Category: hardware

Smartphone Denial

A few years ago, I wrote a post for Austin Startup in a weekly column I was doing called mobileTech Tuesdays.

The post was entitled “This Is Not A Smartphone And I Don’t Care” in which I reviewed my impressions of the first and only DellWorld I’ve attended, in 2011.

IMG_1689In the post, I used the photo of the giant, ruggedized structure you see in the picture, which dominated the exhibit floor, as visual proof of Dell’s abandonment of the consumer business.

Going “all in” on enterprise wasn’t a bad idea, so I wasn’t indicting the strategy. But, it irked me that the company was still trying to have it both ways, by continuing to spit out half-ass consumer products.

Even though I had supported the “home team” for many years, by buying Wintel PCs from Dell, I’d finally had enough a year later. I documented my frustrations with my Inspiron XP in a post entitled “I’m Done with Dell” in September 2012.

That didn’t necessarily mean I was done with Dell entirely. As far as I was concerned, Dell for the enterprise was the only viable option, having served as a Chief Information Officer (CIO) and a consultant to CIOs for a number of years, earlier in my career.

So, about a year later, I was intrigued when Dell introduced a product called the Cloud Connect in late 2013. I got on the beta program list and received my copy of the product.

This is a good example of when a product sounds good in theory, but unravels in practice for all but the most niche use-cases.

cloud3The idea was to provide a portable pocket- or purse-sized computer in a memory stick form factor. In this case, an HDMI connector, rather than USB.

Interestingly, the product reminded me of an identical idea, introduced a decade earlier in 2003 by a company called Seaside, that had a Microsoft Exchange dedicated PC-on-a-USB called the xKey.

This was a time well before mass-market smartphones, back when pagers and the first pager-sized Blackberrys (we called them “Crackberrys” because they were so addictive, even then!) were the norm.

So, the idea of carrying a secure, battery-less PC in your pocket, seemed to make more sense. But, today, as the battle rages between iPhones and high-function/low-cost smartphone makers out of Asia, like Xiaomi, the Cloud Connect makes much less sense.

Because, while they would like you to think all you need is this, plus a monitor (preferably a Wyse)…

cloud4

What you really need is this…

cloud2

So much for portability!

And, while anyone 3-year old can use an iPhone or an iPad (product docs on top), I felt like I was returning to mainframe configuration class, when I slogged through the Cloud Connect docs (on bottom).

IMG_8588

In fact, I had to laugh when, just like back in the days of IBM 360/370 Assembler manuals I had in college and my early days of Accenture, the Cloud Connect docs included the legendary “This page intentionally blank” apology.

A much smarter solution, in my humble opinion, would have been for Dell to focus on partnering with (or buying) an MDM software maker and then creating a flawless smartphone & mobile device management experience across its servers, network devices, and now vast array of storage, with EMC.

cloud1Because, at the end of the day, the Cloud Connect isn’t that much smaller than my iPhone 5s, which fits nicely in my pocket with room to spare.

My guess is that the product serves some particular US federal or state agency niche or one for foreign governments or NGOs requiring some extreme form of physical and digital security.

If not, then it demonstrates how far a company will go when it makes a strategic decision to avoid the consumer tech products business, even if it essentially means denying the ubiquity of smartphones & tablets, by instead recreating a smart version of mainframe computer networks, 50 years after they were the only show in town.

The Media Monetization Cycle

The media monetization cycle (MMC) is something that I’ve come to observe, experientially, from more than 30 years of working in information and communications technology.

In short, as the chart shows, experience has shown that new media go through three cycles of value creation: content, community, commerce.

bbv - MMC hand-drawnAnd, while all three are essential at some level, to the medium’s success, the quest for media companies and those that build on top of the medium (like the web) is to see how quickly they can reach the commerce curve.

Knowing that all new media go through the MMC, your strategy should be to anticipate the commerce curve and build a platform for facilitating the transition from content and community as easily as possible.

For applications development and infrastructure planning, this has broad implications for everything from user ID management, to client- and server-wide applications payloads, to schema development and database distribution, and more.

Ideally, you want to build all of those things, knowing that the medium will eventually get a place where commerce is a principle driver of activity across it, if the THE principle driver.

