The Future of Payments

Disclaimer: I work at Amazon but this writing does not represent Amazon in any way. Opinions written here are strictly my own.

When I was working at Citi Cards, I was under the impression that people were spending a lot of time figuring out what credit cards they should have. Were they going to get points or miles? Weren’t they going to be so excited that they could redeem their points with Amazon? Of course, working in a credit card company I was thinking about this all day and I lost sight of the fact that my customers had far better things to do with their time. Continue reading “The Future of Payments”

Growing Up Alexa

A few months ago, I wrote about how Alexa and Google Home are used in our house. In my experience, these devices are a better way for kids to use the internet than a mobile phone. A phone becomes an extension of a person, isolating her from the group. Interacting with Alexa is more of a family activity with Alexa acting like another person in the room.

Some people think it’s odd to treat Alexa humanely. As a machine, she doesn’t have any feelings. But think about the way we refer to Alexa. It feels more natural to refer to Alexa as a “her” than an “it” because that’s the way we interface with her. And if we interface with her as a person, we should be polite and say please and thank you. Continue reading “Growing Up Alexa”

Why Do People Think That Wearing a Hoodie to Work is a Status Symbol?

I spotted a technology executive walking down the street. He used to wear expensive tailored suits. Now he’s coming to work in high-end jeans and a polo shirt. Then it hit me. Jeans and a turtleneck or jeans and a polo shirt (or really jeans and anything) is the new innovation wardrobe. On one level, it makes sense because everyone wants to dress like Steve Jobs. But when you dig a little bit deeper, using Silicon Valley clothes as a status symbol doesn’t make any sense at all.  Continue reading “Why Do People Think That Wearing a Hoodie to Work is a Status Symbol?”

The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Software Testing

This is part of my Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Technology. My Mother-in-Law is a very smart woman even if she isn’t a “computer person.” The goal of this series is to take some big and treacherous sounding ideas and bring them down to earth.

Dearest Mother-in-Law,

Remember when you had kids and you told them to do stuff. And remember how they used to do what you told them but that wasn’t always what you intended them to do? Well, that’s the way computer programs work.

Just like kids, computer programs will do what you tell them, but beyond that, all bets are off. They don’t do anything that directly contradicts what you said but that doesn’t mean they’ll do what you want them to do. Continue reading “The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Software Testing”

How I (Re-)Built My Favorite T-Shirt

Read in the voice of the Mission Impossible announcer: This t-shirt was originally created as a protest against US Export laws. Until 2000, US export law considered the computer code on the shirt as a “munition” that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to re-create this shirt.

The T-Shirt

When I was at the GEL conference in 2016, I met a woman who worked for the website Design a Shirt. We started talking about the most creative t-shirts we’d ever seen. This brought me back to the late 1990s when I discovered one of the most innovative shirts ever created — a t-shirt that the US government classified as a weapon.

Oddly Necessary Background on US Encryption Export Policy

This t-shirt was created as a protest against the way the US government was treating the export of encryption (i.e., secret codes).  Until 2000, US government considered encryption as a munition that should not be exported from the United States or shown to a foreign national.

It seems a little odd that software that’s embedded in everyone’s iPhone today used to be illegal to export. Put in historical context it makes more sense. For centuries, encryption was used to allow military organizations to pass messages. The most famous of these devices was the German Enigma machine from World War II. The capturing of an Enigma machine allowed the allies to break the German codes and win the war.

The German Enigma Encryption Machine

In the 1990s, US government policy still hadn’t veered from this idea. Any secret codes that were used by foreign governments should be breakable by the US government without too much effort. At the same time, encryption was becoming a critical part of internet communications. The issue here was that the exact same technology that was powering the internet was also used to send secret government and criminal communications.  This led to internet browser companies like Netscape to create two different browser versions. They distributed a “strong encryption” that was only available in the US and a “weak encryption” that could be exported everywhere else.

