Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Amazon Echo: Cool, Creepy or Confusing?

(photo credit
Have you used Apple Siri or Google Now? How about Microsoft Cortana? These "intelligent assistants" are software that allow for interaction with a smartphone using natural language. They rely on an Internet connection, with the majority of the complexity pushed to the cloud. Your words are transmitted and interpreted in the cloud, and actions on them are taken, whether looking up information on the web or initiating functions on your smart phone such as playing music.

Last week Amazon Echo, a new product in this category, was announced. The device is called the Echo, but users address the intelligent assistant as “Alexa.” Unlike the earlier products in this category, Echo is not a smartphone function, it’s a standalone object – a speaker with a microphone and an Internet connection that’s intended to be placed as a stationary object in a room. While Siri travels with you and is generally used only by you, Echo is placed in a room and is used by anyone in that space.

What are the new capabilities offered by a stationary intelligent assistant? Imagine a set of Echo-like devices spread around your house. Could I “ask Alexa” where my son is or when he left today? Could I ask whether the doorbell rang while I was away? These are events that the Echo could conceivably tell me about. You and your family members might start to access the Internet from anywhere using natural language, searching for information, making dinner reservations or buying concert tickets, and calling for music or movies to be played. With a few Echoes in your home working in a coordinated fashion, your entire house becomes a powerful user interface.

Of course, all devices from Amazon help you to shop. There’s every reason to expect that the Echo will do that as well. How? Ask out loud for things to be added to your Amazon cart or even to be fully purchased (1-click? Think zero clicks). Given that the device is always listening in order to respond when you call for "Alexa," it could be listening for clues to better target advertising. “Mom! My pants are ripped!” could cause boys clothing ads to start showing up in your browser. That suggests a fun game to play at your friends house: What will happen if we repeatedly sprinkle an unlikely product name into conversation when visiting a friend? “You know what you need Bob? Cod liver oil! I swear by cod liver oil. Cod liver oil promotes good health. Cod liver oil was good enough for our grandparents, and by golly cod liver oil should be good enough for us. Where do you think we can buy you some cod liver oil?” Let’s see what magically shows up in Bob’s web browser ads!

A more serious question might be whether you would want an always-listening device in your home - perhaps (eventually) in almost every room. Does this kind of device imply voluntary, full-time surveillance everywhere? Is there a risk of compromise and eavesdropping by hackers, or abuse by law enforcement? Are those risks acceptable given the many positives?

Which brings us back to today's question: is Amazon Echo Cool, Creepy or just Confusing?

Please leave a comment and share what you think.


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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

TV a la carte

[Back in 2011, I wrote a blog post called “Cord Cutting” which can be found at  This post is on a related topic.]

Complaining about the cost of cable television seems to have become a middle-class American pastime. If you could spend a little less for television content by buying “a la carte,” would you do it? The idea seems appealing – pay for the channels you like to watch, forget the rest. No need for the hundreds of channels that come in a cable television bundle if you really only watch a few. Added bonus if you can watch your selected content both on your big screen television and also on your smartphone, your laptop, and any other handy screen.

Many of you are already familiar with HBO Go, the web site and smart phone apps that provide access to HBO content for traditional HBO subscribers. The arrangement is that if you are already paying for HBO as part of your cable television package, HBO Go provides you with convenience of access over the web or on your smartphone. Increasingly, though, people are interested in having a different business relationship with HBO. They would agree to pay a reasonable monthly subscription price to HBO directly for full HBO Go access, skipping the cable television part completely.

HBO has reasons to be wary of that arrangement given that today the cable companies handle the messy retail aspect of the business and deliver a predictable and very substantial revenue stream. For their part, the cable companies are also invested in and attached to the current business model since HBO drives revenue their way. Cable television companies are intermediaries whose business model is in large part based on bundling lots of content into higher priced cable television bundles or packages. But now consumers say that they want a new deal–a direct one–and HBO is the network to watch because their premium content (think Game of Thrones) is content that consumers will probably pay for. HBO has been cautiously implying that they may be willing to move in this direction, and many expect them to make a move soon. They cannot afford to completely disrupt the current business arrangement with cable companies but if they have a strong enough sense that they could earn as much or more in a direct billing relationship with customers, or that they will get plenty of new customers in an a la carte offering, HBO might be less concerned about that.

If this new business model takes hold, other television networks are likely to follow the trail blazed by HBO. At first, this might be other premium channels like Showtime and Cinemax, both of which already provide web and app access to their content. Over time, though, a broader range of cable channels could move in that same direction. Those that do not might remain available primarily through traditional cable television companies.

I believe that this sort of unbundling and "disintermediation" is inevitable – but not necessarily coming soon. Cable companies will not want to be in the business of handling only the more basic, non-premium content. There's little money in that business, so they will fight this trend through pricing and regulations. Still, the Internet has a long track record of disrupting and disintermediating businesses, and even if the impediments are pretty large in this case, the change is coming.

Of course, if the monthly a la carte package I put together for myself costs me $16 for Netflix and Hulu Plus, $10 each (on average) for 10 different networks I want to watch, plus another $40 a month in sports programming, I'd be spending over $150 per month so maybe a la carte wouldn't save me much money at all.

