Reading The Road Ahead 19 Years Later – Chapter 4: Applications and Appliances

Thirty years ago the United States Supreme Court decided that personal recordings were fair use and that selling a device (the VCR) that has substantial non-infringing uses is lawful even if it could be used to infringe. In chapter four of The Road Ahead, Bill Gates pondered the digital future and the evolution of computers.

As he saw the VCR invented during his lifetime, Gates predicted a host of new time-shifting devices that would interface with the Internet, his “highway.” While Netflix is almost taken for granted these days, serving up pre-existing as well as new content “on demand” in 1995 was still a technology somewhat out of science fiction.

Even four years later when Quest aired a commercial featuring a fictional motel that offered “every movie ever made in any language anytime, day or night” the dream of unlimited on-demand selection was still futuristic.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAxtxPAUcwQ]

In 1999 the top DVDs for sale on Amazon.com were The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, and Titanic. This was the start of the DVD era as people just began to adopt the home theater crazy. The Matrix itself pushed many to adopt DVD as their home movie format rather than VHS, but in a world just beginning to exit dial-up speeds, streaming a movie was still a ways off.

Although the market for a book written by Bill Gates in 1995 was obviously going to lean heavy on the technology crowd, his explanation of how this on-demand system would work is telling:

Movies, television programs, and all sorts of other digital information will be stored on “servers,” which are computers with capacious disks…The requested data will be retrieved from the server and routed by switched back to your television, personal computer, or telephone—your information appliances.

In 2014, no one needs to explain what a server is and even if the “person on the street” doesn’t understand exactly how the cloud works, s/he understands the relationship between offsite and onsite data storage.

What continues to be impressive in The Road Ahead is Bill Gates’ understanding of where technology will go over the course of twenty years. Considering the beliefs about the imminent arrival of cold fusion, flying cars, and household robots over the past fifty years, and how so many new companies have emerged to offer the new technologies he anticipated, this is an impressive amount of understanding.

There are some misses…

One new form [of display] will be the digital whiteboard: a large wall-mounted screen…[that] will display pictures, movies, and other visual materials, as well as text and other fine details.

…but overall the 1995 version of Bill Gates would fit in well in 2014, although there may be less Microsoft in people’s lives than he would have anticipated.

The wallet PC, essentially the smartphone, was described a pocket computer that would replace wallets, provide a connection to the highway, and act as a Swiss Army knife for the digital world.

What do you carry on your person now? Probably at least keys, identification, money, and a watch. Quite possibly you also carry credit cards, a checkbook, traveler’s checks, an address book, an appointment book, a notepad, reading material, a camera, a pocket tape recorder, a cellular phone, a pager, concert tickets, a map, a compass, a calculator, an electronic entry card, photographs, and perhaps a loud whistle to summon help.

Outside of identification, which has not yet reached the realm of the phone for higher levels like government ID (but has for many forms of tickets), the rest of the bag of tricks can be handled with a smartphone and nothing else, depending on where you spend your money. With Apple, Google, and the cellular carriers all trying to gain a foothold in mobile payments, it might not be possible to spend money only using a phone, but an ID, credit/debit card, and phone is a realistic set of things to leave the house with and not have to worry.

There was actually some good timing that went into this post: news about Microsoft’s Siri and Google Now competitor, Cortana, was released just a few days ago. As the third major mobile OS player, this was an area Microsoft needed to get up to speed in to remain competitive feature wise. However, as with tablet computers, which Gates and Microsoft pushed commercially for nearly a decade before the iPad made them popular, the virtual assistant is ground they covered in the past.

Gates anticipated the omnipresent intelligence of Google Now in the wallet PC for travel: “It will monitor digital traffic reports and warn you that you’d better leave for an airport early, or suggest an alternate route.” And he had it for voice command questions: “You might ask, ‘Where’s the nearest Chinese restaurant that is still open?’” but at the end of the day, he imagined something more like the Star Trek computer. Gates imagined an electronic companion you would talk with as a specific source, like an individual. In 1995, Gates termed these digital assistants “agents.”

An agent that takes on a personality provides a ‘social user interface.’

The character will disappear when you get to the parts of the product you know very well. But if you hesitate or ask for help, the agent will reappear and offer assistance.

