Why we hate video calls

Good piece in the New Scientist about why we’ve always hated video calls:

When another New York Times reporter went to Pittsburgh in mid-1971, however, he found only 33 Picturephones in operation, with just 12 able to dial outside their own buildings. Aside from impracticalities such as cost, it seemed that, against all predictions, no one actually wanted video calling. Users were more interested in seeing graphics than face-to-face video conversation. At Bell Labs, Lucky recalls that the only person who called his Picturephone was his boss, Arno Penzias. “I found it very awkward because I had to stare at him,” he says.

More than that, I think the enduring non-appeal of video is that it doesn’t start to replace talking face to face. Face to face talking is not about seeing the other person, or looking them in the eyes — it’s about non-verbal communication — gestures, body language, touching, etc. It’s also about allowing other things to intervene — movement, distraction, interaction with objects.

Video calls are exhausting, because you are trying to replace all that with just maintaining eye contact, or at least giving the appearance of remaining engaged. It’s a new form of communication, and we’ve tried and rejected it. Whenever Cisco drag me over to their HQ for some elaborate video conference I always feel it’s a waste of time, and a major overengineering of a flawed medium.

Talking on the phone, meanwhile, suits us perfectly (although I’ve come to hate it almost as much as video calling.) As George Costanza once said, after going through a phone conversation with a blind date:

George: She had to be impressed by that conversation, had to! It was a great performance. I am unbelievable on the phone. On the date they should just have two phones on the table at the restaurant, done.

Phone calls have become useful because we are able to transfer a lot of the body language and non-verbal cues into speech (and silence). We’re still working on text chat, but we’re getting there. It works — it’s not exhausting. It’s communicating what we want to communicate, and filtering out what we don’t — and not reading, at least for the most part, anything into anything else.

Evernote Makes Employee Reading of Messages Opt-in

Evernote has been through the wringer with its decision to add machine learning to its repertoire, effectively trying to pave the way to added services based on scanning the contents of users’ notes. Users were not happy, not least because Evernote made it opt-out. The settings looked like this: 

Screenshot 2016 12 15 06 23 04

Evernote has now had a change of heart, rather coyly calling it Evernote Revisits Privacy Policy Change in Response to Feedback: No longer would it implement the planned Privacy Policy changes for January 23.

“Instead, in the coming months we will be revising our existing Privacy Policy to address our customers’ concerns, reinforce that their data remains private by default, and confirm the trust they have placed in Evernote is well founded. In addition, we will make machine learning technologies available to our users, but no employees will be reading note content as part of this process unless users opt in. We will invite Evernote customers to help us build a better product by joining the program.”

It’s probably the best solution in the circumstances, but it was poorly handled, and reflected a lack of understanding, once again, of what the product is. Evernote is simply that: a place where you can store your notes forever. That needs to be paramount. Anything else needs to support that, and not undermine it. 

Users’ reaction was becaues they prized privacy and security above other layers of features and services that may arise from running semantic engines and whatnot over Evernote. And certainly doing it via opt-out, and a privacy policy that raised suspicions.

I personally would love to see more done with my notes — complex search is still poor, finding similar notes is still poor — but I need, and I’m sure I’m not alone — to be confident Evernote isn’t going to do anything weird with my stash without my permission. Especially have employees poring over them. 

Turn off location in iOS, and Uber doesn’t work

(Update: Uber say they are looking into it.) 

Buzzfeed says Privacy Advocates Want Uber To Stop Tracking Users After Rides End but Uber responds that “by offering the option of manually entering pick-up locations, the company is giving users a choice to be tracked or not.”

It quotes Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel at EFF, as saying that this ‘takes away a lot of the usability.’ Part of Uber’s appeal is how easy it is to open the app and let GPS pinpoint your location for a driver. ‘As you’re trying to get picked up by the side of the road, you might not know what address you’re at,’ Opsahl said. ‘I guess you could turn it on and off again…but that’s pretty clunky as well.’”

