What I Want For Christmas From Each Major Tech Company Next Year

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Here’s my wish list. I realize it’s too late for this year, but I’m hoping the companies are already planning for next year, and this way they have all of 2014 to deliver. Many of these are pretty big asks, I admit, but the companies in question have pretty deep pockets and access to world-class resources. So how about let’s all deliver.

1. Microsoft

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Skype torn down and rebuilt from the ground up. Skype is terrible on every platform, and yet I’m cursed to use it every day. It delivers in VoIP pretty reliably, but not as reliably as you might imagine given its origins. Also, it’s terrible at text-based chat communication, and key features like group chat are locked behind a paywall, even though I already pay the company a bunch annually for Skype Out, Voicemail and Skype In numbers.

2. Nintendo

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Put Mario (and others) on iOS and Android. I’m really hoping that the Wii U was a secret plot to tank the stock and force management to reconsider licensing properties for other mobile platforms, because if so, stroke of genius. Let’s have Mario, Pokemon, Donkey Kong, etc., on iOS and Android, and we’ll give you lots of money in exchange.

3. Google

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Kill Glass and focus on making Android better on phones and tablets. Google Glass doesn’t make any sense to me, and continues to make less the more I learn about it. I’m sure this will be greeted with ample fanboy froth and fury, but honestly, any resources Google has devoted to this project would be better used to help make Android on smartphones and tablets less something you check interminably and more a seamless part of your everyday life. Glass’ goals are fine, in other words, but focus on the platform people will actually use.

4. Amazon

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Nail that grocery formula on a global scale. I love the idea of Amazon Fresh, I just hate the painstakingly gradual rollout. I also understand there are a lot of moving pieces and it’s going to take time to get things right, but selfishly, I want the same company I count on for most of the rest of my shopping to solve the remaining inconvenience of grocery shopping, too.

5. Facebook

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Stop trying to be Yahoo mixed with Twitter. It’s crazy to even consider, but I actually miss the endless stream of baby pictures and pointless posts lamenting some minor mundane inconvenience a friend from high school had during the day. Facebook wants to be a source for news and real-time info, but that’s not what I want it to be. I’m at the age where I’d actually appreciate the quaint sentimentality of an old friend posting their kid’s first crayon drawing, and ironically FB’s trying to mature past that.

6. Twitter

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Keep evolving Direct Messages. DMs want to be more than they are, and Twitter has finally started recognizing that and is building on it. I want more of that, and I think this is one gift on my list that I’ll actually get in 2014. Here’s hoping I don’t regret asking in the first place.

7. Apple

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A MacBook Air with Retina Display. Apple, you’ve been working towards this for so long, but you keep the Retina Air just out of reach, just on the horizon. The MacBook Air now has tremendous battery life, and is near perfect in a 13-inch version, but the screen on the 13- and 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro just blows it out of the water. The Retina MacBook Air is the Holy Grail of personal computing, so let’s make that happen.

Those are my wishes: Some are selfish, some are realistic, some are definitely not going to happen; all are what I’d genuinely like to see coming from the major players in the tech space in 2014. Oh and maybe some socks, most of mine are looking pretty threadbare.

Feature image courtesy gagilas on Flickr.

Rubin’s Robots: Google Gears Up To Revolutionize Manufacturing And Logistics

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Andy Rubin left the helm of the Android team back in March, replaced by then-Chrome VP Sundar Pichai, and it’s been a bit of a mystery what he’s been up to since. Now, the New York Times reveals that he’s moved to a much more experimental department at the Internet giant, spearheading the company’s efforts to revolutionize the use of robots in real-world applications.

The timing of the reveal seems too neat to be coincidental, as Amazon stole headlines and owned the post-holiday news cycle earlier this week with the announcement that it has been working on automated drone delivery for packages. Rubin’s work at Google seems to have a similar thrust; the robotics advances his group at Google is working on will focus on the underserved manufacturing and logistics markets, Rubin told the NYT.

It’s likely that some of the innovation Google is looking at is in shoring up the same kinds of deficiencies that UPS may be exploring, like the transport method for shuttling goods from central depots to local sort and delivery facilities. But Google at the direction of Rubin has been quietly acquiring a number of robotics firms in the U.S. and Japan including Industrial Perception (computer vision); Schaft, Meka and Redwood Robotics (humanoid bot and bot limb builders); Bot & Dolly (robot camera makers involved in the film Gravity); Autofuss (advertising and design); and Holomni (design firm specializing in robot wheels). There’s an awful lot of humanoid in that mix, which means Google is doing something more than improving on existing industrial robotics, which mostly bear no resemblance to their creators.

