Jenn Webb

Jenn Webb is a veteran of the newspaper industry turned freelance scribe, editor, and researcher. She is a nerd with a passion for technology and cultural disruption. She currently serves as O'Reilly Radar's managing editor and helps to investigate topics in the Design, IoT+, Data, and Emerging Tech spaces.

Hardware is an elusive constraint on user experience

Andrew “bunnie” Huang on understanding the interplay between software, hardware, and the existing supply chain.

Editor’s note: this interview with Andrew “bunnie” Huang is an excerpt from our recent report, When Hardware Meets Software, by Mike Barlow. The report looks into the new hardware movement, telling its story through the people who are building it. For more stories on the evolving relationship between software and hardware, download the free report.

Andrew “bunnie” Huang has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, but he is most famous for reverse engineering the Xbox, establishing his reputation as one of the world’s greatest hardware hackers. He sees an evolving relationship between hardware and software.

“It used to be that products were limited solely by the capability of their hardware. Early radios, for example, had mechanical buttons that acted directly on the physics of the receiver,” says Huang. “As hardware becomes more capable, the user experience of the hardware is more dictated by the software that runs on it. Now that hardware is ridiculously capable — you basically have supercomputers in your pockets that cost next to nothing — pretty much the entire user experience of the product is dictated by the software. The hardware simply serves as an elusive constraint on the user experience.”

Hardware is “a cage,” says Huang, and good software developers learn to work within the constraints of the hardware. “When I work with programmers on new products, I take the first prototype, put it on the desk and I say, ‘Welcome to your new cage.’ That’s the reality. There’s a hard wall. But we try to build the cage big enough so there are options for programmers. A quad core Android phone with a gigabyte of memory is a pretty big cage. Sometimes when programmers feel constrained, they’re just being lazy. There’s always more than one way to skin a cat in the software world.” Read more…

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Cheap sensors, fast networks, and distributed computing

The history of computing has been a constant pendulum — that pendulum is now swinging back toward distribution.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our new report Data: Emerging Trends and Technologies, by Alistair Croll. You can download the free report here.

The trifecta of cheap sensors, fast networks, and distributing computing are changing how we work with data. But making sense of all that data takes help, which is arriving in the form of machine learning. Here’s one view of how that might play out.

Clouds, edges, fog, and the pendulum of distributed computing

The history of computing has been a constant pendulum, swinging between centralization and distribution.

The first computers filled rooms, and operators were physically within them, switching toggles and turning wheels. Then came mainframes, which were centralized, with dumb terminals.

As the cost of computing dropped and the applications became more democratized, user interfaces mattered more. The smarter clients at the edge became the first personal computers; many broke free of the network entirely. The client got the glory; the server merely handled queries.

Once the web arrived, we centralized again. LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) buried deep inside data centers, with the computer at the other end of the connection relegated to little more than a smart terminal rendering HTML. Load-balancers sprayed traffic across thousands of cheap machines. Eventually, the web turned from static sites to complex software as a service (SaaS) applications.

Then the pendulum swung back to the edge, and the clients got smart again. First with AJAX, Java, and Flash; then in the form of mobile apps, where the smartphone or tablet did most of the hard work and the back end was a communications channel for reporting the results of local action. Read more…

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The web is a critical part of the IoT story

In this O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Simon St. Laurent discusses the web's potential, and Tom Greever chats about experience design.

Simon St. Laurent, O’Reilly’s strategic content director for our web space and co-chair of our Fluent Conference, recently launched an investigation looking into the web’s potential to change not only computing, but the world in general. For this podcast episode, I caught up with St. Laurent to talk about the timing, what he’s exploring, and why the web isn’t dead. He said that in some ways, it has always been the right time to launch this investigation — after all, the web has continued to grow amidst market crashes and the dot-com bust — but noted the driving factors behind the health of the web are becoming more clear:

“Something different is happening, though, in the last few years. I think it’s rooted in the legitimization of JavaScript as a programming language. It used to be seen as this annoying, accidental scripting language. Doug Crockford and a lot of others demonstrated that if you looked at JavaScript in the right context, context that’s more functional, that is less obsessed with classical orthodox object-oriented development, that JavaScript is both amazingly flexible and incredibly powerful. That brought in a whole new generation of people to work on things.