Yes, Microsoft has been working on agents for years. Microsoft Bob was one. Clippy was another.

With Cortana, Microsoft will not be bringing Clippy to the phone. Hopefully. More likely, Microsoft will finally produce the agent that Gates imagined so many years ago. Voice recognition took longer than anticipated to roll out, but it’s here now, and it’s pretty good.

For Bill Gates, like Steve Jobs, the PC in 1995 was on the path towards becoming an appliance. As of 2014, this is truer than ever before, although the true computing appliances aren’t the desktops and laptops but the phones, tablets, and set-top boxes. Chromebooks have turned the laptop market on its head as a computer that looks traditional but acts like a new concept. As HP said in an ad campaign, “the computer is personal again.” Or with new functions, controls, and interfaces, it’s more personal than it’s ever been.

Polka Face

For the most part I don’t think Google is creepy. Sometimes I’m amazed at the conclusions the famous algorithms can draw based on my searches and inputted information, but I can usually see the relation in one or two degrees of separation. Some key word in an email that clearly points to the logic behind the ad or suggested content.

This is mind boggling though. I can think of just two obvious scenarios :

1. It’s nearby and Google Now is set to alert me of those. This happens to not be my taste. 

Or the better…

2. I listened to Weird Al’s “Polka Face” in my Google Music library. Google knows it’s a parody of Lady Gaga. 

That would be interesting.

A Piece of Glass

In the original Google Glass video the protagonist takes a picture of some wall art and shares it with his circles on Google+ with a simple voice command.

Cool, right? Too bad Google Glass isn’t available right now (Ingress players would probably be over the moon) so everyone could do that sort of thing. But wait: Google updated the Search app for Android. It’s not quite the same, but from the Google Now screen, you can just say “Post to Google+” and a voice prompt appears to take your words and send them along. If you think Google Now is looking more and more like the Glass concept without the headwear, you may not be wrong.

A Little Night Research

While doing some research for a longer post here, I decided I was tired of typing. Given that I’m spending an exciting Saturday night doing research and watching the Red Sox lose, I thought “why not talk to some computers?”

So I asked a couple questions to Siri and Google Now.

My first thought, of course, was that for computational questions , Siri looks to Wolfram Alpha. If movies are too pop culture for WA, perhaps this is an area Apple will have to partner with IMDB for as Siri opens up to more services and expands in capability. So let’s test that:

But why limit ourselves to one series. After all, the night is young! Perhaps Siri is a fan of all things Connery.

Try not. Do or do not. There is no try

This isn’t meant as an indictment on either service – it’s still remarkable that simply speaking to a handheld computer will not only produce accurate text but also query databases and find answers that are in the ballpark of what I’m looking for. I remember overclocking my first computer to play an .mp3. 

Thoughts from Google I/O or a Three Day Tour

Last month I set out on a trip to California to visit with family, investigate working on the Left Coast, and attend Google I/O. I/O (Input/Output) is Google’s annual developer conference and their stage to announce products, strategy, and outlook for the year to come. I/O has been home to the unveiling of several big efforts by Google over the years: Google Wave, Google Music, Google TV, and less known but nonetheless interesting developments like Android @ Home,a home automation project using Android OS and Arduino processors. 

This year was no different. From a product standpoint the Google Nexus 7 tablet, Nexus Q, Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, and the continued evolution and integration of Google+ into their overall family of services, the conference gave developers and consumers a good look at what Google will emphasize over the next twelve months. 

Plus skydiving with Google Glass.

Aside from the whimsy and excitement, there were a lot of telling moves and advancements coming out of the conference. Android will continue to play an ever larger role in the way people interact with Google. One of the potentially most transformational announcements though, while not directly Android related, is the continuing Google+ strategy coming into focus.

Timeline

For the last year or so, Facebook’s biggest feature rollout has been the move from the traditional profile to the Timeline, both for personal and brand accounts. Like many of Facebook’s advancements, Timeline caused a panic. For some, Timeline is a whimsical look through the past, chronicling a user’s Facebook history along, what else, a time line. Facebook users and visiters to their pofile alike can scroll through a running chronology of status updates, photos, and more. But what really makes Timeline compelling, for those who don’t mind the stalker aspect, is the ability of a user to fill their in their profile for events that didn’t happen on Facebook or happened before Facebook existed. My Timeline begins in the fall of 2004, but if I chose to do so, could be expanded back to the day I was born.