Google could make parts of the manufacturing process that involve simply carting goods from one place to another much more efficient with robotics, or it could attempt to streamline the process of getting a package from a supplier in Asia to a homemaker in Spokane.

Back when Rubin left his post at the head of Android, he sent a note to Android partners that said he’s an “entrepreneur at heart,” and was starting a “new chapter” within Google. With this robotics project, he told the New York Times that it’s something he’s been considering for a decade, but it only recently has become commercially viable to build automated systems on the scale he envisioned.

As with Google’s driverless cars, this is a big project that likely won’t bear fruit immediately, but it’s something the company is making serious investment in, as evidenced by the many acquisitions it has already made to further its efforts. Of course, any work in robots also has the advantage of capturing the public’s imagination and attention, which is something Amazon proved without a doubt thanks to its big delivery drones reveal. Google may not be building you a housebot tomorrow, but whatever does come out of Rubin’s Remarkable Robot Factory will undoubtedly be worth having a front row seat for.

Wibidata Machine Learning Platform Offers Capabilities Comparable To Amazon.com And Google

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store warriorWibidata, a big data application provider, has a new platform for building real-time apps that shows the increasing accessibility of machine learning and how e-commerce companies can provide an experience similar to a giant like Amazon.com.

The new WibiEnterprise 3.0 platform allows a company to power a site with advanced analytics that fine-tunes itself, providing better recommendations and other features over time, including more relevant search results and personalized content.

The platform is designed for the customer who is beginning to use data science, said Omer Trajman, vice president of field operations at Wibidata. “They are not classically trained but they have an analytics background. They have been doing marketing analytics. The mechanics are similar, what has changed is the availability of data.”

WibiEnterprise 3.0 is built on an open source framework called Kiji, which provides a common platform for building applications that leverage large data sets.

At its core, Wibidata is offering a platform that takes into consideration the fact that companies often have just a few seconds to engage their customers. People use all sorts of personal devices and can turn to a competitor with just a few clicks. But with all this data, companies also have an opportunity to learn about their customers by analyzing their digital interactions. Doing that means building a storage system that provides a 360-degree view of the customer.

Like Google and Amazon, Wibidata’s Kijii framework uses a central storage system that allows a customer to collect user interactions across all of its applications, searches, purchases, likes, clicks and requests for product information. It’s what is called an “entity-centric storage system,” which essentially pools all the data so a company with sophisticated apps and services can do real-time queries and act on a customer’s recent information to deliver content personalization, relevant search results and recommendations.

Wibidata’s approach is in contrast to traditional data warehouse systems that manage data in a much different way. In the context of e-commerce, these older systems store transactional information such as likely purchases, or shopping cart manipulations in a central fact table. For a retail bank, this data might include credits and deductions from accounts. SKU information or geographic location data are stored in dimension tables to provide a detailed view of the transaction.

There are two problems with the approach, Wibidata argues. It can get expensive and it centers around the transaction instead of the user that is generating those transactions. Furthermore, it gets even more complex when using historical data, which has to get extracted from other systems, cleansed and then integrated with the current transaction data.

Companies using WibiEnterprise 3.0 include a top 10 retailer which has integrated it with its website to create relevant, contextual shopping recommendations during the online sales process. An international retail bank is also using WibiEnterprise 3.0 technology to combine multiple customer data sources and apply in-house debt models to better detect fraud and credit risks. Opower uses WibiEnterprise 3.0 to deliver personalized reports to utility provider customers explaining how to reduce energy usage and save money. And one of the largest SaaS providers uses WibiEnterprise 3.0 to help their customers identify prospective customers.

Wibidata is a powerful platform but it also reflects the complexity that comes with managing data across so many different devices. There is an infinite data supply but the technology needed to use it means a new way of organization that cuts across the way a company treats its own historical investments. There are the added cultural hurdles that come with a change in business approach that is more customer, than transaction-focused.

These sets of challenges also impact new startups like Wibidata, which are advocating disruptive approaches that put them in direct competition with companies like Oracle and established SaaS providers like Baynote.

There is no doubt that it is getting easier to have the same capabilities as a company like Amazon.com. But the challenges come with the will of the customer and the ability of a company like Wibidata to keep ahead of the competition.

(Feature image courtesy of Trevor on Flickr via a Creative Commons License)

When Tech Giants Lobby Congress, This Is What They Ask For

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When you think of industry giants lobbying Congress, you may envision massive oil companies. But tech giants of Silicon Valley are getting a piece of the action, too.

