Context Aware Programming
I’m increasingly realizing that many of my gripes about applications these days are triggered by their failure to understand my context in the way that they can and should. For example:
- Unruly apps on my Android phone, like gmail or twitter, update messages in the background as soon as I wake up my phone, slowing the phone to a crawl and making me wait to get to the app I really want. This is particularly irritating when I’m trying to place a phone call or write a text, but it can get in the way in the most surprising places. (It’s not clear to me if this is the application writers’ fault, or due to a fundamental flaw in the Android OS.)
- Accuweather for Android, otherwise a great app, lets you set up multiple locations, which seems like it would be very handy for frequent travelers, but it inexplicably defaults to whichever location you set up first, regardless of where you are. Not only does it ignore the location sensor in the phone, it doesn’t even bother to remember the last location I chose.
- The WMATA app (Washington Metro transit app) I just downloaded lets you specify and save up to twelve bus stops for which it will report next bus arrival times. Why on earth doesn’t it just detect what bus stop you are actually standing at?
- And it’s not just mobile apps. Tweetdeck for Mac lets you schedule tweets for later in the day or on future dates, yet it defaults to the date that you last used the feature rather than today’s date! How frustrating is it to set the time of the tweet for the afternoon, only to be told “Cannot schedule a tweet for the past”, because you didn’t manually update the date to today!
In each of these cases, programmers seemingly have failed to understand that devices have senses, and that consulting those senses is the first step in making the application more intelligent. It’s as if a human, on awaking, blundered down to breakfast without opening his or her eyes!
By contrast, consider how some modern apps have used context awareness to create brilliant, transformative user experiences:
- Uber, recognizing both where you are and where the nearest driver is, gives you an estimated time of pickup, connects the two of you, and lets you track progress towards that pickup.
- Square Register notices anyone running Square Wallet entering the store, and pops up their name, face, and stored payment credentials on the register, creating a delightful in-store checkout experience.
- Apps like FourSquare and Yelp are like an augmentation that adds GPS as a human sixth sense, letting you find restaurants and other attractions nearby. Google Maps does all that and more. (Even Google Maps sometimes loses the plot, though. For example, yesterday afternoon, I was on my way to Mount Vernon. Despite the fact that I was in Virginia, a search unadorned with the state name gave me as a first result Mount Vernon WA, rather than Mount Vernon VA. I’ve never understood how an app that can, and does, suggest the correct street name nearby before I’ve finished typing the building number can sometimes go so wrong.)
- Google Now, while still a work in progress, does an ambitious job of intuiting things you might want to know about your environment. It understands your schedule, your location, the weather, the time, and things you have asked Google to remember on your behalf. It sometimes suggests things that you don’t care about, but I’d far rather than than an idiot application that requires me to use keystrokes or screen taps to tell the app things that my phone already knows.
Just as the switch from the command line to the GUI required new UI skills and sensibilities, mobile and sensor-based programming creates new opportunities to innovate, to surprise and delight the user, or, in failing to use the new capabilities, the opportunity to create frustration and anger. The bar has been raised. Developers who fail to embrace context-aware programming will eventually be left behind.
Why We Started the Velocity Conference
Back in 2006, Debra Chrapaty, then VP of Operations for Windows Live (later CIO at Zynga, and now CEO of Nirvanix) made a prescient comment to me: “In the future, being a developer on someone’s platform will mean being hosted on their infrastructure.” As it often turns out, things don’t work out quite as planned. A few months later, Amazon announced EC2, and it was Amazon, not Microsoft, that became the platform whose infrastructure startups chose to host their applications on. But Debra certainly nailed the big idea!
I wrote a blog post about that conversation, entitled Operations: The New Secret Sauce, which included the statement “Operations used to be thought of as boring. It’s now ground zero in the computing wars.” Jesse Robbins, then “Master of Disaster” at Amazon and later co-founder and CEO of Opscode, told me that everyone in operations at Amazon printed out that blog post and posted it in their cubicles. Operations had been a relatively low-status job. Jesse told me that was the first time anyone had made a strong public statement about how important it was becoming.
As a result of that post, Jesse, Steve Souders, and a group of others came to me the following year and said “We need a gathering place for our tribe.” That gathering place became the Velocity Conference, now in its sixth year. We chose to include not just web operations, but also web performance and the emerging field of “DevOps” – the development model for applications hosted in the cloud.
This seems to be part of the secret sauce of some of our most successful events: the recognition that it’s not just about technology but the people who put it into practice. At the heart of conferences like Velocity and Strata are new job descriptions, new skills, and new opportunities to grow careers and companies. That’s also why we increasingly think of these events not as conferences but as gathering places for communities. Technology matters. The people who put it into practice matter more.
The Velocity Conference starts tomorrow in Santa Clara. There is still time to attend.
Why we spun out Maker Media
The Maker movement, like all enthusiast movements, is a harbinger of deeper change.
