Another lucid flurry of Apple thinking it through – unlike everyone else

Apple Watch Home Screen

This happens every time Apple announce a new product category. Audience reaction, and the press, rush off to praise or condemn the new product without standing back and joining the dots. The Kevin Lynch presentation at the Keynote also didn’t have a precursor of a short video on-ramp to help people understand the full impact of what they were being told. With that, the full impact is a little hidden. It’s a lot more than having Facebook, Twitter, Email and notifications on your wrist when you have your phone handset in your pocket.

There were a lot of folks focussing on it’s looks and comparisons to the likely future of the Swiss watch industry. For me, the most balanced summary of the luxury esthetics from someone who’s immersed in that industry can be found at:  http://www.hodinkee.com/blog/hodinkee-apple-watch-review

Having re-watched the keynote, and seen all the lame Androidware, Samsung, LG and Moto 360 comparisons, there are three examples that explode almost all of the “meh” reactions in my view. The story is hidden my what’s on that S1 circuit board inside the watch, and the limited number of admissions of what it can already do. Three scenarios:

1. Returning home at the end of a working day (a lot of people do this).

First thing I do after I come indoors is to place my mobile phone on top of the cookery books in our kitchen. Then for the next few hours i’m usually elsewhere in the house or in the garden. Talking around, that behaviour is typical. Not least as it happens in the office too, where if i’m in a meeting, i’d normally leave my handset on silent on my desk.

With every Android or Tizen Smart Watch I know, the watch loses the connection as soon as I go out of Bluetooth range – around 6-10 meters away from the handset. That smart watch is a timepiece from that point on.

Now, who forgot to notice that the Apple Watch has got b/g WiFi integrated on their S1 module? Or that it it can not only tell me of an incoming call, but allow me to answer it, listen and talk – and indeed to hand control back to my phone handset when I return to it’s current proximity?

2. Sensors

There are a plethora of Low Energy Bluetooth sensors around – and being introduced with great regularity – for virtually every bodily function you can think of. Besides putting your own fitness tracking sensors on at home, there are probably many more that can be used in a hospital setting. With that, a person could be quite a walking network of sensors and wander to different wards or labs during their day, or indeed even be released to recuperate at home.

Apple already has some sensors (heart rate, and probably some more capabilities to be announced in time, using the infrared related ones on the skin side of the Apple watch), but can act as a hub to any collection of external bluetooth sensors at the same time. Or in smart pills you can swallow. Low Energy Bluetooth is already there on the Apple Watch. That, in combination with the processing power, storage and b/g WiFi makes the watch a complete devices hub, virtually out of the box.

If your iPhone is on the same WiFi, everything syncs up with the Health app there and the iCloud based database already – which you can (at your option) permit an external third party to have access to. Now, tell me about the equivalent on any other device or service you can think of.

3. Paying for things.

The iPhone 5S, 6 and 6 Plus all have integrated finger print scanners. Apple have put some functionality into iOS 8 where, if you’re within Bluetooth range (6-10 meters of your handset), you can authenticate (with your fingerprint) the fact your watch is already on your wrist. If the sensors on the back have any suspicion that the watch leaves your wrist, it immediately invalidates the authentication.

So, walk up to a contactless till, see the payment amount appear on the watch display, one press of the watch pays the bill. Done. Now try to do that with any other device you know.

Developers, developers, developers.

There are probably a million other applications that developers will think of, once folks realise there is a full UNIX computer on that SoC (System on a Chip). With WiFi. With Bluetooth. With a Taptic feedback mechanism that feels like someone is tapping your wrist (not loudly vibrating across the table, or flashing LED lights at you). With a GPU driving a high quality, touch sensitive display. Able to not only act as a remote control for your iTunes music collection on another device, but to play it locally when untethered too (you can always add bluetooth earbuds to keep your listening private). I suspect some of the capabilities Apple have shown (like the ability to stream your heartbeat to another Apple Watch user) will evolve into potential remote health visit applications that can work Internet wide.

