Yo! Minimalist Notifications, API and the Internet of Things

Yo LogoThought it was a joke, but having 4 hours of code resulting in $1m of VC funding, at an estimated $10M company valuation, raised quite a few eyebrows. The Yo! project team have now released their API, and with it some possibilities – over and above the initial ability to just say “Yo!” to a friend. At the time he provided some of the funds, John Borthwick of Betaworks said that there is a future of delivering binary status updates, or even commands to objects to throw an on/off switch remotely (blog post here). The first green shoots are now appearing.

The main enhancement is the ability to carry a payload with the Yo!, such as a URL. Hence your Yo!, when received, can be used to invoke an application or web page with a bookmark already put in place. That facilitates a notification, which is effectively guaranteed to have arrived, to say “look at this”. Probably extensible to all sorts of other tasks.

The other big change is the provision of an API, which allows anyone to create a Yo! list of people to notify against a defined name. So, in theory, I could create a virtual user called “IANWARING-SIMPLICITY-SELLS”, and to publicise that to my blog audience. If any user wants to subscribe, they just send a “Yo!” to that user, and bingo, they are subscribed and it is listed (as another contact) on their phone handset. If I then release a new blog post, I can use a couple of lines of Javascript or PHP to send the notification to the whole subscriber base, carrying the URL of the new post; one key press to view. If anyone wants to unsubscribe, they just drop the username on their handset, and the subscriber list updates.

Other applications described include:

  • Getting a Yo! when a FedEx package is on it’s way
  • Getting a Yo! when your favourite sports team scores – “Yo us at ASTONVILLA and we’ll Yo when we score a goal!
  • Getting a Yo! when someone famous you follow tweets or posts to Instagram
  • Breaking News from a trusted source
  • Tell me when this product comes into stock at my local retailer
  • To see if there are rental bicycles available near to you (it can Yo! you back)
  • You receive a payment on PayPal
  • To be told when it starts raining in a specific town
  • Your stocks positions go up or down by a specific percentage
  • Tell me when my wife arrives safely at work, or our kids at their travel destination

but I guess there are other “Internet of Things” applications to switch on home lights, open garage doors, switch on (or turn off) the oven. Or to Yo! you if your front door has opened unexpectedly (carrying a link to the picture of who’s there?). Simple one click subscriptions. So, an extra way to operate Apple HomeKit (which today controls home appliance networks only through Siri voice control).

Early users are showing simple Restful URLs and http GET/POSTs to trigger events to the Yo! API. I’ve also seen someone say that it will work with CoPA (Constrained Application Protocol), a lightweight protocol stack suitable for use within simple electronic devices.

Hence, notifications that are implemented easily and over which you have total control. Something Apple appear to be anal about, particularly in a future world where you’ll be walking past low energy bluetooth beacons in retail settings every few yards. Your appetite to be handed notifications will degrade quickly with volumes if there are virtual attention beggars every few paces. Apple have been locking down access to their iBeacon licensees to limit the chance of this happening.

With the Yo! API, the first of many notification services (alongside Google Now, and Apples own notification services), and a simple one at that. One that can be mixed with IFTTT (if this, then that), a simple web based logic and task action system also produced by Betaworks. And which may well be accessible directly from embedded electronics around us.

The one remaining puzzle is how the authors will be able to monetise their work (their main asset is an idea of the type and frequency of notifications you welcome receiving, and that you seek). Still a bit short of Google’s core business (which historically was to monetise purchase intentions) at this stage in Yo!’s development. So, suggestions in the case of Yo! most welcome.


How that iPhone handset knows where I am

Treasure Island MapI’ve done a little bit of research to see how an Apple iPhone tracks my location – at least when i’ll be running iOS 8 later this autumn. It looks like it picks clues up from lots of places as you go:

  1. The signal from your local cell tower. If you switch your iPhone on after a flight, that’s probably the first thing it sees. This is what the handset uses to set your timezone and adjust your clock immediately.
  2. WiFi signals. As with Google, there is a location database accessed that translates WiFi router Mac addresses into an approximate geographic location where they’ve been sensed before. At least for the static ones.
  3. The Global Positioning System sensors, that work with both the US and Russian GPS satellite networks.  If you can stand in a field and see the horizon all around you, then your phone should have up to 14 satellites visible. Operationally, if it can see 2, you can get your x and y co-ordinates to within a meter or two. If it can see 3, then you get x, y and z co-ordinates – enough to give your elevation above sea level as well.
  4. Magnetometer and Gyroscope. The iPhone has an electronic compass and some form of gyroscope inside, so the system software can sense the direction, orientation (in 3D space) and movement. So, when you move from outdoors to an indoor location (like a shopping centre or building), the iPhone can remember the last known accurate GPS fix, and deduce (based on direction and speed as you move since that last sampling) your current position.