Today, O’Reilly Media announced that we have spun out Maker Media into a separate company. I want to give a bit of background on why we did this, and what we think the opportunity is for the new Maker Media company.
The arc from enthusiast to entrepreneur
Many of the most interesting technologies of the next decade will involve innovations in hardware, not just software. The Maker movement, like all enthusiast movements, is a harbinger of deeper change.
What Dale Dougherty first recognized in 2005 when he published Make: Magazine and began Maker Faire was that there was a new upwelling of interest in making things, embracing everything from new technologies like 3D printing and other forms of advanced manufacturing, robotics, sensor platforms, to crafting and older hands-on technologies. The early projects in the magazine — aerial photography with kites, a programmable cat feeder made out of an old VCR, hacked robot dogs sniffing out environmental toxins — may have seemed trivial at the time, but they were a sign of things to come. Read more…
RFP-EZ: Making it easier for small companies to bid on government contracts
RFP-EZ is a small step towards making it easier for new businesses to sell to government.
A few years ago, when I was doing the research that led to my work in open government, I had a conversation with Aneesh Chopra, later the first Federal CTO but at the time, the Secretary of Technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia. I remember him telling me about the frustration of being in government, knowing that you could go to someone down the street to build a website in a week, but still having to put the job through procurement, a process taking nine months and resulting in a website costing ten times or more what it could have cost if he’d just been able to hire someone on the open market.
Much of the difficulty stems from stringent legal regulations that make it difficult for companies to compete and do business with government. (Like so many government regulations, these rules were designed with good intentions after scandals involving government officials steering contracts to their friends, but need to be simplified and updated for current circumstances.) The regulations are so complex that often, the people who do business with the federal government are more specialized in understanding that regulation than they are in the technology they’re providing. As a result, there are specialized intermediaries whose sole business is bidding on government jobs, and then subcontracting them to people who can actually do the work.
The problem has been compounded by the fact that many things that were once hard and expensive are now easy and cheap. But government rules make it hard to adopt cutting edge technology.
That’s why I’m excited to see the Small Business Administration launch RFP-EZ as part of the White House’s Presidential Innovation Fellows program. It’s a small step towards getting the door open — towards making it easier for new businesses to sell to government. RFP-EZ simplifies both the process for small companies to bid on government jobs and the process for government officials to post their requests. Hopefully it will increase government’s access to technology, increase competition in the federal space, and lower prices. Read more…
Yelp partners with NYC and SF on restaurant inspection data
A joint effort by New York City, San Francisco, and Yelp brings government health data into Yelp reviews.
One of the key notions in my “Government as a Platform” advocacy has been that there are other ways to partner with the private sector besides hiring contractors and buying technology. One of the best of these is to provide data that can be used by the private sector to build or enrich their own citizen-facing services. Yes, the government runs a weather website but it’s more important that data from government weather satellites shows up on the Weather Channel, your local TV and radio stations, Google and Bing weather feeds, and so on. They already have more eyeballs and ears combined than the government could or should possibly acquire for its own website.
That’s why I’m so excited to see a joint effort by New York City, San Francisco, and Yelp to incorporate government health inspection data into Yelp reviews. I was involved in some early discussions and made some introductions, and have been delighted to see the project take shape.
My biggest contribution was to point to GTFS as a model. Bibiana McHugh at the city of Portland’s TriMet transit agency reached out to Google, Bing, and others with the question: “If we came up with a standard format for transit schedules, could you use it?” Google Transit was the result — a service that has spread to many other U.S. cities. When you rejoice in the convenience of getting transit timetables on your phone, remember to thank Portland officials as well as Google. Read more…
Square Wallet, the Apple Store, and Uber: Software Above the Level of a Single Device
This is the beginning of a great rewiring of every aspect of business processes and interactions.
Back in 2003, Dave Stutz, in his parting letter to Microsoft, wrote a prescient line about the future of technology: “Useful software written above the level of the single device will command high margins for a long time to come. Stop looking over your shoulder and invent something!” Software above the level of a single device! That line stuck with me, and has been a foundation of my thinking and writing ever since, helping to shape both The Open Source Paradigm Shift and What is Web 2.0?
But this line has never seemed more prescient than today, in the new wave of software that blends mobile devices in the hands of more than one person, big data back ends, and a profound re-imagination of services, business processes, and interfaces. Yesterday’s announcement that 7,000 Starbucks locations now accept Square Wallet drives home just how much technology is changing the game for business. It isn’t just the web, big data, or even mobile, it’s the combination of them all into new systems of interaction between companies and their customers.
If you’ve never experienced the magic of walking into a coffee shop, having the cashier glance down at their iPad-based Square Register to verify your face and payment credentials already provided by your phone’s automatic check-in, and buying your coffee simply by confirming your name, you haven’t yet tasted the future.
