This is a personal and targeted report on CES. I didn’t look at any TVs, phones, cars, or refrigerators with cameras. I’m not looking for any killer new consumer appliances. I go with my “Beyond Mobile” approach which has a very specific set of goals in mind:

  • See what’s happening in home automation
  • Check out any new wireless technologies
  • Look for any clever UX technologies or new approaches

Here is a list of what I’ve found in no particular order.

Hubs, Hubs, Hubs
In talking to a few IoT pals it was clear that there is little consolidation happening at the wireless levels. There is a sad resignation that we’ll have hubs for some time to come. There are multiple wireless tribes: BLE, Z-Wave, ZigBee, and if you can believe it, a new one called ULE, each just forging full steam ahead. I must have found over 20 booths selling the nearly exact set of sensors and actuators that all work with their specific hub. In discussing with their floor reps, it’s clear they REALLY want you to use their devices. If they belong to one of the above tribes, they’ll let you use other devices from their broader tribe but there was a clear pause and an implicit warning. This implies the overall compatibility, even within these tribes, is still a moving target.

As a fairly technical guy I’m very reluctant to enter this space. I can’t imagine making a big investment in my house right now. Who wants to update 40 light switches/outlets in their home, at $60 a pop, only to find out that they’ll be incompatible next year when the tech winds shift ever so slightly?

Retro IoT concepts
What surprised me was a super simple edge product called SwitchFlip that was clearly a reaction to this complexity. It is nothing more that a set of paired outlet plugs. You plug device A into a switched outlet A and device B into a normal outlet B. When you flip the switch to turn on outlet A, outlet B turns on. Very simple with no hubs, no programming, and no hassle. It’s not for me but the amateur ethnographer in me finds this fascinating. Entire companies are forming around the frustration of the current thinking around the smart home ‘wireless hub’ concept.

The UX of automation
Speaking of these hubs, so many have the same tired approach: add a device, create a room, hook up devices to events. The entire process is designed around turning on home lighting with motion sensors. Now, new products like Vivint’s Sky did announce a simple home AI that can do things like detect an empty house and power things down as well as close your garage door. This is a very interesting direction and represents more what I expect people will want in this space: devices that organize themselves and do things without me pulling out my app. We have to explore the value beyond the current complex-setup-and-fixed-rule-based-triggering. I find this assistant direction offers users much more value and less hassle.

In fact, my big UX takeaway from CES was that there was no killer screen/device/haptic technology that everyone was talking about. For me the big UX story is how it is moving behind the scenes for more automated AI approaches (e.g. NVidia, Toyota’s Yui). The really cool demos involved the user doing nothing at all. The house is just saving you energy, the car analyzing the road ahead, or the shoes recording your run automatically. The best UI is no UI and it showed at CES.

Would you calm down about Alexa?
If you read anything about CES you’ll find many folks going on and on how Alexa ‘won’ CES. Yes, it was clear that lots of companies are integrating with it. But in my very personal opinion, it’s because Alexa’s API was launched much earlier than others. In addition, it’s not really clear what this adds to many of these products. There is no doubt that voice interfaces offer some clear value which will, of course, grow over time. But there seems to be so many bigger fish to fry (like discovering the right value to these devices in the first place). I’m not anti-voice interface, it just feels like a local maximum to me.

The up and coming (and long term) BLE Mesh standard
I had some exciting talks with a few companies that currently support a proprietary BLE mesh solution (there are at least 4 BLE mesh implementations) but they enthusiastically support the new BLE Mesh standard once it finalizes. This is very heartening and gives me hope that some day, we’ll all use the same low level standard. However, we’re at least a year away, if not more. The advantages of the BLE Mesh standard are huge. The biggest in my mind is the death of the hub. To be sure, there is value in having one, but it isn’t required and that’s a big step. In addition, all commands are local, with no need to go through the cloud. Finally, as a tinkerer, I can add my device to pull some devices strings but it’s just another device, it’s not a central, required hub.

Moving beyond sensors
It’s astounding how fast hardware is moving. There were many unknown Chinese companies showing off very impressive smart device concepts. Lots of very cool IoT platform and prototyping systems like Bread and SimBLE as well as ‘introduction to China’ companies like HWTrek that are making it easier than ever to build and test devices. The hardware roadmap for tiny, energy efficient yet still very capable processors (like the Nordic nRF52) implies that we’ll be able to do quite a lot of computation at the edges with these devices in the very near future. In fact, I have a theory that much of cloud computing will just move to the edges as we get more and more capable edge devices. (note: Lee Ratliff politely pointed out that this is called “fog computing”) It seems likely that hardware capabilities will be the big driver in new product concepts (assuming we can securely communicate of course, but that’s another reason I’m bullish on BLE Mesh)

I find CES to be a very hard conference to read. There are so many things happening that getting a clear theme is illusive. My primary take away is that companies really really REALLY want to make home automation systems but it still just feels too proprietary, and therefore risky, for most consumers to really buy into it. There are some very exciting things happening but this is going to be a game of years, not months.

