NFC on the iPhone 6 Just Might Happen

NFC is a neat technology, but it isn't terribly useful without a rich ecosystem in which to use it. Payments come to mind, but a lot of people have tried this before. While prior efforts haven't been a total flop, they aren't exactly exploding with popularity.

Every year there are rumors of the iPhone gaining NFC. Every year the event passes without mention of NFC. Until now, maybe.

I'm not sold on the notion that the iPhone 6 will have NFC, but I wouldn't bet against it at this point like I would have confidently in years past. If Apple does add NFC it will be accompanied by a launch of a rich platform in an attempt to drive their solution to complete ubiquity - on iOS devices only, naturally.

They already have hundreds of millions of credit cards on file. They already have a secure payment infrastructure. Apple is uniquely positioned to offer services to their customers that are tremendously secure and protect your data. Apple makes money from devices and that requires people trust their devices. Other services, offered for free, are rarely incentivized to provide the same level of protection. Coupled with iBeacon you could make the argument that a "retail 2.0" experience could be possible should Apple be successful in their hypothetical effort. There are speed bumps though. This would require a lot of retailers getting a lot of new hardware - though inexpensive, it is still nontrivial.

If they launch a wallet solution like they launched Passbook*, I don't have much confidence we'll see it take off. I also don't see them doing something like that. With Bluetooth Low Energy, Apple has very little reason to add NFC unless they are going to hit a grand slam with it.

The wallet is a concept that is painfully ready to be redesigned from the ground up. There are privacy and security concerns to slow down progress, not to mention legal concerns given the need to carry a photo ID as an adult.

I think that Apple is uniquely positioned to do something about it, at least in the US. Their devices are "everywhere," they have a tremendous incentive to keep your data totally secure, people trust them, governments trust them more than most tech companies, and the more they can lock you into their walled garden the better (for them).

I think it is safe to say that September 9, 2014 will be a day to remember for many reasons. If nothing else, it just might finally be the day that the annual NFC predictions finally come to fruition. 

*I love Passbook, but it hasn't exactly gone mainstream and adding passes is tremendously confusing for most people, especially when it launched with very little app support.

When the Users' Priorities are Eclipsed by the Brand's – Why I'm Leaving RunKeeper [Updated]

458 activities. 851 miles. So much beautiful data... it is all as good as gone. Let me back up a few steps. I really enjoy data. I have tracked every mile, minute spent in my car, and thousandth of a gallon of gas put into my car, all because I love data. I have used RunKeeper for years to do the same with my walking. In fact, I have been a member since 1969 according to their records, who am I to argue that? 

FullSizeRender.jpg

Alright, that might be a bug, just possibly, but why am I throwing this data away?

Simply put, my priorities as a RunKeeper user have been eclipsed by the priorities of the company. Now, admittedly, I'm not a very valuable user to them because they do offer so much at the free tier, but I still believe that the user should matter. None of my complaints would be remedied by becoming a paid member, so that option is out.

For many months I have been hoping to gain a feature where "recently used" contacts appearing at the top of the list when tagging people in an activity (not social media, just including them so their RunKeeper stats reflect the activity recorded by my phone).  I contacted them about it after several months of frustration and received a "we'll see what we can do." Sadly no progress as of yet.

Tagging my wife by searching for her name is an annoyance, but nothing more.

However, a recent update added a "feature" that prompts the user for social media sharing on every single event. This is even present despite the fact that I have no social networks connected to the app. I am not the only one who is unhappy about the update, there are several feature requests with many up-votes and comments on each here, here, and here.

If the user has connected social media accounts, this might make sense, but only if there is a "never show this again" option. With no accounts connected this isn't only annoying, it is highly illogical. It sends the message that RunKeeper will do anything to get you to post the spammy "I just completed a walk!" messages to your feed. 

I went poking around the settings menu hoping to find an option to disable this, there isn't one. What I did find, though, are 2 prompts to rate the app – one at the top of the settings menu and one at the bottom. Again, they are putting their own needs ahead of the user.

