Walt Mossberg has been covering technology for The Wall Street Journal for 22 years. In his last column for the newspaper, he compiles 12 products which, in his opinion, have been the most influential in the last twenty years.
His criteria for selection:
First, the products had to improve ease of use and add value for average consumers. That was the guiding principle I laid down in the first sentence of my first column, in 1991: “Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it’s not your fault.”
Second, I chose these 12 because each changed the course of digital history by influencing the products and services that followed, or by changing the way people lived and worked. In some cases, the impact of these mass-market products is still unfolding. All of these products had predecessors, but they managed to take their categories to a new level.
Unsurprisingly, Apple (the company) takes 5 of the 12 spots. I have used every product/service on the list with the exception of the Newton and the Palm Pilot. If it were me, I would have added one more service which has changed how I have looked into traveling: AirBnb, which allows you to rent out spaces in other people’s apartments/homes. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars by paying a fraction of the cost of hotel rooms in the last three years during my trips to Portland, Oregon.
I agree with Farhad Manjoo’s assessment in this piece for Wall Street Journal: humans are much better at checking you out at the grocery store than machines. He explains:
They [self-checkout machines] work well enough in a pinch—when you want to check out just a handful of items, when you don’t have much produce, when you aren’t loaded down with coupons. But for any standard order, they’re a big pain. Perversely, then, self-checkout machines’ shortcomings are their best feature: because they’re useless for most orders, their lines are shorter, making the machines seem faster than humans.
In most instances where I’m presented with a machine instead of a human, I rejoice. I prefer an ATM to a flesh-and-blood banker, and I find airport check-in machines more efficient than the unsmiling guy at the desk. But both these tasks—along with more routine computerized skills like robotic assembly lines—share a common feature: They’re very narrow, specific, repeatable problems, ones that require little physical labor and not much cognitive flexibility.
At my local Kroger, the few times I have tried using those self-checkout machines have been full of frustration. For instance, one time an item I scanned went through twice, and there was no easy way to select “duplicate scan” on the screen. Cycling among various on-screen buttons for fresh fruit/vegetable selection is a chore. Until a system is built which recognizes the items you’ve placed onto the scanner without human intervention comes along, cashiers will trump self-checkout computers any day. Imagine how complicated it still is if you have in-store and/or newspaper coupons, checking out via a combination credit card/cash, and so on…
The Los Angeles Times reports how Ralphs, a grocery store chain, is using technology to speed up checkout times for customers:
Known as QueVision, the system uses hidden infrared cameras with body heat trackers to figure out how many customers are shopping at any given time. Managers use that information to redeploy workers to the cash registers when things get busy.
It’s already paying off. QueVision has trimmed the average time it takes to get to the front of the line to roughly 30 seconds from the national average of four minutes, a Ralphs spokeswoman said.
The checkout system is part of a long-overdue effort by traditional grocery chains to evolve and stay competitive through the use of technology.
I remember reading about this on Tesco’s virtual store:
In 2011, Tesco launched its futuristic Homeplus market at a Seoul subway stop. There’s no food in this virtual grocery store, only interactive walls around the station that display photos of fruit, vegetables, milk and other grocery staples. Using their smartphones, commuters can buy these products by photographing QR codes printed on the images and paying through their phones. Tesco delivers the purchases to customers’ homes the same day.
The article cites something else worth pondering: the grocery store industry is a $518 billion business in the United States.
What would happen if two of the world’s largest tech companies went to actual war? That’s the thought experiment behind this Slate feature. Dan Kois provides the introduction:
I asked two experts here at Slate to do a little wargaming with me. Tech columnist Farhad Manjoo will play Google. Moneybox columnist Matthew Yglesias will play Apple. I will play referee as Farhad and Matt imagine their way through a (totally speculative!) (fictional and not true!) Google vs. Apple all-out-war for world supremacy. Could Google erase Apple from the Internet? Could iPhones control killer drones over Mountain View? How different is Apple willing to think? And how evil is Google prepared to be?
Google’s offensive begins with Ghostfruit:
It’s an unseasonably overcast morning in Mountain View when Larry Page gives the Go command. He does so with a heavy heart. Though the feud with Apple has been escalating for months, Google’s CEO has never given serious consideration to the plan known internally as Operation GhostFruit. Then Apple decided to test him, first by removing Google as the default search engine on the iPhone and iPad, and then—when Google complained to regulators and launched a petition drive calling on Apple to reinstate Google—by blocking Apple devices’ access to Google.com entirely. The iPhone and iPad provide the bulk of Google’s mobile ad revenue. Page has no choice but to go nuclear.
