in it.

The second is ultra-personal search.  The sort of search that feels almost creepy.  I’m talking about the sort of search, which right now is monitoring the web pages you visit, and listening into your conversations so that next week, when you say ‘I vaguely remember hearing something about a new film’ it can tell me that John was suggesting we go to see the new Die Hard movie, Julie was interested in us popping out to see a rom-com if anything new was coming out and  I personally had watched a couple of trailers – but didn’t pay much attention to them.  There are all sorts of ethical issues here.  But I wrote about privacy recently, and maybe the next generation, growing up privacy free, won’t really care.  Or maybe we have to sell it as being less like an evil corporation grabbing all your data, and more like having a personal butler who offers gentle suggestions.

Maybe if the two ideas were tied together (so you had to pay for the service, but you could be sure the information wasn’t being used by anyone but you) this would be more palatable.

Replace Email

I’ve talked about this before.  One Inbox is a perfectly good plan for a startup.  It absolutely is the same idea as Paul Graham’s suggestion we need something closer to todo list management than communication management.  My only comment on his suggestion is that we don’t specifically, need a protocol.  Everything can be done by simply having links to particular web pages, along with little applets to scrape data from said webpages and turn it into a brief summary you can see as you pass on by.  Ultimately there will always be a variety of ways people want to get things into your inbox, the art will be figuring out the best way to manage and respond to them.

Replace Universities

I have lots to say about the subject of replacing universities – well, about fixing education in general.  In fact, I’ve more to say than is fair to try to squeeze into a subsection of an article.  I probably have a whole series of articles.  So instead of writing everything here, I will just explain the main thoughts I have in this area, and then point to why the place I would start is very different from the place Paul gram thinks we should begin.  Here are my thoughts about education.

Right now school systems are more or less, one size fits all.  But children are very different, and have different styles of learning.  Catering for all learning styles -or for the most common – mean most children are not being educated in the way that suits them the best much of the time.

Also, currently schools systems have to cope with teaching a wide range of abilities.  My personal experience suggests this has a tendency to involve putting a lot of effort in getting the least able children to keep up with the crowd, and leaving the brightest to educate themselves.

But we are in a world where it is now possible for more people to be educated in the way that suits them best.  The same subject can be taught by watching videos, reading, discussing via video conference with a group, or one on one with a specialist teacher or lecturer.

We have enough experience of A/B testing and recommendation engines, that we can figure out what is the most effective way of getting particular information conveyed to the right students.

Online testing (aided by actual teachers paid – or not – to read essays) can be used to determine what you know, and can be used to figure out what the best thing for you to learn next is.

Right now, the online materials are there that anybody who wants a good university level education – self taught – can probably manage it: the Kahn University materials and online courseware for places like Cambridge, MIT and the Open University are superb. Kahn University is even playing with ideas of taking you though a self paced curriculum in maths using the sort of techniques I’ve described above

So I wouldn’t – as Paul Graham suggests – decide to start with university level – or even necessarily with high school materials.  I would focus on home schoolers.

Home schooling has characteristics of parents, who are often desperately interested in their children’s education, but who may not be capable of teaching every subject on a curriculum.  These people may well have better disposable income than many sectors of the education market, and all they would want is to have some influence over the particular curriculum, and to monitor what is happening.

So I would develop tools for home schoolers.  Tools which might allow home schooled children to access educational material online that they would not be able to get at home.  teaching which could learn to suit the individual child in exactly the way I’m describing above.  The barriers would be low, because it would be monitored and controlled by the parents – in exactly the way home schooling currently is.

Developing such tools would simply require the work of a team of teachers, programmers and designers.  And would be hugely desirable to home schooling parents.  But I suspect, they would also quickly fall into the hands of schools which wished to let some children experiment with self directed learning, and parents who wished to offer their children the ability to catch up with, or exceed their peers.

Internet Drama

I’ve talked about apps being the new channel before.  Lets not go there again.  Exactly which app store you buy from, I don’t yet know.  My bet was on amazon, but anyone could take the crown.  I wouldn’t suggest you try to go for the crown yourself – there are too many players, and they are all better funded than you.  Maybe you could make the program guide – but that’s more like being a search engine.

So lets look at something different.  Where else might content come from?  There is an idea I’ve had for years which doesn’t seem to have happened, and I’m not quite sure why.

It seems that online there are people who like writing.  People who like acting.  People who like filming, directing, animating, editing.  All of these things.  Why isn’t there a place which brings them together?  I’m thinking of a place where people are not sniffy about owning their work, and work together to produce open source creative content – content which may not reach the quality of the big studios, but which is good enough, and which might bring you to the eyes of a bigger name – or at the very least give you a portfolio.

Here is how it might work.

I have an idea for a script.  Just that, an idea.  I post it on this website.  Over time, I add detail to this idea, fleshing it out into a longer, more detailed treatment, and then over time into a scene by scene breakdown, and then a script.  Others could watch you doing this online – it would all be public – and they may begin to comment, making suggestions.  Or we could even go to a github type of an arrangement where they can fork your work – its all creative commons, see, as long as you are attributed, they can do what they like.

Now, from there, there are many paths it could take.  Voice actors could record audio recordings of particular character’s parts – which a talented sound mixer could put together.  Directors and artists could put together story boards (we could write an app to display them in time with the audio recordings), and there would even be the potential for people to get together to make live action recordings, or animations.

Everything would be free, but you – as a media consumer – would get to know the artists you like, and start following their output.

Eventually, teams of creatives might get together and begin to sell new works – or nicely packaged copies of their work with extra features.

In fact, if the site that got these teams together could find a way to fund these (kickstarter like, perhaps), or offer help in production or promotion, who knows, it could turn from an online community into the next big studio.

 

I’ll approach the remaining three big ideas in a later article

© Ben.Cha.lmers.co.uk
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