Some internet activists were upset about weak encryption. You see something similar in the fight today between the US government and Apple on the right to be able to break into criminals’ iPhones. The government was claiming that it was dangerous for people to have secrets that the government couldn’t see if they needed to. The protesters were saying weak encryption creates a weak internet.

Making The T-Shirt

This is where t-shirts make their appearance. Some encryption advocates had the idea to create a very small but strong encryption program whose entire code could be put on a t-shirt. Therefore, anyone wearing this t-shirt to a foreign country or even seen by a foreign national would be exporting a munition would be breaking a law.

That’s a creative t-shirt! I really wanted one. However, I ran into two problems. First, most of the t-shirts are pretty ugly. Secondly,  since the law changed in 1999, the demand for this t-shirt has plummetted and it’s no longer sold.

With no one making these t-shirts anymore, I needed to do it myself. First, I needed to find a design of the shirt that I really liked. Second, I needed to find a way to print it.

For the design, Vipul Ved Prakash made a wonderful version of the computer code in the shape of a dolphin.  The company ThinkGeek printed the shirt back in the 1990s.

So then I needed to make the t-shirt. Most t-shirt printers want you to buy in bulk but Design a Shirt works well for one offs.  Making the shirt is easy. I just uploaded the image and choose a shirt type. The benefit to making your own shirt is you can pay the $5 more for a super premium quality shirt. I also chose to pay another dollar to print the dolphin in blue. If you want to print the shirt, it’s still available on the Design a Shirt site.

Here’s the Final T-Shirt
And Here’s the Image I Used in the Shirt

I really love this t-shirt and proud I re-created it. The world needs more of these shirts — clever, interesting and pretty designs that tried to change the world. I thought someone would recognize it when I wore it; however, even at technology events, I haven’t met anybody who mentioned it. I even added the last paragraph to the shirt to explain it to people. If you want to print one for yourself, it’s still available online.

Note: In the unlikely event you’d like to learn more, there’s a good Wikipedia article on US encryption policy that even mentions the t-shirt.

Alexa Blueprints: Personal Alexa Skills in Minutes

I like building Alexa Skills. Skills are Amazon’s name of the apps that run inside Amazon’s Echo and other Alexa products. Building skills is a good way for me to understand how Alexa works and it’s a pretty neat party trick to get Alexa to pretend that she knows me.

Building skills used to be difficult.  You needed to know how to program a voice user interface. Alexa soon came out with templates which made things easier but still required you to know how to program and so some basic system administration.  I persisted in building a simple trivia game and Amazon sent me a T-Shirt for having published one of the first 1000 skills.

My Shirt for Building One of the First Thousand Alexa Skills (Front)
My Shirt for Building One of the First Thousand Alexa Skills (Back)

I remember thinking, “Where can Alexa be useful to me?” At the time, my boys were just starting to learn peoples birthdays. So I started building a skill for family birthdays. This was a great way to drill them on an important topic until they memorized it.

Alexa would ask, “Who’s birthday is on June 20th? One … Daddy … Two … Mommy … ”

And the kids would respond, “Daddy!” (Actually, they probably said “One” because the technology wasn’t very good at picking up names at the time.)

The problem with this skill is that you needed to include all the birthdays into the skill itself. So I could build a birthday family trivia skill but it would have the birthdays for my family. That’s not a particularly useful skill for other people.

My wife Abigail had a good idea for a skill as well. She said, “It would be really convenient to have a skill for the babysitter to know everything about the house — like bedtimes, WiFi passwords and emergency phone numbers.” But we couldn’t do this either because the program needed to have OUR information inside of it.

Amazon solved a lot of this problem last month with Alexa Blueprints. Alexa Blueprints are a simple and convenient way to create a customized skill that’s just for you. Instead of programming to create the skill, you just type into the web forms and Alexa does the rest.

