Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My Apple Saga

I must have spent a cumulative total of five full days and nights on a collection of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” during a recent business trip - an experience not even remotely as enjoyable or humorous as the one portrayed in the eponymous movie. I even enjoyed a free trip to Reykjav√≠k airport in Iceland for a short one hour detour on the way home when our flight was diverted there as a fellow passenger fell ill. I think it would be safe to say that I’ve now taken Iceland off my bucket list. The place is bleak – even in October.

Anyway, somewhere early on the trip, bored out of my mind in the hotel room in Dubrovnik, or was it Bangkok, I decided to upgrade my iPhone software to iOS 8: iOS8.0.2, to be exact. And I was off on a multi-day journey of agony.

My iPhone music database somehow got out of sync with my laptop's iTunes library music database and refused to sync music across the two devices. I'm sure there is an “if” statement in there somewhere that says "I give up. I can't figure out what to do in this corner case, so just throw up your hands and do nothing.” No error messages, no indication of problems. Just silent non-operation. “No syncing for you!”

So I tried to upgrade to the latest iTunes on my laptop since Apple kept politely reminding me to do so. Sure, let's see if the latest release of that software fixes the problem. Of course not. But the upgrade also resulted in a brand new iTunes UI and now I spent half an hour trying to find my way around. Still no go.

So I decided to go back to factory settings on my iPhone. When in doubt, Reset: The software engineer’s motto. It must be the dozens of upgrades I’ve done to both the iPhone and the iTunes software over the years causing havoc with the database schema.  Ok, finally. Some progress. I managed to get them to sync. But then my iPhone voice control thingy went berserk and started showing up every two minutes asking what I wanted it to do for me. As far as I can tell (after half an hour of searching the web), there is no way to turn this “useful” feature off. I could turn Siri on and off, but that made no difference. This was some older voice control system that is still in there. So much for listening to music on my iPhone.

Upon landing in Amsterdam, I was also surprised to see that my phone refused to ring even when the caller was standing two steps away and while the phone claimed to be receiving a perfect signal. Reset the phone again, problem gone. Just remember to do this every other day, especially if traveling internationally and switching between different carriers.

I will spare you the details of the dozen or so other minor problems I ran into. So I gave up on the iPhone and tried to sync my music with the iPad - by coincidence, the only Apple piece of software I hadn't upgraded through this whole episode. And it worked flawlessly.

So much for Apple as the shiny example of quality and user experience in the industry. I guess that's what happens when your systems become bigger and more complex and you have more and more combinatorics to test: Using feature in application b on iPhone hardware version running iOS version syncing with iTunes version e running on Windows version f or MacOS version g, etc. It's just natural that you can’t test every case. Hence the quality and interop issues.

Reminds me of the old Microsoft days. And it's taken less than ten years. I guess it's just a reminder that adding one more option to a distributed system doesn't increase its complexity linearly. It increases it exponentially.

The irony is not lost on me that I now have to carry three devices around with me - laptop, iPhone, and iPad - and let us not forget “the cloud”, just to listen to some music: a task I used to accomplish with a CD player and a stack of CD’s just five years ago. Ah... Progress
A few days after returning from the above mentioned trip, I was happy to finally receive my brand shiny new iPhone 6 in the mail. As soon as I stopped salivating over the box and started using it, though, my enthusiasm turned sour.

My old nemesis, the “Voice Control" system, was back, interrupting me every couple of minutes asking how it could help, all while I tried to listen to some music. I wondered if anyone else was hearing this annoying disembodied “voice” from beyond trying to “control” them. Perhaps I had lost it after all and it was all just a voice in my head!

Half an hour of furious Googling led me to thousands of other similar complaints and hundreds of proposed solutions – some including scotch tape, blow dryers, and chewing gum!

It was only then that I realized I had neglected to experiment with one variable in the formula: the headphones! I swapped out my headphones and, voila, the annoying voice went away. Apparently, it’s a known issue caused by a short in headphone wires.

