Intelligent assistants and the future

There’s a lot of excitement about messaging and virtual assistant technologies today. Facebook have launched a chat API, Google have released their natural language API, Microsoft are poised to bring Project Oxford to market as a product, and Apple still retain tight control on Siri. There’s a lot of opportunity here to create useful applications, and the race is on to be the first with the Next Big Thing:

All appear to be efforts to commoditize both speech recognition and natural language understanding. In this context, “commodity” means “ubiquity,” and that bodes well for the large, incumbent solutions providers like IBM, Nuance, Google, and Microsoft. They all stand to benefit by selling more products and services when people ask for solutions that understand the words they say (in addition to text).

There’s a lot to be excited about here, but I’m skeptical about voice as an interface can ever be as efficient as the loop between physical interaction and updating a screen, namely with a terminal. I wonder if the future holds more technically savvy users that don’t want your dumbed-down interface or broadly available and easy to use computers. Personally, I want a future where everyone runs their own cloud server.

Apple’s growth and value on Wall Street

If you’re a publicly traded company on today’s Wall Street, you’re going to need to cater to an audience I somewhat disparagingly call “growth nerds.” These are investors that know the signs of a business that is on a better-than-linear revenue trajectory, and will throw their money at you if you can show them that. There’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just the nature of speculation.

There’s another audience on Wall Street, people an organizations that are looking for long-term, slow growth, or reliable dividends. I’ve heard this called “blue chip” or “value stocks”, and these tend to be big, established corporations. Tech companies today are in a unique place: there’s still a lot of growth and instability in companies like Twitter and Uber, but there’s also a lot of stable, value stocks like Oracle and Google. Where I’m going with this is the obsession with “peak iPhone.” Here’s John Gruber on the topic:

[G]iven that you can almost draw a straight line connecting the other four points in the chart, I’m not willing to call it a peak yet. But even if we see a return to growth, it might take several years before we see another Q2 with over 60 million units sold.

I’m a developer that works on Apple platforms and I don’t care if Apple grows in the sense of number of units sold or average selling price or any of those revenue-based growth metrics. If you want to bet on quarter over quarter growth, Android and the web are better for that, at least in part because of Apple’s average selling price. Apple doesn’t need to grow their phone business in my opinion, they need to keep their phones the best in the industry so that users of their products remain engaged. If you want a compelling reason to believe that Apple is a better value stock (and by corollary a safer technological bet) than Google in the long run, look at the metrics around user engagement and purchases within apps. (These metrics are a couple years old, if you find more up-to-date numbers please share them).

Overall, Google Play continues to post huge global download gains and command 60% higher than iOS App Store downloads in Q3 2014. […] In Q3 2014, iOS App Store’s revenue was around 60% higher than Google Play’s.
My point here is that Google’s incentives are better oriented to Wall Street’s growth nerds that’ll appreciate the quantifiable metrics of downloads and taps, and Apple’s strategy has historically been oriented towards capturing a professionals, particularly creatives, and increasingly enterprise clients. I think part of what makes the “peak iPhone” concern so loud is that Apple has been attracting the growth-stock crowd since iPhone’s explosive success. And now that iPhone’s growth phase is at least slowing down, we’re going to see a change in message from Apple, and I think the cautious phrasing of this message from Tim Cook:

Creating value for shareholders by developing great products and services that enrich people’s lives will always be our top priority and the key factor driving our investment and capital allocation decisions.

Namely, that the one “top” priority is creating value for shareholders by creating value for consumers. Of course, creating value for shareholders is often at odds with creating value for consumers in the short term. And while it’s somewhat cliche to say this, but I do get a sense of ethical upstandingness and authenticity from Tim Cook. Considering Apple and Wall Street’s increasingly divergent goals, I recommend considering Chuq Von Rospach‘s recent hypothesis:

Apple announced its dividend and stock buyback programs about 3 years ago. In that time, the number of shares outstanding for the company has dropped almost 15%. That’s a much bigger number than I expected to find.

And that got me thinking… What if Apple has decided to buy a company? But rather than go out and buy a company where integration with Apple’s technology and culture might create their own set of problems, what if Apple decided to buy itself back from Wall Street? What if Apple is planning to go private?

Highly speculative, which is exactly the type of behavior that got Apple here in the first place.

 

Instagram testing new app design

Instagram is testing a re-design of their app that’s more in line with the iOS 7 aesthetic. While I no longer post to Instagram for copyright and privacy reasons, as a user, I’ve always appreciated their app and its design because it was a bold opinion is a sea of faceless black, white, and blue minimalism. However, as a developer, the faceless minimalism trend is great because it makes my job easier.

