Amazon’s Robot Army

Yesterday I posted videos of two kinds of robots. One showing a driverless car that allowed a blind person to pick up some Mexican food and his dry cleaning, another, some kind of hive-mind controlled swarm of micro-quad copters that seemed to come right out of a Michael Crichton novel.

Today, via an high school friend who works there, I found out about another type of robot, natch, a robot system, designed to be integrated into a warehouse much in the same way a circulatory system feeds nutrients, repairs damage, and removes waste from an organism. Add a self-learning neural net to the “nervous system” of this system and the singularity has pretty much arrived.

Kiva Systems was recently acquired by Amazon for $775 million and once you learn what they do, it’s no surprise. Instead of having workers go out into the stacks to pull inventory, the Kiva bots carry shelves of inventory to the workers. It all happens in real-time with inventory being dynamically managed so that less-popular items move their way to the back of the warehouse while faster moving items come up front. The bots work both ways too. Not only do they bring items to be shipped, they also can take boxes of new items off the trucks to be stocked into inventory.

What’s Old is New

When you’ve been around long enough, you start to see old ideas, re-invented.

These guys have managed to crack the nut of how to monetize social media by charging $35 to print your twitter stream onto toilet paper which you can then use in the restroom. More details from Laughing Squid.

Roll back seven years to when RSS was all the rage and you have the following which, somehow, stuck in my memory as something I blogged about way back when.

This was slightly more ambitious because they would print the stuff right in your bathroom and offered a marketplace which allowed advertisers to buy ad space. No, I never did figure out what “biometric user identification” meant.

Will Sony Get Back it’s Original Mojo?

When Steve Jobs first visited Sony, he had huge respect for the company and it’s founder. He emulated many aspects of the company and even tried to convince Apple employees in California to adopt Sony’s famous grey ripstop nylon vest uniforms.

On a trip to Japan in the early 1980s, Jobs asked Sony’s chairman Akio Morita why everyone in the company’s factories wore uniforms. He told Jobs that after the war, no one had any clothes, and companies like Sony had to give their workers something to wear each day. Over the years, the uniforms developed their own signatures styles, especially at companies such as Sony, and it became a way of bonding workers to the company. “I decided that I wanted that type of bonding for Apple,” Jobs recalled.

Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson

Sony today is not the company it was back then. I would argue that Sony’s ownership of Columbia records distracted them from focusing on the customer. I’m sure greedy music executives insisted on copy protection on Sony mp3 players in order to protect revenues and what resulted was a proprietary MagicGate DRM and Memory Stick technology that confounded users and drove the simple, welcoming arms of the Apple iPod. This was a market that was Sony’s to lose and they did.

There are other stories of a company tripping over itself. A Race to a New Machine chronicles the race between Sony and Microsoft as they each were developing their next generation gaming consoles. Co-authors David Shippy and Mickie Phipps take us back to those days in 2001-2002 when Sony was developing the Playstation 3 and Microsoft their first version of the Xbox 360.

The tale is a painful one. Sony kicked off development of a next generation chip, investing $400 million and partnering with IBM and Toshiba with both Sony and Toshiba sending teams to live in Austin, Texas where they would work side-by-side with IBM engineers targeting to get the new chip ready for release in 2005.

In order to make the partnership compelling for the two other parties, Sony acquiesced to allowing the chip to be sold to other companies, even other console manufacturers. From a review of the the book in the Wall Street Journal,

But a funny thing happened along the way: A new “partner” entered the picture. In late 2002, Microsoft approached IBM about making the chip for Microsoft’s rival game console, the (as yet unnamed) Xbox 360. In 2003, IBM’s Adam Bennett showed Microsoft specs for the still-in-development Cell core. Microsoft was interested and contracted with IBM for their own chip, to be built around the core that IBM was still building with Sony.

All three of the original partners had agreed that IBM would eventually sell the Cell to other clients. But it does not seem to have occurred to Sony that IBM would sell key parts of the Cell before it was complete and to Sony’s primary videogame-console competitor. The result was that Sony’s R&D money was spent creating a component for Microsoft to use against it.

Mr. Shippy and Ms. Phipps detail the resulting absurdity: IBM employees hiding their work from Sony and Toshiba engineers in the cubicles next to them; the Xbox chip being tested a few floors above the Cell design teams. Mr. Shippy says that he felt “contaminated” as he sat down with the Microsoft engineers, helping them to sketch out their architectural requirements with lessons learned from his earlier work on Playstation.

While it’s bad enough that Microsoft was able to essentially “draft” off of Sony and Toshiba as they broke trail on a revolutionary new chip design, the salt in the wound came later when the Xbox 360 was able to launch almost a year earlier because of delays in Sony’s supply chain. Outflanked by Microsoft? Ouch.

I’m happy to learn that Sony has announced a top to bottom re-organization that breaks down the barriers between the professional and consumer product divisions. The focus on core strengths in digital imaging and gaming is a welcome move and taking full control of the Sony-Ericsson mobile phone venture is a good first move. Sony has also put a renewed emphasis on UX which they’ll need as they have launched the Vita OS as a way to connect multiple screens and devices around the living room as Apple.

