Silicon valley, new tech, and how we use it

Last night as I was watching Hulu, an interesting comercial came on that was all about jabbing Silicon Valley and its love for the newest of the new. I think it was for a new Toshiba Tablet. This comercial was really self-aware of the environment in which they sell as well as the types of people they are actually trying to sell their devices to. I think that the commercial also does a great job pointing out that the Internet of Things and 3d Printing both might be part of a hype machine that is out of control. All of these technologies could do great things, but they aren’t preordained to do anything amazing. It’s up to the user to really enable that.

I think that the book I’m reading “Enchanted Objects” does a bit of this as well. I’m torn if I should love these ideas or hate them. The Smart scissors mentioned in that ad would definitely fit under the definition of Enchanted Objects because it’s something ordinary that through sensors, haptic feedback or other do-hickeys has some extra-ordinary capabilities. Many of these things seem gimicky and unlikely to catch on. Others, like the author’s Glow Pill – which is a lid for a pill container to remind people to take their pills – would be really helpful to a lot of people out there.

I also agree with the author’s sentiment that the black screens we peer into day in and day out, are somewhat ugly, unweildy and have never lifted up to their hype. Which means that they likely haven’t made our lives significantly better and mostly just incrementally. I think this is born out through the drop in sales in tablets, the saturation of the smart phone market, and the resurgance of sales in PCs. People have found the tablet ecosystem limited in someway and awkward to use and have opted to refresh their capability with a cheap laptop rather than springing for a new tablet (an exception to this trend could be a Surface 3, but we’ll see how that pans out in the long term). Another concern with all these devices is of course security and safety from prying eyes. I’ve been talking about this for a number of years, but I believe that people will actually start listening after seeing the result of the Ferguson MO police action. Your twitter feed and location is on twitter, the police can find that. What other data are you sharing out there without truly understanding it. How can it be used against you by a militarized local government?

I think much of this goes back to my questions of ethics and technology. At what point does a technology become unethical or, rather, the use of a technology become unethical? Is a smart trashcan ethical because it helps you save the environment and support local business, what happens if that impacts your taxes or gets you on an eco-terror watch list? We don’t understand how our data is being used and to me that is scary.

I think this is played out a great deal with the fact that AirBnB, Uber, Lyft, and similar sites are the biggest booming sites in Silicon Valley. These aren’t truly technological innovations, they are business model innovations, which is why they are so devastating. Sure they are leveraging technology in an appealing way, but they aren’t really technology companies. Their innovation is in the way they engage with their customers, the delivery method is the same in many cases, a room or a car, as their competitors. The competitors haven’t been able to figure out how to combine the nimbleness of the app with a dynamic business model. Based on historical evidence, it’s unlikely that they will be able to catch up and compete. Which is fine, because I’m sure their data usages will be as opaque as the new companies. We don’t know how they are collecting our data or what they are doing with it.

Is Net Neutrality regulation commie nonsense?

Network Economy

Regulation’s a bad thing, right? Personally, I think there are instances where regulation is an amazingly good thing that drives innovation. We also need to be cautious about who is saying regulation is good or bad. Back in the 90’s we’d hear that regulating in anyway to prevent acid rain would cripple business and kill our economy. This clearly didn’t happen, we have acid free rain for the most part, we have more productive manufacturing than ever. We also hear that regulating CEO pay by median rather than average is significantly more complicated to the point that a place stacked full of MBA’s can’t figure it out. Then there are regulations that pick winners like Solyndra and turns out to be a disaster. These cause higher taxes and are actual drains on the economy (personally I’m on the fence about experimenting with new technologies and having the government support them, but that’s me).

What about the FCC “regulating” net neutrality? I think that it’s important to look at how this all started. First, I’ll start with a bit of a history with the telecoms, then move to how the internet was developed, and move to comparisons between other monopolies.

AT&T has been described as a natural monopoly. This was partially helped by the US government because the government wanted coast to coast telephony and selected AT&T as the standard for that activity. This gave AT&T incredible market strength, but was also extremely fragile as it was continually under threat of being broken up for being a monopoly (which is was). To do everything they could to avoid this, the geniuses at Bell Labs continually designed ways to keep their costs down, improve quality, and make very thing better. They also had some government deals that helped them a lot (military contracts for telecom stuff, like the first satellite). The value of AT&T’s network grew every time a person joined the network.