Time for you to weigh in...

  • What do you want to see happen in the evolving television over the Internet space?  
  • What do you think we’ll see in the short term and the longer term? 
  • Do you have some insights or news to share in the area of "over the top" television?

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.


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Thursday, September 4, 2014

What's Next From Apple?

iPhones, iPads and watches dominate the rumors

For the last several years, Apple has announced a new iOS version at their summer World Wide Developer Conference and then released a new iPhone in the fall that leverages that new iOS. It's time for that to happen again. On September 9th, Apple will make a set of announcements. The one sure thing is that a new iPhone, most likely called iPhone 6, will be announced and that it will run iOS 8. Other than that here are some of the strongest rumors.

1. Previous iPhones have had 3.5" or 4" displays. The iPhone 6 will have a screen size of 4.7" along the diagonal. Or maybe 5.5". Or maybe both, one version (or more?) at each size. This has been the biggest rumor, and there is still plenty of disagreement about which size we'll see. If we see both, there's disagreement about whether they'll be released at the same time or staggered.

2. The new iPhone 6 may have Near Field Communications (NFC), a technology that could be leveraged in a variety of ways – but the most anticipated application is for payment systems. Apple has a track record of waiting on new technologies while others deploy them early. Then Apple makes the set of design and application decisions that allow that technology to take hold. This could happen with NFC and payments. Apple has a large and growing customer base, and through their App Store and iTunes Store hold many credit card numbers. They are perfectly positioned to have a big impact on smartphone-based payment systems, with a huge initial user base.

3. The next rumor involves wrist wear. Apple is likely to announce iWatch or iTime or some sort of wrist-wearable computing device. It'll probably do all that the competitive products do and more.  Read texts, interact with your smartphone, and leverage the new iOS Healthkit to deliver health and fitness applications. It might even tell time! If Apple does announce a wearable, rumor has it that it may not ship until 2015, missing the lucrative holiday shopping season.

4. Finally, there's a rumor that we'll see a new version or two of the iPad. A new iPad Air with a faster processor and other boosted specs seems likely. Somewhat more speculative is the rumor that we'll see a larger iPad, perhaps an inch or two larger than the 9.7" display used by the standard iPad.

Which of these rumors seem most likely to you?

Which of these products would you buy?

Leave a comment and let us know.

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Labor Day and the End of the Summer

In years past I've blogged about how at the beach and fishing community where I vacation, the Memorial Day weekend is the start of summer and a time full of possibilities. My neighbors and I
keep boats and so by Memorial Day we tend to launch for the season. Over that weekend we emerge from a winter away, generally pale skinned and in the midst of minor repairs on our properties for the season. We talk to each other about our plans, show each other changes or improvements on our boats or our docks. Sometimes we even have new boats to show off. We talk about the fishing we'll do that year, the excursions we'll take to nearby and far away marinas. Memorial Day weekend is a wonderful time of possibilities. In many ways, it is the sunrise of the summer.

In the blink of an eye, all those fishing trips and excursions and days at the beach and seafood meals are behind us for the 2014 season. Labor Day has arrived and it's more like a sunset than a sunrise – still beautiful, but maybe in a slightly sadder way. We are tanned and full of nice memories. Our kids are going back to school and we will have to spend more time back at home. We'll still have some weekends, and the early fall is really a beautiful time at the beach and on the water, but the summer is really over.

So long summer! I'll enjoy the other seasons, but I'm secretly counting the weeks until next Memorial Day.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Right To Be Forgotten

Cultural differences in our sense of privacy and freedom
Do we have a right to be forgotten? Many of us surely wish to be remembered, at least by our close friends and family. But there are times when elements of our past could reflect negatively on our present. With that in mind, some countries recognize in law the idea of the ‘Right To Be Forgotten.’
In 2012 the European Commision for Justice and the European Union moved to establish a new privacy right – the right to be forgotten. The concept is based in French law holding that a convicted criminal who has served his sentence can object to the publication of the original crime. This European notion of privacy may be somewhat at odds with the American ideas of freedom of information and freedom of speech.
How do these ideas apply in the Internet age?

 “…it is very hard to escape your past on the Internet now that every photo, status update, and tweet lives forever in the cloud.”
Jeffrey Rosen
Professor of Law, The George Washington University

Image credit:

This privacy-freedom tension was brought sharply into focus when in May 2014 Mario Costeja Gonz├ílez, a Spanish citizen, brought a complaint to the European Court of Justice regarding Google links. He asked that Google remove links to newspaper articles about past debts and home foreclosures – debts he had since paid. The court ruled that Google would indeed have to take down the links for versions of its search operating within Europe. This decision, which now affects all search engines operating in Europe, may well seem odd to American citizens who are accustomed to freedom of information and freedom of speech as ideas that may trump personal privacy. The decision certainly must have seemed burdensome to Google, an American company whose existence is based on making published information available as broadly as possible.

Since May, Google has received nearly 100,000 requests to take down links from its European search operations and reportedly has been complying and taking down links at a rapid rate.

What are the implications of this issue? Is this “right to be forgotten” a basic human right? Will it lead to revisionism with risks to accurate history? Are there ways to strike a balance?

Please share a comment and let us know your thoughts.


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