At least that one bug was not Apple’s fault. Now onto the other two dozen issues I’ve run into.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Otolaryngology Man

Have you ever had something small (like a gnat) stuck up your nose? It happens to me sometimes when I go for a run. Then you inhale sharply and it goes all the way down your throat. You can feel the motion as it goes down your nose because that particular path is not usually used in that direction.

When this happens, I feel like "Otolaryngology Man"... based on one of those pictures in the doctor’s office. I'm not sure what my special powers are, but I'm sure I have some.

This also explains, genetically speaking, why kids eat booger. It has nutritional value and, as such, I'm sure it played a role in our ancestors' survival over the years.

Ok, so maybe I shared a little too much on this one.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

That's "Knife" with a "K"!

I was teaching my niece, Eden, who just turned four years old today, how to play "I Spy". 

When it was her turn, she picked a word that started with "K". It took me a couple of minutes to realize she was talking about the camera I was holding in my hand. And then I had to explain to her why it sounds like "k" but is really spelled with "c".

The next word she picked was "knife", a word that obviously starts with "n"... here we go again.

Can someone remind me of that logic again? I'm a bit rusty.

Oh... and happy birthday, Eden! I hope your generation will be a more rational one than ours.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Good Husband

My wife was watching the show “The Good Wife” on TV the other night. I asked her if she knew why there is no TV show named “The Good Husband”... because it would basically be a reality show with many shots of me sitting around the house pounding away at a keyboard. She didn’t seem to think that was funny.

I tried to get TheGoodHusband as a blog name, but it was already taken... so you have to put up with BenBob.

"Experience" as a Differentiator: Economic Musings of a Novice

“One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations. Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it. Over the past few decades, we have invented countless time saving machines that are supposed to make life more relaxed - washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, telephones, mobile phones, computers, email. We thought we were saving time; instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.”
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“He attacked everything in life with a mixture of extraordinary genius and naive incompetence and it was often difficult to tell which was which.”
Douglas Adams. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“I mean I don't really know what you're talking about. I mean I know what you're talking about, but I don't really know what you're talking about.”
Wallace Shawn. My Dinner with Andre.
These observations are probably obvious to an economist. I'm not an economist (and I don't even play one on TV). Please excuse the naivete.

I believe we are at an inflection point in the history of computing. We have commoditized computing to the point that it has become ubiquitous. That means we need to look for a different kind of differentiator than just TCO (Total Cost of Ownership). Thanks to commoditization, many items that were once considered luxuries have become “cheap enough”. We need to find something else to get customers excited; that something is often a better experience.

This pattern is not unique to computing. If I were to plot the history of many industries as a graph, it would be an inverted bell curve starting as expensive and niche initially, becoming cheap and abundant over time. Once this happens, margins erode and industry leaders look to offering a “better experience” at a higher cost, thus resulting in the inverted bell curve.

Computing and the web have literally changed every aspect of our lives over the past twenty years, making our lives dramatically easier, richer, and more connected. Each of us has unlimited computing capacity at our fingertips. Look around you and I bet you’ll find dozens of "computers” around you: your phone, your iPad, your MP3 player, your laptop, the microwave oven, your DVR, the GPS in your car, not to mention the computer that controls the brakes and the other one that controls the radio or the one that controls the parking sensors. Even your home thermostat has a tiny processor and a primitive user interface. Not only that, but all of these devices are increasingly connected to the web, offering a new streamlined experience for everything from photography to mail to travel reservation to banking to social interactions to business transactions.

The world is becoming increasingly digitized and available to the masses - regardless of whether you are sitting at an Internet cafe in Botswana or typing away on your iPad at 30,000 feet. At this rate, even your toothbrush will soon have an IP address and a WiFi connection to the internet so your dentist can keep tabs on your brushing and commend or chastise you during your next visit - dentistry as a service through the cloud. The “Internet of Things” will be upon us sooner than most people realize. I would argue it is already here.