Tell American Electric Power: stop funding opponents of the Clean Power Plan

American Electric Power’s power plants are major source of heat-trapping carbon pollution in the United State, so it’s a big deal when the utility company says, “…we recognize the need to responsibly address the issue of climate change.”

But actions speak louder than words. American Electric Power still irresponsibly funds opponents of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Clean Power Plan, including the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity and the US Chamber of Commerce.

We need to send American Electric Power’s CEO a message: responsible utilities do not fund special interest groups that oppose the EPA’s action on climate change.

Sign the petition.

British parliament exempts itself from laundering checks

British MPs have passed a law exempting them from being scrutinized by banks for associations with money launderers, terrorists, and corruption. I’m simply astounded by their shamelessness, some claiming that this was to protect their “grannies” banks. From Guido Fawkes:

George Osborne this afternoon accepted an amendment to the Financial Services Bill which will see some Politically Exposed Persons and their families exempted from these anti-money laundering rules. Ministers will now “exclude… specified categories of persons” from the list of so-called PEPs, as Osborne says it is “disproportionate”for banks to include MPs and relatives on the watch list.

And if this doesn’t just reek of colonialism, classism, and exceptionalism, here’s a line from the Mirror reporting on this:

[Charles Walker] sniffed at the “small amount of money” Mr Cameron had made out of the deal, saying it was only “enough to buy a Skoda Octavia.”

Of course, only little people drive those, it’s easy to afford an Aston Martin when you’re above the law.

No more coal mining on public lands

The federal coal leasing policy has been dangerously out of step with the public good on our public health and the urgent need to transition away from fossil fuels. Climate change is an emergency and we can no longer afford for our public lands to be a major source of climate change pollution. It’s long past time for federal land use policy that prioritizes the health and safety of Americans, not the profits of coal industry executives. We must keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Sign the petition.

United Electrical Workers endorse Sanders

Bernie Sanders has received the endorsement of over 100 national and local unions representing well over a million people, including a 35,000 person unanimous endorsement from the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. That’s amazing. In response, he had this to say:

During my 25 years in Congress, I have been proud to stand side by side with the UE fighting to increase the minimum wage to a living wage; to guarantee health care to every man, woman and child as a right; to make it easier for workers to join unions; to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure; to transform our nation’s energy system; and against disastrous trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement and normalized trade with China which have destroyed millions of decent-paying jobs in America.

This is a concise elucidation of why I voted for Bernie Sanders in the NY primary. I’m glad he’s polling increasingly well against Hillary in California, but unfortunately I don’t think Pennsylvania and Maryland favor Sanders.

Set new conditions for military aid to Saudi Arabia

There’s a lot that I disagree with in Senator Rand Paul’s publicly stated positions, but his bill to stop selling armaments to Saudi Arabia is absolutely right. Senators should co-sponsor the Murphy-Paul bill to set new conditions on U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia. Sign the petition.

Ask “the big 5” nations to deliver on their Paris climate commitments

World leaders have officially signed the groundbreaking Paris climate agreement — and now it’s time to put this visionary blueprint for global climate action into motion. We’re looking to the world’s five largest emitters of climate-wrecking carbon pollution — the U.S., the European Union, China, India and Brazil — to lead this fight against climate chaos. Sign the petition calling on The Big 5 to deliver on their Paris climate commitments.

Sign the Petition

All new watchOS apps will require using the watchOS 2 SDK

It’s been very trendy to dislike the Apple Watch recently, and especially to decry the future of Apple based on the product’s performance in the marketplace to date. In any case, Apple have kept moving forward with their Watch, from Ben Collier:

Apple’s Developer News states that all new watchOS apps need to be built with watchOS 2.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, the original watchOS apps clearly were a stopgap until Apple could finish the watchOS 2 software. Since its launch there wasn’t a compelling reason to write any new watch apps in anything but the faster and more reliable watchOS 2.

Apps on the Apple Watch are something of a mistake in my opinion. As a very satisfied user of the Watch, I never open an app through the circular app interface: it’s all about notifications, complications, and glances. I’d like to see custom faces announced at WWDC, because I’d love to see what 3rd party developers could do with custom watch faces.

The roadmap to self-driving cars

Jim Dalrymple of The Loop:

Reuters:

In the race to develop self-driving cars, the United States and Europe lead in technology, but China is coming up fast in the outside lane with a regulatory structure that could put it ahead in the popular adoption of autonomous cars on its highways and city streets.