The system software on iOS 8 just returns your location and an indication of error scale based on all of the above. For some reason, the indoor positioning with the gyroscope is of high resolution for your x and y position, but returns the z position as a floor number only (0 being the ground floor, -1 one down from there, 1..top level above).

In doing all the above, if it senses you’ve moved indoors, then it shuts down the GPS sensor – as it is relatively power hungry and saves the battery at a time when the sensor would be unusable anyway.


There are a number of applications where it would be nice to sense your proximity to a specific location indoors, and to do something clever in an application. For example, when you turn up in front of a Starbucks outlet, for Apple Passport to put your loyalty/payment card onto the lock screen for immediate access; same with a Virgin Atlantic check-in desk, where Passport could bring up your Boarding Pass in the same way.

One of the ways of doing this is to deploy low energy bluetooth beacons. These normally have two numbers associated with them; the first 64-bits is a licensee specific number (such as “Starbucks”), the second 64-bit number a specific identifier for that licensee only. This may be a specific outlet on their own applications database, or an indicator of a department location in a department store. It is up to the company deploying the Low Energy Bluetooth Beacons to encode this for their own iPhone applications (and to reflect the positions of the beacons in their app if they redesign their store or location layouts).

Your iPhone can sense beacons around it to four levels:

  1. I can’t hear a beacon
  2. I can sense one, but i’m not close to it yet
  3. I can sense one, and i’m within 3 meters (10 feet) of it right now
  4. I can sense one, and my iPhone is immediately adjacent to the beacon

Case (4) being for things like cash register applications. (2) and (3) are probably good enough for your store specific application to get fired up when you’re approaching.

There are some practical limitations, as low energy bluetooth uses the same 2.4Ghz spectrum that WiFi does, and hence suffers the same restrictions. That frequency agitates water (like a Microwave), hence the reason it was picked for inside applications; things like rain, moisture in walls and indeed human beings standing in the signal path tend to arrest the signal strength quite dramatically.

The iPhone 5S itself has an inbuilt Low Energy Bluetooth Beacon, but in line with the way Apple protect your privacy, it is not enabled by default. Until it is explicitly switched on by the user (who is always given an ability to decline the location sharing when any app requests this), hardware in store cannot track you personally.

Apple appear to have restricted licensees to using iBeacons for their own applications only, so only users of Apple iOS devices can benefit. There is an alternative “Open Beacon” effort in place, designed to enable applications that run across multiple vendor devices (see here for further details).

The Smart Watch Future

With the recent announcement and availability of various Android watches from Samsung, LG and Motorola, it’s notable that they all appear to have the compass, gyroscope but no current implementation of a GPS (i’ve got to guess for reasons of limited battery power and the sensors power appetite). Hence I expect that any direction sensing Smartwatch applications will need to talk to an application talking to the mobile phone handset in the users pocket – over low energy bluetooth. Once established, the app on the watch will know the devices orientation in 3D space and the direction it is headed; probably enough to keep pointing you towards a destination correctly as you walk along.

The only thing we don’t yet know is whether Apple’s own rumoured iWatch will break the mould, or like it’s Android equivalents, act as a peripheral to the network hub that is the users phone handset. We should know that later on this year.

In the meantime, it’s good to see that Apple’s model is to protect the users privacy unless they explicitly allow a vendor app to track their location, which they can agree to or decline at any time. I suspect a lot of vendors would like to track you, but Apple have picked a very “its up to the iPhone user and no-one else” approach – for each and every application, one by one.

Footnote: Having thought about it, I think I missed two things.

One is that I recall reading somewhere that if the handset battery is running low, the handset will bleat it’s current location to the cloud. Hence if you dropped your handset and it was lost in vegetation somewhere, it would at least log it’s last known geographic location for the “Find my iPhone” service to be able to pinpoint it as best it could.

Two is that there is a visit history stored in the phone, so your iPhones travels (locations, timestamps, length of time stationary) are logged as a series of move vectors between stops. These are GPS type locations, and not mapped to any physical location name or store identifier (or even position in stores!). The user has got to give specific permission for this data to be exposed to a requesting app. Besides use for remembering distances for expenses, I can think of few user-centric applications where you would want to know precisely where you’ve travelled in the last few days. Maybe a bit better as a version of the “secret” app available for MacBooks, where if you mark your device on a cloud service as having been stolen, you can get specific feedback on its movements since.

The one thing that often bugs me is people putting out calls on Facebook to help find their stolen or mislaid phones. Every iPhone should have “Find my iPhone” enabled (which is offered at iOS install customisation time) or the equivalent for Android (Android Device Manager) activated likewise. These devices should be difficult to steal.