You Create a Blueprint Just by Filling Out a Form

There’s a number of pretty cool thing is that you can build with Alexa Blueprints. I can easily build my birthday trivia game, Abigail’s babysitter skill and even a Game Show complete with buzzers. My sons and I used the Mother’s Day blueprint to build a card for my wife. It took about 10 minutes and Voila — the Mother’s Day card was done!

Sample text for a 10 minute Alexa Mother’s Day Skill

Take a look at this video to see how you can create your own Alexa blueprint.

Update (10/1/18): I’ve also created another couple of skills for the boys. I’ve used the Flashcards Blueprint to create a vocabulary quiz for my son’s fourth grade class. It’s a great way for him to come up with the definitions for us to put in. Also, we use Whose Turn to decide who’s turn it is to do different activities. 

The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Cloud Computing

This is part of my “Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Technology.” My Mother-in-Law is a very smart woman even if she isn’t a “computer person.” The goal of this post is to take a very big and treacherous sounding idea and bring it down to earth. I tried this before in a post which I’ve now renamed The Mother-In-Law’s Guide to Chaos Engineering.

Dearest Mother-in-Law,

You know when we visit a Target or a Wal-Mart in the suburbs and they have 30 checkout lanes and only 3 are open at any time? I always wondered why that happens. It even sparked someone to write a funny blog post about the phenomenon: Target Store Opens More than Three Checkout Lanes; Shoppers Confused. Continue reading “The Mother-in-Law’s Guide to Cloud Computing”

The Value of Big Data and Why It’s Difficult to Monetize

I recently attended a session on Autonomous Cars at the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. It was an insightful session where the lawyers gave great presentations on legal issues they advise on, like M&A, regulatory and product liability. However, one non-legal item they talked about was the ability for car manufacturers to “monetize data.” The idea of monetizing data comes up often but it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

A decade ago, I was working for a large credit card company looking at new growth opportunities. We were convinced that we could become the most valuable company in the world. Our reasoning went like this. Google was worth billions of dollars. But Google’s value was based on what web links people clicked. We, as a credit card company, had data on what people actually bought. Because our data was more relevant to advertisers than Google’s data, we should clearly have been worth more than Google.

There was just one problem. While we had this data, so did Bank of America, Capital One, JP Morgan and every other bank. And everyone was looking to monetize their data.

Did I say one problem? It wasn’t just financial services companies looking to out-Google Google. The phone companies were in this game too. They were saying, “Hey, we should be the most valuable companies in the world. Google has data on where people go on the web, but we have data on where people actually are in the real world.” Suffice it to say, there was a lot of data around.

This reminded me of an article written about undersea cable capacity in the days of the telegraph. Andy Kessler shared the following cautionary tale:

After undersea telegraph messages were first sent between Newfoundland and Ireland in 1886, a half-dozen companies sprang up to relay messages between London and Paris and New York. Half the traffic was for stock trading. These companies charged up to $5 per word and could transmit 15 to 17 words per minute. Each thought it could generate revenues of $5 million dollars or more per year. It was easy to raise the $2 million it took to lay undersea cable and investors, who constantly dashed off telegrams themselves, were all too happy to lend money.

Each of these companies assumed that they’d have a monopoly on the market. But when many companies entered the market based on that same assumption, all of the excess capacity created a race to the bottom for telegraph message pricing, forcing many of the companies into bankruptcy.

So what makes Google different? I remember a discussion with stock analysts around that time. I had written a paper on Mobile Payments along with Citi’s Equity Analysts. The topic of data was very hot and various analysts asked me, “Who’s going to win the data game? Who has the best data?” I explained that the real differentiator, and what people will pay for, isn’t the data itself but what you can do with the data.

As the famous Harvard Marketing professor, Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” In the data space, this would be, “People don’t want to buy data, they want to buy results!”

