An Echo from the void

I bought an Amazon Echo back in January, unusually late for someone who is usually an early adopter of the latest gadgets. I had visions of all the endlessly useful conversations I would have with Alexa. I would always know the traffic on my route to work, train times would be available at a shout’s notice, and any song I could think of in history would be playing moments after barking the appropriate command across the room. I was ready for the Amazon Echo lifestyle.

To my surprise, and much like the Kindle, Amazon’s previous foray into selling hardware, my usage of the Echo in the months since I bought it has dwindled to be at the point where I’m seriously considering whether or not I should simply sell it. It’s very disappointing.

I should state now that I have no ‘smart home’ appliances – while it’s a pretty cool demo I’ve seen at friends’ houses, I’m quite OK with setting my thermostat on a timer or pressing a light switch when I need some light. I’m even OK with opening curtains manually, and don’t get enough visitors to warrant a smart doorbell. So perhaps I’m the wrong audience.

I also don’t have an Amazon Prime account, and although I’ve considered it, Amazon’s pushy sales technique of trying to trick me into signing up has made me actively avoid it. They’ve tried trick me, and I’m not going to give in! I’ve also seen what’s on their video service and wasn’t at all impressed. Again, maybe the Echo simply isn’t aimed at people like me?

Music could be good though, right? For roughly £3 a month the Echo can set itself up with Amazon Music Unlimited. That seemed fair enough. A small amount on top of what I pay already for Apple Music that’s worth it for the convenience of being able to shout the name of any song, artist or album and have it play immediately. (As long as it’s easily pronounceable.) Indeed it was good, great even as I was able to connect my Sonos speakers and therefore command Alexa to play songs would would in turn start playing on my Sonos Play: 1 stereo setup. The sound was brilliant. Until that is, Amazon (or maybe it was Sonos) released an update which stopped Sonos from working with the £3 Music Unlimited subscription. It now wants me to upgrade to something that’s substantially more in order to enjoy Sonos integration. So I cancelled the music subscription. It felt dishonest of Amazon to allow this to work, and then take it away. I still have Apple Music on my Sonos, but that doesn’t work with the Echo. I could switch to Spotify, which works on both, but that doesn’t work on my Apple Watch, which I do enjoy using when running. Vendor lock-in is brilliant, isn’t it?

As it happens though, using an Echo for music for a month or so while I had the subscription taught me something significant: I actually quite like browsing music visually. If I have to recall a song or album from memory then I tend to only play the big hits or albums that for some reason stuck in my mind as being great. That means lots of U2’s Achtung Baby but far fewer obscure album tracks from Manic Street Preachers’ Know Your Enemy get played.

It’s quicker to look at my phone to see the weather. Timers are annoying on the echo because you have to keep asking how much time is left – there’s no visual indication. The National Rail skill for Alexa is a joke. It asks me every time if I mean ‘Reading station in Reading’. It’s actually quicker to use my phone than try and have a conversation with this awful app. Most other skills seem more of a novelty than an innovation.

I thought being able to wake up and say ‘Alexa good morning’ and have the Echo read out the traffic, weather and BBC News might be good, but I’ve ended up setting the Echo to start playing BBC Radio 4 every morning. I get the news and weather, without having to articulate anything first thing in the morning, the traffic was mostly useless anyway as it would have changed in the 15 minutes I take to eat breakfast and shower. Yes, I paid £90 for a clock radio.

Don’t get me wrong, the Echo does have some good uses. I’ve moved it into the kitchen and now use it as a Bluetooth speaker for podcasts. It’s good for quick maths questions, adding appointments to calendars, querying random facts. On the whole however, I feel it’s basically a gimmick rather than the next evolution of personal computing. Maybe that’s OK?

With my Sonos, iPhone, laptop and Apple Watch I feel as though if any of these broke I would want to replace them. With the Echo, I don’t think I’d miss it at all. Just as my Kindle sits on the shelf (I call it a ‘black hole for books’ because I usually forget about the books that are on it, unlike physical books which I almost always finish because they are sat there on my bedside table), I wonder if the Amazon Echo will be a passing craze and that the product category will need to evolve in some significant way before it can really become a mainstream device like smartphones or televisions.

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We need better standards

What would the world be like without standards? We take for granted that all of our electrical appliances fit into the same plug sockets, not giving it a second thought. We assume that that tires purchased from any manufacturer will fit our cars, given the correct wheel size and width. Who would even doubt that a lightbulb will screw into its socket no matter where it was bought from or who fitted the light socket. Even the fact that an email can be sent using an Apple iPhone, from a Yahoo email service only to be received by a computer on the other side of the world running compatible email software is pretty amazing when you think about it. In fact, anyone can create their own email service by just registering their own domain and having a computer that is always switched on with an Internet connection. Whether it be the width of railway tracks or the audio encoding on a CD, interoperable standards were key to our way of life in much of the 20th and 21st century. TCP/IP and HTTP famously made the World Wide Web possible, while other Internet standards such as IRC, NNTP and FTP gave us realtime chat, debates and discussions and two-way files-transfers.