Taking on Apple is a huge undertaking but if anyone’s going to give it a shot, Sony’s in the best position to do so. Even if the new Sony Style stores popping up at a mall near you seem a tad derivative of the Apple Store experience, remember that what’s old is new and if that means the master is now learning from it’s disciple, that’s ok too.

Tsunami Debris Includes Ghost Tuna Boat

Massive amounts of debris from last year’s March 11th earthquake in Japan is making its way to the West coast of North America. While most of the objects are not expected to wash ashore until October, some of the larger objects, including entire ships are arriving months earlier.

The Vancouver Sun reports:

After being flushed out to sea by last year’s massive tsunami and earthquake, a Japanese squid-fishing boat has drifted across the Pacific Ocean and was about 120 nautical miles off British Columbia’s north coast Friday evening.

The 150-foot ship was found drifting right-side-up about 140 nautical miles (260 km) from Cape Saint James, on the southern tip of Haida Gwaii.

Twitter for Small Business

Twitter extended it’s partnership with American Express and building on the campaign to tap into support for local businesses with the rollout of Twitter Promoted Products. It’s a pay per-click model which can be limited by daily spend so there will be no surprises.

The video is one of the nicest product videos I’ve seen. It’s clear, concise, and speaks directly to the potential customer. The video assumes a certain familiarity with twitter so will attract only the well-versed merchants that will get the most from the program. It also has been pointed out that the video shows a bias for iPhone users as all the audio cues are prom the iPhone.

Interested? Registration is open to American Express cardholders and merchants today and if you get picked, they’ll throw $100 your way to get started.

 

The Interest in Pinterest

By now I would imagine you’ve all heard of Pinterest. The latest site to cater to our need to collect and curate the world around us has boiled down the act of clip-n-share to it’s most basic form, the image. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then the endless scroll of the Pinterest front page is the modern web’s newspaper.

The site has been around since 2010 but only recently has it jumped into the forefront after a lengthy nurturing period with the Etsy-crafter-design set. Their strategy was smart. Close attention to detail allowed the small team to grow the service naturally and allow the community to gain a voice. Since late last year the site has been growing by leaps and bounds as the Silicon Valley set has taken to the site in droves and driven user growth through the roof (52% growth from January to February to 17.8M uniques according to comScore).

Along with growth comes a host of real world problems. Spam, copyright complaints, user backlash one (affiliate links), and user backlash two (design changes). Even the US Army is on Pinterest. But the Pinterest folk are smart people. They’ll survive and if they do right by their core users, they’ll make it through. The service reminds me of the early days of flickr and I wish them the best of luck.

As a product guy, what is interesting to me is how the Pinterest design motif has popped up overnight. It’s almost as if every site out there is re-thinking itself and the designers all have dynamic grid filters on that only allow them to re-arrange content on the page into floating block-sized chunks. I would argue that what we’re seeing today is as significant as the AJAX-ification of the web we saw in 2005.

Several design trends are converging that are helping along the pintrification (gosh, I hope that doesn’t become a word) of the web.

Tablets – the tap and swipe interaction of tablet devices lends itself to interaction via the visual box metaphor we see today. As a navigation device, it’s a lot easier to tap on an image than a headline so why not make the thumbnail image the thing to click to open up an article?

Metro UI – When Microsoft put on their thinking caps to reinvent the phone ui for their Windows Phone 7, the Metro UI was their primary breakthrough. Inspired by transit system signage, the UI emphasized grouping similar tasks into squares so you would drill into related sub-tasks instead of scrolling through a hierarchical list of folders and files. This same UI is now being adopted in the next version of Microsoft Windows, Windows 8.

jQuery plugin Masonry – comments on a recent CNET article give credit to Masonry as the catalyst of many WordPress themes that took on the grid look.

CSS3 and Responsive Web Design – Since Ethan Marcotte’s manifesto in 2010, and thanks to the evangelism from sites such as Media Queries, we’re seeing more and more sites embrace responsive web design including, most famously, The Boston Globe and Good Magazine.

The conversion of all these trends & technologies will cause an explosion of dynamic grid designs this Summer. Like swoosh logos, rounded corners, brushed aluminum, and all the glossy icons that came before, this new trend will take the web by storm. If you’re interested in turning your own blog into a tablet friendly grid, check out Pressly or Onswipe and join the party.

If the growth trajectory of Pinterest is any indication, the service is off to a great start. Because of it’s growth and because imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, the dynamic grid is here to stay.

Pinterest doubled traffic to over 17M in February

 

Location-based DRM

Reading news of the Loopt acquisition this morning got me thinking. What if someone were to build a service that would check your location and use it as a way to unlock content that would normally sit behind a paywall? Here are a couple of the use case.