The fact that one person joined Network A over Network B could further impact the growth of that network. Let’s say Person A is friends with 5 people and is already on Network A, it’s likely, if they are really good friends and A is known for making good decisions, that those five people will join A on Network A. The value increases by more than simply 5, because all five of those people can talk to each other as well as every other person they know on Network A. Now if Person A has more friends, but not as good of friends and they actually are better friends with Person A’s friends they will also likely join Network A. This sort of cascade effect will continue to happen. This is also known as Metcalfe’s law.

When AT&T was force to break up, all of that interoperability remained. Instead of one big monopoly there were regional ones instead. As we’ve seen over time, these same regional operators have slowly re-joined back into 2 Bells versus the non-Bells. AT&T being split is a type of regulation for sure, but it did spur some interesting competition for a time.

How the Internet was designed:

The internet was originally designed to operate in many different application layers. Essentially the bottom of the stack was Internet Protocol which was agnostic to the type of information being sent across it. At the time, the most efficient method was over Ethernet so there was not any requirement to be concerned over the application medium. Over time there would be some concern, but that was really addressed by the protocol.

What would happen is that the applications that required information to be sent on either end would translate the information to be used by the layer below it to send out, such as a web browser to the OS, to the network driver to IP, across the internet to the network driver to the OS to the web server application. Across this entire process the actual data being sent was unknown to any of the nodes in between the application layers. (If you’re interested in this check out Internet Architecture and Innovation).

Of course the companies providing the bandwidth for that did not want to find itself in a similar role as they had after the break up of AT&T where they were forced to become “dumb pipes” for whatever people wanted to send across their network. To prevent this they created capabilities like deep package inspection and other tools to identify what content was being shipped across their lines. This also was the beginning of violating “True” net neutrality.

Why were they dumb pipes? Because they were defined as a common carrier to increase competition across the land line providers and ISPs the telephone companies had no choice. This lead to the explosion of ISPs like AOL, Century Link, and so on. What has happened since? The broadband lines have been ruled that they are not “Common Carriers“. Meaning that the data across the line can be treated however the companies that own the lines want.

Why is this bad in a network economy?

In a network economy, being able to fully control anything and everything can be very bad for the consumer if there is no other option. Now, you could argue that there are options, but in most cases because of other monopoly rules there are few options for allowing a new ISP.

A perfect example where a network monopoly isn’t a big deal is in Smart Phones. The iOS App Store is a natural monopoly in a network. The more people using the iPhone the more valuable it became and more app developers developed apps. It never became a problem that Apple regulates the entire experience BECAUSE there were other networks you could shift to, such as Blackberry, webOS, Windows (whatever mobile version you want to include), and, of course, Android. All of these ecosystems offer very different options for devs. Additionally, within Android there are competing App stores which further benefits the consumer. If there were no other competitors to iOS and it’s App Store the constraints that Apple puts on their product would likely be viewed as very anti-competitive and a type of “foreclosure.”

Market foreclosure is using one monopoly to enable another monopoly. Now, regardless of if you think that this should have happened or not, it did. Microsoft was hit for using it’s Window’s OS to foreclose on the internet browser market and was looking to do the same with their music player. What resulted was that MS was required to offer other browsers when a new Windows OS was launched and helped to reduce the market share of IE.

How does this apply here? Comcast is already trying to do the same with Netflix in the streaming video business. Comcast owns the content (Universal, NBC, etc), the connection (Comcast Cable ISP), the rules (data caps), and if they want to charge to access their network or not. Eliminating the rules of net neutrality tilt the table in the direction of Comcast to a degree that Netflix may never recover. If Netflix, at one point 2/3 of all internet traffic, had to pay for every bit they streamed to allow for an enjoyable streaming experience they would be bankrupt in very short order.

I get that Comcast’s of the world don’t want to be dumb pipes, they own the content and that’s king. However, not every ISP owns content (Verizon/AT&T) so they aren’t at such an advantage to companies like Netflix. However that’s where AT&T’s data plan comes in. Which would essentially level the table compared to Comcast. We, as end users, wouldn’t see any benefit out of this. It’s not that our subscription fees would lower or we’ll magically get faster internet. This is simply rent seeking behavior and bad for the economy overall. Only true new competition can lead to that. Changing these rules have zero impact on that competition.