“The concept of the web platform arose, which I like as a phrase to keep me from saying HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript over and over, but which gives people the idea that the web is a platform like Windows or the Mac, where you can really control thing pixel by pixel. Jeremy Keith has done a great job of explaining why that isn’t true, but there are a lot of people who come in expecting to be able to program on the web like they do for any other platform. They’re great JavaScript programmers frequently, but we need to be telling the story of the broader context and how all these pieces fit together for the long-term health of their projects as well as the web as a whole.”

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Blockchain and decentralization hold big implications for society

Chris Clark on the blockchain's potential to disrupt the financial industry, from contracts to mortgages to government taxation.

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Bitcoin has come a long way from initially being perceived as a pipe dream or fake money. In a recent interview, Chris Clark, a software developer, entrepreneur, physicist, and author of Bitcoin Internals, recalled a story of one of the first bitcoin transactions: someone was congratulated on their “free pizza” after paying in the neighborhood of 10,000 bitcoins for two pizzas. “Now that would be worth, I don’t know, like millions of dollars,” noted Clark.

While Clark said he regrets not getting involved in bitcoin back in 2010-2011, when “bitcoins were super cheap,” he has since researched and written a technical guide to bitcoin, Bitcoin Internals, and expanded his research into the blockchain, looking at the value of blockchain technology for businesses and the potential impacts of decentralization. In our conversation, he described the early evolution direction:

“Right now, we can see that people are kind of looking at bitcoin mostly as just a regular payment system. While I do think that’s definitely a very important innovation, what we’re seeing is a lot of new technologies coming out that are more about things like smart contracts and decentralized organizations, which are right now really in their infancy. I think that those are actually going to be much bigger in overall impact than the payment system itself.”

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Welcome to the age of indie hardware

The shifting economics around manufacturing is fueling an indie hardware movement.

Editor’s note: this is an excerpt from our new report When Hardware Meets Software — download the free report here.

All trends rise and fall. A new generation of smart techies has emerged to challenge the false duality of the hardware versus software paradigm. The spiritual heirs of the ham radio operators and homemade rocket enthusiasts of the 1940s and 50s have coalesced to form a maker culture that is quietly subverting the standard industrial model of product design and development.

Even if they aren’t the actual grandsons and granddaughters of the original hobbyists, they apply the same kind of grit, smarts and do-it-yourself confidence as earlier generations of inventors and tinkerers who labored in basements, backyards, and garages all over the world.

Unlike their predecessors, whose audiences were limited mostly to friends and family members, the new generation is sharing its inventiveness globally and selling gadgets through maker-friendly e-commerce markets such as Tindie, Make, and Grand St. Read more…

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Bitcoin’s road to democratization lies in decentralization

Conrad Barski on the bitcoin and blockchain landscape and how the technology will evolve over the next 10 years.

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Conrad Barski, a medical doctor, a cartoonist, programmer, and author of Land of Lisp, has been experimenting with bitcoin since 2011. In a recent interview, Barski talked about the bitcoin and blockchain landscape and noted the potential of decentralization:

“We’re heading into a world where things are becoming more decentralized. Most people already appreciate that because we all know about things like Airbnb and Uber. Of course, there’s kind of a paradox there because we think of Airbnb and Uber as being decentralized, but of course they’re these very centralized companies that run things…I think 10 years from now we’re going to see that these types of semi-decentralized companies are going to be replaced by fully decentralized companies, where the company itself just runs in an automated way on some kind of cryptocurrency. No one knows what cryptocurrency that will be, but there are folks from Ripple, from Counterparty, from Ethereum all trying to build an infrastructure that essentially let’s you run a company that isn’t controlled by any individual person. I think that’s really in the long term the most exciting part about bitcoin.”

What about bitcoin as a currency? In the short term, it’s an open question, said Barski, but he predicted an expansion similar to what we’ve seen with BitTorrent:

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Privacy is a concept, not a regime

In this O'Reilly Radar Podcast: Dr. Gilad Rosner talks about data privacy, and Alasdair Allan chats about the broken IoT.