The Internet of Things withers – while HealthKit ratchets along

FDA Approved Logo

I sometimes shudder at the estimates, as once outlined by executives at Cisco, that reckons the market for “Internet of Things” – communicating sensors embedded everywhere – would be likely be a $19 trillion market. A market is normally people willing to invest to make money, save money, to improve convenience or reduce waste. Or a mix. I then look at various analysts reports where they size both the future – and the current market size. I really can’t work out how they arrive at today’s estimated monetary amounts, let alone do the leap of faith into the future stellar revenue numbers. Just like IBM with their alleged ‘Cloud’ volumes, it’s difficult to make out what current products are stuffed inside the current alleged volumes.

One of my sons friends is a Sales Director for a distributor of sensors. There appear good use cases in Utility networks, such as monitoring water or gas flow and to estimate where leaks are appearing, and their loss dimensions. This is apparently already well served. As are industrial applications, based on pneumatics, fluid flow and hook ups to SCADA equipment. A bit of RFID so stock movements can be automatically checked through their distribution process. Outside of these, there are the 3 usual consumer areas; that of cars, health and home equipment control – the very three areas that both Apple and Google appear to be focussed on.

To which you can probably add Low Power Bluetooth Beacons, which will allow a phone handset to know it’s precise location, even where GPS co-ordinates are not available (inside shopping centres as an example). If you’re in an open field with sight of the horizon around you in all directions, circa 14 GPS satellites should be “visible”; if your handset sees two of them, it can suss your x and y co-ordinates to a meter or so. If it sees 3 satellites, that’s normally enough to calculate your x, y and z co-ordinates – ie: geographic location and height above sea level. If it can only see 1 or none, it needs another clue. Hence a super secret rollout where vendors are offering these LEB beacons and can trade the translation from their individual identifiers to their exact location.

In Apple’s case, Apple Passbook Loyalty Cards and Boarding Passes are already getting triggered with an icon on the iOS 8 home screen when you’re adjacent to a Starbucks outlet or Virgin Atlantic Check-in desk; one icon press, and your payment card or boarding pass is there for you already. I dare say the same functionality is appearing in Google Now on Android; it can already suss when I get out of my car and start to walk, and keeps a note of my parking location – so I can ask it to navigate me back precisely. It’s also started to tell me what web sites people look at when they are in the same restaurant that i’m sitting in (normally the web site or menu of the restaurant itself).

We’re in a lull between Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, and next weeks equivalent Google I/O developer event, where Googles version of Health and HomeKit may well appear. Maybe further developments to link your cars Engine Control Unit to the Internet as well (currently better engaged by Phil Windley’s FUSE project). Apple appear to have done a stick and twist on connecting an iPhone to a cars audio system only, where the cars electronics use Blackberry’s QNX embedded Linux software; Android implementations from Google are more ambitious but (given long car model cycle times) likely to take longer to hit volume deployments. Unless we get an unexpected announcement at Google I/O next week.

My one surprise is that my previous blog post on Apples HomeKit got an order of magnitude more readers than my two posts on the Health app and the HealthKit API (posts here and here). I’d never expected that using your iPhone as a universal, voice controlled home lock/light/door remote would be so interesting to people. I also hear that Nest (now a Google subsidiary) are about to formally announce shipment of their 500,000th room temperature control. Not sure about their Smoke Alarm volumes to date though.

That apart, I noticed today that the US Food and Drug Administration had, in March, issued some clarifications on what type of mobile connected devices would not warrant regulatory classification as a medical device in the USA. They were:

  1. Mobile apps for providers that help track or manage patient immunizations by assessing the need for immunization, consent form, and immunization lot number

  2. Mobile apps that provide drug-drug interactions and relevant safety information (side effects, drug interactions, active ingredient) as a report based on demographic data (age, gender), clinical information (current diagnosis), and current medications

  3. Mobile apps that enable, during an encounter, a health care provider to access their patient’s personal health record (health information) that is either hosted on a web-based or other platform

So, it looks like Apple Health application and their HealthKit API have already skipped past the need for regulatory approvals there already. The only thing i’ve not managed to suss is how they measure blood pressure and glucose levels on a wearable device without being invasive. I’ve seen someone mention that a hi res camera is normally sufficient to detect pulse rates by seeing image changes on a picture of a patients wrist. I’ve also seen an inference that suitably equipped glasses can suss basic blood composition looking at what is exposed visibly in the iris of an eye. But if Apple’s iWatch – as commonly rumoured – can detect Glucose levels for Diabetes patients, i’m still agonising how they’d do it. Short of eating or attaching another (probably disposable) Low Energy Bluetooth sensor for the phone handset to collect data from.

That looks like it’ll be Q4 before we’ll all know the story. All I know right now is that Apple produce an iWatch, and indeed return the iPhone design to being more rounded like the 3S was, that my wife will expect me to be in the queue on release date to buy them both for her.