I’m not surprised at all. This is going to be an interesting battle over the next 5 years or so

This is a story of the same proportion as the race to land on the moon. In many ways, the future of humanity depends on self-driving electric cars, because the amount of carbon and physical waste produced by our need for transportation has already irrevocably damaged our only planet. Furthermore, the first country that has a technology company that can get a self-driving product on the road is going to reap a lot of monetary reward. It’s going to take coordinated action from governments to correctly regulate and technology companies to safely implement to pull off a consumer or even B2B self-driving, perhaps electric, car.

What companies do you know of that can pull off radical innovation and package it into a sleek product that people want?

Paul’s week in review response: April 24, 2016

Katie Floyd posts excellent week-in-reviews posts, and I thought I’d offer my thoughts on some of those headlines.

Apple introduced an update to the MacBook Line. The update includes faster processors, longer battery life and a new Rose Gold option.

The MacBook, historically, has been a product which has lower-end hardware and broader appeal than the Pro variant. These MacBooks seem to make a different set of compromises, where the hardware is still lower-end but the price is not, and it’s viscerally appealing (to me and I presume others) but it’s not so broad because of the single USB-C port. I’ve seen a couple in the wild, so I presume they’re popular.

That new MacBook Pro (and hopefully a Retina External Cinema Display) that I’ve been longing for might just be announced at WWDC. Apple has announced the World Wide Developers Conference will kick off June 13th in San Francisco.

It’s difficult not to think about it, but I’ve prepared my bank account for purchasing a refreshed MacBook Pro for 6 months now, so I’m trying to go into this WWDC without any expectations. But I assure Apple executives my bank account is ready for a MacBook Pro!

With regards to WWDC, I haven’t received word about my ticket status yet so I hope they’re are still tickets to be had!

Last week the iTunes Movies and iBooks store suddenly went dark in China.

China and Apple must have such a complicated relationship. China wants to keep Apple’s manufacturing in China, but likely resents an American company putting a camera, microphone, and Internet-connected device into Chinese people’s lives. Similarly, Apple saves a lot of money manufacturing in China and makes a lot of money selling their devices there, but likely resents the privacy compromises it has to make to do business there and the control the Chinese government retain over Apple’s business there.

In legal news this week, the Justice Department has dropped its New York case against Apple in an effort to obtain a passcode for an iPhone 5s. … This news comes on the heals of a report that the FBI paid in excess of $1 million for the hack that was used to access the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone 5c.

This is a PR battle that I’m pleased Apple to have won. The Feds and government officials must be so embarrassed to have learned nothing from the San Bernardino iPhone, and Apple have been schooling them on the facts about encryption. I’ve been so accustomed to government getting what they want that it’s almost unusual to be happy with this result.

UK Cabinet office to gag scientists

Science is our best tool for understanding the world, and scientific results can be inconvenient, like in these cases from the Guardian:

These critics highlight examples such as those of sociologists whose government-funded research shows new housing regulations are proving particularly damaging to the homeless; ecologists who discover new planning laws are harming wildlife; or climate scientists whose findings undermine government energy policy. All would be prevented from speaking out under the new grant scheme as it stands.

These policies go into effect in Britain on May 1st unless something changes, and that would be a grand shame.

Update 4/26/16

Thank goodness:

Ministers have exempted thousands of scientists from a controversial “gagging clause” that would have prevented the academics from trying to influence government on public policy matters.

Tell NMFS: Protect Mantas Now!

One of the ocean’s most remarkable creatures is disappearing at an alarming rate and needs your help.

The majestic manta ray is in trouble. Weighing as much as a Toyota Prius with a wingspan twice the size of the largest bird, mantas are being overfished, in some places to the brink of extinction.

Tell NMFS: Protect Mantas Now!

App Store pay-to-play redux

There has been a lot reaction to Bloomberg’s story of pay-to-play App Store results. Initially, I discounted the report on grounds that Apple doesn’t stand to make a lot of money on it. Having thought about it more, and considering new evidence, I’m not so sure. Namely, Marco Arment‘s and John Gruber‘s pieces made me reconsider:

Also, Arment raises a good question, wondering about the motivations of whoever leaked the story to Bloomberg:

Either to warm us up to the idea so we’re not so mad in June, or by someone inside who doesn’t think it’s right and wants ammo to win the argument internally.

I’ve been wondering about this too. I don’t think it makes sense that it’s a trial balloon from someone in favor of the program. Apple doesn’t care about “warming us up” to changes. They don’t care. I think it makes more sense as a leak from someone opposed to it, and who foresaw that it wouldn’t go over well. Damn curious either way, though.