Google, for instance, spent $3.4 million on lobbying in the last quarter aloneFacebook and Apple are also strengthening their lobbying efforts, and their main reasons for doing so include net neutrality, surveillance reform, self-driving vehicle and immigration.

Several big tech companies recently joined forces in their lobbying pursuits to create the Internet Association to work for an “open, innovative and free Internet.” Read more…

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Report: Apple Is the World’s Most Valuable Brand

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Over the last couple of years, Apple has been either the first or the second most valuable brand in the world, depending who you believe

Now, we can chalk one up for the first camp: According to Interbrand’s 2013 global brand rankings, Apple has overtaken Coca Cola to become the world’s most valuable brand, with its value estimated at a whopping $98.3 billion

Apple’s rise through the rankings has truly been meteoric: In 2011, the company sat at eight place with an estimated $33 billion brand value

Google has also leaped past Coca Cola this year, and it now sits in second place, with its brand value estimated at $93.3 billion. It’s followed by Coca Cola with $79.2 billion, IBM with $78.8 billion and Microsoft with $59.5 billionGeneral Electric, McDonald’s, Samsung, Intel and Toyota round up the top 10Amazon and Facebook, which are placed 19th and 52nd, have been labeled “top risers,” having risen by 27% and 43%, respectively, since last year. Read more…

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The Ambient Economy

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Access to information is addictive. The moment we have more of it – and more of it available at opportune times – the more we crave. I learned this first-hand when I began wearing a Pebble smartwatch in earnest. While I’ve long rejected the idea that a smartwatch is a valuable addition to the infonaut’s arsenal, I now realize that being able to see, at a glance, who is calling, texting, or emailing is something that changes nearly everything. We are entering an era of ambient information, an era that engulfs us in snippets of data culled from the riot of information around us. And this era, as evidenced by the advent of Google Glass and “hands-free” user experiences on phones, is fast approaching the commonplace.

In short, something big is about to happen and our attention is about to me monetized.

Think about what I learn from my smartwatch or the notifications on my phone. Right now I get emails, messages, and the like. But if hundreds of startups (and probably Apple, Google, and Amazon) have their way, recommendations and enticements may soon be popping up on our devices. In a Starbucks? Apple’s Beacon system should be able to notify us what song is playing and whether the Pumpkin Spice latte is back. In a clothing store? A company called Estimote can watch you try on an item and then remind you that you liked it a few days later – and even offer a quick discount.

If there has been any upside to the Internet of Things, it’s that very smart, very connected devices now cost pennies. Furthermore, the computing power needed to pick you out of a crowd is now trivial, especially given foot traffic in the average store. You will soon be in a maze of invisible trip wires, all trying to get you to buy something.

The Pebble is successful because it is forgettable. I can strap it on and wear it for a good seven days without a charge and when it informs me that something is up – that I have a text or an email or a call – it does so in a discreet manner. I can only imagine what it would look like if it were trying to get me buy a Subway sandwich for 50 cents off or convince me to get some new jeans at the Gap, but if those companies are smart they’ll partner with some source of ambient information broadcast. A buzz here or there would nudge me into Chipotle for some beans or into Joe’s Pizza for a slice. A nudge in the drug store will encourage me to pick up some condoms and corn remover (“Try Trojan-brand condoms/corn remover kits. 50 cents off today!”). A friend’s testimonial can pop up when I visit a house of ill repute and/or a car dealership. You get the idea.

This concept gets increasingly scary when you look at a smarter device like Google Glass. A section of NPR’s On The Media talked a bit about the problem of selective GPS. In an interview, geographer Jim Thatcher notes that the scariest part of getting directions from a faceless corporation is what bias that corporation can inject into your walk. While Google probably won’t realize you’re going out for lunch and lead you towards a preferred advertiser with your Glass anytime soon, there’s definitely the possibility of that happening. Likewise the same tools that can avoid obstacles can force you to face them head-on. Imagine a parent being led, again and again, past a McDonald’s because of a feedback loop embedded in the program and you’ll see what I mean.

This becomes more dangerous when we trust our devices to lead us and inform us with less oversight. Notifications on a phone are one thing; notifications in our eyes are another. My watch buzzing to get my attention gives me a valuable bit of information, but it can also exhaust my attention. They also add bias. I’ve noticed more and more restaurants fail to appear on my favorite local app, Yelp. Whether this is because Yelp needs to monetize or because it refuses to show me dumps is immaterial – the fact that it controls what I see and can expect to see is frightening.

Ambient information is a powerful tool. It helps us make decisions with an accuracy heretofore unavailable to our puny minds. More than anything it offloads cognition and decision-making onto a device that rests unobtrusively just out of sight. Like the ever-present servant, it whispers “Remember, user, thou art really close to some nice barbecue.” Who benefits from this information is the real question.

