by Dana Blankenhorn
  Volume VIII, No. XXX

This Week's Clue: Interfacing

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This Week's Clue: Interfacing
SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)
SP (Shameless Promotion)
Don't Worry Intel: Be Happy
IP Or Circuit Voice
Clued-in, Clueless

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For the Week of July 26, 2004

The biggest challenge in computing today is the user interface.

The TV, typewriter and tape recorder interface has reached its limits. The introduction of mice and pens have extended the life of this paradigm, but in the end they only delayed this day of reckoning.

Just as political assumptions can become ingrained, and need to be shaken every generation, so it is true with technology assumptions. And the current computing paradigm has become just that, an assumption.

There is nothing magic about it. Before the Apple II computing spent 30 years working with a variety of paradigms and interfaces. In the 1950s mainframes worked on magnetic core memory, taped storage, punch card input, and printed output. Eckert and Mauchley would not have felt out of place in the computer room where I started, in the 1970s, although disk was replacing tape and chips were taking on internal memory.

The earliest view of today's paradigm, I think, came in the play "Desk Set," later made into a Tracy-Hepburn movie . A keyboard gave the computer in that play a personality, something for the actors to play off of. In the 1960s "Star Trek" introduced a new (imaginary) interface, a horizontal, constantly changing surface along with a vertical output screen.

But the big innovations of that show came in two separate devices, the "Commuicator" (initially it was just a long-distance flip phone) and the "Tricorder" (a PDA-like brick that collected input from sensors in the front and displayed results on an imagined screen at the top.).

Devices like the Handspring Treo essentially combine these two devices (although their long range sensor capability is, sadly, lacking). My tree surgeon has one, which he packs inside a case that includes a pad of paper and a place for business cards. But in many ways these are still two devices sharing a box. The screen and pen support the old computing paradigm, while voice runs on a separate channel.

If you're blind or arthritic these interfaces are a real pain, yet such people are a primary target market in The World of Always-On.

The answer, of course, is voice. The problem is that the software is hard to write, compute-intensive, and it's hard to train people to use it. The first problem was made worse by the collapse of Lernout + Hauspie a few years ago. The second problem is taken care of by Moore's Law. The third problem can be partly-solved by going back to the first solution, writing better software, and by having an OEM business model which can pay people to help train users where they live.

Another problem, not often remarked upon, is the fact that the "early adopters" of this technology don't fit the industry's historical patterns. The best targets to spend big bucks on voice interfaces are those who need Always-On applications most, people who are handicapped or chair-bound by disease. These are not people the computing market has ever pioneered with, and it's made worse by the fact that many chair-bound people are made dependent by their conditions, thus they can't make their own purchasing decisions.

The solution lies in the big companies on both sides of this divide, specifically IBM (which retains its interest in voice) on the computing side, and outfits like Sunrise Senior Living on the customer side.

IBM must become convinced that voice offers it a real opportunity to gain major market share from Microsoft, which it does even though IBM's ViaVoice software runs on Windows. The OEM and reseller nature of the current opportunity make this IBM's game to lose, along with the customization they've always been capable of.

Sunrise must be convinced that it can gain share and profit by embracing Always-On interfaces. I'm convinced it can. The senior company that convinces people it has the top end of the market, that delivers higher quality living, is going to hold a huge advantage as the baby boomers (with their earned and inherited billions) start retiring in the next few years. This is already a $280 billion market, growing at 7% per year and that growth is going to accelerate.

My friend Martin Bayne , who lives in an assisted living facility after spending many years with home health care workers (due to early-onset Parkinson's) is currently trying to convince Sunrise executives to put 802.11 into the home where he lives. There are some great, simple broadband applications that can justify the expense, especially if patients' TV remotes are used as part of the interface interface. Think of "grandma cam," which lets families visit and interact with relatives from their own homes, using Voice Over IP technology. Or consider 24-hour bingo networks, once a few homes are linked together.

Of course these are just baby steps. Huge savings come from integrating the existing facilities in each room with the wireless network. Putting heart sensors directly onto patients, so they can be constantly monitored while ambulatory, will both save money and add greatly to quality of life. Imagine what might happen if people in assisted living facilities could regain their voices, so they could speak their stories and save them for posterity, so they could advocate for themselves and their friends.

These too are baby steps. Imagine if hundreds of Sunrise facilities were linked to wireless networks with both TV remote and voice interfaces, which patients could use wherever they were. Consider how much safer the facility now becomes, since there's less risk of people getting lost (especially those with memory diseases) or forgotten. Consider how these networks can deliver an audit trail of care, limiting legal liability. Now consider that all these benefits are piled on top of the others.