Starbucks could do a deal with the Wall Street Journal or New York Times and sponsor free reading when you are within range of a Starbucks. If you check in to pass your location or attach to their wifi then all access will go direct instead of via the paywall. Or maybe the publisher asks for an email address for access and then Starbucks and the publisher can do a revenue share on new subscriber revenue.

Nintendo fans using free wifi outside a store in Tokyo. Stores sponsor free game characters that can only be downloaded from the store's wifi.

This location-based DRM could extend to any publisher:

  • Games that you can only play while you are within a store as a way to trial the experience or enhance existing games.
  • Music that you can sample via Spotify while you are shopping at Target.
  • Apps that can only be downloaded from specific stores.
eBay has some pieces of the puzzle with the combination of PayPal and Where. Match this with Where’s patent on geo-fencing and you have a nice suite of solutions that could build a platform that any publisher could plug into.

Microsoft has a specific patent for Location Based Licensing, I wonder if they’ll ever use it?

People Discovery Apps, a Cautionary Tale

This was the weekend everyone signed up and joined Highlight or Glancee. TechCrunch has written about it and Robert Scoble has been going on about how viral these location-based services are. No doubt about it, these new apps which run in the background on your phone and let you know when someone you know (or might like to know) in in your proximity, are going to be all the rage at SouthbySouthwest.

If you don’t know the details of how these services work, read Scoble’s review (The Two Hottest Apps You’ll “Run Into” at SXSW) where he goes into depth on both Highlight and Glancee. These “people discovery apps” (Scoble’s term) have been around before (Sonar and Loopt to name a few) but I would agree with Scoble that the timing is right this year for the early-adopter types descending on Austin next week to take these services to the next level.

 

I’ve been using both apps for a few weeks and can see how they could be useful while travelling and open to meeting new people. They are especially powerful when there is a compelling reason driving you to make new connections. Trade shows and conferences are a prime venue for this behavior. This was what was on my mind when I was with the MyBlogLog team and we developed our own version of the people discovery app to show off our API at an O’Reilly eTech conference in 2008.

You can read about “Meetspace” on TechCrunch or ReadWriteWeb. It was a small java app that ran on a Blackberry or laptop. It was tied to your YahooID and would pop-up a little notification that another MyBlogLog user was nearby. As Highlight does today, we added a feature that would compare your  profile interests with the other person’s and give you shared interests (“talking points“)  that you could use to strike up a conversation.

Because Meetspace used bluetooth, not GPS, to detect proximity, the range was shorter compared to Highlight and Glancee. This worked to our advantage because, at the conference where we released the app, it allowed us to track when you were in the same room as someone as opposed to in the same general area. We kept a running log of the total time spend in the proximity of others and let users see who they spend the most time with over the course of the conference which usually meant they were the people attending the same tracks as you. Combined that with basic details of their company and interests and you had quite a powerful social networking tool.

Now for the cautionary tale. Meetspace was launched as an experiment. It was designed to show what you could do with the MyBlogLog API and while we didn’t plan on it being a new feature, we thought it might be an interesting way to bring the virtual social network into the physical world if it caught on.

It never had a chance.

Shortly after the eTech conference I received a call from the legal department at Yahoo. I forgot who was on the phone but he basically opened the call with, “You are going to shut Meetspace down, right?” as if it was beyond debate. I gave him my arguments for why we should let it run, (it was opt-in, it was innovative, it helped demonstrate our API) but all this fell on deaf ears.

The trump argument by legal was that if anyone were to be harmed in any way, and if the police were to require discovery to see if anyone else were around while harm was being done, the police could use the Meetspace app as reason to require Yahoo to turn over their user logs. Yahoo did not want to run the risk of having to turn over these logs to the police. End of story. Game over.

Hopefully it’ll be different for Hightlight and Glancee this time around.

Broadcast Television is Broken

Through the eyes of a four year old child who grew up in the on-demand entertainment world of Netflix, traditional “appointment television” is a foreign concept. The interruption of commercials jarring and confusing. The following is from Patrick Rhone who is writing about his daughter and her utter disbelief in how things used to be when you turned on the television.

“I didn’t turn it off, honey. This is just a commercial. I was turning the volume down because it was so loud. Shrek will come back on in a few minutes” I say.

“Did it break?”, she asks. It does sometimes happen at home that Flash or Silverlight implode, interrupt her show, and I have to fix it.

“No. It’s just a commercial.”

“What’s a commercial?”, she asks.

”It is like little shows where they tell you about other shows and toys and snacks.”, I explain.

“Why?”

The movie comes back on for poor, confused Beatrice. She doesn’t understand why someone would program interruptions into the middle of a movie. Just as she gets back into enjoying the movie again, another commercial break descends.

“Why did they stop the movie again?” Beatrix, asks. Thus leading to essentially the same conversation as before. She just does not understand why one would want to watch anything this way. It’s boring and frustrating. She makes it through the end of the movie but has little interest in watching more. She’d rather play. The television is never turned on again during our stay.

And so it goes, the future is already here. If you don’t let them enjoy media without distraction, they’ll make their own.