How Google Uses Big Data

The goal of a search engine is to find the most relevant documents. In the early days of search engines, things were relatively easy. You could:

  1. Examine Web Pages: Early search engines like Lycos and Altavista would look at web pages and determine which ones were the most relevant. They would do this by looking at factors like the number of times a word was repeated or whether the search term was in the title of the document.
  2. Curated Directory: Yahoo, on the other hand, had humans hand-curating the web into a giant directory. This was relatively easy when the web only had a few thousand pages.
My Interpretation of the Early Web. With Only a Few Pages, Choosing a Winner Wasn’t That Difficult.  

However, as the web grew, it became more and more difficult to manage search with these methods. Lycos and Altavista were overwhelmed. Not only was it difficult to distinguish between multiple similar pages based on the text in the page but there was also web spam that was trying to fool the search engines into promoting their pages. Yahoo had a problem hiring enough people to keep up with the quickly growing web. Both had doomed strategies.

The State of Web Search When Google Entered the Game. As the Web Started Exploding, Finding the Best Pages Became Increasingly More Difficult.
Google went down a different path. By using an algorithm called PageRank (after Larry Page), formerly called BackRub (oh those Googlers and their funny names), Google was able to make use of data that everyone else was overlooking. The links between pages were just as valuable as the data in the pages themselves. For example, any page can claim to be the authoritative page of IBM. But if 100 people point to IBM.com as the right answer, it’s easy to lift that one to the top.
Google Changed the Game by Using Links from Other Sites as a Measure of Quality

There are a few things to realize about Google’s use of data:

1.  Google didn’t have the “best” data. Yahoo had a more accurate method for categorizing the web. Having humans look at content gave better results for each individual page. Unfortunately for Yahoo, that method was too slow and expensive to sustain.

2.  The data didn’t cost Google anything. At the time, everyone was concentrating on the web pages themselves — not the linkages between the pages. This kind of information is often called “information exhaust” — information that’s a by-product of what you’re really looking for. It was already out there, free for anyone to use.

3.  It’s the capability that made the difference. While the data was free, it was up to Google to organize the data and make it useful. Going back to the jobs to be done metaphor, Google put this data to work solving a problem for users.

4.  More data is better. While other search engines were getting overwhelmed by the torrent of data from an explosion of web content, Google’s product actually benefited: The more links that can point to a quality web page, the better search results Google produces.

Google has been using this template for various other projects since they were founded. They can leverage data in some very creative and useful ways. Take location data for example. If you have an Android phone or Google Maps on your phone, Google is keeping track of your location data. You can take a look at your data here. The data is useful to me but it’s a bit odd seeing that Google holds a record of everywhere I’ve been.

An Example of Google Tracking Me Through the Day.

So how can Google use your location, along with that of others, to create value? Well, one way is to aggregate this data to show where there’s road traffic. If you have a lot of phones not moving, then you can flag that road as congested. But where else could Google use this data? Google added a feature to Google Maps that let you see how crowded a restaurant was at different times of day based on how many cell phones they found at the restaurant.

A Graph of Popular Times at Bubby’s Restaurant Compiled Through Location Data. Note the Popularity of Sunday Brunch.

It’s important to remember that Google did not have the best data to determine busy times at restaurants. Telephone companies and restaurant sites (e.g., Yelp, OpenTable) likely had better data. For example, OpenTable manages the reservations systems for many restaurants and actually knows how busy they are. But yet again, Google was the best at putting the data to work at solving this problem.

So let’s sum up. People still talk about monetizing data but their data isn’t as valuable as they think it is. There’s a lot of data out there that can solve problems and generate value. The tricky part is extracting the value from the data. Google did this in search and continues to do so in lots of other ways.

Note: Ben Thompson from Stratechery gave a similar talk about how Google works last week to kick off the University of Chicago Antitrust and Competition Conference.

Why I Love My Fitbit Alta HR

The Fitbit Alta HR is one of the few technology products that gives me almost everything I need and very little that I don’t. It’s a tour de force of good design. When I look at what I need on my wrist, it’s not really a smartwatch or even a fitness tracker but something else (maybe a “smart wristband”). Let’s take a look at the 3 features of the Fitbit Alta HR that are most important to me.