After a big acquisitions spree by Apple, their next offensive move follows:
War is a game of coalitions. Not only are there whole countries where Google barely exists (think China), but there’s a whole world of online services companies out there who’ve been chomping at the bit for a big Google scandal to get them into the game.Bing search, Outlook webmail, Yahoo Calendar, and Dropbox for storage. Google’s one-stop shopping is a convenience, but people in Google-hostile territory can use the Web without it and the company’s behavior is frightening people. Apple’s hearty band of loyalists can shop at the Apple Store and punch apple.com into the browser just fine—and while they’re there, many of them are adding their contact information to a new page which urges Apple fans to join the “Apple Army.” The photo accompanying sign-up shows a cheerful, attractive, multicultural group massed in front of Apple headquarters, everyone wearing T-shirts of bright, primary colors. In the first week, 20,000 Apple partisans sign up.
Read on how Google responds. The Cult of Apple, however, grows to 500,000 in the last offensive.
Brad Stone’s piece in Business Week on Google’s secret lab wouldn’t be the first thing I’ve read on the topic, but it’s worth a read nonetheless:
Some of the real projects in Google X sound almost as outlandish. Makani Power’s newest airborne turbine prototype, called Wing 7, is a 26-foot-long carbon-fiber contraption with four electricity-generating propellers that flies in circles at altitudes of 800 to 2,000 feet, sending power down a lightweight tether to a base station. “If we’re successful, we can get rid of a huge part of the fossil fuels we use,” says Damon Vander Lind, the startup’s chief engineer. Vander Lind acknowledges it might not work, but: “If you don’t take that chance, and put a decade of your life trying to do it, no progress will get made.”
Then there’s X’s still-secret project to bring Internet access to undeveloped parts of the world. A decade ago, David Grace, a senior research fellow at the University of York, spearheaded a project to mount broadband transmitters on high-altitude balloons, as part of a multicountry initiative backed by the European Commission, called the Capanina Consortium. The initiative never progressed beyond the experimental stage. Grace now says that he has heard that Google is working on such balloon-based broadband technology.
Last month, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt made the surprising pronouncement that “by the end of the decade, everyone on earth will be connected to the Internet.” Skeptics immediately noted that 60 percent of the world is not yet online and that there are many countries without even reliable telecommunications grids. Teller won’t confirm or even discuss such a project, though he concedes that wiring the planet would fall squarely into Google X’s purview. Grace says, “It does need the Googles of the world to push this forward.”
Perhaps the strangest thing about Google X? The man who runs it is named Astro Teller. You can’t make this stuff up.
This is an interesting move from Amazon.com: the company is buying the excellent online books social network and information portal Goodreads. I’ve used Goodreads sparingly in the past, but I know a lot of people who love the service and the recommendations. Here is the press release:
“Amazon and Goodreads share a passion for reinventing reading,” said Russ Grandinetti, Amazon Vice President, Kindle Content. “Goodreads has helped change how we discover and discuss books and, with Kindle, Amazon has helped expand reading around the world. In addition, both Amazon and Goodreads have helped thousands of authors reach a wider audience and make a better living at their craft. Together we intend to build many new ways to delight readers and authors alike.”
“Books – and the stories and ideas captured inside them – are part of our social fabric,” said Otis Chandler, Goodreads CEO and co-founder. “People love to talk about ideas and share their passion for the stories they read. I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity to partner with Amazon and Kindle. We’re now going to be able to move faster in bringing the Goodreads experience to millions of readers around the world. We’re looking forward to inspiring greater literary discussion and helping more readers find great books, whether they read in print or digitally.”
“I just found out my two favorite people are getting married,” said Hugh Howey, best-selling author of WOOL. “The best place to discuss books is joining up with the best place to buy books – To Be Read piles everywhere must be groaning in anticipation.”
Following the acquisition, Goodreads’s headquarters will remain in San Francisco, CA. Founded in 2007, Goodreads now has more than 16 million members and there are more than 30,000 books clubs on the Goodreads site. Over just the past 90 days, Goodreads members have added more than four books per second to the “want to read” shelves on Goodreads.
Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed.
Here’s what the folks at Goodreads wrote about the acquisition:
1. With the reach and resources of Amazon, Goodreads can introduce more readers to our vibrant community of book lovers and create an even better experience for our members.
2. Our members have been asking us to bring the Goodreads experience to an e-reader for a long time. Now we’re looking forward to bringing Goodreads to the most popular e-reader in the world, Kindle, and further reinventing what reading can be.
3. Amazon supports us continuing to grow our vision as an independent entity, under the Goodreads brand and with our unique culture.
Sounds like a great fit.