In this podcast episode, I catch up with Dr. Gilad Rosner, a visiting researcher at the Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute in England. Rosner focuses on privacy, digital identity, and public policy, and is launching an Internet of Things Privacy Forum. We talk about personal data privacy in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT), privacy as a social characteristic, an emerging design ethos for technologists, and whether or not we actually own our personal data. Rosner characterizes personal data privacy as a social construct and addresses the notion that privacy is dead:

“Firstly, it’s important to recognize the idea that privacy is not a regime to control information. Privacy is a much larger concept than that. Regimes to control information are ways that we as a society preserve privacy, but privacy itself emerges from social needs and from individual human needs. The idea that privacy is dead comes from the vulnerability that people are feeling because they can see that it’s very difficult to maintain walls between their informational spheres, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t countercurrents to that, and it doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways, as we go forward, to improve privacy preservation in the electronic spaces that we continue to move into.”

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As we move more and more into these electronic spaces and the Internet of Things becomes democratized, our notions of privacy are shifting on a cultural level beyond anything we’ve experienced as a society before. Read more…

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Bitcoin and blockchain use cases won’t be sexy, but will be essential

Tim Swanson on the blockchain's potential and what the future of crypto-coins might bring.

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Researcher and author Tim Swanson originally built bitcoin mining equipment in China a couple of years ago, but as he explained in a recent interview, he’s moved beyond the trading aspects of bitcoin and now focuses on research and use cases. Swanson, who also works in business development at Melotic, a digital asset exchange, expressed some skepticism about the future of bitcoin as a currency and noted that the greatest potential in the technology lies in the blockchain:

“I’m fairly skeptical that what [bitcoin] can and will do is probably either overstated or overhyped. I think most of the actual use cases, especially with blockchains in general, will be very mundane and will be related to proof of existence, so things like notary services.

“If anyone’s looking for a particular use case, I’d probably talk about one called CAT, Consolidated Audit Trail. It’s related to the SEC requiring traders to put together a way to find out when trades take place. On any given day, there’s about 48 billion trades that take place under their purview, and putting together a system for this, they want to make it centralized. Maybe you can use blockchains in some kind of decentralized fashion for this, but the idea — it’s not a very sexy, headline-getting use case — but it’s something that’s particularly needed to ensure their transparency within the trading aspect of these different financial instruments globally.”

Swanson will host a free webcast — The Continued Existence of Bitcoin, Altcoins, Appcoins, and Commodity Coins — on Tuesday, December 2, to talk about the various coins being created and the legal and technical challenges facing the developer community. Read more…

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Signals from Velocity Europe 2014

From design processes to postmortem complexity, here are key insights from Velocity Europe 2014.

Practitioners and experts from the web operations and performance worlds came together in Barcelona, Spain for Velocity Europe 2014. We’ve gathered highlights and insights from the event below.

Managing performance is like herding cats

Aaron Rudger, senior product marketing manager at Keynote Systems, says bridging the communication gap between IT and the marketing and business sectors is a bit like herding cats. Successful communication requires a narrative that discusses performance in the context of key business metrics, such as user engagement, abandonment, impression count, and revenue.

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Holistic experience design: the O’Reilly Radar Podcast

Mary Treseler talks about O'Reilly's new design investigation, and Trina Chiasson talks about typography and visualization.

Editor’s note: you can subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast through iTunes, SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

In this week’s Radar Podcast episode, I talk with Mary Treseler, director of strategic content at O’Reilly, about our new investigation into experience design and how it’s shaping our future. Treseler notes a couple of key factors driving the investigation:

“What I’m seeing here and what I’ve been watching is the focus move from technology to design. Experience design or interaction design has always been around, but there are a couple of factors that are really pushing it into the spotlight. One being that we’re seeing more widespread support of design as a corporate asset, as something that could be a competitive advantage to businesses. The other is the Internet of Things, looking at the convergence of the digital and physical worlds, and what that means for designers and how they can impact the future.”

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