From pull to ‘stream’ economies

I was interested to read Ben Evan’s recent take on the “Facebook of eCommerce”. He concludes:

That kind of scalable automation, though, could also go in completely the opposite direction for some things – away from any kind of decision at all. You put an Amazon Dash on the machine, or perhaps it can measure what you’re used and re-order by itself, and so you in effect subscribe to the product, and once done you’ll probably never bother to change brand. Or, say to Siri or Alexa or Google Assistant ‘Hey, order some more soap powder’ and the same brand is added to your next delivery. (And in both cases your choice of channel is just as now locked in as your choice of soap powder, once you’ve set the default.) Either way, an impulse purchase in one of 2 or 3 retailers you might have stopped in at, based on real-estate portfolio on one hand and eye-level placement and brand equity on the other, shifts to auto-renewal or a natural language parser. Given that P&G and Unilever’s combined ad budget is larger than the global revenue of the recorded music industry, this means that subscription soap powder could be a much bigger deal than subscription music. What will you have to pay to be Google Assistant’s default choice of dishwasher tablets?

It’s a well made point. But I think it could be looked at from another angle.

One of the core philosophies we developed for building systems at Storyful was a switch away from search-based systems to stream-based systems. I always felt that one of Twitter’s core innovations was its Stream API. Unfortunately it remains one of the few publicly available stream APIs out there (and to get it at any scale you need GNIP too).

When you’re trying to detect signal in noise, streams of data that you can filter can work incredibly well. Too many APIs, like for example YouTube’s, were based on the idea of repeatedly polling it to ask the same or similar questions of their data. Asking “any new videos uploaded containing the word ‘x'”, millions of times a day is not very efficient. (There were some attempts to streamify YouTube’s data using PubSubHubbub in the V3 API but this isn’t quite the same)

Rather, just getting the raw ‘stream’ data to manage and act on ourselves was far better – hence we spent a good deal of time converting REST APIs into Stream ones for our own purposes (using lots of calls) – and then building secondary systems and algorithms on top of those streams to detect events, anomalies, patterns and so on – across multiple platforms.

The same could be said of what Ben hints at – a switch away from user intent, ie “search“, or “GET”, to deliver, stream, or ‘push’. Google and Amazon are search systems. A user has to go find stuff and order/click it, usually in discrete transactions. Based on your behaviour the system might suggest other products or results that might interest you. The infrastructure that Ben mentions is what I would describe as streaming products. I subscribe to a “stream” of washing-up powder and it just arrives when required (based on either censors or figuring out on average how frequently I use it up).

The obvious next step from these kind of rudimentary streaming products is smarter streaming products. That world is one where I divest most control over rudimentary purchases entirely to a digital assistant (and by mine, I mean one designed for me, by me, that’s independent of platform or service). One could imagine entire industries built on trying to convert me one from one product “stream” to another, and users arbitraging en masse to receive either greater discounts, or alter the behaviour of producers. I assume this is where things like Jet are going.

The system will figure out what I need, when I need it, and even what I don’t need, but probably want. Then it will stream it to me. And this goes for digital products as much as it goes for physical ones. (An odd logical extension of this will be machines ‘advertising’ and ‘negotiating’ with other machines to change streams on my behalf).

Push, not pull. Streams, not requests.

Elon Musk’s sleight of hand

[cross posted from Medium].

Like many people, I’m a fan of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, SpaceX and Chairman of Solar City. So much so that I’m nerdy enough to listen to the quarterly conference calls of Tesla, and keep a close eye on the movements of each company.

Watching Tesla launches, like the recent Model X and Powerwall announcements, all remind me of watching Apple and Steve Jobs product launches back when it was still considered fanboy(ish), and not a pre-requisite for people working in tech or journalism (ie anytime pre iPhone in 2007).

Musk’s presentation style is not as polished as a Jobs show — but he manages to pull it off in a slightly awkward, if endearing, manner.

Indeed, like back then with Jobs, today many people have no idea who Musk is — he has yet to meet the Jobs levels of fame.

However, beneath some of the recent announcements are I believe some more fundamental things at work. Clearly everything I write is only as an interested observer, and is certainly not based on any fundamental research. I’m as in the dark as everyone else about Musk’s future intentions — but I do enjoy exercising my brain on what’s possible or probable.

Before we begin, keep in mind throughout Tesla’s stated goal: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” It’s not to make the coolest looking electric cars.

This week Musk launched the long awaited and much delayed Model X — the SUV followup to the incredibly well reviewed Model S sedan. But during the show, Musk almost downplayed features of the Model X that, within the right circumstances, are in my view nothing short of revolutionary. Some features already exist in the Model S — but I believe this new combination is a step in a new direction.