To be perfectly clear, every app should have a link to leave a review, and I prefer this over the popup prompt that inspired Gruber's rants, but their implementation is annoying.

It isn't the end of the world, and I understand that complaining about a free app and free service is rather petty on my part. These frustrations have inspired me to begin shopping around for alternatives. Nike+, MapMyWalk, and others are on my radar, but I certainly welcome feedback and recommendations. I am happy to spend money, though I'd prefer to buy an app than to pay a monthly fee.

I hope RunKeeper changes their mind. Their brand is nearly ubiquitous so the self-centered behavior of the app seems senseless. I have enjoyed the rich feature set and general interaction with the app to this point; though not perfect it more than met my needs.

Update: I don't like the step backward in the user experience, but it has become clear why they can get away with it - there isn't anything better right now. Nike is focused solely on running. Map My Walk has a clunky UI, multiple prompts to upgrade, needless push notifications, and ad banners. There are others, but none seem to be able to dethrone RunKeeper. So for now, the solution is to suck it up. 

Withings Activité - Building A Watch, Then Making it Smart

The new Withings Activité smart watch is beautiful, unlike many of the other entrants to the market.

The first thing that stands out to me is how clearly different the approach to creating this product must have been. If you take Samsung, LG, or even Pebble (I'll talk about Motorola in a moment) it is pretty obvious they started with a list of features and built the watch around it. Withings has undoubtedly started with a simple and timeless watch design and added intelligence to it. These two approaches are worlds apart.

How?

The Activité gets 1 year of battery life. Pebble et al. gets 3-7 days. The Activité could be worn on a first date (this is Bradley Chambers' rule of thumb for smart watch design, and I love it), the others... not so much. On the flip side, the Activité doesn't have the wide range of features found in the competition, but a feature checklist is never a good design guide for something like this.

I have stopped wearing my Pebble because it was bulky and unattractive as a time piece. I think time and unit sales will confirm this, but an elegant complement to the smartphone that people already love is vastly more appealing than a miniature smartphone strapped to the wrist. The biggest problem here is the price ($390), but that'll come down over time; not to mention people that are able will happily pay for high quality and beautiful products that appeal to them.

The Moto 360 looks to be an attempted hybrid between looks and features. I think Motorola is on the right track, but the watch is still quite thick, it is decidedly masculine, and the battery life isn't quite where we'd like to see it (even if it doesn't last a year). 

The looming question surrounding smart watches is "what problem do they solve?" With the Withings Activité looking like an elegant and classic timepiece, that question might be demoted in importance just enough to kick start the wearables movement beyond the early adopter market. By starting with design instead of features, Withings has shown a light on what might become a mass market product category. I wouldn't bet my lunch money on it, but there is very little doubt that it is a step in the right direction.

Solving the Wrong Problem

Throughout the switch from a Microsoft based solution (Outlook, SharePoint, Office, etc.) to a Google based solution, I witnessed a great deal of frustration, anxiety, and even anger. Why? A full generation of people have never used anything besides the Google solutions, and it works just fine for them. It is clear to me that there are two fundamental considerations - what is the problem, and how do we solve it? This applies broadly beyond technology, but I'll leave that part to the philosophers. 

Of those that struggled with the Microsoft to Google change, many had MSN, Hotmail, or Comcast personal email addresses, so this was very new territory for them. Their goal was clear, find a way to do with Gmail exactly what they were doing when they used Outlook - rules, formatting, distribution lists, folder structure, email retention methods, etc. 

Rather than taking an opportunity to re-evaluate how the fundamental problem (efficient email communication that is well organized) was solved, they wanted to fit the new software to the old flow. This is a single example that demonstrates a common theme in large bodies of people, be it companies or governments. Change is slow because there is an inherent cost to change beyond the fiscal cost. This results in "ghosts," or traces of the company's original ways, that haunt the employees for decades. When business decisions are based on these artifacts, often the best solution cannot be implemented with the old software. I suspect this plays a role in what ultimately brings about the demise of most large companies; there is, after all, a cycle.