I’d agree, and have found in my tests that it’s worse than that: turn location off, and the app no longer works. 

First off, here are the options, as described in settings in iOS:

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So it’s either Always or Never. Nothing in between. Turn to Never and things not only get clunky — meaning that you’re prompted by dire warnings every few minutes, but after a day or two you start to get blank screens, like these when you try to book an Uber. 

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I’ve reached out to Uber for an explanation. 

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

A piece I wrote for Reuters on travel startups:

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Some start-ups are taking on one of air travel’s last undisrupted bastions – the economy-class cabin. While first and business class travelers have long enjoyed comfort upgrades, there’s been less attention to innovation at the rear of the plane.

“We want to make travel memorable and comfortable for all of us, not just the top 1 percent,” Alireza Yaghoubi, founder of Singapore-based AirGo, told a recent start-up conference to pitch his superlight economy-class seat.

He’s not alone. Half a dozen firms are pitching something similar, wanting to make seats more comfortable, improve cabin lighting, make it easier to use and charge mobile devices on flights, and even upgrade the humble food trolley.

They are trying to penetrate an industry eyeing significant growth on the back of strong jetliner demand, illustrated by this week’s $6.4 billion deal for Rockwell Collins to take over B/E Aerospace, an interiors manufacturer.

Persuading the airline industry to upgrade, however, is a tough ask. In a fiercely competitive market and with single-digit margins, carriers have gone as far as they can with economy-class innovation, says Anthony Harcup of Acumen, a UK design house that works with planemakers and airlines.

“Right now, we’ve designed ourselves into a corner with the current economy format,” he says. “It’s about as tight and tiny as you’re going to get it. So something has to give, and it’s difficult to see what that is.”

Acumen, which designed the world’s first flat bed for British Airways 20 years ago, has had only two of its in-cabin concepts lie unused: both involved re-thinking the form and layout of economy-class seats.

But that’s not stopping a new generation of outsiders working with new materials and technologies to make economy class, if not luxurious, at least more bearable.

FLAX SEED TROLLEY

AirGo’s Yaghoubi, for example, vowed to do something about airline seats when he flew back to his native Iran on its national airline and noticed the seats hadn’t been replaced since the plane was bought 40 years ago. “Actually, they were quite a lot more comfortable” than today’s seats, he said.

The latest prototype of his seats, he says, offers a wider back rest by having smaller elbow rests that fold down rather than up, and has better head support. Extra leg room is created by moving the literature pocket and improving the seat posture to have people sit more upright.

But these firms realize they can’t just pitch their seats on comfort alone.

UK-based Rebel.Aero, for example, promises to speed up boarding and integrate a child seat by letting the seat slide upwards, like an inverted cinema seat. This frees up space for passengers to move in and out and stretch their legs. Founder Gareth Burks says he’s halfway through getting certification and has delivered sample seats to some aircraft manufacturers.

AirGo is counting on airlines liking that its seats are made of carbon fiber composites, where fibers are braided like hair, creating a hollow structure that halves their weight.

Others are experimenting with other materials. France-based Expliseat has announced Air Tahiti as the first customer for its titanium seats, freeing up the equivalent weight of up to four passengers.

And UK-based FlightWeight has redesigned the food trolley, ditching the usual aluminum casing for mostly flax seed waste, volcanic rock, sugar and water – making it almost a third lighter.

OBSTACLES, GRUMBLES

Changing consumer habits also offer airlines a chance to shed weight.

Most passengers would prefer to use their own mobile device, says Fred Cleveland, former vice president at American Airlines and now an adviser to PricewaterhouseCoopers. This allows some airlines to ditch some expensive and heavy wiring and hardware, and convert seats into charging stations.

Cobalt Aerospace, another UK-based design firm, offers ways to customize seats, including wireless charging in tray tables and arm rests.

This could be bad news for suppliers of in-flight entertainment systems such as Thales and Panasonic. Singapore Airlines’ budget subsidiary Scoot has already abandoned traditional seat-back consoles in favor of pre-loaded iPads.

But there are obstacles for start-ups.

A lot has already been spent by companies such as Germany’s Recaro and France’s Zodiac Aerospace on making seats as light as possible by using advanced materials. Many leading airlines are already installing them.

But production bottlenecks in the interiors industry highlight the challenges it faces in keeping up with demand, and may make airlines wary of gambling on untested suppliers.

Persuading airlines to spend more isn’t easy, says Martin Darbyshire of UK-based Tangerine, which customized the head rests in Cathay Pacific’s A350 economy seats. Cathay was willing to make the changes, he said, because it makes money from economy. “But for most other airlines the costs are prohibitive.”

Maybe the biggest hurdle is certification.

There are strict rules about what can and can’t be done, and any tweaks require approval. When one airframe maker reduced the weight of the tracks where seats slot in, it found itself having to restore all the saved weight to ensure the design met certification requirements, said Darbyshire. “It becomes a vicious circle.”

Part of the problem is that while passengers grumble about economy-class travel, they are sensitive to price and don’t differentiate much on features, says Acumen’s Harcup.

Unlike booking a hotel, he says, where cost is just one of many metrics a customer looks at – internet access, parking, a pool – when it comes to the airline seat “the passenger is confronted with one metric and that’s cost. So it’s no wonder we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

Xiaomi Goes Virtually Edgeless By Using Ultrasound

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Regular readers will know I’ve been looking out for this to happen for a while: the use of sound, or rather ultrasound, as a form of interface. Here’s a Reuters piece I did on it a year ago:  From pixels to pixies: the future of touch is sound | Reuters:

Ultrasound – inaudible sound waves normally associated with cancer treatments and monitoring the unborn – may change the way we interact with our mobile devices.

But the proof will be in the pudding, I reckoned:

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to commercialising mid-air interfaces is making a pitch that appeals not just to consumers’ fantasies but to the customer’s bottom line.

Norwegian start-up Elliptic Labs, for example, says the world’s biggest smartphone and appliance manufacturers are interested in its mid-air gesture interface because it requires no special chip and removes the need for a phone’s optical sensor.

Elliptic CEO Laila Danielsen says her ultrasound technology uses existing microphones and speakers, allowing users to take a selfie, say, by waving at the screen.

Gesture interfaces, she concedes, are nothing new. Samsung Electronics had infra-red gesture sensors in its phones, but says “people didn’t use it”.

Danielsen says her technology is better because it’s cheaper and broadens the field in which users can control their devices.

That day has happened. Xiaomi’s new MIX phone, Elliptic Labs says, is the first smartphone to use their Ultrasound Proximity Software:

INNER BEAUTY replaces the phone’s hardware proximity sensor with ultrasound software and allows the speaker to be completely invisible, extending the functional area of the screen all the way to the top edge of the phone.

Until now, all smartphones required an optical infrared hardware proximity sensor to turn off the screen and disable the touch functionality when users held the device up to their ear.

Without the proximity sensor, a user’s ear or cheek could accidentally trigger actions during a call, such as hanging up the call or dialing numbers while the call is ongoing.

However, INNER BEAUTY — built on Elliptic Labs’ BEAUTY ultrasound proximity software — uses patented algorithms not only to remove the proximity sensor, but also to hide the speaker behind the phone’s glass screen.

Besides eliminating the unsightly holes on a phone’s screen, Elliptic Labs’ technology eliminates common issues with hardware proximity sensors, such as their unreliability in certain weather conditions or in response to various skin colors as well as dark hair.

This is a good first step. The point here of course, for the company, is that they can push the display right to the top, which definitely looks nice (the front-facing camera, if you’re wondering, is now at the bottom.) But the use of ultrasound has lots of interesting implications — not least for how we interact with our phones. If gestures work, rather than just say they work, it will make interacting with other devices as interesting, maybe more interesting, than voice.

The Ugliness of Short Term Hacks on the Road to Wireless

Here’s a Kickstarter project to solve the problem of no audio jack which illustrates just how thorny it is: iLDOCK – charge and listen to iPhone 7 at the same time by ildockgear — Kickstarter

ILDOCK lets you use your wired headphone while charging your iPhone 7. You can also add storage via SD, TF and USB ports with Plus. 

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The problem, as some have highlighted in the comments, is that Apple rarely grants MFi status to accessories where the lightning cable doesn’t plug directly into an Apple device. In this case, one does but the external one doesn’t. Most manufacturers get around this by making the external one a microusb. I don’t mind that, in fact it helps me, but some folk aren’t crazy about it. 

There are other issues too, of course: if you have lightning headphones and want to charge, this isn’t going to help you. 

I know I’ve written before that the future is wireless, but this project, worthy though it is, merely illustrates how ugly the interim is going to look like. 

(Via Kickstarter)

Yahoo Dyslexia

Yahoo probably has enough on its plate right now, facing possibly the largest data breach ever –  Yahoo says at least 500 million accounts hacked in 2014 – but I just wanted to point out that it doesn’t inspire confidence when their log in screen contains a glaring typo: 

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(I’m not sure the links below about the ‘account security issue’ are particularly helpful either. Users may not have heard about it, and so don’t know what it’s referring to, and the second link does not enlighten the user in this case about whether they’re ‘potentially affected’ or not.) 

But a typo on a login screen? I had to double check I’d not been diverted to a scam site. Not reassuring. 

I’m An Airline, Fly Me

This an email from a bona fide airline: 

Dear Sir/Madam,

Please be informed that your transaction with [international carrier] has been confirmed. Due to fraud prevention procedure against Credit Card transaction, we would like to validate your recent transaction with [international carrier] by filling information below :

Passenger(s) name :
Route :
Date of Travel :
Cardholder name :
Address :

Also, we need to confirm and validate your name and last four digit of your card number. Please kindly provide scanned/image of your front side credit card that used to buy the ticket. You may cover the rest information on the card. Please reply in 8 hours after received this email or we will cancel the reservation.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Best Regards,
Verification Data Management

Jack’s Hit: Apple’s Missing Socket

There’s been a lot of talk about the removal of the iPhone’s audio jack, most of it knee-jerk, albeit sometimes amusing. A sampling:

I’m no fan-boi, but I find most of this coverage small-minded. Yes, I get that there’s a potential inconvenience here:

  • if you don’t have the lightning-jack adapter, then you can’t use your existing earphones. 
  • Yes, Apple is prodding you in the direction of its expensive wireless AirPods. 
  • Yes, wireless tech is not quite as ready as it could be for the pairing to be seamless. 
  • Yes, these things are easy to lose.
  • Yes, using the headphone and charging at the same time is not going to be possible without some adapter. (This is an oversight, I agree.) 
  • yes, Apple makes more money, because it owns the lightning connector and makes maybe $4 off each device that uses it. (Yes, I don’t like this either. But the wireless 

But two years down the track these kinds of arguments will seem as anachronistic as those that lamented the phasing out of the floppy drive, the serial port, the parallel port, the CD/DVD-rom drive, its own Firewire and 30 pin connectors. (The ultimate Apple I/O death chart – The Verge)

Oddly, both the arguments by Apple and its supporters are also somewhat limited in their horizons. Apple argues that it needs more space inside the device to pack more goodies in. That the technology itself is more than 100 years old. That it makes it easier to waterproof the device. That audio via Lightning or wireless is actually as good as, if not a better, experience. Apple has talked about being courageous, which is a tad disingenuous: brave is risking everything on a startup, not when you’ve got $200 billion sitting around.

The real reason why being pro-jack is going to seem a little Luddite in the future is that the future is not just wireless, it’s deviceless. The smart watch tried (and in my view failed) to move the functionality of the smartphone to the wrist. It’s not a natural place for that functionality to be, because you’re still looking at, and tapping on a screen. It’s just smaller, closer to your face and strapped on. Same with Google Glass. Nice idea, but you’re still looking at a screen, and people hate you.