What it does do though is negatively impact the creation of new businesses that want to stream video or provide a novel product that requires high bandwidth and equal rights to streaming. Removing the protections on net neutrality dramatically increases the cost of streaming that otherwise could go into building that startup’s infrastructure. Think of the problems at Twitch.TV with their growth. My subscription fees pay for the growth of the network that I subscribe to regardless if it’s something like Twitch or Comcast. Anything else will go to shareholders and CEOs.

Could we develop other options like a Mesh network? It’s possible, but for that to work the option would have to be a public/private venture. Most citizens aren’t going to help create that and likely don’t have the technology savvy to do so. To further complicate this issue many ISPs are actually pushing to make it illegal for cities to create their own ISP.

In many cases regulation is bad for business. However, in cases like net neutrality it’s returning the net to it’s roots and enabling much stronger competition based on the merits of the company providing the service, not the arbitrary whim of network owner.

Sponsored data and YOU!

This could be your lucky day, your cellular provider is going to start offering packages where certain content doesn’t cost you anything in your data cap. This is awesome. You can start streaming more and more video/music/whatever it is that you stream from your favorite services. However, not all of your favorite services will be free of data charge! So make sure that you tell your favorite service that YOU want THEM to sign up and make their content data cap free to you! All those service providers have to do is pay your cellular provider money to stop the data caps! No, seriously, AT&T wants to do this.

Is this a problem? I think it depends on who you are. For a consumer in some cases this is pretty awesome. Let’s say you love to watch video games being streamed on Twitch.tv by your buddies over at KBMOD and Twitch decides to pay money to prevent your data from being charged against your data cap. But you’re also a huge fan of MLG and MLG just decided to start their own Twitch competitor but they can’t afford to pay those same fees. Well, guess you’ll be only watching MLG from your PC or on wifi. Too bad your favorite shows are on while you’re not able to use Wifi though! O well, Twitch is there for you though!

This is a niche market obviously. Not everyone cares about watching someone play streaming video games or even streaming video games to your phone so you can keep playing a game you were playing from home. A lot of people care about TV and movies though. We can look at this as something that’s really analogous to what Comcast was trying to do to Netflix close to two years ago. In April of 2012 Comcast announced that its Xfinity streaming service would not be charged against your Comcast data caps while Netflix streaming service would be. Netflix’s CEO argued that this violated Net Neutrality because it provided preferential treatment to one source of data over another.

What is Net Neutrality? Well, there are two different arguments, which I discuss in a blog here, where one is saying everything must be treated equally, while the other one argues that there are nuances and we can treat data differently because we need to “Groom” our networks. Internet and network purists believe that you shouldn’t even be able to determine what the data is or what the source of that data is if you’re a point along the network, just where it most recently was and where it needs to go next. The only application that can read the data in the package is the application that requested it.

AT&T’s plan, similar to Comcast’s, is in violation of Net Neutrality and the FCC will step in to regulate this type of “service” because it’s, in the end, bad for the consumer. Unfortunately, there are limitations to what the FCC can do and even potentially what AT&T can do.

There has been much more of a push for encryption and it’s likely that these pushes may actually enable more of a return to the true meaning of Net Neutrality. If all of our data is fully encrypted, deep packet inspection tools (which tell if the data you’re getting is video, music, or whatever), won’t work very well as that information will be encrypted. Furthermore, if your application’s data is all encrypted and AT&T won’t be able to tell if your data is your data then there’s no value in paying for “privileged” data status from AT&T.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ll likely support company’s like Wickr, an encrypted Snapchat competitor, which told the FBI to screw itself when they were asked to put a backdoor into their encryption. It’s important that we work to protect our data and support companies that do so in terms of Net Neutrality and encryption.

What companies do you support that encrypt and fight for net neutrality?

Lean as a tool for new and mature companies

Today, I finished the book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. Despite the focus on entrepreneurship, I think this book has applications at many levels. First though, I must say that I’ve been using Lean for several years and I walked into this book with an understanding of Lean and how  to apply it at a company. What does Lean mean though? Well, it certainly doesn’t mean cutting staff, reducing the amount of money you have or anything along those lines. It’s a methodology for managing projects, processes and products. It does this by basing decisions on actionable data.