Finally, consider how this huge testbed of wireless networking and Always-On application development can be used to created branded products that go out into the world. Imagine Always-On products, which live on wireless networks, introduced to people who now just have a health care worker coming over every few days, or who just need a little help getting along on their own. The key word in the first sentence of this paragraph is branded.

Sunrise doesn't have to invest a lot to win these benefits. Just support Martin now, follow-up on the things that work, keep track of investment pay-out periods, and accelerate development as investments pay off more quickly.

And when you need to call someone for help on managing all this, call IBM. IBM can do system integration, IBM can do voice application development, IBM can connect all these islands with Websphere Internet services. IBM has the software and the services story to make all this happen for outfits like Sunrise, quickly and easily.

My role? I don't really have to have one. You can cut me out like a bad tumor if you like. It's just that, when it's my time, I'd like to have this technology available to keep me home. When it's my time, I'd like to have a place like this to live in. When it's my time, I want to have something of Martin that makes me smile.

One thing I know. My time is coming. So is yours. Whether that time is joyous or hellish depends mainly on what we do now.


Shameless Self-Promotion

I work as a freelance writer in Atlanta, and am on the development team for EgoScout , a new kind of marketplace for cellular data services.

My last book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards .

You have my permission to forward this newsletter widely. And if you have trouble subscribing let me know. Remember: it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...


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Takes on the News

Don't Worry Intel: Be Happy

The price of stock in Intel fell after the company announced its earnings for the quarter had doubled.

The reason: falling margins, rising inventories, and a prediction growth will slow in the second half.

Am I worried? No. Here's why.

Intel is not the whole chip industry.

Far from it. AMD has a big advantage in the near term because it continues to emphasize processor speed, while Intel now emphasizes features.

What's happening is that the current age of computing, dominated by Internet servers and powerful clients, is slowing its growth pace. There is no longer a big advantage to be had by buying a faster PC, a new processor. Instead, clients want storage, and maybe memory.

The next age, as I've said, will turn those home clients into servers, and will link them to literally dozens of devices on a wireless home network. People will be able to enhance their network by adding servers, not just by taking some out of service, and there will be a host of sensors to contend with, one-chip radios pulsing signals intermittantly.

This is the "feature set" Intel is focused on right now. Intel is doing a lot of work on wireless networks, on sensor networks, and on high-end applications that will help define the space.

The results of that work will not become apparent for some time, but in an age where intellectual property is increasingly important Intel can wait for that day.

Meanwhile, this change will create lots of new niches, for both designers (fabless chip companies) and those chip companies with fabs. The entire cellular infrastructure is going to be replaced and updated, at an increasing pace. That's just one of many obvious opportunities.

I'm not worried about Intel and I'm not worried about the chip sector. You shouldn't be, either.


IP Or Circuit Voice

The debate over Voice Over IP is intensifying.

The debate currently involves two questions. If we lose circuit switched voice in favor of IP voice, what about the taxes circuits were paying? And which sounds better?

These are the wrong questions, says Brad Templeton. On this I agree with him 100%, and his words bear repeating.

"If VoIP is just to be PSTN (Public Switched Telephone Network) over IP at a lower cost (or worse, POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) over IP as it is in some cases) then it's boring and barely worth doing.

"What's interesting is new stuff."

Templeton adds that he's working on some "new stuff" himself (good luck, Brad), but it's easy to understand what such "new stuff" may consist of:

  • Voice integrated with video.
  • Voice integrated with whiteboards.
  • Voice over the Web, with video inside a shared Web page.
  • Better voice than you can get from a phone, which can be recorded digitally and played over the radio.
  • Voice integrated with transcription, for taking testimony.

That list took about five minutes to come up with. I'll bet, if you put on your thinking cap, you can come up with a longer list, a better list, maybe even an item or two that no one has thought of, something that might make you a fortune. Maybe both you and Brad can bring your new stuff to market and get rich. (When you do buy me a drink.)

And that is what makes Voice Over IP important.


Democrats are meeting in Boston. Republicans are packing for New York. Americans haven't faced a choice like this since 1920.

Back then the choice was between involving ourselves in the affairs of the world, as Woodrow Wilson desired, or Returning to Normalcy under the Republicans. We chose normalcy, isolationism and Warren G. Harding. History, and Hitler, got us out of that.