What do these technologies have in common though, apart from their interoperability?

They were invented in the distant past.

If I take the apps and services I now use regularly that were invented within the past 10 years, I struggle to think of one that supports interoperability. SMS was replaced with Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger or iMessage. Two of which are owned by the same company, all of which are designed to keep users locked into vendor ecosystems. Slack, which raised billions of dollars in 2015 is essentially 1990’s IRC with support for logins and cute emoji, and of course it’s closed. Twitter, the debate forum of our time, tightly controls which 3rd party clients can access the service in any meaningful volume, and decides who and what is deemed appropriate content.

This problem highlighted itself further recently when I realised that if I wanted to access a music streaming service on both my Apple Watch and my Amazon Echo, I’d have to pay for two separate streaming services. Apple do not allow users to play music from 3rd parties on the watch, only their streaming service Apple Music. Amazon does not support Apple Music however. How ridiculous is this? Can you imagine Sony releasing a CD player in 1980 that only played songs from artists on the Sony record label?

My worry is that email is next. Google is pushing users towards its Gmail app, and withdraws features such as Push email from users who choose to use a different app. We are lucky that at the low-level, technical details such as how to implement HDR are still agreed as standards. But for how long? What we need is government regulation or oversight to ensure that technology companies compete on the merits of their products, rather than the vendor lock-in they manufacture. Interoperability didn’t stifle innovation or harm profits in the previous century, and it won’t in this one.

USS Callister

A brilliant, telling review of the first episode of Black Mirror season four.

The most savage takedown in “USS Callister” isn’t even its depiction of white guy nerds’ toxic sense of entitlement because they’ve become so lost in pop culture. It’s the portrayal of their lack of imagination.

Something like Space Fleet was so seemingly catered to Bob’s desires that he doesn’t aim to improve upon it, or bend it, or subvert it. He longs to slavishly recreate it, then disappear into it as its protagonist. He doesn’t want to be an author; he wants to become part of the canon.

I really enjoyed this episode. Sadly though, it’s hard not to see it as a sequel of sorts to season three’s phenomenal San Junipero – which kind of puts a downer on that episode’s happy ending.

Ticketmaster – a user hostile experience

Terrible UX experience with Ticketmaster today.

To start with, the pre-sale function of the web site doesn’t work on an iPhone. I loaded it a minute before the pre-sale was about to begin, watched the clock tick over, and pressed refresh. Nothing. Nada. As a web developer, I had the inclination to try loading it on a desktop PC, and unsurprisingly an ugly popup appeared telling me that the pre-sale was now open. Not a great start. I was on the same Wi-Fi network, and cleared the cache on my phone, so I don’t think it was a CDN issue. Anyone who only had their phone would have missed out on tickets.

Next, I had to register for an account (because this is a mandatory step – when it shouldn’t be), as usual I was careful to check the right boxes so that I opted out of marketing materials and to make sure they didn’t save my card details.

Before I pressed submit, I wanted to make a note of my login details with my generated password. I tried to copy my email address out of the text field, only to find Ticketmaster had disabled copy and paste. I really wish browser makers would disallow this user-hostile practise. Thankfully you can drag and drop text holding the control key to get the same effect, even when they’ve disabled copy and paste. But why do such a pointless thing?

I submit the form to find out my password is invalid, surprise surprise – the preference I’d set NOT to save card details, and to OPT OUT of marketing had been forgotten. Other information such as my email address and name had been remembered, but other settings seem to have conveniently erased and defaulted back to what I would imagine Ticketmaster would prefer. On the password issue, it was because my password contained some non-alphanumeric characters. A modern, secure system should not be restricting the complexity of passwords. I use a password manager, so my passwords are 20+ characters, randomly generated and contain all sorts of numbers, characters and digits. Ticketmaster however, thinks it’s a good idea to limit how secure passwords can be, and so rejects a perfectly good password, for no good reason. If they are hashing their passwords (with a salt) when storing them in the database, then it shouldn’t matter how long, or what characters my password has.

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Finally after my payment is confirmed, I am asked to “Confirm my details for a chance to win £3,000 to spend on Ticketmaster. ”

“Confirm my details” ?!  This immediately seemed to me like a disingenuous way to get people to part with their personal information. If you’re going to have a competition, then label is clearly as such. Asking someone to “Confirm their details” directly after an order process gives the impression it might be mandatory. It looks like this functionality is from a 3rd party partner called Rokt who boast on their web site they allow their clients to “present internal offers as well as up-sell and cross-sell offers to customers that have just transacted on your site.” – I’m sure there’s a great idea in there somewhere, but it’s not presented very well on Ticketmaster. If you want people to sign up for offers (a valid thing for someone to want to do) then tell them that, don’t ask them to “Confirm their details” and hope they won’t notice -especially when they’ve already opted out of marketing communications on the previous page.

