October 2011 Archives

Finally got around to watching the Oct 4th Apple iPhone 4S presentation. The main thing that struck me from this demo is Siri. Everything else is the usual great step forward, but Siri is another matter altogether.

Siri represents a compelling case for a front-end natural language interface to vast amounts of data. Put simply, you ask it questions and it gives you answers. In time, you will be able to ask it more complex questions and it will be able to provide more complex answers.

2001 HAL computer

What follows is a possible scenario, a possible way things might go, should Siri take off the way I think it might.

1. Siri Changes the User Experience

Siri changes the way you interact with your phone. You currently interact with your phone through applications that generally require interaction via the touch screen. If Siri takes off, you will touch the screen less. A lot less. When driving, in all sorts of situations. You'll talk to your device instead.

2. Are you talking to Apple's app or talking to a third party app?

If you're not interacting with your phone by touch, but rather talking to it, you are probably going through Apple's own natural language funnel, meaning, Siri. Question is, will Apple extend Siri's functionality to other apps, third party apps? Or will it keep it for its own?

One possible scenario: development of standalone apps declines. What rises instead is data. Tons of data. Logic. Logic and data mixed. Basically, domain knowledge. Expertise. Facts. The Yelp portion of the Siri demo in the video is what did it for me. That makes me think the future of the iPhone is kind of like HAL in the movie 2001. All those modules that make up Hal's knowledge and expert system. The more modules, or plugins, you pay for, the more your Siri knows about the world. Third parties become knowledge plugin developers. Apple opens the "Know Store". "Knows" like Yellow Pages, TV listings, sports info, stocks, medical knowledge, car info, travel info, tourist info, all sorts of things. All the things that Apple doesn't have the time or resources to build: let the third parties reign.

3. It's Not Just What You Know, but Who

But would these third parties be developing "apps"? I don't think so. I think they'd be developing server APIs. APIs that the iPhone can plug right into. (And heck, when Android has its Siri clone, that Android can plug into as well.) So there might not be as much need of a front-end UI designer, graphics design, etc, but rather it's all about information design, query design, knowledge design, knowledge rules, knowledge sets. And that's what the value-add would shift to.

Eventually a Yelp app would not need to have much of a UI if any. It'd be handled by Siri and a Yelp Know plugin. Siri would come pre-bundled with lots of Knows, but you could add more. Companies could compete to build the best Knows, and that becomes the next vibrant marketplace.

Companies with social networks, social graphs, and such, would theoretically be at an advantage in such a world, because they could enable Siri to ask more complex questions like "What are my friends doing tonight?" and "What shouldn't I get for Sally's birthday?"

I could envision walking into a hotel, and the hotel's wifi offering a free Know plugin that your phone can immediately use. So you could ask questions like, "What's on the room service menu" and "Have my friends checked in yet" and "Where is the conference registration desk in this hotel" and "What time does the pool open in the morning". Or walk into a grocery store and be able to slurp up the local Know for that store.

There will be all kinds of such opportunities for startups in the future. Which begins right now.

LaST

In Werner Herzog's latest documentary there's a line that struck me: live your dash. "Dash" meaning the hyphen on a tombstone between the two years. Steve Jobs lived his dash well.

I met Steve twice, years ago. First time was in 1991, at NeXT's gleaming white offices in Redwood Shores, while I attended NeXT Developer Camp. The tradition at DevCamp was that Steve would join the developers for a dinner one evening, but his schedule didn't permit it so we were all invited into one of NeXT's conference rooms near the famous supportless concrete stairway that was the architectural centerpiece of the company's office building (though, I was equally impressed with floor-to-ceiling whiteboard wall surfaces, which I'd seen at only one other place years earlier: Xerox PARC). Inside, Steve was demoing NeXTStep to Phil White, then CEO of Informix. We all watched as he walked through the NeXTStep OS and series of apps.

Then in 1993 my wife and I got to meet Steve as he was walking the Moscone Center exhibition hall before his NeXTWORLD EXPO event opened to the public. Coconut Computing, our company, had a booth at the conference; we were exhibiting the NeXTSTEP version of our COCONET software. Steve was absolutely beaming. He'd just had a baby, NeXTSTEP for Intel processors was being introduced, thousands of attendees showed up for his conference, and things were still looking bright for NeXT

, though not for long. I still own two Canon Object.stations and an Intel pizza box running NeXTSTEP (if only the disk drives still worked).