On this last part, as people/investors worry about Facebook’s ability to generate profits, making the Timeline a pathway to baby books or photo albums, physical or electronic – it doesn’t matter – just in a format that can survive should Facebook shutdown or decide to end Timeline for “the next big thing.” Facebook is in the position to make a really compelling real-life version of the dream advertised in Google’s Dear Sophie video.

One of the announcements about the future of Google+ was, in my opinion, the foundation for Timeline done right: history. History is a private collection of “moments” which can be written to your account by third party apps through an API. Google+ users are already familiar with this feature in its initial form, Instant Upload. Instant Upload sends pictures taken on your smartphone to a private photo gallery connected to your Google+ account, automatically. 

Moments restores sharing power to the user and does away with the concept of frictionless sharing. What’s nice is that someone can use the latest social apps all the time, but only share certain pieces of information. This can be for privacy or simplicity. I am a big fan of Instant Upload because I don’t have to go through all my photos and select which ones to upload, which to keep on the phone, which to post etc. Like a Dropbox folder, my photo gallery is the same on my phone and in the cloud. I can share from either device, but I don’t need to make anything public. 

Someone could create a personal implementation of Path using the Google+ history API and an artful presentation of moments. Even if Google were to shut down Google+, the data is in your Google account, it isn’t something that will cease to exist. If Path gets acquired, the creators get bored, or whatever scenario you can imagine occurs, will user be able to export their journeys? Unlikely. at least, not in a human usable format. This isn’t a shot at Path, but the social network built around chronicling your day is a good comparison to the sort of experience that Google+ moments could allow.

Glass

Project Glass aka Google Glass, the smart headware being developed by Google made as big a non-release debut as possible during I/O. 

There were Google employees with (inactive) units on their heads and the previously mentioned skydiving stunt. 

A large section of wall, and several display counters were devoted to taking developer pre-orders (and a few basic, questions), a commitment to pay $1500 dollars at some time in 2013 for a developer version of the futuristic eyewear. While the sight of Glass upon the heads of Googlers, and the skydiving, and a few heart-tugging videos of babies smiling at their mother, rather than a camera, make Glass appear on the horizon, this is a device that can’t quite be called a product yet. It rises above the level of vaporware solely because Google has the muscle and vision to make the dream a reality.

While Googlers could reveal bits and pieces of their experience, for instance, Glass can be worn with a baseball hat, little is known about the interface, operation, hardware, software…etc. Episode 153 of TWiG (This Week in Google) boils down what Google is willing to share about Glass into an episode title “Did I Mention it Takes Pictures?” 

The technology displayed in the initial concept video is still a ways off, but this is the technology to watch over the next few years. For the curious, the song is “lover’s carvings” by Biblio. Ironically, it is not available in the Play Store. But licensing and copyright issues are a matter for another time.

Google Now is the first step in a radical shift for the search engine: giving people what they want before they know they want it based on their search and travel history, and probably lies at the core of Glass. Google Now is a Siri competitor as well as a look into the future of search, powered by intelligence and location awareness. 

Nexus 7

This is the most practical, most ambitious, and potentially most profitable consumer product Google has launched in a while (disclaimer: as a Google I/O attendee, I received a Nexus 7). 

The Nexus 7 is a seven inch tablet running the latest version of the Android OS, 4.1 Jelly Bean. It’s loaded with processing power, unlike many previous Android devices, is light in the hand, easy to read, and fully integrated into the Google Play Store. Essentially, the device is a Google-centric version of the Kindle Fire. Ideally, all the content downloaded to the Nexus 7 – apps, movies and TV, books and magazines, and music will be purchased from the Play Store, with Google getting a cut of each sale. 

Over the next year Google will try to change our perception of the company. Not just a search engine, but a smart guide. The Play Store, Google Now, and Nexus devices form a continuum of information, media, and suggested knowledge. In another year, the next Nexus device may be a Google version of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy capable of directing, informing, and entertaining.