The App Store started off indie because of the shared code with Mac and intense developer interest, but I think Apple’s plan has always been to cater to big brands, like Nike, Disney, Bank of America, etc. Arguably, Apple has an incentive to keep the cost of software on the App Store as low as possible, because a rich ecosystem of low-cost apps further justifies the high cost of their hardware. Here’s Ben Thompson on this point in 2013:

It’s a reason to buy Apple hardware, and that’s all that matters. Anything that on the surface makes the store less desirable for hardware buyers – such as more expensive apps – is not in Apple’s interest.

The reason I was wrong about Apple making money on paid search is I was looking at this from my own perspective, that Apple doesn’t stand to make money from me (and people like me) on pay-to-play App Store search results. But from the big brands like Nike, Disney, and Bank of America, etc, Apple absolutely stands to make good money. And perhaps Apple believe this to be a way of solving the discoverability problem too. Another reason I was wrong is that Apple doesn’t stand to make a lot of money compared to their hardware today, but mobile trends suggest that people are spending less and less time searching for things in their browser on, say, Google, and increasingly spending time in apps. Bloomberg themselves called this a “Google-like” approach, and so maybe Apple is thinking this is how they can take some of Google’s future business.

In any case, I think we should all wait for an actual announcement from Apple before getting to worked up about this.

The gender pay gap in tech

I followed the public posting of salaries on Hacker News yesterday, and it’s pretty interesting to see how, frankly, high salaries in tech are today. But not quite the same high for everyone:

Not only are women grossly under-represented among developers, but they are grossly under-paid. Women earned on average $13,000 less than their male counterparts. Even when you control for location, title, and years of experience, women still get $5,000 less per year than men.

Big money and Sanders’ viability

My criticisms of Hillary Clinton as president is that I don’t think her interests are aligned with the people, and relatedly, she’s continually shown herself to be a war hawk. Here’s Trevor Timm from the Guardian on this point:

[I]t would be difficult not to worry about at least the potential for a conflict of interest, when weapons manufacturers and Saudi Arabia were making donations to the Clinton Foundation while their weapons deals were approved by the State Department, oil companies were doing the same before the State Department approved the oil sands pipeline project, and other fossil fuels donated at around the same time the secretary was advocating increased fracking abroad.

There’s a narrative that this paranoia borders McCarthyism that substitutes communism with money, because even Sanders in the NY debate couldn’t name a single action that Clinton took that was influenced by her donations. I don’t buy it. When I pay for something, like a hosting service or a hot meal or rent, I expect a return on investment. There’s no way that Clinton’s donors, some of the most profitable organizations on Earth, are giving her money out of the goodness of their heart, the notion is ludicrous.

And that’s why I’m glad Sanders has a plan. Here’s his campaign manager explaining Sanders’ pitch to Democrats:

And in November, you know, only about a quarter of the population is Democrats. If you can’t create a coalition with independent voters, you can’t win the White House. You can’t win the Senate. You can’t bring additional people into the House.

So this is what has to be built in November. It has to be Democrats along with independents to defeat the Republicans. And Bernie Sanders is the candidate who can do that.

 

1.5C climate change report

Climate change science and its economic and socio-cultural impact is a fascinating and relatedly terrifying case study into the human condition. The last battle was to limit emissions to curtail warming the oceans to 2C over the pre-industrial era. But this may not be enough, recent science suspects:

The 1.5C report was requested by governments meeting at the Paris climate talks in December where countries unexpectedly agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. 1.5C marks the point, say many scientists, where there is a real danger of serious “tipping points” in the world’s climate. Temperatures have already risen 1C and show little sign of slowing.

I agree with the aphorism that “no one person can do everything to solve this problem, but everyone can do something.” Try to curtail waste in your everyday life, and vote for government that realizes the dangers of global climate change.

Corporate greed and Bernie Sanders

I suspect one of the reasons we cannot “afford” universal healthcare, living wages, or paid family leave in the richest country on Earth is that multinationals dodge their taxes. So I’m sad to learn that the EU has failed to create adequate regulations for public country-by-country reporting of income tax. Panama and states like it are tax havens for massive amounts of money, but there’s sufficient multinational tax dodging in the EU and the US we should focus on first.

Corporate greed needs to end. They’re taking advantage of the benefits of America, yet refuse to accept their responsibilities as Americans.

Bernie Sanders

This is why I’m upset that Bernie Sanders was trounced in the New York democratic primary. I don’t believe that Hillary Clinton can accept Big Money’s paychecks for speeches and still fight for the interests of the People, they’re going to want their return on investment.