Meanwhile, the tech press and the discussion boards are full of people lamenting the fact that there is no GPS sensor in the watch itself (like every other Smart Watch I should add – GPS location sensing is something that eats battery power for breakfast; better to rely on what’s in the phone handset, or to wear a dedicated bluetooth GPS band on the other wrist if you really need it).

Don’t be distracted; with the electronics already in the device, the Apple Watch is truly only the beginning. We’re now waiting for the full details of the WatchKit APIs to unleash that ecosystem with full force.

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.

 

The madness that is Hodor and Yo. Or is it?

Yo LogoOne constant source of bemusement – well, really horror – is the inefficiency of social media to deliver a message to it’s intended recipients. In any company setting, saying “I didn’t receive your message” is the management equivalent of “the dog ate my homework” excuse at school; it is considered a very rare occurrence and the excuse a poor attempt to seek forgiveness.

Sending bulk (but personalised) email to a long list of people who know you is just the start. Routinely, 30% of what you send will end up finishing short of your destination; no matter how many campaigns i’ve seen from anyone, none get higher than 70% delivery to the intended recipients. In practice, the number routinely read by the recipient normally bests at 20-30% of the number sent. Spam filters often over-zealous too. With practice, you get to find out that sending email to arrive in the recipients in-tray at 3:00pm on a Thursday afternoon local time is 7x more likely to be read than the same one sent at 6:00am on a Sunday morning. And that mentioning the recipients name, an indication of what it’s about and what they’ll see when the email is opened – all hooked together in the subject line -vastly improves open rates. But most people are still facing 70-80% wastage rates. I’ve done some work on this, but that experience is available to my consulting clients!

So, thank god for Facebook. Except that the visibility of status updates routinely only gets seen by 16% of your friends on average (the range is 2%-47% depending on all sorts of factors, but 16% is the average). The two ways to improve this is to make your own list that others can subscribe to, and if they remember to access that list name, then they’ll see the works. But few remember to do this. The other method is to pay Facebook for delivery, where you can push your update (or invite to an interest list, aka ‘likes’) to a defined set of demographics in specific geographic areas. But few guarantees that you’ll get >50% viewership even then.

So, thank god for Twitter. Except the chance of some of your followers actually seeing your tweets drops into the sub-1% range; the norm is that you’ll need to be watching your stream as the update is posted. So you’re down to using something like Tweetdeck to follow individual people in their own column, or a specific hashtag in another. You very quickly run out of screen real estate to see everything you actually want to see. This is a particular frustration to me, as I quite often find myself in the middle of a Tweet storm (where a notable person, like @pmarca – Marc Andreessen – will routinely run off 8-12 numbered tweets); the end result is like listening to a group of experts discussing interesting things around a virtual water cooler, and that is fascinating to be part of. The main gotcha is that I get to see his stuff early on a Saturday morning in the UK only because he tweets before folks on the west coast of the USA are headed to bed – otherwise i’d never catch it.

Some of the modern messaging apps (like SnapChat) at least tell you when that picture has been received and read by the recipient(s) you sent it too – and duly deleted on sight. But we’re well short of an application where you can intelligently follow Twitter scale dialogues reliably for people you really want to follow. Twitter themselves just appear happy to keep suggesting all sorts of people for me to follow, probably unconscious that routine acceptance would do little other than further polluting my stream with useless trash.

Parking all this, I saw one company produce a spoof Android custom keyboard, where the only key provided just says “Hodor”. Or if you press it down for longer, it gives you “Hodor” in bold. You can probably imagine the content of the reviews of it on the Google Play Store (mainly long missives that just keep repeating the word).

Then the next madness. Someone writing an application that just lists your friends names, and if you press their name, it just sends through a message to them saying “Yo!”.

Yo! Screenshot

Just like the Facebook Pokes of old. A team of three programmers wrote it in a couple of days, and it’s already been downloaded many thousands of times from the Apple App Store. It did sound to me like a modern variation of the Budweiser “Whats Up” habit a few years back, so I largely shook my head and carried on with other work.

The disbelief set in when I found out that this app had been subject to a $1.5 million VC funding round, which valued the company (this is their only “significant” app) at a $10m valuation. Then found out one of the lead investors was none other than a very respected John Borthwick (who runs Betaworks, an application Studio housed in the old Meat Packing area of New York).