Understanding the MMC is more important than ever, because the pace of technology adoption has become faster than ever, as reflected by the chart from Singularity.com.

bbv - tech adoptionIf you are in a profession, like I am, where you are in the business of seeking to launch innovative new ventures that leapfrog or even transcend (a nicer way of saying “disrupt”) incumbent technologies, then the more that you build – from the very beginning – towards the inevitable maturation point of the MMC, the better positioned you will be.

Think[box]: The Maker Movement’s Future

IMG_5322In September, I visited my son Ben in Cleveland. He is a 2012 graduate of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where he received his Bachelor’s with a double major in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

(That’s Ben in glasses, troubleshooting a question by other son, Andrew.)

During his college studies, Ben had a full-time internship every summer, each time with different companies, from start-up innovative gear makers to billion-dollar industrial parts makers.  But, he bypassed all of those employers and more when he accepted an offer to stay in Cleveland working at the University.

Why? Because, quite simply, he’s got the coolest job you could ever want being a newly minted mechanical engineering grad, as the inaugural manager of a brand new public-private “maker” lab at Case Western called Think[box].

IMG_5320In case you’ve missed it, the “maker movement” phenomenon is about a decade-old, resurgence in American industrial design and manufacturing know-how, kindling the spirit and curiosity of a new generation of hands-on creators like Ben.

Made popular by Maker Faire and Make magazine, the maker movement’s sandbox has been a series of mostly community-driven, Do-It-Yourself (DIY) maker labs, more recently professionalized by the Techshop chain.

What sets Think[box] apart, however, is the comprehensive nature of its vision.  First, it’s filled with a tremendous array of gear: 3D printers, laser cutters, numerically controlled routers, and much, much more.

IMG_5318All of this gear and technical assistance (from staff like Ben and student interns) is available at no charge to students and the general public.

Indeed, Ben tells me that a little-known fact is that Think[box] will run anyone’s project, e.g., a 3D printed prototype, no matter where they live, as long as they supply the ready-to-go CAD files and pay for the materials & shipping.

IMG_5321Second, Think[box] funders expect to break ground in 2014 on a seven-story building that will be fully dedicated to all-things Think[box] – teaching and workshop space; incubating and accelerating startups; design, manufacturing, and assembly staging; offices and more.

Their ambitious goal is to rapidly rise to the level of MIT’s Media Lab, at least in the mechanical, maker space.  It’s an exciting place to be – literally a playground of ideas.

IMG_5314I couldn’t help but break out some of the brainstorming materials from the ideation station on the day I was there.

You can see the mess I made, cobbling together a small-scale, rough model of a mechanical art installation I had as an idea for the 2014 ArtPrize competition.  One word: Nerdtastic!

I’m Done with Dell

I’m done with Dell.

For the foreseeable future, at least – which I grant, can be fleeting in the hyperdrive world of tech – I’m not planning to buy another Dell product.

I’m sure that my many MacColleagues (and Sony and HP and…) are probably saying to themselves “duh, what took you so long?”

But, you have to understand: I live in Austin, Texas and as far as I’m concerned, Dell is a hometown company, as worthy of my local patronage as Austin Java Company or Alamo Drafthouse.

Thus, for decades now, I’ve remained loyal to Dell, buying Dell products – especially PCs – over and over again. After all, Austin has benefitted tremendously from the corporate success of Dell, as well as from the generosity of countless Dell employees.

From Michael Dell on down, the company’s employees have literally given tens of millions of dollars to organizations and people around the Greater Austin area.  Along the way, I’ve been fortunate to work with many “Dell-ionaires” in philanthropy and community work, through United Way, Austin Social Ventures Partners, Knowbility, Austin Community Foundation, and many other groups.

But, I digress.   You know the saying “hate the sin, but love the sinner?” Well, for me and Dell consumer goods, it’s come to this: hate the products, but love the company.

It’s taken a long time to get here. Let me recount just a few of the milestones (patience-thinning transgressions?) I’ve weathered along the way:

There was the PCs Limited – that was Dell’s name back then – desktop computer that was delivered to my door in 1987. It was so noisy, clunky, and buggy that I took advantage of the 30-day, money-back guarantee and returned it.

(Good on you Dell, for making that offer back then – see… you were always a “services” company, even if Michael resisted using that word, until first IBM and then HP started kicking your butt.)