Square Wallet and Square Register aren’t just mobile applications, they are a profound rethinking of the entire business process of buying something at a retail location. They combine not just one but two mobile applications, a cloud-based data backend with payment information, identity, and perhaps even your purchase preferences at a merchant you frequent, location-based check-in, and more, all woven into a seamless experience. Software above the level of a single device. Retail will never be the same again. Read more…
Open health data in practice: Increase your access to lab results
Voice your support for a proposed federal rule that expands patients' access to test results.
I’m convinced that there’s a wave of innovation coming in healthcare, driven by new kinds of data, new ways of extracting meaning from that data, and new business models that data can enable. That’s one of the reasons why we launched our StrataRx Conference, which focuses on the importance of data science to the future of health care.
Unfortunately, much of the data that will enable an entrepreneurial explosion is still locked up — in paper records, in proprietary data formats, and by well-intentioned but conflicting privacy regulations.
We’re making progress towards open data in healthcare, but there are still so many obstacles! Ann Waldo recently introduced me to one of these.
A 2009 law modernized patient access rights by allowing individuals to get copies of their medical records in electronic format. Unfortunately, however, these patients’ access rights surprisingly do not include lab test results – one of the types of medical records that people are most likely to find urgent and useful. Due to the interaction of HIPAA (the Federal medical privacy law), CLIA (a Federal laboratory regulatory law), and state laws, patients can only get direct access to their their test results from labs in a handful of states.
A recent New York Times story highlighted just how much pain and suffering can be caused by this inability to get access to your own lab results.
In 2011, the Department of Health and Human Services put forward a proposed Rule that would give patients the right to get their test results directly from laboratories. This Rule is still waiting to be finalized. In hopes of breaking the logjam, O’Reilly Media and a variety of other players have written a consensus letter that voices our whole-hearted support for that proposed Rule and encourages the Federal government to finalize it promptly.
We’d love to invite you to join us in signing this letter.
Patients’ rights should include direct access to their lab results, just like all their other medical records!
Solving the Wanamaker problem for health care
Data science and technology give us the tools to revolutionize health care. Now we have to put them to use.
By Tim O’Reilly, Julie Steele, Mike Loukides and Colin Hill
“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.” — Jeff Hammerbacher, early Facebook employee
“Work on stuff that matters.” — Tim O’Reilly
In the early days of the 20th century, department store magnate John Wanamaker famously said, “I know that half of my advertising doesn’t work. The problem is that I don’t know which half.”
The consumer Internet revolution was fueled by a search for the answer to Wanamaker’s question. Google AdWords and the pay-per-click model began the transformation of a business in which advertisers paid for ad impressions into one in which they pay for results. “Cost per thousand impressions” (CPM) was outperformed by “cost per click” (CPC), and a new industry was born. It’s important to understand why CPC outperformed CPM, though. Superficially, it’s because Google was able to track when a user clicked on a link, and was therefore able to bill based on success. But billing based on success doesn’t fundamentally change anything unless you can also change the success rate, and that’s what Google was able to do. By using data to understand each user’s behavior, Google was able to place advertisements that an individual was likely to click. They knew “which half” of their advertising was more likely to be effective, and didn’t bother with the rest.
Since then, data and predictive analytics have driven ever deeper insight into user behavior such that companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are fundamentally data companies. And data isn’t just transforming the consumer Internet. It is transforming finance, design, and manufacturing — and perhaps most importantly, health care.
How is data science transforming health care? There are many ways in which health care is changing, and needs to change. We’re focusing on one particular issue: the problem Wanamaker described when talking about his advertising. How do you make sure you’re spending money effectively? Is it possible to know what will work in advance?
Some sideways thinking about cyberwarfare
Cyberwarfare needs to be framed far more broadly.
When we hear the term “cyberwarfare” we think of government-backed hackers stealing data, or releasing viruses or other software exploits to disrupt another country’s capabilities, communications, or operations. We imagine terrorists or foreign hackers planning to destroy America’s power grid, financial systems, or communications networks, or stealing our secrets.
I’ve been thinking, though, that it may be useful to frame the notion of cyberwarfare far more broadly. What if we thought of JP Morgan’s recent trading losses not simply as a “bad bet” but as the outcome of a cyberwar between JP Morgan and hedge funds? More importantly, what if we thought of the Euro’s current troubles in part as the result of a cyberwar between the financial industry and the EU?
When two nations with differing goals attack each other, we call it warfare. But when financial firms attack each other, or the financial industry attacks the economy of nations, we tell ourselves that it’s “the efficient market” at work. In fact the Eurozone crisis is a tooth-and-claw battle between central bankers and firms seeking profit for themselves despite damage to the livelihoods of millions.
When I see headlines like “Merkel says Euro Rescue Funds Needed Against Speculators” or “Speculators Attacking the Euro” or “Banksters Take Us to the Brink” it’s pretty clear to me that we need to stop thinking of the self-interested choices made by financial firms as “just how it is,” and to think of them instead as hostile activities. And these activities are largely carried out by software trading bots, making them, essentially, a cyberwar between profiteers and national economies (i.e. the rest of us).