This is my second post about moving from Mac to Windows. I originally was just going to focus on the OS differences but was amazed to find out that while I loved the Surface Book, I hated the Yoga.
Keep in mind that my target audience here isn’t Windows users but Mac users who are considering switching.

It turns out to be an amazingly trivial issue: the Yoga’s trackpad. You’d think after so many years of doing trackpads this would be table steaks for laptop makers. Something so mundane to be a simple checklist feature. But there are huge differences.

The number one recommendation I can give to any Mac user considering switching to Windows is to thoroughly use the keyboard and trackpad prior to purchasing it.

For Mac users it’s hard to appreciate how much Windows machines can vary. There are obvious physical differences such as build quality and screen resolution but my point is that even such a basic thing as trackpad behavior can vary enormously. This is the price you pay when you have so many vendors involved.

I worried on Twitter it would bore people to death writing a post exclusively on trackpads but as it has had such an impact on my experience, it deserves a little love. Here is a very terse video I made comparing the 3 machines. It really just meant as a visual aid. I’ll explain the issues in more detail below:

The second recommendation I can give switchers is that when you do get a new Windows machine, immediately open up settings, and turn off most features in the trackpad section.

For the Surfacebook it was simple: just turn off right click on the lower corner of the trackpad (It was just too easy to accidentally hit as a Mac user) However, on the Yoga, there were so many things that were astoundingly confusing. Your mileage may vary but I had to turn off a slew of ‘features’ that just made no sense to me as a Mac user (I like my trackpads decaffeinated) I mean, just look at this control panel for just the trackpad, there are 10 panes to control it’s behavior:


Now let me walk through the points demonstrated in the video

  1. Two Finger Scrolling
    This one just feels like a bug. If you are two finger scrolling and lift your figure, you should a) stop scrolling and b) move the cursor. The Mac and SurfaceBook are fine, but the Yogo just keeps scrolling. This really messes me up when trying to edit documents.
  2. Drag Text Selection
    I can’t figure out exactly what triggers this but it happens all of the time on the Yoga: I just want a click-drag action to, you know, click and drag something. Instead I’m shown a right click menu. When editing the video above (using the amazing Camtasia for Windows btw) I just could not use the Yoga to do the editing, it was impossible with that trackpad. I could only finish it with the Surfacebook.
  3. Double Click Selection
    The video makes the Surfacebook and Yoga look similar error rates but that’s deceiving. It does happen on both but much much more often on the Yoga.
  4. Shift Click Selection
    This one isn’t a trackpad issue, so I’m cheating a bit. It’s really a Windows expectation but very related to this overall issue. If I have an existing text selection (usually when I double click a word) shift clicking should extend that selection. What’s odd on Windows 10, even with modern apps like Atom and OneNote, is that this varies. It just catches me out. Right now, I’m just making sure I use apps that support the ‘extend’ model.

This isn’t hard people
The SurfaceBook has clearly done it’s homework and has a reasonable trackpad. I will admit that it’s not as rock solid as the Mac’s but it’s close and for the most part usable. I’ve learned for example, that double-tap works much more reliably that double-click. If Surfacebook could fix this one issue, they would be nearly perfect.

However, the more I use the Yoga, the more I want to throw it out the window. It is infuriating. I understand that over time, I will slowly change my clicking behaviors to work around it’s foibles. I will comply. However, life feels too short for that.

I don’t want to scare off potential Mac users from switching to Windows due to this trackpad issue. But I will say you have to be careful. Try out your potential device before you buy it and make sure you get one that has a functional trackpad.

Yes, I’m ‘doing it’. I’m putting my money where my mouth is. If I’m going to rant on twitter about the inadequacies of the new MacBook Pro, I should back it up with action. After 30 years(😱) of using Macs (and even working for Apple for 8 years) I’m moving to Windows. My colleagues consider me a masochist, politely implying I’m overreacting.  Continue reading

It’s appears a bit ironic that as I prepare for my foray into Windows that my wife decided to upgrade to a MacBook Pro. However, It’s not ironic at all: I’ve never claimed the new Mac’s aren’t great consumer devices. However, setting up this new machine has exposed a weakness I’ve long suspected.