What is actionable data? Well, it’s data that you can do react to quickly if the data is showing trends. This could be a positive trend or a negative trend. If you see something going well and a process is improving over time, (which is abnormal processes typically go out of control over time) then you want to understand how and why it is improving. If it is getting worse over time, you want to understand why and work to improve the process. This isn’t just for machines but also for business processes.

Once you have valid metrics there are several different things you can do. You can simply jump in and try to fix whatever problem is there or you can take a different track. The other track is to do some root cause analysis of the situation. This is called the Five Whys. This is a series of questions that ask Why to understand the real cause of the problem. In one case you may have had a new employee upload something to the production server and it kills the production server. Understanding why might not be as simple as saying, don’t do that again. First you might want to know why the action of the employee took down the server, was it something he did that no one else would have done or was it something else. As you dive down you may realize part of the problem was lack of training but there were issues that would have arisen eventually from someone else. This deeper understanding allows you to make changes at multiple levels rather than installing knee jerk reactions.

That’s a reactionary use of Lean, some other interesting uses of Lean have to deal with experimenting with your product. Ries argues that most companies wait to long to engage customers and put too much effort into the first version of the software. He argues that a company should create a minimum viable product that can be tested to get the basic point across of the end product. Doing this early allows for experimentation with customer feedback. In the software world this is pretty easy to do. You can get to something that early adopters can use and then test changes. As you can route different users to different versions of your website for the product you can have slightly different tests to see what increases the metric that matters. Getting people to continue using your product, but you need to have very targeted metrics to understand what is actually happening with your software. If you use the incorrect metric you will do a lot of work that isn’t driving usage and isn’t driving your revenue.

If you decide to change the way users interact with your GUI, it would be useful to have a goal metric to truly understand if the GUI is an improvement over the previous GUI. This could be tracking the number of clicks it takes to get to an important function. The number of times the user uses your product, the number of times a new user uses the product, but stops using a specific GUI. Once you see your metric moving in the correct direction and you can be sure that it is the result of your changes, then you should end you experiment understand why the users reacted the way they did and try to learn what you should test next.

The early goal is rapid experimentation with purpose and data to back up the decisions you make. These techniques will work with any company, but will also be very successful for a startup.

Data protection, anonymity and copyright

I talk a great deal on this blog about data issues, privacy and ownership, anonymity and copyright, however is there a clear connection between them? Should we care about who has access to our data, who we are and control over our access to data?

I think that these issues are so connected that we need to do something about how they are managed at a federal level. Currently, it’s rather easy for governments to request data from internet sites. Some times they require warrants or court orders other times the companies simply hand over the data. Savvy users understand how their data is collected and used by companies. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m learning about this as I’m going. It’s not easy because some times it’s really inconvenient to really protect your data. The more sites that are connected together the more likely one of your accounts are to be hacked. Linking sites also creates other problems. Specifically Facebook and Google. Twitter isn’t as bad, but it easily could be.

Why are Facebook and Google bad though? First Facebook is the worst by far. Both Zuckerbergs have made statements proclaiming privacy a bad thing.We can see this erosion with the creation of Facebook’s OpenGraph and seamless information sharing. We’ve all see the increase in the amount of information that our friends are sharing. Such as Spotify and articles they’ve read. Which now no longer click through, but end up going to some app from that company. All of this information is being stored and sold to customers with your name on it. Effectively you’ve lost your ability to view websites freely without it being stored on multiple servers by multiple companies at the same time.
Google comes in a close second with their privacy problems. They aren’t any better with Google+ as they require names at this time. We also don’t know what Google does with the information that you give them when you link accounts together. By giving access to Google when you sign into another website Google is learning more about you which will likely be used to adjust your filter bubble.

Without anonymity or at least pseudonymity it’s significantly more difficult to control access to your data. Putting a buffer between you and the people that are interested in learning about you as a person can protect you from a lot of bad people. However, whenever there are discussions about anonymity or pseudonyms some one almost always makes the argument that it will increase the safety for child molesters or terrorists.

The Copyright industry is one of the most vocal advocates of this tactic. In fact, this is one of the arguments being used for SOPA. They argue that if you don’t have anything to hide then you have nothing to worry about. Well, I don’t buy that argument. People have privacy fences for a reason around their yard. Why not do the same thing for your data? Being anonymous doesn’t mean your bad, it just means your being safe.