This question has been asked of Apple many times, even directly to Tim Cook in his interview with Brian Williams (10:05) - how do you avoid the natural life cycle of a company? Is it even possible? I suspect Apple has a lot of historical artifacts internally as well, but something tells me that they're thrown to the wind in favor of the "right" solution much more often than the average company.

The only way to avoid this is to hire extremely curious and open minded people, but that isn't sustainable at a massive scale. The type of people that view the change as a way to improve upon the way things are done. Note that this isn't an engineering vs. non-engineering dilemma, I have seen more than enough instances of engineers and non-engineers alike excitedly exploring the changes while others avoided and complained about it.

Whenever possible, take change as an opportunity to clean house, re-evaluate how the original problem might be solved with new technology or software, and perhaps ultimately avoid being a "hoarder" of the old ways. 

Apple's Rumored Home Automation Solution is Already in Most Homes

[Note: Sorry for the duplicate post, I really didn't like that first title.]

News broke (subscription required) over the holiday weekend that Apple is rumored to announce a home automation solution and/or platform at WWDC this year. Of course, rumors like this are to be taken with a grain of salt, but John Gruber's reply of "I’m pretty excited for next week." is classic Gruber-speak (albeit not a sure thing) for "this is happening."

So why does Apple have a shot at this working? How do they possibly expect to release a platform for the home when they're so notorious for closed ecosystems? Surely everyone can't afford to outfit their entire home in Apple products. This is only speculation, but here's how I think Apple can easily capitalize on this opportunity.

Framework is in Place

I've pointed this out before, but it is worth highlighting again. Apple is exceptionally good at putting a framework in place over the course of years without anyone giving it too much attention, then they drop a bomb of an announcement and suddenly everyone realizes the framework is in place already. Competitors have a hard time catching up because that framework takes years to build. Their iBeacon strategy is exactly that, though I don't think we've seen the bombshell of how it'll be utilized yet.

One big hurdle for home automation is cost. There is always a hub that must act as a brain for the whole thing, and that hub is usually quite expensive. Apple has this problem solved already with at least one iOS device in hundreds of millions of homes across the world. There is some concern for whether or not those devices stay within the home (or even need to) to keep the smart home products working, but that doesn't seem like a hard problem to solve with devices being connected so much of the time now.

With this infrastructure, Apple already has the app distribution system in place, the payment solution in place, the third party relationships in place, and the biggest monetary investment from the customer's perspective has already been made. It also doesn't hurt that Apple's solution here is supported by their vested interest in user privacy. Apple has already made their money from the customer, they don't need to sell user data; in fact they're highly motivated to keep that data as safe as possible to keep customers happy - this solves one of the major potential road blocks I highlighted in my piece "The Trouble with the Internet of Things."

Closed Yet Open 

Apple has very tight rules on how you can play in their ecosystem. They've also drawn some very controversial lines in the sand related to things like customization, inter-app data sharing, and plenty more. However, they're also smart. They know that they can't do everything themselves, they saw that when they announced the App Store, and surely they see it with a smart home solution. Apple makes a hell of  a platform for both users and developers.

Apple doesn't have to make any new hardware for this home automation solution. That's pretty insane if you think about it. It also gives them a massive head start (except against Google, more on that later). All they have to do is enable third parties to make products that adhere to the rules and use the APIs that Apple creates.

What better time to announce these new APIs than at WWDC? With some choice hardware partners they'll have a modest set of "solutions" available on the day that iOS 8 ships to the public this fall. All a user has to do is update their iPhone or iPad and buy a couple of accessories and their home is suddenly connected. We aren't too far from this right now with Lockitron and others, but I think by Apple taking on the infrastructure costs (servers, security, APIs, etc.) we can drive the third party prices down to more reasonable levels for a wider market.