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There is an almost mythic belief that macOS is far better than Windows. So much so that most Mac users feel it’s not even worth trying. I’ve been on Macs for over 30 years, I’m part of this cult but it’s time to test the theory. I’m going to make the switch to Windows. I’ve already had a few colleagues gasp in horror but some things give me hope.

First, I spend most of my time on the web (e.g. right now) so as long as I have a good browser, I should be fine..

Second, much of what I need is well covered on windows (Sublime, VLC, Google Drive, Dropbox, even bash!)

Third, the two hero applications I need, Sketch and Keynote, have alternatives I’m willing to try: Figma and PowerPoint. I’ll admit, I’m most nervous here as I’m entrenched into these communities. This part will likely hurt.

I’m quite sure many will claim I’m overreacting but honestly, I don’t see how I can loose. If things go well, I’m free of a company that no longer makes hardware that reflects my needs. If it’s a disaster, I at least tried something new and will certainly gain some perspective in the process.

I’m “thinking different”. I’ll be blogging here as I start the process and move over.

My wife was recently using her tablet and I asked if she’d replied to an important email. She promptly put down the tablet and reached for her laptop. “Why not your tablet?” I quizzed. She gave me her best “Are you kidding?” face, saying in total deadpan, “I have work to do here”. My wife loves her tablet and uses it nearly every day but she clearly reaches for her laptop for ‘serious tasks’. While most of us can likely agree that mobile is the future of computing, something very interesting is happening here. In a world where new technologies usurp the old nearly every year, many of us are reaching for our old school laptops surprisingly often. This isn’t just nostalgia, there is something deeply inadequate about mobile. This post is about figuring out how to fix it. Continue reading

We all acknowledge that the web is full of click bait headlines. But what amazes me is that it isn’t just dystopian headlines such as “Robot crushes factory worker to death”. We’re seeing overly positive positions as well “Soon you’ll be able to 3D print a new iPhone!”. People are grabbing onto some new technology demo and then spinning out extremes, posting a derogatory (or delirious) story depending on their mood. I used to believe in this quote:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
 — Arthur C Clark

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There is a classic “Smart Home” scenario that you’ve all likely heard: my calendar talks to my alarm clock, allowing me to sleep in an extra 30 minutes. When I finally do get up, the alarm clock starts the coffee maker so as I walk into the kitchen, I’m greeted by fresh brewed coffee.

I hate this scenario with the heat of a thousand suns.
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If I’m ever asked what’s most important in UX design, I always reply “empathy”. It’s the core meta attribute, the driver that motivates everything else. Empathy encourages you to understand who uses your product, forces you ask deeper questions and motivates the many redesigns you go through to get a product right.

But empathy is a vague concept that isn’t strongly appreciated by others. There have been times when talking to product managers, my empathy driven fix-it list will get “We appreciate that Scott, but we have so much to get done on the product, we don’t have time to tweak things like that right now”. Never do you feel so put in your place when someone says that your job is ‘tweaking’.

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I am very excited so many are getting involved with the Physical Web. Nearly 3500 people have starred the github, with many active collaborators finding bugs and adding features. In addition, several companies are selling beacons that broadcast URLs (using the URIBeacon standard). While it’s still early days for this technology, it’s encouraging to see so many people supporting this open approach to extend the web into the physical world.

Since the ecosystem is still evolving, it’s understandable to see some generalizations popping up. Some have compared the Physical Web to iBeacon for the simple reason that they both use Bluetooth Low energy beacons. It’s a bit like saying two products both use wifi and therefore they must be after the same market.  Let’s get beyond the underlying technology and discuss the three core things the Physical Web is trying to do and what sets it apart. Continue reading

I just returned from CES and it was filled with discussion about who is going to win the standards war when it comes to the internet of things (IoT). The technology world tends to have a long history of perceived winner-take-all horse races, some definitive (VHS vs Beta) and some perennial (Android vs Apple). It’s not surprising that many think an IoT standard will be similar. That type of thinking is old fashioned and lazy. We need to think about this problem more broadly.

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Using Bluetooth beacons in a way that protects privacy

Juliet’s lament is often mistakenly thought of as ‘where are you Romeo?’ when it actually means, ‘Why must you be a Montague?’ It is Romeo’s family and their struggle against the Capulets that keeps these two star crossed lovers apart.