Let’s start with the first example.

A dozen minutes into the launch of Model X, Musk says

“So let’s move on to the car itself. What’s cool and fun about the car? Doors & Windows. So. You’re obviously familiar with the Falcon Wing door. What we also have is an Auto Presenting front door. So what it will do, it will triangulate my position and detect that I am moving towards the front door. It will open the front door. Without me touching anything. I will sit down, and it will close the door. Like an invisible chauffeur. (He then laughs to himself in the car)

It’s a cool and fun feature. But was it a feature added to the car because it was cool and fun? It seems like quite a bit of effort just so a human doesn’t have to touch the handle of a door and close it after them. It’s like a first world problem of first world problems.

And it’s well beyond “fun” when you’re building any expensive complex device such as the X — which Musk has previously described as “the most difficult car in the world to build”.

But onto to the second example.

Later in the presentation Musk focuses audiences on how the Falcon Wing doors are a wonderful innovation and “look cool”. But the main crux of this innovation, Musk appears to argue, is the ability for parents to get full advantage of the second and third rows of the Model X — without the discomfort of “cantilevering” themselves and their kids seats as they would with normal SUVs.

Also during this demonstration (left), Musk “presses the button” (he actually says those words) so that the second row seats move themselves forward electronically. He then gets in the third row, to demonstrate the space and ease of ingress.

I’m now asking myself a number of questions during this demo — which only grow when Musk moves on to talk about the Falcon doors.

Which leads us to example number three.

In the next set piece, he shows how easy it is to get into the car via the Falcon Doors when two other vehicles are parked directly alongside the X. Ostensibly, the rationale for this demonstration was again the scenario of perhaps parents at a shopping mall, trying to manage their shopping and their kids — and some rude people parking beside you. The Falcon Wing doors sense the proximity of the nearby cars, and still open with ease, again allowing for ease of ingress for humans.

Which brings us to example number four:

Musk, almost in passing, mentions the extra room around the rear seating area. Here he outlines how wonderful this feature is:

“Probably the best-looking second seat — if that’s a superlative — ever. But it actually provides more functionality because you have a flat floor and you can stow something. So if you’ve got a backpack, or a laptop, or a handbag you can stow that under the seat, instead of having it at your feet. So it actually provides utility as well as aesthetics.”

Except that later in the presentation, Musk and his team demonstrate the enormous overall storage capacity of the X — so I’m left wondering why emphasise the extra stowing feature under the rear seats?

Lastly is a feature that wasn’t actually presented — but is a feature still under development — the “snake”. This was demoed plugging into a Model S earlier this year, but will clearly be compatible with the Model X too, whenever it becomes available. Essentially it is a charger for the car that recognises when a vehicle is present and plugs itself in, without the drivers having to get out and do it themselves.

But when I pull these five things together I don’t see features that are being built or added because they are “fun”, or because they are designed for frustrated parents in shopping malls with more luggage than any family in the history of the world. How much did each of these features cost in both time and money for Tesla? I wonder.

No. None of these features have anything to do with building conveniences for humans too lazy to open doors with their hands, or indeed for parents squeezing between cars.

They were built for something else — and this is Musk’s sleight of hand.

All of these feature were built for one reason — a self driving future combined with an entire self-driving mobility platform. The Model X was built to be either the ultimate self-driving taxi, or the ultimate human/self-driving rental car — or both. Or as Musk almost laughingly hinted during the presentation — an invisible chauffeur will be doing all the work.

1. A front door that opens when you approach it and closes itself when you get in — because it’s fun? No. A self-driving car that arrives to collect you and opens its doors when it detects your proximity based on your watch/mobile device nearby (plus the sensors).

2. Electronic seats that move forward to make the lives of parents easier at the touch of a button? No. A software update will allow the seats to configure themselves for passengers arriving to get into a car where the doors open themselves (Uber – but you tell it how many people and the car gets ready for the group).

3. Ease of ingress and egress for humans in the Model X because of Falcon Doors? No. The doors don’t exist for frustrated parents — they’re doors designed for a self-driving taxi/rental mobility platform.

4. More storage under the rear seats because you need more of it, and because you can (down to the space that electric cars give you)? Yes. But when Musk uses the word “stow” I think airline. And when I think airline I think passengers. And when I think Model X I think taxi — with lots of room for your bags — with no driver in the front seat.