Then, there was my first, true Dell laptop in the early ’90s. But, of course, there was the matter of those giant, black, brick-like batteries that you had to wiggle to hit the contacts so your PC would power-up, when they weren’t simply over-heating or failing-out of charge.

(That set Dell back a bit. Again, credit the hometown crew for bringing in Mort Topfer and a host of others to fix the supply chain and come roaring back with an unprecedented run for the remainder of the decade.)

Then, came the big expansion to consumer products in the late 90s early 2000s. High end TVs, projectors, MP3 players, etc.

I tried one of those MP3 players. Actually bought it as a Christmas gift for my daughter.

You know… the ones with the internal hard drive, instead of flash memory? (Thought I was trading her up from the hand-me-down Rio that I had given her.)

After 2 months, it failed and never worked again. We bought iPods and never looked back.

Things settled a bit by the mid-2000s, at a somewhat steady (predictable?) level of quality.  Inspirons possessed just enough features, and the price was right enough, that I and many others counted on them as a workhorse, corporate laptop. You could even get Windows XP factory pre-installed on them, even when that pathetic Windows ME and other awful, pre-Win 7 variants were being hawked.

It was great. Until my display adapter went out. And then, my hard drive. The first time. By the second time the drive went out, it was time to junk it.

But instead, I took it to the guys at Discount Electronics and asked them to refurb it with a new drive and keyboard.  They did and – to give credit where it’s due – I’ll admit it’s still being used as a print server and occasional desperation PC, when we have a guest or someone in the household has to service their primary machine.

So, against my better judgment, but on the strength of the Inspiron’s refusal to die, I decided I would take a shot at buying another Dell laptop earlier this year.

Mind you, by this time, I was on my 4th iPhone, 2nd iPad, 5th iPod, also having purchased Mac computers for all 3 of our children and a few other random Apple products in our nuclear family.

All of my colleagues were (and are) on Macs at work. They even bought me a MacBook Air. But, having Windows and Microsoft Office products hard-wired into my brain at this point, there was a personal productivity issue at risk from my continuing struggle with the Mac OS (or, so I convinced myself).

So, I persuaded my colleagues that the new Dell Latitude XPS – the “MacBook Air killer” – would be superior choice for me. I’d show them; things were different.  Shoot, Dell was different.  They even had these fancy kiosks with energetic, hair-gelled sales dudes in them at Barton Creek mall. (Even though they didn’t have the model of Latitude that I wanted, in stock, at said kiosk.)

But Dell wasn’t different. At least when it came to consumer products.  The Latitude has been a sad, latest chapter in a book of disappointments.  It’s heavy, noisy, slow, and genetically prone to over-heating. It’s filled with useless bloatware.

But, worst of all, the laptop’s outer case has broken to pieces from normal, non-rugged, every-day use. It’s so bad, I scratch my wrists on it every day; the base of my palms have callouses from the jagged edges.

Even though I’ve learned to hover my hands over the keyboard, I still snag and tear my shirt and coat sleeves on it. (Don’t worry – I’m composing this post on my iPad.)

The factory AC adapter began buzzing and crackling almost immediately, finally failing completely after 7 months use. (Good on you again, Dell, for ovenighting me a replacement adapter promptly, after I complained on Twitter, on the eve of my year in China.)

Yet, why Dell hasn’t changed in my experience with its products, it is different in another way. Dell has finally shed any regard for consumer products.

I’m glad. It’s purer and truer to the Dell I actually experience.  One with relentless process innovation. One with global infrastructure assets that enable it to serve its fellow Fortune 500 companies, on down. And one that runs a business model on good-enough solutions and service, not great products.

So, I’m done with Dell. At least for now.

As for giving the Mac a second chance, however, I gotta tell you – I have high hopes for the Microsoft Surface. Unlike Dell’s consumer/SOHO products, I can’t quite give up on Microsoft’s yet.  With the Surface due this month, I’m looking forward to being among the first in line. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Are you my Sphero?

I hosted the Sphero team at a Robot Meet-up at SXSW Interactive 2011.

Sphero is a cool little robotic ball that you can control with your iPhone.

I would have bought one then, but they were still under development.

I understand.  Making great products can be hard.

[“Are you my Sphero?”  “No,” said the little blue squeezy ball.  “I am not your Sphero.”]