His thing seems to be that this application ushers in a new world, where we quite often want to throw a yes/go-ahead/binary notification reliably to another entity. That may be a person (to say i’ve left work, or i’ve arrived at the restaurant, etc) or indeed a device (say ‘Yo’ to the coffee maker as you approach work, or to turn on the TV). So, there may indeed be some logic in the upcoming world of the “Internet of Things”, hyped to death as it may be.

John’s announcement of his funding can be found here. The challenge will no doubt be to see whether his investment is as prescient as many of his other ones (IFTTT, Bit.lyDots, Digg Deeper, etc) have been to date. In the meantime, back to code my own app – which is slightly more ambitious than that now famous one.

The Moving Target that is Enterprise IT infrastructures

Docker Logo

A flurry of recent Open Source Enterprise announcements, one relating to Docker – allowing Linux containers containing all their needed components to be built, distributed and then run atop Linux based servers. With this came the inference that Virtualisation was likely to get relegated to legacy application loads. Docker appears to have support right across the board – at least for Linux workloads – covering all the major public cloud vendors. I’m still unsure where that leaves the other niche that is Windows apps.

The next announcement was that of Apache Mesos, which is the software originally built by ex-Google Twitter engineers – largely the replicate the Google Borg software used to fire up multi-server workloads across Google’s internal infrastructure. This used to good effect to manage Twitters internal infrastructure and to consign their “Fail Whale” to much rarer appearances. At the same time, Google open sourced a version of their software – I’ve not yet made out if it’s derived from the 10+ year old Borg or more recent Omega projects – to do likewise, albeit at smaller scale than Google achieve inhouse. The one thing that bugs me is that I can never remember it’s name (i’m off trying to find reference to it again – and now I return 15 minutes later!).

“Google announced Kubernetes, a lean yet powerful open-source container manager that deploys containers into a fleet of machines, provides health management and replication capabilities, and makes it easy for containers to connect to one another and the outside world. (For the curious, Kubernetes (koo-ber-nay’-tace) is Greek for “helmsman” of a ship)”.

That took some finding. Koo-ber-nay-tace. No exactly memorable.

However, it looks like it’ll be a while before these packaging, deployment and associated management technologies get ingrained in Enterprise IT workloads. A lot of legacy systems out there are simply not architected to run on scale-out infrastructures yet, and it’s a source of wonder what the major Enterprise software vendors are running in their own labs. If indeed they have an appetite to disrupt themselves before others attempt to.

I still cringe with how one ERP system I used to use had the cost collection mechanisms running as a background batch process, and the margins of the running business went all over the place like a skidding car as orders were loaded. Particularly at end of quarter customer spend spikes, where the complexity of relational table joins had a replicated mirror copy of the transaction system consistently running 20-25 minutes behind the live system. I should probably cringe even more given there’s no obvious attempt by startups to fundamentally redesign an ERP system from the ground up using modern techniques. At least yet.

Startups appear to be much more heavily focussed on much lighter mobile based applications – of which there are a million different bets chasing VC money. Moving Enterprise IT workloads into much more cost effective (but loosely coupled) public cloud based infrastructure – and that take full advantage of its economics – is likely to take a little longer. I sometimes agonise over what change(s) would precipitate that transition – and whether that’s a monolith app, or a network of simple ones daisy chained together.

I think we need a 2014 networked version of Silicon Office or Hypercard to trigger some progress. Certainly their abject simplicity is no more, and we’re consigned to the lower level, piecemeal building bricks – like JavaScript – which is what life was like in assembler before high level languages liberated us. Some way to go.

What if Quality Journalism isn’t?

Read all about it

Carrying on with the same theme as yesterdays post – the fact that content is becoming disaggregated from a web sites home page – I read an excellent blog post today: What if Quality Journalism isn’t? In this, the author looks at the seemingly divergent claims from the New York Times, who claim:

  • They are “winning” at Journalism
  • Readership is falling, both on web and mobile platforms
  • therefore they need to pursue strategies to grow their audience

The author asks “If its product is ‘the world’s best journalism‘, why does it have a problem growing its audience?”. You can’t be the world’s best and fail at the same time. Indeed. And then goes into a deeper analysis.