[Image via woodleywonderworks on Flickr]

The Internet: We’re Doing It Wrong

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This week Facebook’s ban-bot went berserk; Github went down; and all Google services collapsed for a few minutes, taking 40% of the Internet with them. Just another week on the Internet, then. We love our centralized services, until they let us down.

Bruce Sterling calls them “the Stacks”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft. In his most recent (always riveting) State of the World conversation, he wrote:

In 2012 it made less and less sense to talk about “the Internet,” “the PC business,” “telephones,” “Silicon Valley,” or “the media,” and much more sense to just study Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft. These big five American vertically organized silos are re-making the world in their image.

They don’t want much, those Stacks. Just your identity, your allegiance, and all of your data. Just to be your sole provider of messaging, media, merchandise, and metadata. Just to take part in as much of your online existence as they possibly can, and maybe to one day mediate your every interaction with the world around you, online or off.

Other proto-Stacks want to join their number. Once upon a time, Twitter was essentially an API: then they became aware of “the increasing importance of us providing the core Twitter consumption experience through a consistent set of products and tools.” Meaning they want to be a Stack. Github used to just host git repositories; now it does issue tracking, project management, and more. Call it a specialized business Stack for software development. And Yahoo is either a second-tier Stack or a Stack wannabe, depending on how generous you’re feeling today.

The essay “Android is better” was all over my Internet this week. Its money quote:

Most services I rely on daily are owned by Google. My world revolves around GMail and Google search. I could start listing Android features I adore, but this succinctly states why Android makes sense for me: The number of Google products I use each day boggles my mind. No other company has embedded itself this deeply into my life.”

Indeed. It’s very convenient to live in a Stack. It’s easy, it’s seamless, it’s comfortable. And it means putting much, or very nearly all, of our increasingly important online existences into the hands of a few titanic megacorporations. It means relying on their benevolence, not just today, but for the foreseeable future. Remember back in the early days of Google Plus, when Google started disabling users’ accounts for violating Google Plus’s astonishingly poorly-thought-out real-name policy? Remember how betrayed those users sounded?

They believed in Google. And then Google turned on them. Just like it recently turned on and banished people who wanted to run their own servers…or, in other words, wanted to build their own personal nanoStack.

But life inside the Stacks is so much easier, so much better, so much more comfortable, than life in the untracked wilderness outside. Better to live amid the comforts of city-states ruled by benevolent tyrants than to have to hunt your own food, make your own camp, and maintain your own mail servers, amid the beasts and bandits in the trackless wastes outside their walls.

That’s why the hackers who want to jailbreak the Internet will never be more than a curiosity, right? That’s why App.net (which really wants to be a Stack itself, anyway, just a classier one) only just hit 1% of 1% of the population of Facebook…after it introduced a free tier. That’s why new initiatives like Trrst, “a secure and distributed blog platform for the open web,” which is raising money on Kickstarter, will never get anywhere significant. Right?

These online anarchists, these idealists, don’t just claim that people should control their own data, and where it lives, and who’s allowed to access it; they claim that people want to. They claim that people don’t, and shouldn’t, trust for-profit megacorporations. They claim that client-server Stacks are only big because they’re good for business, while really, in a pure true noble world untrammeled by money and capitalism, everything would be purely peer-to-peer.

Unfortunately these claims are nonsense. Webmail is inherently insecure; and yet, among a group of those people most aware and most perturbed by this fact–the clients of Silent Circle’s recently shuttered email service

98% of Silent Mail customers opted to let Silent Circle hold the encryption keys, which made using the service much easier. When users manage their own keys, they have to log into a special system to exchange cryptographic keys with each person they want to email with.

Most damning of all, look at Github. It’s a great site, great service, great business. I use it every day. But its name and very existence are also, in a way, fundamental oxymorons:

The sad truth is that the overwhelming majority of people, including highly technical capable people, don’t want peer-to-peer protocols. They don’t want to own their own data. They just want ease. Convenience. Someone else to take over and take care of their data problems. They want the Stacks.

…Mostly.

However. There have been a couple of odd and interesting exceptions.

Consider Skype. It was brilliantly peer-to-peer…for a while. But a few years ago it too turned to centralized servers. Not, its principle architect maintains, to make surveillance easier, but because in today’s mobile world, where any given node is very likely a phone with limited battery, bandwidth, and processing power, peer-to-peer protocols are less effective. But is that only a temporary truth? Might they raise their hydra heads again in five or ten years, when even phones can serve as supernodes?