Millions of people to this day are unaware how important NeXT was and is to Apple. MacOS X is essentially NeXTSTEP; every Objective C developer is familiar with the NS prefixes to all of Apple's MacOS and iOS software development APIs.

Thanks for the inspiration and changing the world, Steve.

In response to the Goodbye letter from Borders employee(s)(?) spills secrets of bookselling trade as reported on boingboing.net.

Things We Never Told Bookstores


  • We love books, yes, it's true. But we hate bookstores as much as we wanted to love them. For every delight and surprise there were two disappointments. But we kept coming back.
  • Amazon is better. It's cheaper and they have a better selection. Get over it.
  • Well, come to think of it, you are over it. You've gone out of business.
  • Let's take a look at what kind of business you were in, shall we? One word. Consignment.
  • You had decades, literally decades, to innovate, to try something different. But no. You just stayed as a consignment shop for pulp from publishers.
  • When after fifteen years of Amazon you still didn't catch on that it was time to try something new.
  • You're like that scene in Deep Impact where the father and the newsanchor daughter stand on the beach and look at the rapidly-approaching 1000-ft tidal wave and do nothing. If you knew the meteor was gonna hit the ocean, do you ever think that being at sea-level at the shore was maybe the very worst place to be in the world at that moment?
  • When we walked up to the counter and you asked us "Did you find everything okay?" of course we didn't! Don't insult our intelligence. Your store never had much inventory, mostly crap. Usually we didn't find anything we were looking for but because we're suckers for books, we found some we weren't looking for and had. to. buy. them. anyway. It's what kept you in business.
  • But actually it's worse than that. Bookstores suffered from the same problem as Blockbuster video stores. Really hard to find stuff, storing them in shelves that go all the way to the floor. How frequently do you think the thing you are looking for is at the bottom shelf, and you walked right by it and didn't notice it? Really frequently. #fail.
  • List price? You really think you have a viable business when you charge list price for a book?
  • The "bargain" tables are an insult. $1 remaindered coffee table photo books on sports figures, cats, dogs, celebrities, and the national parks are a waste of space and we still we spend tons of time rifling through every damn book on display and we hate you for it.
  • Other customers get in the way. There's always somebody curled up on the floor right in the aisle where your book is.
  • When you tell us "You could have saved X dollars and Y cents" if we'd only purchased using your store's loyalty card, we want to tell you, "You could have charged X dollars and Y cents less and maybe I would have bought more books, you idiots" but we're polite so we didn't.
  • We always had as much contempt for you as you had for us the customers. We come, we shop, and we witness the slow inevitable decay of a wonderful, age-old institution that had every chance in the world to keep up with the times but thought the answer was to embed mini Starbucks in every store and sell stationery, Godiva chocolates, and other crap instead of books, books, and more books.
  • Most of the authors you had for in-person appearances and book signings and readings were as boring and uninteresting as us.
  • Oh, and there was nothing worse than walking into your store and seeing an author sitting behind a little draped table with their book perched on a stand besides them, and no customers or fans are anywhere to be seen. Did you not see This is Spinal Tap?
  • When you were at your best, you were curators of a world of knowledge. We came for this, to be enlightened, to be taken on a journey of discovery to new ideas, new perspectives, new stories. But you were not always at your best. Putting Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck and all the other ignorant hustlers' books on prominent display just because the publisher paid you to put them there doesn't mean you should have done that. That's not curation, that's the road to idiocracy. And you helped pave it just as much as CNN and Fox.
  • Yes, we did notice your dwindling inventory over the years. At the same time we noticed Amazon's growing inventory. The gap got so big and you did nothing about it. You had every chance in the world. But you ran your store like you were selling groceries, letting the publishers pay for placement and winding up being dependent on that model instead of figuring out how to stay vibrant, stay interesting, stay ahead of Amazon, offer things that Amazon could never offer. Now we're stuck with Amazon, and now they're killing books outright. Now we have to lease DRM-laden data files that reside in a "cloud". Great.