I like the analogue of the supermarket of intent (Amazon) versus a supermarket of interest (social) versus Niche. The central issue is how to curate articles of interest to a specific subscriber, without filling their delivery with superfluous (to the reader) content. This where Newspapers (in the authors case) typically contain 70% or more of wasted content to a typical specific user.

One comment under the article suggests one approach: existence of an open source aggregation model for the municipal bond market on Twitter via #muniland… journos from 20+ pubs, think tanks, govts, law firms, market commentators hash their story and all share.

Deep linking to useful, pertinent and interesting content is probably a big potential area if alternative approaches can crack it. Until then, i’m having to rely on RSS feeds of known authors I respect, or from common watering holes, or from the occasional flash of brilliance that crosses my twitter stream at times i’m watching it.

Just need to update Aaron Swartz’s code to spot water-cooler conversations on Twitter among specific people or sources I respect. That would probably do most of the leg work to enlighten me more productively, and without subjecting myself to pages of search engine discovery.

Further Insights – Apple/Beats and the Anaemic Twitter

Jimmy Iovine Interiew - AllThingsD

A bit of a slow day today – i’m doing my Amazon Web Services Accreditations and it appears to be a slow news day at the same time.

There was neat video cited by Benedict Evans Weekly Email where Jimmy Iovine, one of the two co-founders of Beats, was interviewed at a recent AllThingsDigital conference. Full 41 minute video here. Having listened to it yesterday, I think i’ve changed my mind – and that Beats is probably not the wholesale Xioami-type younger persons brand for Apple. Instead, it sounds like the real benefit is a redesign of Apple’s relatively unsuccessful “iTunes Match” and a re-implementation of the “iTunes Genius” recommendation engine. The Beats folks are curating their own “what track should we play next” capability with over 100 professional record industry mix specialists, and then trying to bolt on some behaviours that a machine-generated recommendation engine can follow.

On a completely different tack, I think Twitter’s lack of user growth is certainly below what most commentators appear to thing as possible (with a base of 200 million Monthly Active Users – compared to Facebooks 1.2 Billion equivalent). That said, there was a comment I saw berating people for being so hard on them.

The central argument is that only 60 million of the 200 million logged in Monthly Active Users post any tweets at all. There was a three year old comment from VC Fred Wilson (full text here) I saw that suggested this was actually a terrific achievement, and that most media production has far less user content shared. Fred (who was an early stage investor in the company) said:

Let’s remember one of the cardinal rules of social media. Out of 100 people, 1% will create the content, 10% will curate the content, and the other 90% will simply consume it. That plays out on this blog, that plays out in Twitter, and that plays out in most of the services we are invested in.

Twitter has 400mm active users a month, 100mm of them are engaged enough to log in, but only 60mm tweet. For years people have made it out like this is a bad thing. It’s not a bad thing. It is an amazing thing. Let people use the service the way they want and you’ll get more users. Logged out users are users just like logged in users. We should focus more on them, build services for them, and treat them like users, not second class citizens.

That said,  a few people are starting to complain about Marc Andreessen’s bombs of successive numbered tweets – the very thing i’ve said (with supporting dialogue from other participants) were really gold. The main complaint given (full article here) was the way they mess up the twitter streams of people who aren’t as fascinated as I am by the content of the discussion to-and-fro’s. I just wish there was a way to bottle these things – and i’m sure they will in time. Whether it’s in Twitter or with a different service. But that’s for another day.

In the meantime, back to my AWS certifications.

A week of “Twitter is dead” memes. The true state is more complex.

Social Network Icons

It’s the sort of news you expect in a Newspaper. I think M.G.Siegler was 100% correct in his article on Medium article entitled “Whither Twitter” (I think well worth the 3 minute read):

The reality is that Twitter is currently being torn down in the press so we can later get the Twitter resurrection story. That’s how this works. Why build something up if you can’t knock it down? And why knock it down if you can’t build it up again? Instead of one, consistent story, you get three for the price of one! The rise, the fall, the comeback. Rinse. Repeat.