Beacons, like Romeo, also have a bit of a name– a heritage– that seems to set them apart from the mainstream. In fact, the term ‘beacon’ has grown into such an odd mishmash of apprehension and potential, it creates as much confusion as it inspires. Several Capulet tech articles brand beacons as a Montague technology, a rival family that is out to get us: watch out, don’t trust, be afraid. Continue reading

In doing product design for nearly 30 years, I’ve  witnessed  several waves of innovation. Some were obviously successful like personal computers and the internet. But others were much less so, such as MultiMedia CDROMs, and open document formats.

What people don’t appreciate is that great ideas, before they are great, tend to look remarkably similar to stupid ones. Few are willing to take a chance on a new, seemingly crazy product idea. This is why the technology industry tends to be so incremental. Most companies, truth be told, wait for others to make the mistakes. Continue reading

The level of hype around the “Internet of Things” (or IoT) is getting a bit out of control. It may be the technology that crashes into Gartner’s trough of disillusionment faster than any other. But that doesn’t mean we can’t  figure things out. Quite the contrary, as the trade press collectively loses its mind over the IoT, I’m spurred on further to delve deeper. In my mind, the biggest barrier we have to making the IoT work comes from us. We are being naive as our overly simplistic understanding of  how we control the IoT is likely going to fail and generate a huge consumer backlash. Continue reading

Deconstructing IoT Part 2UXGrid_small
In a previous post, I had a modest goal of introducing a simple functional vocabulary for smart devices. Too many journalists were discussing science fiction scenarios about swarms of devices without realizing that there were much simpler, yet very valuable alternatives. This post moves into user experience, proposing a simple grid of types. There are of course, many ways to break things down, this is just one that I’m finding useful. I hope this prompts a discussion of other approaches. If you have any suggestions, please let me know. Continue reading

The W3C is working on multiple documents on moving the core web application platform forward, the primary one being Core Mobile Web Platform. There are also the Closing the Gap task force, the Web and Mobile Interest group, and numerous technical interest groups on dozens of specific topics, from DOM performance, to device hardware APIs and many many more.

These efforts are excellent and clearly important. What’s missing from this discussion is a framing document, something that attempts to motivate at least part of a broader picture. Is performance the only issue? Why do we need these varied technical proposals? Are they adding up to a coherent whole? This short document is treading into opinionated waters, not to create a definitive list of projects but to attempt some guiding principles to help motivate these and future projects. Continue reading

I was invited to the 2013 fooCamp this past weekend. It was actually my second fooCamp, having gone in 2007 as well. It is an amazing, exhilarating weekend where 250 ‘Friends of O’Reilly’ come together to have an unConference. They now do Ignite talks, where you have 5 minutes to run through 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. Nerve wracking but very very focusing.

O’Reilly posted the video of my talk but as I’ve been asked for my slides, I’m posting them here. Continue reading

Smart Toaster
When talking about the Internet of things (or IoT), I frequently bring up a Smart Toaster as it is such a lightning rod. People just love to make fun of it. My favorite was the tweet, “I don’t think my smart toaster needs apps” which off course was retweeted into the stratosphere.

When I read things like this, I just shake my head. You can’t evaluate tomorrow’s concepts by yesterday’s tasks! Of course a smart toaster doesn’t need apps. A horse doesn’t need wheels either. We just need to look at what smart means in a more nuanced way. The goal of this post is to convince you that the SmartToaster™ actually is a bold new vision of the future. If I can unpack what it means to be smart, so that even a lowly toaster starts to make  sense, we’ll be thinking about the IoT in a much broader context. Continue reading

The building hype…
The hype surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) is building. People are getting excited, almost too excited really, about its potential. We’re oscillating between smart lightbulbs and smart dog collars, not really clear what this all means, yet we’re convinced that something transformative is coming. The Gartner hype cycle charts the rise and inevitable dip of any new technology over time: Continue reading

Over the last year, my writing and speaking has focused on a fairly straight forward thesis:

  1. Cheap computation/networking will make nearly any device ‘smart’
  2. There will be lots of these things
  3. Using ‘an app’ to control each one (what we currently do) just won’t scale
  4. Smart phones will be joined by smart TVs, smart glasses, and smart tabletops
  5. All the ‘smart devices’ will want to play with all the ‘smart displays’
  6. We need to make this happen through open source solutions

I’ve given this talk to thousands of people and it’s so gratifying to get such enthusiastic endorsement. But whenever it comes down to concrete next steps someone almost always says “you really need to sketch out how a company can actually make money doing this”. The intent is good; they are clearly trying to be supportive, but this is exactly the wrong approach. Continue reading