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Unfortunately you can’t easily avoid doing business with Ticketmaster, because if you want to see a particular band on a certain day, they’re your only choice. Still, I’m looking forward to the gig.

watchOS 4 – A mixed update

There are many great new features in watchOS 4, that on balance it is worth the upgrade. Positives include being able to adjust music more easily during a workout, the excellent new Siri watch face which it almost like an new user interface more akin to Google Wear, but within one watch face. I’ve found my watch is better at realising when it’s no longer in range of my phone should start using WiFi instead. The downsides are the familiar Apple software upgrade problems: it will slow down your watch, so much so that it’s noticeable even when glancing down at your wrist to check the time. Battery life is also slightly diminished in my experience. Not great for any of you who spent ~£500 on a stainless steal model and strap a 18 months ago.

So yes it’s nice to have these new features, but like everything in life, they come at a cost.

Does Apple really slow your phone down? Perhaps

Lots of  headlines like this in the press this week:

Is Apple intentionally slowing down your old iPhone? The data suggests not

The article reads:

Futuremark collected more than 100,000 benchmarking tests, from the iPhone 5S to the iPhone 7, and averaged the performance of both the processor (CPU) and the graphics chip (GPU) once a month between April 2016 and September 2017 with different versions of Apple’s software from iOS 9 to iOS 11.

According to Futuremark: “iPhone 5S GPU performance has remained consistent from iOS 9 to iOS 11, with only minor variations that fall well within normal levels.”

They’re missing the point. New operating systems don’t get slower because the manufacturer writes codes to throttle down CPUs. The reason new versions of iOS are slower on older hardware is because they do more. To be fair, the article does explain this. iOS 9 on an iPad 2 is almost unusable, it’s certainly a long way from the speed of iOS 4 the iPad two debuted with. Clearly something changes overtime, and CPUs do not wear out over the course of 4 years!

But is it intentional or not? Of course it is. I’m sure there is a business decision made by Apple on how much time to spend optimising software for older devices. It’s a tradeoff. iOS versions are made in less than a year. At some point you have to balance the needs of the ecosystem (having as many users as possible running the latest software), the cost of development, and the needs of users – which includes having a device that runs at an acceptable speed, as well as having the latest security updates and new features.  I’m don’t think it’s a bad tradeoff, but to say a smart company like Apple does this unintentionally doesn’t sit right with me.

You don’t need a new Apple Watch, but the ecosystem does

I’m not sold on the need for a cellular Apple Watch. While it’s a cool gadget and would be a nice luxury, I really wouldn’t recommend anyone buy it unless they are in the habit of upgrading their watch yearly. (Yes if the idea of upgrading your watch every year sounds ridiculous, that’s because is it.)

Why don’t you need it? Well, you do, just not yet.  The battery seems to be just able to cope with the demands of a 4G connection, and it’s still very limited from a software standpoint. For example, if you dictate a long reply to a message, and the dictation inevitably gets a word wrong, you can’t edit that one word by hand,  you have to say the whole phrase again, or just leave the mistake in and hope the recipient understands you. Guaranteed to loose any kudos on the train you thought that red dot might have given you. Apple will get there of course, but by the time they do, a new model with better battery life and a faster processor will be with us. So while like any technology geek I think it’s a cool gadget and a genius piece of technology, I do feel it makes sense to wait until there’s a better version, unless money is no object of course, or you have an exceptional circumstance that means having a phone on you at all times is a burden you’d rather not carry.

So why have Apple released it now, when it’s probably not ‘as ready’ as they’d like? My guess is that it helps the watch’s neglected app ecosystem. Now all of a sudden, rich people with their cellular Apple Watches are going to want to send WhatsApp messages from their watch. Time to build an app, WhatsApp. The same could be said for lots of the big players who’ve not yet bothered building watch apps. watchOS apps have been able to work somewhat independently from the phone for a couple of years now, by this I mean they can connect to the Internet (via WiFi or the phone), get their data and present it to the user interface without the phone. Original watchOS apps needed the phone for absolutely everything, including updating UI. Twitter and BBC News, to name just a few, still haven’t updated their apps to benefit from this new way of coding apps (which vastly improves performance), but now faced with a user base that doesn’t have their phone with them but expects the app to work, they might feel inclined to.

Is North Korea a distraction?

Gripping article in this week’s New Scientist on the gradual escalation of nuclear arms between the word’s superpowers, and this:

In June 2016, the British submarine Vengeance test-fired a Trident missile, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. Something went badly wrong, and the missile may have veered towards the US.

The missile was not carrying its nuclear warheads and was destroyed. The UK government has remained silent on what might have caused the incident, but “the failed Trident test is consistent with cyber interference,” says Paul Ingram of the British American Security Information Council, a think tank in London.

New Scientist