That’s the preserve of the Newspaper Industry. One forum I navigate regular is “The Land of Serious Topics” on the UK Motley Fool, and it feels most days that over 80% the controversies come from the output of at least one of the six big Newspaper publishers here. Gotta sell papers. The more fascinating trend is that Newspaper readership is becoming the preserve of the (dying) old, and the younger sections of the population – who are more Internet savvy and get their information sourced more widely – typically see the world through more balanced, less bombastic eyes.

At face value, Twitter have gone public and suddenly all their numbers come into view for our consumption – and likewise for the industry surrounding Wall Street. They seem around 1 Billion people have registered for the service at some point, but monthly active users is around 200 million accounts – 1 in 5 still active. The market doesn’t see that growing, and having assumed a valuation based on high growth, the user count is not progressing to support their thesis. Quarterly revenues look fine, but the growth of users on the service doesn’t give folks the confidence that these can continue until the user base demonstrates healthy growth too.

Also notable this week was Amazon announcing a capability to be able to tweet details of a product with the hashtag #amazonbasket and have it dropped into your Amazon shopping cart for later review and/or purchase. Article about this from the BBC here.

I’m convinced there is something unique under the covers that no other social network nor comms medium comes close to, compared to Twitter. The main one I see is the virtual water cooler when specific people engage in a conversation about an industry change or observation of trends. I often see Marc Andreessen (@pmarca) kick off a numbered list which lots of high profile people pick at one by one, agreeing or offering alternate views. The one this weekend kicked off like this (please excuse the reverse order – read it bottom up) – he mulls over how poor the Apple iPhone was at placing voice phone calls when it first came out, compared to Nokia phones of the day that were comparatively rock solid doing this):

pmarca twitter numbered list

One of the innovations of one of the other social networks is to post a notification to your handset if a quorum of people known to you start engaging in a conversation like that at any time. A sort of “Hey, there’s an interesting conversation between your friends x, y, z, a and b going on – like to jump in to listen and/or contribute?”.

Another is to at least flag back to you if a message you sent was received by the other party and read. Twitter tended to remove a lot of the DM “Direct Message” capability from their mobile clients, so many people zone out into other communication media (like SMS, WhatsApp, Snapchat, iMessage, Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, etc) instead. So, a lot of the communication you have with different people (or audiences) gets fanned out across many silos. I for one would like to be able to throw an annotated map of where i’ve parked my car to my wife when I go to pick her up from a store, and to know that the message made it through and was read. Further complicated by me being on a Nexus 5 handset and her on an iPhone 5S.

One related idea is to allow an invisible hashtag on a message that identifies my physical location and could be optionally sent with a direct message – so she knows not only when i’ve left, but where from as well.

Another is to mark a post that i’ve read it when i’ve done so, and not tolerate my frequent realisation that “i’m sure i’ve read that an hour ago”. That’s one thing that VAX Notes did so well in times of old.

There seems to be an ever dizzying number of different mobile communication apps, from short message ones, to group comms, to blogs, to forums and all the way through to publishing apps (like Medium, Longreads, etc). Ever more disconnected silos. I’ve even looked at the potential of moving this blog from WordPress to something like discourse.org, in a vain attempt to facilitate more two way conversation (rather than me just punting words into the ether). The one thing that’s surprised me the most, in running a blog, is the sheer amount of content and link spam I need to contend with; i’ve so far posted every day for 74 days (today is #75) and my automated spam filter has caught 4,124 attempts to litter my site; that’s an average of over 55 attempts at responding to each and every post with link graffiti. This will probably be a factor in any new product, but something that Twitter have largely solved already (I see very little Twitter spam).

There look like plenty of useful use cases for Twitter right there under the surface. I however suspect that they have not yet made up their mind what they want to be for their users, and certainly not deeply enough to say no or to focus on what is important to realise that vision. And to be able to markedly improve user engagement, to make new users stick and to reduce what looks like a shocking amount of churn.

Time will tell if they decide this on their own, or have a competitor come do it more eloquently instead. Until then, it’s something I think about a lot – and agonise over what it would take to be that competitor.