Consider Bitcoin.

Most of all, consider BitTorrent, and the hundreds of millions of users of its distributed swarming protocol. It is the anti-Stack; it is immensely popular; and it is a sign that another way is possible. Might the city-states yet be overrun by Khan-like nomads? Might you one day only need to install a StackSeed app on your phone, or computer, in order for it to become a node in one of several ever-shifting peer-to-peer clouds, striping multiple copies of your encrypted data to a motley crew of other member devices, flickering chaotically around the planet like weather?

Maybe. But only if, somehow, ad-hoc encrypted peer-to-peer services become as seamless and easy to use as today’s Stacks. It seems unlikely, yes; but look at Skype, look at BitTorrent. It doesn’t seem inconceivable. Maybe, just maybe, the reign of the Stacks will be temporary after all.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Internet Association’s New Website Lets Users Comment on Bills

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The Internet Association, the lobbying conglomerate of big tech companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook, has launched a new website that allows users to comment on proposed bills.

The association unveiled its redesigned website on Monday, and it hopes its new, interactive features will give citizens a way to speak up. “We want this to be a two way conversation, it needs to be a dialogue,” Nika Nour, the Internet Association’s digital director, told Mashable.

In the “Take Action” section of the website, under “Leave Your Mark,” the association plans to upload bills, declarations and other context documents for netizens to peruse and, most importantly, interact with. After logging in, a user can comment on the bill in general, and even make line edits. Read more…

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You Can Now Send Amazon Group Gift Cards via Facebook

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Amazon’s Friends and Family Gifting feature is getting a little more social with the Tuesday launch of a tool that allows you to create and send group gift cards to your Facebook friends on their birthdays.

By connecting your Facebook and Amazon accounts, you can keep tabs on your friends’ birthdays and prepare group gift cards in advance. To get started, head over to Amazon.com/birthdaygift, select a friend with an upcoming birthday and privately invite friends (via Facebook) to contribute to a gift card. Participants can contribute as little as $1 and as much as $25, and can also invite other friends to join, a spokesperson for Amazon told Mashable. The card, personalized with your message, is delivered to the recipient’s Facebook wall on his or her birthday. Read more…

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Amazon Wants To Build A Bio-Dome Three Blocks From An Actual, Normal Park

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Amazon has reportedly submitted plans for a new futuristic headquarters in Seattle that combines a skyscraper and a tri-sphere, bio-dome-like structure. According to the plans, the structure will be able to hold various forms of plant life and become a place where employees can “work and socialize in a more natural, park-like setting.”

Because, God forbid, employees walk to the park that’s three blocks away.

Here’s an excerpt from the plans (also, hat tip to GeekWire for the find):

While the form of the building will be visually reminiscent of a greenhouse or conservatory, plant material will be selected for its ability to co-exist in a microclimate that also suits people. To encourage growth and maintain the health of the plants, the building’s interior will include high bay spaces on five floors totaling approximately 65,000 SF and capable of accommodating mature trees. The exterior enclosure will be highly transparent and be composed primarily of multiple layers of glass supported by a metal framework. In addition to a variety of workplace environments, the facility will incorporate dining, meeting and lounge spaces, as well as a variety of botanical zonesmodeled on montane ecologies found around the globe. The building will be anchored at either end by publically accessible retail spaces entered from 6th and 7th Avenues.

Generally, it all sounds very cool and very futuristic and very trendy (read: Apple did the whole “plans for a spaceship” thing ages ago). However, it’s interesting to see how the biggest companies in tech are tackling the issue of working in an office or with a more loose structure.

Remember, everyone made a pretty big deal out of Marissa Mayer’s recent policy change that requires all Yahoo employees to work in an office. And just recently she announced that Yahoo would be taking up space in the Times building in New York’s Times Square, which is capable of housing up to 700 employees.

As it stands now, all of the big four tech companies — Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon — favor keeping employees in the office.

Google has one of the best campuses you could dream of, both in Mountain View and in New York, feeding employees free lunch from world-renowned chefs. Apple is working to build out one of Steve Jobs’ final projects, a new spaceship office. Facebook has the same diversions: chess boards, and video games, and basketball courts, and free lunch.

So of course, the fourth horseman in the race, Amazon is devising its own tricks to keep employees at the office as long as possible. It’s a win-win: Employees do more and better work due to a pleasing and comfortable work environment, and employers get more, and better work, out of their employees.

Also, there’s a perfectly good park just three blocks from the new campus.

Here’s the full set of plans:

Amazon’s new HQ design by John Cook

[Biodome rendering via NBBJ]

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