In 2004 isolationism is not on the menu. Instead we have (to be kind) the American Exceptionalism of George W. Bush, where we make our own rules for war and truth, against the Democrats' Return to Alliances.

The Dean Platform has been embraced by Kerry and Edwards, even (in the case of health care) expanded upon. But mainly it holds that we should follow international norms, and rely on alliances to destroy the stateless enemies we face. The Bush Doctrine, by contrast, says we invade any state that lets people stand against us, and that our values will be absolute. Also the "us" and "our" in that last sentence represent, not the shared values of the country, but the narrow values of a party.

It's really quite exceptional. The fact that, right now, the race is considered close is a testament to media concentration (one Bush promise that was delivered on), the values of incumbency, and the raw fear that has gripped millions since September 11, 2001.

As one Republican friend said, "They only understand the iron fist." To this I replied, "Who's they? And are they any different from us? Do you want the iron fist falling on you, too?"

It can. It's pretty flexible, that iron fist. It can hit you hard, branding you an "enemy combatant," or it can hit you softly, merely branding your work unpatriotic, and there are countless gradations between. Your country may be our bosom chum, our sworn enemy, or something in the middle of those, but right now you can count the chums on your fingers. Most nations are just an act or a statement away from some form of retaliation. This is supposed to make us feel safe, since the fist (we're told) belongs to us.

Personally I don't feel safe. I don't feel safe at all. Greed and fear rule business but technology, the beat I cover, runs mainly on greed. If you're not in the security business these are hard times for technology. Technological change, especially the paradigm shifts we need for the World of Always-On (my own field of study), require leaps of faith among engineers, moneymen and policymakers. The kind of faith it takes to put money or creativity to work is in very short supply.

Through most of the last year I worked for Howard Dean, who wound up dissed, dismissed, but also somehow (when you look at the Democratic Platform, the party's rhetoric, and its themes) dominant. His story as a national politician, I suspect, has just begun. Right now he's heading toward becoming the left's Pat Robertson, but in many ways he is quite moderate, and (unlike the men who beat him) he has shown real talent as an elected executive. He and I could end up as many things. For now we're "keepin on keepin on," and open to just about anything.

For the first time in decades there are two clear choices facing Americans, and two very different Americas behind each choice. We know what's behind the Bush door - we've lived it - and he promises no change. There is great uncertainty behind the other door, and it's fear of that uncertainty which holds the most promise in staying the course.

I know where I stand. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. We can either stay this course and end up as Britain did, or (more likely) as Germany and Japan did, ceding the future to India, to China, maybe even to Russia, or we can take a chance and steer toward the course Bill Clinton had us on before his Bridge To the 21st Century got blown up by four jetliners and 19 (mostly Saudi) hijackers.

Fear is the enemy. Fear of the foe, fear of the future, fear of change, fear of the Democrats, fear of gays, fear of Islam, fear of old age, nameless, unreasoning fear.

Fear is a powerful force. It can even be a force for good. Fear can move mountains, fear can create empires, although fear also built the gulags and the death camps of the last century. Fear is at the heart of most successful preaching, fear will make us buy all sorts of insurance, fear will get us to follow, but fear built our cities, filled our pews, and got us from the nakedness of Eden's Garden toward a Tree of Knowledge which can take us to the stars.

All we have to stand against fear is courage, knowledge, science and strength. It's not much, until you realize that our Founding documents had almost nothing of fear in them, and that the promises America has fulfilled for over 200 years had nothing of fear in them. America can be the terror of the world, said Stephen A. Douglas. I want America to be the hope of the world, replied Abraham Lincoln.

Douglas won that election. But where is his monument? Where is there a monument to fear, anywhere in this country or in the world for that matter? It is in facing fear that we overcome, that we make the changes necessary to keep going forward.

I don't like John F. Kerry. I don't trust him. But in election-after-election, around the world and throughout the year, people have been tossing incumbents aside and throwing over their fear of change. In Spain, in India, throughout Europe, even in Japan, the fear of change is no longer enough to win the day.

America can't rule the world alone, and a rule based on fear must fall of its own weight. I thought that, if the 20th century taught us nothing else, it taught us that. America know soon enough if it has learned that lesson.


Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is PalmOne for opening concept electronics stores in airports. . Airports remain an under-estimated retail opportunity, and Palm needs the buzz. (You know what would be even more Clued-in? If the PalmOne Airport stores stocked Windows stuff, too.)

Clueless are America's Governors , whose recommendations for handling the Aging of America ignore the need for new technology.


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