Perfectly Apple

This sounds perfectly Apple to me. The hints have been there for years. The market is very large. The platform is already in place with the up-front costs largely already behind us. Third parties and customers both need a stable and universal platform to enable the "smart home" dream, and that's been really hard for any one company to provide. Apple is positioned perfectly, their reputation for respecting user privacy is in place, their reputation for stability and ease of use is strong. I'd be more surprised if this doesn't happen than if it does. 

As an aside, the connected home dream is largely why Google purchased Nest. I expect to see offerings from them very soon as well, much sooner if Apple announces theirs next week. It'll be interesting to see how the two approaches to solving this sell and grow.

Apple's Rumored Home Automation Solution is Already In Most Homes

[Update: Changed title to better reflect the article. Will re-post with new link, but keep this link active.]

News broke (subscription required) over the holiday weekend that Apple is rumored to announce a home automation solution and/or platform at WWDC this year. Of course, rumors like this are to be taken with a grain of salt, but John Gruber's reply of "I’m pretty excited for next week." is classic Gruber-speak (albeit not a sure thing) for "this is happening."

So why does Apple have a shot at this working? How do they possibly expect to release a platform for the home when they're so notorious for closed ecosystems? Surely everyone can't afford to outfit their entire home in Apple products. This is only speculation, but here's how I think Apple can easily capitalize on this opportunity.

Framework is in Place

I've pointed this out before, but it is worth highlighting again. Apple is exceptionally good at putting a framework in place over the course of years without anyone giving it too much attention, then they drop a bomb of an announcement and suddenly everyone realizes the framework is in place already. Competitors have a hard time catching up because that framework takes years to build. Their iBeacon strategy is exactly that, though I don't think we've seen the bombshell of how it'll be utilized yet.

One big hurdle for home automation is cost. There is always a hub that must act as a brain for the whole thing, and that hub is usually quite expensive. Apple has this problem solved already with at least one iOS device in hundreds of millions of homes across the world. There is some concern for whether or not those devices stay within the home (or even need to) to keep the smart home products working, but that doesn't seem like a hard problem to solve with devices being connected so much of the time now.

With this infrastructure, Apple already has the app distribution system in place, the payment solution in place, the third party relationships in place, and the biggest monetary investment from the customer's perspective has already been made. It also doesn't hurt that Apple's solution here is supported by their vested interest in user privacy. Apple has already made their money from the customer, they don't need to sell user data; in fact they're highly motivated to keep that data as safe as possible to keep customers happy - this solves one of the major potential road blocks I highlighted in my piece "The Trouble with the Internet of Things."

Closed Yet Open 

Apple has very tight rules on how you can play in their ecosystem. They've also drawn some very controversial lines in the sand related to things like customization, inter-app data sharing, and plenty more. However, they're also smart. They know that they can't do everything themselves, they saw that when they announced the App Store, and surely they see it with a smart home solution. Apple makes a hell of  a platform for both users and developers.

Apple doesn't have to make any new hardware for this home automation solution. That's pretty insane if you think about it. It also gives them a massive head start (except against Google, more on that later). All they have to do is enable third parties to make products that adhere to the rules and use the APIs that Apple creates.

What better time to announce these new APIs than at WWDC? With some choice hardware partners they'll have a modest set of "solutions" available on the day that iOS 8 ships to the public this fall. All a user has to do is update their iPhone or iPad and buy a couple of accessories and their home is suddenly connected. We aren't too far from this right now with Lockitron and others, but I think by Apple taking on the infrastructure costs (servers, security, APIs, etc.) we can drive the third party prices down to more reasonable levels for a wider market.

Perfectly Apple

This sounds perfectly Apple to me. The hints have been there for years. The market is very large. The platform is already in place with the up-front costs largely already behind us. Third parties and customers both need a stable and universal platform to enable the "smart home" dream, and that's been really hard for any one company to provide. Apple is positioned perfectly, their reputation for respecting user privacy is in place, their reputation for stability and ease of use is strong. I'd be more surprised if this doesn't happen than if it does. 