Anonymity makes it more difficult for copyright holders to come after people who download movies without buying the movie. They want to know if your downloading it regardless of the fact that you might actually own the movie in some other physical medium and are using the digital copy as a back up. They also don’t really care if you go out and buy the movie after watching it. In fact the Swiss government came out and said that buying a movie or song after downloading is extremely common.

Based on these three points, I believe that everyone should be pushing leaders to increase the ability for users to be anonymous on the internet. This will protect users data from identity theft, allow users better control over their data and decrease the impact of the filter bubble. We must accept the fact that people may use the freedom in unethical ways. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s unethical for people to be anonymous online and doesn’t mean that they are unethical. It means that we need to define clear laws and procedures to deal with unethical or illegal activities in these systems. Without these guidelines we are likely to have no control over our data.

Owning your data

Yesterday Facebook and the FTC came to an agreement on privacy settings. This will require Facebook to undergo privacy audits twice a year by a third party firm. In Europe Facebook users are already able to download their data as I mentioned in a previous post. I think we’re living in an age where users will need to be well educated on the impact of the privacy policies of websites on the users personal data. However, how can we do this? I personally never look at the privacy policy on a website. Why? Because I don’t really trust them. Effectively, just by going to the website I agree to these policies and effectively whatever is stated in the privacy information I’m bound to. However, I have to go to the website before I can read it, thus creating a catch-22.

If I did disagree with something written in the privacy policy, I’ve already agreed to accept their terms and if they said “we’re going to steal all your cookies and sell them for profit” and I object to that it’s too late. They already did it.

This puts us users in a bind. We enjoy the benefits of cookies. We don’t have to always remember our passwords, we automatically get logged into our favorite websites. Personal settings pop up as soon as we log in. There are plenty of benefits from using cookies. We lose all of these as soon as we use services like Incognito from Google Chrome. Some of my readers have commented that they have switched to using an Incognito window, but it’s much more of a pain to log into Facebook and they have actually started using the service less. In terms of Facebook to compensate I use TweetDeck which pulls my news feed from both twitter and Facebook. However, it doesn’t get everything including messages from friends, which is annoying, but not the end of the world.

To deal with these privacy issues, the EU is proposing a pan-European standard for privacy policies that a website has to get approved. Companies like Facebook are actively fighting against this rule. I think that this is a great step. I know a lot of people don’t like new government regulations. However, in this case the public is woefully uninformed and find getting informed on these topics cumbersome. A lot of money is being made off of people’s ignorance. Now, many people would say that’s their fault for not properly investigating this topic.

There are a few resources out there to help with getting a better understanding of how to protect yourself. The EFF has an entire section of their website devoted to privacy issues. The ACLU has a Technology and Liberty section which includes topics like privacy.

So why should we care about this? If you aren’t doing anything wrong you don’t have anything to worry about. I’m sorry, but this is a really naive way of looking at privacy issues. Some of you readers out there have fences in your back yard. Many of them are called privacy fences, if you aren’t doing anything wrong why do you have a fence? Others will have a safe to store valuables and important documents, why do you need a safe, if you aren’t doing anything wrong you shouldn’t need a safe.

Putting this into a physical context highlights the absurdity of the not doing anything wrong argument. It also highlights the differences between privacy in the physical world and in the digital world. It’s really easy to understand how to increase your privacy at home build a fence, better curtains better locks, bars on your windows etc.. Fixing privacy on your computer is much more difficult. Security experts have tried to make things as simple as possible by using names like Virus scanner, Firewall etc.  Most people don’t really know how to use these properly.

Adding a Firewall to your computer can make using it difficult and clunky. Services that you use frequently suddenly stop working correctly and it’s not always obvious why at first. There needs to be a movement within security companies to make everything as simple as possible for the broader population. There should be advanced settings for the people who really want to control their data. Basically we need the firewall to turn into a fence for most people but with settings to turn it into the Berlin Wall if an advanced user wants it.

All users need to understand the risks, just like they need to understand risks of burglary, they shouldn’t need to be a security expert though.

Other potential resources (I have no idea if they are any good, I just searched for privacy resources)
http://www.privacyresources.org/
http://epic.org/privacy/privacy_resources_faq.html
https://www.privacyinternational.org/article/ephr-privacy-resources