Dear Water Cooler, if this person talks, please listen in for me

Twitter Bird Logo

Having only a small proportion of your registered users classified in your Monthly Active User (“MAU”) count is one of the surprising poor things about Twitter compared to most social media sites. However, some of the content there is absolute gold – if only there was a way to bottle it effectively.

The sort of thing that often happens is that a big announcement in the industry occurs (like Facebook taking over Virtual Reality Headset Maker Oculus, or Google buying Titan Aerospace, the manufacturer of solar powered drones that fly several miles up – above aircraft traffic – nominally as WiFi hotspots of the future where Internet Access is not yet available). There is then a collection of Venture Capitalists, Industry Analysts and folks with excellent industry backgrounds who mill around a virtual water cooler, and start bouncing views off each other on “what it means”.

Alternatively, you get someone like Marc Andreessen (@pmarca – one of the cofounders of Netscape and of VC Andreessen Horowitz, aka “A16Z”) rattling off a few observations about Venture Capital, and a myriad of people join in with views or differences of opinion. Again, another water cooler chat comes to life. The top level looked like this earlier today:

Points 1-11 of Marc Andreessen Talking about VC funding

Marc Andreessen Water Cooler points 11-15 re VC funding

I’m lucky in that when I get up, these folks on the West Coast of the USA are tweeting late into their night, so I get to see these posts at all. The one gotcha is that you have to step through each of his tweets to see the reposts and discussion around each point. When you do, it’s actually much better than a summary that a single quality journalist can put together – and bang up to date with the latest news in the industry. I waxed lyrical at this with a reply to Marc:

pmarca (Mark Andreessen) favouriting a post about Twitter water coolers

And then remembered i’d said the same thing to Kevin Marks during a Gillmor Gang podcast (on the live chat as the podcast was progressing, one Friday evening a week or two back). At the time, he suggested looking at a service called “Storify”. I did, but it hooks into Twitter based on subject matter, and not the way I thought would help. So, tweeted that as a comment back to Marc and to Kevin Marks:

Kevin Marks lays another golden nugget

And back came a reply from Kevin minutes later (he’s based in San Jose). Brilliant tip, so I went and had a look:

Aaron Swatz's Twitter Water Cooler Viewer

Bingo. Albeit it no longer works (as Kevin suggested), and we know that unfortunately, Aaron is no longer with us. So, time to go find his code and see if there’s a way to tweak it to work with the latest versions of the Twitter API, and then to lie in wait for any water cooler conversation taking place that involves one or more of a specific list of people I personally find valuable to listen to.

There are people in real life like that. You listen intently to what they say as gold nuggets keep getting brushed off their shoulders. I remember people like Tony Batchelor at Camborne School of Mines was like that (his expertise was geological and drilling for hot water far underground in Cornwall as a potential energy source, but his expertise in all sorts of related industries really fascinating to hear).

Twitter are sitting on the edge of being able to facilitate a sort of bottles of “TED Talk” quality conversations that they could farm from their own feeds. I’d even pay for those bottles – if they did a good job of keeping all eyes on those water cooler moments and could record them 24 hours/day, then deliver them to me succinctly. I fear I must miss most of them at the moment.

The Stupidity – then Brilliance – of Twitter

People talking by a Water Cooler

I often find Twitter frustrating. I get regular emails from them coercing me to follow all sorts of people who happen to hook into the feeds of people I already follow. For some time, I diligently added these in, thinking I would see some extra value that Twitter felt I would derive from doing so. Instead, I get all manner of folks promoting their skills to help businesses engage “Social Media” and general daily tittle tattle that pollutes my feed with rubbish content.

You get to start to comprehend the awful statistic that after getting over 1 Billion people to register, only 1/8 of that total still use the service regularly. Something of a clue stick that many people don’t feel they are getting sufficient value to stay engaged.

Beep! Notification on my Nexus 5 from Twitter: @MyHandyInfos, @GiraffeSM, and 4 more just followed @NevillMedia. None of whom i’ve ever heard about nor follow. WTF! I’m certainly not going to start now.