3 Features I Love About My Fitbit

  1. EASY Sleep and Exercise Tracking. I need to track how much I sleep and how often I go to the gym. I used to have a Fitbit Flex, which while being a good product, made me manually track my exercise and sleep. For example, to track sleep I was supposed to tap on the band when I went to sleep and when I woke up. This meant that I forgot many days and didn’t have good data on my sleep patterns. The Fitbit Alta HR makes use of its heart rate tracker to guess at when I go to sleep (my heart rate drops by a lot) and when I’m exercising (heart rate goes up). It can even figure out the type of exercise I’m doing (i.e., bicycling, walking, sports).
  2. Vibrating Notifications. For about 20 years, since I got my first flip phone, my friend Seth Gilbert and I talked about how difficult it is to make sure that we got our phone calls. We would put our phones on vibrate in our pocket and occasionally miss calls. Women had it worse because their phones were in their purses. With the Fitbit Alta HR, the wristband connects to my phone and will vibrate when there are calls or text messages. But notifications are limited to ONLY calls and text messages so I’m not bothered or even tempted by anything else (e.g., app notifications).
  3. Tactile Alarm Clock. A wise man once said, “The hardest thing about being married is not having your own alarm clock.” Not really. I like to wake up earlier than my wife so I can relax and let my mind settle. But if I set off an alarm clock, then everyone wakes up. Having a vibrating alarm clock allows me to wake up with a vibration that’s much nicer than the buzzing of the alarm and wakes me up without waking up the rest of the house.

How I Might Improve These Features

As a product person, it’s fun for me to think about how to make these features even better.

  1. Exercise Guidance (building on the feature EASY Sleep and Exercise Tracking). It would be great if my Fitbit could offer me sleep and exercise guidance in addition to tracking. Fitbit’s certainly going in this direction after having bought Fitstar and renaming it Fitbit Coach. Trying to put all of Fitbit Coach into something without a screen is difficult so I don’t think it’ll be done in the near term. However, I can see something simple like the Seven Minute Workout coming relatively soon.
  2. I Need You NOW (building on the feature Vibrating Notifications). In an emergency, you really want to get someone’s attention. For example, parents want to know where their kids are but they’re not checking their phones. One way that I’ve seen parents get their kids attention is to set off the “Find My Phone” alarm on their kids iPhone. The “Find My Phone” alarm is normally used when the phone is missing in a large house so it puts out a piercing screech which cannot be ignored. One way of bringing this to the Fitbit would be priority vibrations. For example, if someone calls multiple times in a row, the vibrations would increase in intensity so that the wearer could not ignore them. If we wanted to bring this to the next level we could add a small shock to the wristband though I’m not sure how well that would sell 🙂
  3. Wake Up and Relax (building on the feature Tactile Alarm Clock). The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is turn on my meditation. It would be great if my Fitbit would wake me up and then go right into a 5-minute breathing exercise. The Fitbit Charge 2 HR already has a clever meditation routine for a small screen called breathing sessions. I imagine that my experience would go something like this:
    1. The alarm rings
    2.  I wake up and tap it to tell the watch I’m awake
    3. The guided breathing exercise starts. In … Out … In … Out
    4. If I’m not breathing at the guided breathing rate for 30 seconds, the Fitbit assumes I’ve gone back to sleep and tries to wake me up again.

Reasons I Like My Fitbit More Than an Apple Watch

The obvious comparison here is to the Apple Watch. “Why not just get a smartwatch?” you might say. Then you’d only have to have one thing on your wrist. Here are the reasons that my Fitbit is better than an Apple Watch — at least for me.