Now that processing power has become ubiquitous, we need some other differentiator to keep technology fueled industries growing. I claim that differentiator is "experience", in its broadest sense. Steve Jobs so brilliantly realized this - as simplicity, as usability, as "luxury", as natural interfaces like touch and speech - that he basically took over several industries in a few short years - not just laptops but also phones, music, and movies.

There is a second force at play here. In 2010, a record breaking ten million people around the world were millionaires. Compare that number to about three thousand millionaires a century ago.  As the world gets richer by the year, more and more people have disposable income that they are willing to spend on a little bit of luxury. You might argue that a million dollars today is not worth a fraction of a million dollars in 1900, but I hope you agree that the majority of the world population has a much better standard of living fueled by technology and commoditization.

I've used computing to illustrate my point but the same rules apply to many other industries: You can commoditize only so far and then you have to differentiate by offering a better experience in order to win:
  • Airline travel was insanely expensive for many decades, then it became so ridiculously cheap that airlines are now making money by catering to the rich, "the one percent", with ever more glamorous business and first class offerings. We (or our corporations in many cases) don't mind paying a little more for a better experience.
  • Light bulbs were once a rarity, then they became so cheap that the Earth now shines when viewed from outer space. So now that you can get a light bulb for ten cents, we don't mind splurging for the luxury of halogen lamps with $30 bulbs.
  • Cars were once viewed as a luxury, but are now so cheap that we can afford to splurge on luxuries like $2000 Bi-Xenon headlamps or seats that give us a massage.
  • Computing was once outrageously expensive. Microsoft and Intel made it so cheap that you can buy a laptop for $299. But now we've turned the corner and many people choose to pay $1499 for a MacBook Air that offers a better experience.
  • Headphones used to be a luxury, then they became so cheap that you get one for free every time you fly. Suddenly, high end headphones are a fad and we’re willing to pay $400 for a pair of headphones.
  • Internet access was once upon a time slow, unreliable, and expensive. It is now so cheap and ubiquitous that we are willing to pay more for higher bandwidth rates and Fiber and LTE: basically a better "experience".
  • Refrigeration was once so expensive that only the rich had refrigerators a century ago. Then, through technology and commoditization, it became so cheap that anyone could buy one for $200. Suddenly, now we are paying $5000 for a top of the line Sub-Zero.
  • Televisions were once a luxury. It was only forty years ago that most of the world had to huddle together as a family or village to watch Ali defeat Frazer. Ten years ago, TV’s were so commoditized that even a top of the line one was no more than a few hundred dollars. Today, we have hit the knee of the curve and are on the upswing. Now we pay $2000 for 3D 70-inch super ultra-thin luxury plasma TVs and expect to have one in every room.
  • Photography was once an exclusive and expensive hobby for the rich. Today, cameras are so cheap and abundant that you have not just one, but two, in your smart phone and you can get a $5 disposable one at the neighborhood pharmacy. Suddenly, digital SLR’s costing $1000+ are a fad - because they offer superior quality.
  • Nespresso sells their espresso capsules, containing roughly five grams of coffee, for about 75 cents. That means you get to pay $75 for one pound of coffee! Of course, those capsules are useless to you unless you also buy their espresso maker for roughly $400. Compare that to the prices we used to pay for a pound of top notch coffee ($15) or a coffee maker ($30) just a few years ago. And you thought the coffee industry had been commoditized decades ago.
  • Restoration Hardware vs. IKEA.
  • Whole Foods vs. Safeway.
  • Starbucks vs. Dunkin' Donuts.
  • Tesla vs. Toyota.
  • iOS vs. Windows.
  • Robert Mondavi (or your favorite winery) vs. Two Buck Chuck.

Enough said.

Note that there is more to this than "quality". Toyota has great quality. So does IKEA.