Writing in the London Review of Books, Rebecca Solnit expresses her discontent at the unstable housing market in San Francisco, driven by new money from the tech boom (Google, Facebook, etc.):
At the actual open houses, dozens of people who looked like students would show up with chequebooks and sheaves of resumés and other documents and pack the house, literally: it was like a cross between being at a rock concert without a band and the Hotel Rwanda. There were rumours that these young people were starting bidding wars, offering a year’s rent in advance, offering far more than was being asked. These rumours were confirmed. Evictions went back up the way they did during the dot-com bubble. Most renters have considerable protection from both rent hikes and evictions in San Francisco, but there are ways around the latter, ways that often lead to pitched legal battles, and sometimes illegal ones. Owners have the right to evict a tenant to occupy the apartment itself (a right often abused; an evicted friend of mine found a new home next door to his former landlord and is watching with an eagle eye to see if the guy really dwells there for the requisite three years). Statewide, the Ellis Act allows landlords to evict all tenants and remove the property from the rental market, a manoeuvre often deployed to convert a property to flats for sale. As for rent control, it makes many landlords restless with stable tenants, since you can charge anything you like on a vacant apartment – and they do.
A Latino who has been an important cultural figure for forty years is being evicted while his wife undergoes chemotherapy. One of San Francisco’s most distinguished poets, a recent candidate for the city’s poet laureate, is being evicted after 35 years in his apartment and his whole adult life here: whether he will claw his way onto a much humbler perch or be exiled to another town remains to be seen, as does the fate of a city that poets can’t afford. His building, full of renters for most or all of the past century, including a notable documentary filmmaker, will be turned into flats for sale. A few miles away, friends of friends were evicted after twenty years in their home by two Google attorneys, a gay couple who moved into two separate units in order to maximise their owner-move-in rights. Rental prices rose between 10 and 135 per cent over the past year in San Francisco’s various neighbourhoods, though thanks to rent control a lot of San Franciscans were paying far below market rates even before the boom – which makes adjusting to the new market rate even harder. Two much-loved used bookstores are also being evicted by landlords looking for more money; 16 restaurants opened last year in their vicinity. On the waterfront, Larry Ellison, the owner of Oracle and the world’s sixth richest man, has been allowed to take control of three city piers for 75 years in return for fixing them up in time for the 2013 America’s Cup; he will evict dozens of small waterfront businesses as part of the deal.
Evictions, foreclosures, and legal loopholes. This doesn’t sound like a city I’d want to inhabit. A must-read for perspective.
Aria Haghighi, co-founder of the app Prismatic, discusses his decision to leave academia in this blog post. Aria holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from UC Berkeley and a BS in Mathematics, and his area of focus was Natural Language Programming. It’s an interesting thought process:
At some point while at MIT, I decided to leave and do a startup because I felt my work as an academic wasn’t going to have the impact I wanted it to have. I went into academic CS in order to design NLP models which would become the basis of mainstream consumer products. I left because that path from research to product rarely works, and when it does it’s because a company is built with research at its core (think Google). This wasn’t a sudden realization, but one I had stewed on after observing academia and industry for years.
During grad school, I did a lot of consulting for ‘data startups’ (before ‘big data’ was a thing) and consistently ran into the same story: smart founders, usually not technical, have some idea that involves NLP or ML and they come to me to just ‘hammer out a model’ for them as a contractor. I would spend a few hours trying to get concrete about the problem they want to solve and then explain why the NLP they want is incredibly hard and charitably years away from being feasible; even then they’d need a team of good NLP people to make it happen, not me explaining ML to their engineers on the board a few hours a week. Useable fine-grained sentiment analysis is not going to be solved as a side project.
And his thoughts on making this tough decision:
Nearly two years later, after a lot of learning about industry and making real products, I can confidently say that I’m happy I left academia. Prismatic is a pretty tight realization of how I would’ve wanted NLP and ML to work in a startup and manifest in product. The relationship is symbiotic: the machine learning and technology is informing possibilities for the product, and conversely product needs are yielding interesting research. Various pieces of the machine learning (like the topics in a topic model) are first-class product elements. Many of the more ambitious NLP ideas I thought about during grad school will become first-class aspects of the product over the next few years.
Before you go out and buy that Facebook stock when it IPOs today, consider the warnings. There are plenty of opinions out there. But the best consideration of the whole matter I have read in the last two weeks comes courtesy of Chris Dixon, who considers Facebook’s business model. Namely: display ads. Display ads generally hurt the user experience, and are also not very efficient at producing revenues. The crux of the matter:
The key question when trying to value Facebook’s stock is: can they find another business model that generates significantly more revenue per user without hurting the user experience? (And can they do that in an increasingly mobile world where display ads have been even less effective.) Perhaps that business model is sponsored feed entries, as Facebook seems to be hoping (along with Twitter and perhaps Tumblr). The jury is still out on that model. Personally, I have trouble seeing how insertions into the feeds aren’t just more prominent display ads. You still have to stoke demand and convert people from non-purchasing to purchasing intents. A more likely outcome is that Facebook uses their assets – a vast number of extremely engaged users, it’s social graph, Facebook Connect – to monetize through another business model. If they do that, the company is probably worth a lot more than the expected $100B IPO valuation. If they don’t, it’s probably worth a lot less.
Chris’s short post is worth reading in entirety.