  • It’s Not a Watch. I really like my watch. It’s beautiful and far nicer than an Apple watch. Wearing both watches looks a bit silly because hey, how many watches does a person need? It’s also a bit annoying because it has the feeling of “Go Apple or Go Home” —monopolizing my wrist. It’s one thing for my technology items in my life to be Apple. I mean I love my iPhone and I love my MacBook Air but I don’t need everything in my life to be Apple.
  • Long Battery Life. Because it’s not trying to do too much, the battery can last a week without charging. This lets me wear it to sleep which gives me half of the features that I want in my wristband (sleep tracking and alarm clock). The Apple watch needs to be charged every night so misses these features.
  • Small, Light and Fashionable. Because it doesn’t have these Apple Watch features (especially as it doesn’t need a full screen) the Fitbit Alta HR can be small, light and fashionable. I can wear it to the sleep, to the gym and even do vigorous exercise I don’t notice it.
  • Limited Notifications and Features. While there’s another feature or two that I’d love to have, I like the fact that I’m not distracted or even tempted by them. I’m sure if I had an Apple Watch I’d be tempted to read the newspaper or check my appointments on my watch — which I really don’t need to do.

Overall the Fitbit Alta HR is an awesome device. It gets me 90% of the things I need and little else. When I started writing this post I thought about how weird it was that I was talking about a fitness tracker that I don’t really use for fitness very much. Then I came across Wearable’s Top Fitness Tackers of 2017 and saw that they rated the Fitbit Alta HR as their top choice. One of the top features for the favorite “fitness tracker” was sleep tracking!

The Secret to Google’s Self Driving Cars — Google Street View

For decades the US military was trying to create self-driving cars with little success. Once the private sector got into the game, these cars improved at a breakneck speed. In 2004, when the first DARPA Grand Challenge took place, no car in the world was able to complete the 150 mile course through the Mojave desert.  By 2016, self driving cars had driven over a million miles in regular traffic. The secret was not better computers or better cameras. The secret was better maps.

Peter Norvig, Google’s head of research, told the New York Times that Google Street View is the secret sauce behind Google’s self driving cars. He said:

It’s a hard problem for computer vision and artificial intelligence to pick a traffic light out of a scene and determine if it is red, yellow or green. But it is trivially easy to recognize the color of a traffic light that you already know is there.

I remember hearing that and thinking how convenient it was that Google happened to have Street View and that they could apply it to self driving cars. This would have been a classic case of “unlocking the power of data.” But then I learned the rest of the story.

Sebastian Thrun is the creator of Google’s self driving car and the founder of Google’s “X” lab. Google didn’t just “happen” to have Street View data lying around. Street View was created by Thrun after he met Larry Page at the DARPA Grand Challenge — the self driving car race. Thrun tells the story on CNBC’s The Brave Ones:

Larry came to the race itself and … came disguised with, like, a hat and sunglasses so he wouldn’t be bothered by everybody. But … he had a keen interest in this. Larry has been a believer in this technology for much longer than I even knew. And so was Sergey (Brin). And they really want to understand what’s going on,” Thrun said.

A later iteration of the car had cameras attached to its roof, so the team could review its progress each day, leading almost by accident to the development of Google Street View.

“We realized the video’s actually amazing. And we went to Google and said ‘we’d love to help you build Street View.’ And we kind of ended up – felt like an acquisition of a little start-up company, kind of Stanford transitioning into Google where me and four of my grad students then became Street View enthusiasts.”

“And we built up Street View and with a singular vision to photograph every street in the world.”

Street View became the first project within the secret Google X. “We had a separate building that no one knew about. At least for a year and a half, no one in Google had a clue we existed,” Thrun said.

So what did we learn? Data was the secret sauce for getting self driving cars to progress as well as they have. But it wasn’t a matter of finding a data set and applying it. It was about creating the data set for that specific purpose. Street View wasn’t a useful data set that was applied to self driving cars. It was the output of the mapping exercise that made self driving cars work so well.

One final addendum: When talking about Google Street View I have to add a link to an early version of Street View from 1979 that was created at MIT. The Aspen Movie Map (movie) used laserdiscs to simulate driving through the town of Aspen.