5. A snake that extends to charge your car because it saves your lazy ass from having to get out and plug it in yourself? Yes, but if the car is driving itself it’s going to have to be able to reverse into a station and commence charging — without the presence of a human.

If I’m correct — and I think I am — the future for Model X owners won’t involve them being the only drivers of their own cars. It will involve them renting out their cars to everyone else for a price — with Tesla taking a cut — and the car driving itself. As Musk so often says, cars spend most of their productive lives sitting unused in people’s driveways. Which is crazy for such an expensive piece of hardware.

Model X will be a self-driving car with doors that open when you approach, seats that configure for the number of passengers who can then easily ingress and egress through Falcon doors, with lots of in-car stowage available, that runs on batteries in the floor charged by solar fuelled battery packs at supercharger stations (and elsewhere).

How will Uber, Hailo, Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Budget et al compete with this? It’s not exactly clear to me. All of those firms rely on fossil-fuelled cars and humans to function. Both involve high costs (financially and environmentally).

Tesla vehicles run (or will ultimately run) on freely available solar energy — for no charge to its owners at supercharging stations.

And one has to imagine that the Model X has much if not all of the hardware necessary that — should a certain over-the-air update arrive at some point in the future — then the thing will just drive itself around.

I’m not the first to speculate on what might be called “Tesla Mobility”. Adam Jonas at Morgan Stanley recently asked Musk directly during a conference call exactly this type of question. Musk decided it was best not to comment. And this was before we saw the Model X launch.

And remember: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport.” Yup, that’s what Tesla Mobility would be, if Tesla can pull it off.

At the very least, the next five years (not the next ten, this will happen faster than we think), will be very interesting.

(Disclosure: I’m a *very* small shareholder in Tesla and Solar City. I’m the founder over at Vizlegal (in Ireland!) where we’re building a global API for law — a sorely needed thing if you want autonomous machines to know what human laws to obey (and even a Musk Mars colony needs laws too). I’m on Twitter if you have any questions!)

Facebook moves the goalposts

For all the Facebook users out there:

You hereby grant Facebook an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to (a) use, copy, publish, stream, store, retain, publicly perform or display, transmit, scan, reformat, modify, edit, frame, translate, excerpt, adapt, create derivative works and distribute (through multiple tiers), any User Content you (i) Post on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof subject only to your privacy settings or (ii) enable a user to Post, including by offering a Share Link on your website and (b) to use your name, likeness and image for any purpose, including commercial or advertising, each of (a) and (b) on or in connection with the Facebook Service or the promotion thereof.

In other words, even if you delete your account, all the content you uploaded remains the property of Facebook. Careful now.

Google Earth 5.0

Pretty awesome stuff. They’ve finally added ocean topography. Also the following rather cool features:

* Historical Imagery: Until today, Google Earth displayed only one image of a given place at a given time. With this new feature, you can now move back and forth in time to reveal imagery from years and even decades past, revealing changes over time. Try flying south of San Francisco in Google Earth and turning on the new time slider (click the “clock” icon in the toolbar) to witness the transformation of Silicon Valley from a farming community to the tech capital of the world over the past 50 years or so.

* Touring: One of the key challenges we have faced in developing Google Earth has been making it easier for people to tell stories. People have created wonderful layers to share with the world, but they have often asked for a way to guide others through them. The Touring feature makes it simple to create an easily sharable, narrated, fly-through tour just by clicking the record button and navigating through your tour destinations.

* 3D Mars: This is the latest stop in our virtual tour of the galaxies, made possible by a collaboration with NASA. By selecting “Mars” from the toolbar in Google Earth, you can access a 3D map of the Red Planet featuring the latest high-resolution imagery, 3D terrain, and annotations showing landing sites and lots of other interesting features.

If you haven’t already got it, you can download Google Earth 5.0 here, or indeed upgrade from 4.3.

How many people were at the inauguration?

I, like many others, was asking that question throughout the day. Being on the ground it felt like Croke Park times 20. Slate asks how best to reach a figure:

Thanks to advances in aerial digital photography and computer image-processing, it’s now possible to get a fairly exact head count—without a magnifying glass. As Farouk El-Baz of Boston University explained in a 2003 Wired article, the best way to obtain an accurate image is to fly over the assembly at peak time and take a digital photograph (resolution 1 foot per pixel) from 2,000 feet or less. Using satellite images, an Arizona State University professor calculated that about 800,000 people attended the inauguration Tuesday—considerably fewer than the AP estimate (based on photographs and comparison with past events) and less than half the Washington Post number (based primarily on security agencies on the ground).