As an aside, the connected home dream is largely why Google purchased Nest. I expect to see offerings from them very soon as well, much sooner if Apple announces theirs next week. It'll be interesting to see how the two approaches to solving this sell and grow.

 

The Trouble With the Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the fascinating and (potentially) fast-approaching addition of Internet connectivity to just about everything. From your blinds opening for you as you get out of bed to your fridge telling you you're low on milk. The Nest thermostat is one of the first highly successful IoT devices and it has shown how great the potential is in this space.

So what's the trouble?

In short: data and money, but let's break that down.

Data

The beauty of the IoT movement is that devices become intelligent. They learn patterns, they know where you are, then know when you're likely to be somewhere or do something. Simply put, they know you. They learn, adapt, adjust, and fine tune themselves to maximize your utility from them. All of this requires data analysis, pattern recognition, and storing said data. Furthermore, as smaller devices get connected and the analysis gets more computationally complex, the more we'll see the processing offloaded to the cloud.

If the processing is in the cloud, the data is in the cloud. There's no avoiding it. That means your location patterns, your arrival and departure times from home/work/activities, your grocery lists (do you want a big pharma company knowing your exact diet to target ads for a new cholesterol medication?), your sleep patterns, your hygiene patterns, everything about you is captured as data. The products are infinitely less valuable without this data, yet the realization of just transferring it over the internet to a large company is unnerving to potential users.

There is an opportunity here, of course. What if you had a central hub within the home capable of the processing one might need? No data needs to go offsite, it could all be local and secure, and it has the added benefit of working when the internet is out.

There are a few problems with this though (not to say they can't be tackled). The two biggest are a lack of standardization and cost. Without standardization, your "hub" will only work for the products from that one brand (or a limited group of partnered brands). Multiple hubs would increase price, so that doesn't seem like a good option, but if we desire standardization who drives that? It sounds like IIC could be the solution to that, so stay tuned for updates from them.

That brings us to the next point.

Money

In the age of the Internet we've all gotten used to getting things for "free." Sure, nothing is actually free, but the psychology of it is such that most people basically consider it free. There is no question that people are willing to pay for products and services that add value to their lives, premium versions of Evernote, Dropbox, Spotify, and many others are all great examples of that.

Each of these examples provides a free tier though. The sample of their service, in many cases a very generous sample, is so generous that many users will never upgrade to a paid tier. The nature of the IoT is that the value-add over time increases, and it increases after you've purchased and are using the products. I don't know if a "60 day in home trial" will be the solution, but somehow there will have to be a very clear way of showing users that these products add value to their lives to warrant the monetary (and perhaps privacy) costs. Early adopters and tech writers won't be able to sway the masses easily.

Without a very clear understanding for the value that could be added and a longing for that value, it will be a hard sell for newcomers to spend several hundred dollars on a hub plus any number of add-ons to connect the appliances, products, and rooms of their choice. There is a very high barrier to entry if the added value isn't obvious.

So how do you get over this hurdle? Well the most obvious is free hardware with service tiers - free to start, free features plus paid features, free under a certain usage level, who knows? As mentioned before though, nothing is actually free. There is no way a company will give away hardware if they're not getting the data. And if they're getting the data, you can count on them monetizing it if they have costs to recoup from the hardware. This problem circles back to the data section above and will be a challenge to solve.

Closing Thoughts

It seems likely we'll see both solutions. A "free" option for those who want free and a paid option for those who want privacy and are willing to pay for it. With any luck the IIC standardization will allow those two types of products to communicate with one another, but who knows.

There are plenty of arguments that we don't really need any of this, and it is true that some of the IoT applications are a little bit far fetched. Yet if there is substantial added value from connecting something to the internet, and I believe in many cases there is, then this revolution will happen whether or not everyone is on board. There is just the <sarcasm> small matter </sarcasm> of the user's privacy and their money.