But then, I got an email saying that the website was online.  On it, you could provide your email to be first in line to pre-order a Sphero.

So I did.

Then I waited to get the chance to actually place an order.  Then I got an email saying I could.

So, I did.

[“Are you my Sphero?”  “No,” said the big blue exercise ball.  “I am not your Sphero.”]

Cool, I thought.  I’ll get the Sphero well ahead of Christmas time.  It’ll make a great gift.

So, I waited.

Then, I got an email in December saying that I wouldn’t get my Sphero by Christmas.

And that they were really sorry.

But I would get a t-shirt.  (I got it yesterday…it’s dark grey.)

[“Are you my Sphero?”  “No,” said the whiteboard thought bubble.  “I am not your Sphero.”]

I saw a tweet yesterday saying Sphero was shipping.  Today is December 22.  I hope I get it tomorrow – that would be great!

Until then, I’m still waiting for my Sphero.

…To be continued.

Attend the Austin Robotics Conference (aka, SXSWi Monday, March 14!)

Monday, March 14 has shaped up to be an amazing day of programming at South-by-Southwest if you have even micron of interest in any element of robotics.

Because, like an eventful Matryoshka doll, the Southby organizers have essentially programmed a daylong mini “conference within a conference” with the robotics minitrack that is assembled.

Beginning at 9:30am in the Hilton Garden Inn – Sabine Room (located at 500 North IH 35) and ending sometime around 6:00pm, enthusiasts of robotics – or what I like to refer to as the “ultimate field of digital interactive” convergence – will be treated to an outstanding line-up of topics and speakers.

Just browse the agenda below!

FIRST Robotics: Technically You’re Changing the World, 9:30 am 

Students say it’s “the hardest fun you will ever have.” Just like “real world” product development, building a competitive robot requires diverse science and engineering disciplines and kids all over the world are doing it! This panel includes experienced robot makers and mentors from Texas Instruments and National Instruments who can answer your questions and have you wishing you were still in school.

Presenters: Brian Powell, Eric VanWyk, Joe Hershberger, Rebecca Philips, Tim Ousley

The SINGULARITY: Humanity’s Huge Techno Challenge, 11:00 am 

Will supercomputing intelligences outsmart human-level intelligence? Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines is the world’s most known advocacy of a technology breakthrough that will change the face of humanity and the entire world. Kurzweil claims that the accelerating, exponential growth of technology will result in such a Singularity. This panel dissects the very core of the Singularity, if and when it will occur, and what we can expect to happen.

Presenters: Doug Lenat, Michael Vassar, Natasha Vita-More

Robot Art Lessons, 12:30pm 

Robots seem to be everywhere – from car assembly on factory floors to debris sweeping on your kitchen floor. But, with the popularity of events like Maker Faire, they are broadly entering the creative fields in new and innovative ways. More than an exotic, whimsical exercise, much of the work behind robot-inspired art installations is driving the discovery of technical innovations …come pick up lessons learned from the converging areas of materials science, haptics, interactive control, and communications that contribute to this new art form.

Presenters: Alan Majer, Steve Guengerich (yes, yours truly!)

Congratulations, Your Robot Just Accepted Your Friend Request, 3:30pm 

Telepresence is a straightforward application of robot technology — a robot becomes your eyes, ears and possibly arms and legs which allows you to become “telepresent” in a remote location. But telepresence is only one example of how you might want to interact with a robot over the web. We are using social networks to interact with robots and physical devices so they can become part of your custom information network. We use Google technologies such a Gtalk and Android to form the basis of the network. This project is open source.

Presenter: Rich LeGrand

Hacking Space Exploration: Robots, the Universe and Everything, 5:00pm 

From launching robots into space to discovering distant galaxies: how the public is hacking into open source space exploration. As technology shifts from a means of passive consumption to active creation, people are collaborating on a massive scale. Amateurs were once considered to be at the crux of scientific discovery, but over time have been put on the sidelines. Despite this, citizen science is witnessing a renaissance. Agencies such as NASA no longer have a monopoly on the global space program and more participatory projects are harnessing the power of open collaboration for exploring space on a faster schedule. But you don’t need to be a robotics engineer to participate – open source teams are open for anyone to join.

Presenter: Ariel Waldman

We hope you can join us – it should be an astonishing day of sharing, learning, and advancing this major field of tech innovation!