Over the weekend I put a post up about Facebook acquiring Virtual Reality headset maker Oculus VR (see it here), a move that completely threw me. At which point I started wondering if Mark Zuckerberg had a moment of sheer brilliance, or had spent $2 Billion rather unwisely. I couldn’t map it onto what I perceived to be a long term future for Facebook, but largely reserved judgement for another day.

When I got up this morning, I noticed a couple of the folks I follow – and respect – having one or two tweets flying between them on this very subject. Click as close as I could get to what seemed to be the early stages of the conversation, and got this (from the Twitter app on my iPad Mini):

Conversation Stream in Twitter

Absolute Gold! I was able to sidle up to the water cooler when all these folks I respect (plus some I didn’t know before) were having a to-and-fro conversation about this Facebook acquisition and what it meant. By the look of it, some time after they’d been active, but all there. Then a brief trip around some of the links cited, which included a good discussion on Reddit on Games, and mention of a very impressive “Immersive” demo in LA (I guess Los Angeles); there is a video of this on the Oculus VR web site, though it was down for maintenance when I tried first thing UK time today.

The gateway to that slither of gold is on a feed that would have flowed past me an hour later and gone completely out of sight. My first thought was how, if I was Twitter, I could bottle this sort of exchange, and how i’d be able to correctly delineate both the start and the end of that water cooler session – and make this available to me next time I had some reading time. That, I think, would increase engagement on Twitter no end. That’s the sort of journalism you can’t get from any other single source.

With that, my head started spinning around working out the data structures needed to hold each authors component parts of the conversation, and how to program in the links to join them all together. And indeed how to assign sufficient identifiers or tags on the resulting lump of dialogue, and to rank the resulting entities into some sort of personalised, prioritised news feed. Probably a mix of who was in the conversation stream (out of folks I mark as usually interesting to listen to) and the subject being discussed.

Ian’s brain starts wondering

From that, my brain started meandering into extended use cases (within the context of a single Organisation or Interest Group) of this. In some companies, the water cooler conversation may need to be limited to the folks participating, or within their departments, or within the company, at their option. Or to drag selected people from outside to participate in that discussion. Or indeed to allow someone outside to initiate a conversation, and other people (inside only, or everyone worldwide) able to join in. And to mark the resulting slither as done, issued resolved, or to bin it.

A worked example of what could be replaced

My wife received a mothers day gift yesterday – a Scented Fragrance Kit that needed 2/3 the bottle of Fragrance supplied poured into the main burner unit. Try as much as we could, we couldn’t remove the top from the bottle, and could find no instructions that told us how to do this (no amount of pressing, squeezing, turning or pulling did anything else but click over a ratchet). Fortunately, the company had a web site and discussion forum.

In order to use that, I had to register a name and password into their namespace, confirm by email, and then request assistance on the forum. Another person said the tops were often difficult, a moderator posted a link to online illustrated instructions on how to remove the top, and Customer Services offered to send us another. On finding the top still wouldn’t come off, I removed the outer top cover with a hacksaw, reported back the two root causes (teeth in cap very shallow, inside screwed on far too tight, necessitating removal using pliers), thanked everyone and left. I think unlikely that i’ll return there – but a slither of conversation that may be useful to them and maybe fellow customers.

A sort of Twitter type water cooler, where i’ve already established an identity (and reputation), would have achieved the same effect, without me having to build, and never return to, another online persona.

Ian’s brain goes off on another tangent

With that, my mind started wondering again, thinking sales transaction flows through an ERP system, and the selection of “who’s allowed to see or do what”, could be replicated in this sort of superset of record types in this virtual Twitter Water Cooler. At long last, something that could look modern and totally disrupt SAP. And I probably need to go lie down to think some more.

Back to the Oculus VR discussion – and demos it cited

With that in mind (or now forgotten), the missing Immersive demos of the Oculus VR can be found in the blog post here. One example of a future of storytelling journalism there is a scene around a Food Bank queue in Los Angeles, which plays back the real soundtrack but lets you walk around – and see – events as they unfold:

Now, can you imagine a future for Facebook and your News Feed like that? Or would it look more like this: