Jon Bruner

Jon Bruner is a data journalist who approaches questions that interest him by writing and coding. Before coming to O'Reilly, where he is editor-at-large, he was data editor at Forbes Magazine. He lives in New York, where he can occasionally be found at the console of a pipe organ.

What’s a tech company, anyway?

Talk of the "tech sector" is out of date. Every company is a tech company.

John_Deere_Field_Connect

John Deere’s Field Connect system logs soil moisture data from probes installed in customer fields and transmits the data to a website for customers to access remotely.

Uber has encountered a series of challenges that are notionally unfamiliar to the current generation of tech companies: wrongful-death lawsuits, rent-seeking by an entrenched industry, regulatory scrutiny from local bureaucrats, worker protests. The company admitted to having disrupted a competitor’s operations by calling its cars, then canceling. No matter how explicitly it warns about surge pricing, riders accustomed to a certain way of booking a car ride object.

There’s an established industry that charges people for rides in cars, and it’s been reduced to a set of straightforward points of competition: price, car quality, ease of booking, and — treacherously for Uber and uncharacteristically for “tech companies” in general — the burly and distasteful accumulation of political clout before municipal taxi commissions. Read more…

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Biology as I/O

Solid's long view includes biology as part of the creator's toolkit.

Tim O’Reilly subjected himself to an engaging Ask Me Anything session on Reddit earlier this week. The focus of the exchange was the Internet of Things, in anticipation of our Solid conference taking place next month.

We’re always listening for faint signals from our community about what they’re getting interested in, and one area that’s stood out to us is biology, which is becoming easier to experiment with at home, as a hobbyist, and through hackerspaces like Biocurious and Genspace. You’ll find a few threads on biology at Solid this year, but we’ve tagged it to be a little more central at Solid 2015. Beyond the hobbyist and health-related applications, we see synthetic biology as another way to translate between virtual and physical, like 3D printers and stereoscopic cameras.

Here’s an exchange from Tuesday’s Reddit thread that sums it up nicely.

Question from rhops:

What prompted the start of BioCoder? Are people really doing biotech in their garages in the same way that many computer hardware and software innovations happened?

Thanks.

Read more…

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Ask Tim O’Reilly about the Internet of Things on Reddit

Join Tuesday's "ask me anything" session covering hardware, manufacturing, design, and intelligent devices.

Our new Solid conference covers a lot of ground: hardware, design, manufacturing, and, of course, software. At 10 a.m. Pacific Time / 1 p.m. Eastern Time tomorrow (Tuesday, April 22), Tim O’Reilly will take questions on these areas and how he sees them fitting together through a Reddit question-and-answer session on the IAmA board.

The best way to get to the exchange is through this page, which will post the link once it’s available, about an hour before Tim starts taking questions. Tim will be available to answer your questions about the Internet of Things, etc., for about an hour — we look forward to seeing you!

If enough of you join, we might even get a watercolor out of it.

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Joi Ito: “Deploy or Die”

Why everyone must understand manufacturing, and why the most creative companies design hardware and software together.

It was a pleasure, as always, to talk with Joi Ito a couple of weeks ago. He and I are co-chairing Solid, our new conference about the intersection of software and the physical world, and we recorded part of our conversation in the video below to frame the program we’ve assembled.

Joi is, of course, the director of the MIT Media Lab, where the emphasis is on working across disciplines: engineers take on art and designers hit the oscilloscopes. The kind of development process standard in the new generation of hardware startups — small groups of people hacking away at electronics and software to come up with products that combine both — has been familiar at the Media Lab for decades.

Now the Media Lab’s emphasis is on projects that go all the way to manufacturing and distributing: moving from “demo or die” to “deploy or die,” as Joi puts it. Projects that deploy can be vastly more impactful than those that just demo — putting thousands of devices into the hands of users rather than just a couple. Plus, the manufacturing process is a crucial source of both constraints and creative possibility. Joi says, “Understanding manufacturing is going to be key to design, just like understanding the Internet has become key to running a company.”

Other topics that arose in our conversation — and that are also central to Solid: the merging disciplines of hardware and software, the role of expertise in creating manufactured products, agile hardware development, the importance of having software design and hardware design in the same place, and the need for a new ethics as manufacturing becomes democratized.

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What BlackBerry is up to these days

Practically dead in smartphones, BlackBerry is dominant in the auto industry.

Here’s a surprise, via Bloomberg:

“BlackBerry’s QNX operating system, used to power its BlackBerry 10 phones, has become the technology of choice for mapping, communication and entertainment systems in cars from Ford Motor Co. to luxury German brands Porsche and BMW.”

BlackBerry acquired QNX in 2010 from Harman International, a long-time supplier to the auto industry. “Long-time supplier” is the crucial bit. As for why QNX has done well, Bloomberg explains:

“‘QNX is the standard right now,’ said Matthew Stover, an analyst at Guggenheim Partners in Boston. ‘It’s proven and people know what it is.’

A key to maintaining the lead is QNX’s track record in running safety systems, crucial in situations where a software freeze could mean a car accident.”

By the logic of Silicon Valley, that’s a disruption waiting to happen, as Google and a consortium of automakers have foreseen. But this also underscores the ways in which the market for software in heavy industry, and in physical machines in general, is different from the market for software that stays strictly virtual.

[H/T Jim Stogdill]

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Podcast: thinking with data

Data tools are less important than the way you frame your questions.

Max Shron and Jake Porway spoke with me at Strata a few weeks ago about frameworks for making reasoned arguments with data. Max’s recent O’Reilly book, Thinking with Data, outlines the crucial process of developing good questions and creating a plan to answer them. Jake’s nonprofit, DataKind, connects data scientists with worthy causes where they can apply their skills.

A few of the things we talked about:

  • The importance of publishing negative scientific results
  • Give Directly, an organization that facilitates donations directly to households in Kenya and Uganda. Give Directly was able to model income using satellite data to distinguish thatched roofs from metal roofs.
  • Moritz Stefaner calling for a “macroscope”
  • Project Cybersyn, Salvador Allende’s plan for encompassing the entire Chilean economy in a single real-time computer system
  • Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by James C. Scott

After we recorded this podcast episode at Strata Santa Clara, Max presided over a webcast on his book that’s archived here.

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Building a Solid World

A multitude of signals points to the convergence of software and the physical world.

Building a Solid World by Mike Loukides and Jon BrunerThis is an excerpt from Building a Solid World, a free paper by Mike Loukides and myself about the convergence of software and the physical world.

Our new Solid conference is about the “intersection of software and hardware.” But what does the intersection of software and hardware mean? We’re putting on a conference because we see something distinctly new happening.

Roughly a year ago, we sat around a table in Sebastopol to survey some interesting trends in technology. There were many: robotics, sensor networks, the Internet of Things, the Industrial Internet, the professionalization of the Maker movement, hardware-oriented startups. It was a confusing picture, until we realized that these weren’t separate trends. They’re all more alike than different—they are all the visible result of the same underlying forces. Startups like FitBit and Withings were taking familiar old devices, like pedometers and bathroom scales, and making them intelligent by adding computer power and network connections. At the other end of the industrial scale, GE was doing the same thing to jet engines and locomotives. Our homes are increasingly the domain of smart robots, including Roombas and 3D printers, and we’ve started looking forward to self-driving cars and personal autonomous drones. Every interesting new product has a network connection—be it WiFi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, or even a basic form of piggybacking through a USB connection to a PC. Everything has a sensor, and devices as dissimilar as an iPhone and a Kinect are stuffed with them. We spent 30 or more years moving from atoms to bits; now it feels like we’re pushing the bits back into the atoms. And we realized that the intersection of these trends—the conjunction of hardware, software, networking, data, and intelligence—was the real “news,” far more important than any individual trend. Read more…

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Tweets loud and quiet

Twitter’s long, long, long tail suggests the service is less democratic than it seems.

Writers who cover Twitter find the grandiose irresistible: nearly every article about the service’s IPO this fall mentioned the heroes of the Arab Spring who toppled dictators with 140-character stabs, or the size of Lady Gaga’s readership, which is larger than the population of Argentina.

But the bulk of the service is decidedly smaller-scale–a low murmur with an occasional celebrity shouting on top of it. In comparative terms, almost nobody on Twitter is somebody: the median Twitter account has a single follower. Among the much smaller subset of accounts that have posted in the last 30 days, the median account has just 61 followers. If you’ve got a thousand followers, you’re at the 96th percentile of active Twitter users. (I write “active users” to refer to publicly-viewable accounts that have posted at least once in the last 30 days; Twitter uses a more generous definition of that term, including anyone who has logged into the service.)

You're a bigger deal on Twitter than you think

This is a histogram of Twitter accounts by number of followers. Only accounts that have posted in the last 30 days are included. Read more…

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Podcast: news that reaches beyond the screen

Finding ways to make media interact with the physical world

Reporters, editors and designers are looking for new ways to interact with readers and with the physical world–drawing data in through sensors and expressing it through new immersive formats.

In this episode of the Radar podcast, recorded at News Foo Camp in Phoenix on November 10, Jenn and I talk with three people who are working on new modes of interaction:

Along the way:

For more on the intersection of software and the physical world, be sure to check out Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference program about the collision of real and virtual.

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast through iTunesSoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

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Sustainability

What will stop the march of technological progress?

bathroom-tilesTim O’Reilly gave some sobering remarks last week at Techonomy about the things that might halt the sort of technological progress that has come to feel inexorable: war, fundamentalism, anti-science sentiment, etc. Human progress has practically stopped over many long periods in recorded history, he pointed out, and we won’t necessarily be able to predict the next dark age by reading out from the patterns of history.

After the conference ended, I spent the afternoon driving to San Diego across some really spectacular Sonoran terrain that’s been repeatedly reshaped by cataclysmic floods and dried out by thousand-year droughts in a flourish/perish cycle that’s much longer than any in human history. I took a long side-trip to see the Salton Sea, which is an accidental re-creation of an ancient lake, formed in 1905 when a canal levy that was built during a period of land speculation broke and diverted the entire flow of the Colorado River into a below-sea-level basin for two years. The highly-saline ecological disaster that resulted, and the horizon-to-horizon industrial farming that surrounds it, is really striking for the relentless speed at which that environment was created on human terms and in cycles that are totally uncoupled from nature’s.

The punch line to a day of thinking about sustainability came on checking into a pretty ordinary hotel in San Diego and finding the scene in the above photo: bathroom tiles full of ancient fossils that were preserved and stored on a timeline of millions of years and rendered into building materials on a timeline that’s probably six orders of magnitude shorter.

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