I think Slate is looking at it from the wrong perspective. To me the core issue is mobile networks, not digital images. Why don’t the US cell network firms, which deployed extra cell towers all over the mall, just release the data on how many people had cell phones in the area and then use this information for some free publicity?

Perhaps certain people like myself might have more than one phone on them, but most won’t. I imagine it would be fairly easy to tell how many people were on the mall by counting the number of active cell phones in the area.

Demotix

The new website went live today. I prefer it over the previous incarnation. I haven’t started uploading photos (not that there was much to upload, perhaps some Georgia/US election ones).

Not heard of it? It’s a British-based website for photographers to upload and sell their photos, sharing revenue with Demotix (who sell the photos for you). More here.

Steve Jobs

Has just released the following statement

Dear Apple Community,

For the first time in a decade, I’m getting to spend the holiday season with my family, rather than intensely preparing for a Macworld keynote.

Unfortunately, my decision to have Phil deliver the Macworld keynote set off another flurry of rumors about my health, with some even publishing stories of me on my deathbed.

I’ve decided to share something very personal with the Apple community so that we can all relax and enjoy the show tomorrow.

As many of you know, I have been losing weight throughout 2008. The reason has been a mystery to me and my doctors. A few weeks ago, I decided that getting to the root cause of this and reversing it needed to become my #1 priority.

Fortunately, after further testing, my doctors think they have found the cause — a hormone imbalance that has been “robbing” me of the proteins my body needs to be healthy. Sophisticated blood tests have confirmed this diagnosis.

The remedy for this nutritional problem is relatively simple and straightforward, and I’ve already begun treatment. But, just like I didn’t lose this much weight and body mass in a week or a month, my doctors expect it will take me until late this Spring to regain it. I will continue as Apple’s CEO during my recovery.

I have given more than my all to Apple for the past 11 years now. I will be the first one to step up and tell our Board of Directors if I can no longer continue to fulfill my duties as Apple’s CEO. I hope the Apple community will support me in my recovery and know that I will always put what is best for Apple first.

So now I’ve said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this.

Steve

At least it’s not a recurrence of cancer. The market seems to be ok with it, AAPL is up in premarket.

MacBook Pros

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I’ve been using the late 2008 version of the MacBook Pro now for about two months (on the right). I had my previous MacBook Pro, the mid-2007 model as a point of reference. There are differences, some good, some bad, but overall the latest model wins it – and for one very good reason – the new trackpad.

Not that the 2007 model was anything bad. It originally had OSX Tiger, which I upgraded to Leopard in December 2007. It is a reliable and sturdy laptop, and never let me down. But it was only when I started using the late 2008 model that I could see what I was missing.

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The trackpad on the new model is a wonder. Using any other trackpad on any other computer feels clunky by comparison. Because it is made of glass, it is smooth to touch. It is larger and easier to use than its predecessor. When I go back to using the older MBP, the plastic trackpad feels ugly.

Of course the biggest advantage of the new trackpad is the multitouch. For someone who has not used it, it might be hard to explain just how much this changes how you use the laptop. In OSX it is a god send. My most commonly used gestures are four-fingers in an upward movement to minimise all windows, and four-fingers downward to show all windows in expose. I find myself unconsciously trying to perform the gestures on the old MBP, before I realise I can’t do them. That’s how used to it you become. You don’t even think about it.

In terms of the screen, both models are LED backlit, meaning excellent colour saturation and viewing angles. Both are glossy screens, the first by choice, the late 2008 model only comes in glossy. I never find this to be a problem, though some do. Even in direct sunlight I can clearly read the screen. The colour on the new model seems to be slightly superior, it just feels more defined.

On the downside though, the USB port on the right side of the MBP has disappeared, to make way for the side rather than front slot loading DVD drive. This means that when you attach a wired mouse, the cable plugs into the left side, while the mouse is on the right. A minor inconvenience, but I guess are expecting us all to have a wireless mouse.

The keyboard on the latest model is one of the new flat-keyed versions originally featured on the MacBook Air, and now on all models minus the 17-inch MBP and the still available white MacBook. I like the new keyboard. The older model keyboard was nice too, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. It does what it says on the tin.

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Overall, I would recommend to anyone considering a new laptop, or a move to Mac, to go Britain and pickup a base model MacBook Pro. They are deadly cheap thanks to a weak sterling. If you are Windows user and are worried about compatibility or usage issues, don’t be, Leopard is many times better and easier to use than either XP or Vista. And if you have Windows apps you want to use, then installing VMware Fusion is a breeze, and you can have both operating systems running side by side.

I was a PC user for the best part of 13 years. I will likely never go back to PC.