The device should disappear, all of its features — input, output — internalised. Preferably inside the body. But we can’t do that quite yet, hence the earbud. A good earbud should be both controller and receptor. That’s where we’re going. This is what I wrote for Reuters on the subject. Here’s what I said on Reuters TV.

Nothing too revolutionary here. It only seems so because the debate around jack’s hit has been so mundane, so parochial, as if technology should stand still, and technology companies should listen solely to their users. The phrase ‘faster horse’ springs to mind. Apple isn’t even leading the field on this. There are at least three other smartphone companies which have already ditched the audio jack — Oppo did it four years ago.

We’ll look back at the folk who protested the disappearance of the jack as slightly quaint folk who didn’t get it. Everything leads inexorably towards breaking down the barriers between us and the technology we use — until eventually it is inside our skull. Next to it is close enough for now. 

Hence Ben Thompson, who nailed it with this piece Beyond the iPhone, saying that this wireless, deviceless future is one which may not involve much of Apple at all. 

To Apple’s credit they are, with the creation of AirPods, laying the foundation for a world beyond the iPhone. It is a world where, thanks to their being a product — not services — company, Apple is at a disadvantage; however, it is also a world that Apple, thanks to said product expertise, especially when it comes to chips, is uniquely equipped to create. That the company is running towards it is both wise — the sooner they get there, the longer they have to iterate and improve and hold off competitors — and also, yes, courageous. The easy thing would be to fight to keep us in a world where phones are all that matters, even if, in the long run, that would only prolong the end of Apple’s dominance.

In that sense, Apple has never stood in the way of its own destruction. Yes, it has penny pinched — taxing accessory makers, avoiding taxes elsewhere, squeezing suppliers — but it has not shied away from making these bigger decisions. What is interesting is that in this new world to come it may be at a disadvantage. 

Winners and losers from LoRa

This was a short box to accompany my Reuters piece on LoRa:

One company most likely to gain from the rise of interest in LoRa networks is Semtech Corp, which holds some of the IP related to LoRa and makes most of its chips. Companies like Microchip have also made LoRa related kits.

The most likely gainers from the spread of low power connectivity, however, are going to be the companies building and managing the networks. SigFox, a LoRa rival, allows others to make the hardware, and its partners to build the networks, but makes its money from charging companies fees for connecting their devices to the network.

“We’ll see a ton of SigFox and LoRa launches over the region over the next 12 months,” says Charles Anderson, an analyst at IDC.

More traditional players are either adopting or competing (or both) with the new networks.

Some telcos have aligned themselves with one or more of the technologies, rolling out LoRa networks in the hope of gaining a foothold ahead of their rivals. They include KPN Telecom NV and SK Telecom, both of which have rolled out nationwide in their respective countries. “The people who make the most money will be those having a large network at the right price,” says Isaac Brown, of Lux Research.

Other telcos are focusing on technologies that use existing cellular networks and 4G standards. Vodafone for example, is using NB-IoT (Narrowband Internet of Things), while AT&T is using LTE-M (the M stands for machine). Both are standards supported by the cellular specifications body 3GPP.

Telecom equipment makers are aligning with one technology or another. In part this reflects a war over technologies, where Huawei and Ericsson, backed by Nokia Networks and Intel, battled to have their proprietary standards adopted. The NB-IOT compromise has prompted a rash of trials — Huawei recently concluded a city-wide trial with Vodafone in Australia, after a similar trials with Deutsche Telekom in Germany last year. Meanwhile Ericsson in June demonstrated its own NB-IoT products, using Intel chips and software.

ZTE, meanwhile, is a high profile member of the LoRa Alliance, the industry body supporting the standard, officially joining the board in June. It launched some LoRa-based smart meters earlier this year. Other prominent members of the alliance include Cisco and IBM.