Social media is a mirage. More often than not, what you see or experience is not reality. But every now and then, you come across authenticity, and you are reminded of the goodness of the Internet. Like yesterday, after following him for years, I met up with former Apple software engineer and designer extraordinaire, Ken Kocienda. Unsurprisingly, I found it easy to have a conversation with him — his tone and his way of discussing things he cares about are pretty much the same in real life as they are in his tweets. Though in real life, he is even more eloquently expansive.

We had a nice simple lunch, sitting outside Flour & Water Pasta Shop, and we talked about everything except what he did at Apple and what he does at the highly anticipated and exciting stealth mode company, Humane. We spent a significant amount of time discussing our love of watches and photography. Ken shared with me about this time studying photography at Yale and what he learned there. One of his professors — the name slips my mind now — told him that lived experiences are what really allow you to make photos from your heart and mind. A full life is a key to visual transcendence.

And then he asked me a question no one has ever asked before (and that I have never bothered to ask myself): what is my photography? Is it a moment? Is it a memory? Is it an artifact? Is it art? Stumped by the question, the best answer I could come up with was that my photography is an expression of what I am feeling at that moment. It was a tremendous example of the value of IRL interactions, which provide such powerful, unexpected opportunities for thought and reflection.

Another topic we touched on that I still find myself mulling over was the idea of living with the weight of a legacy. Success should help free one from the various chokeholds of life. Instead, ironically, it can force us into a trap of perfection, when often all we should be considering is hitting the big reset button. 

Our conversation, while meandering, often returned to our common passion for “stories” and how they define our interactions with products, places, and people. For instance, I told Ken about my early love for German watchmaker Nomos, and the Bradley Price watch startup, Autodromo. (Read my interview with Price.) He told me about Erika’s straps, his love of the 1970s watches, and his affinity for independent and obscure upstart brands. 

The lunch went by too fast. As a parting gift, Ken gave me a signed copy of his book, Creative Selection. I look forward to reading it and learning about his journey toward two products he worked on that touch billions of people everyday: the iPhone and the WebKit. But the real gift was the conversation, held over a small table with some good food. Highly recommended.

Ken wrote about our lunch on his blog as well.

July 8, 2021. San Francisco.

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectible
Nothing is invincible

Synchronicity, The Police, 1983

Techmeme, reminded me that it has been ten years since the launch of Google+, the doomed-from-the-start social networking effort by Google, and a supposed competitor to Facebook. I was skeptical of the service at the launch, to put it mildly, but I totally understood why Google had to take a swing at it. Looking back, Google managed to deliver on the “why” of its goals, but not the “how.” 

Today, search is not just about pages, but also about people and the relevance of the information to them…Google needs to adapt, and getting social and location signals is important for the company. Search is now search relevant to you in the context of your world. 

My argument (even before the release of Google+) was that the only way for Google to beat Facebook was through Android, its mobile platform. Social networks were (and still are) all about communication, and communication tools are necessary for cementing relationships. Google, I thought, could create a platform of interactions that might give it a significant leg up on Facebook. 

To me, interactions are synchronous, are highly personal, are location-aware, and allow the sharing of experiences, whether it’s photographs, video streams or simply smiley faces. Interactions are supposed to mimic the feeling of actually being there. Interactions are about enmeshing the virtual with the physical.

Interactions were (and still are) a key part of what I have always thought to be what I called “alive web.” It was a shitty name, but it was getting at the idea that the network is all about “synchronicity.” We are moving ever closer to a “synchronous web.” Google’s original implementation of Hangouts had the makings of a platform that could enable constant interaction. Sadly, Google’s internal dysfunction relegated it to a dustbin of mediocrity.(The Verge has a good rundown of the mess that is Google’s communication strategy.)  It has been over a decade since I first talked about the “alive web.” The pervasive connectivity and increasing number of network connections excited me then (and still does). 

“Connectivity offers an opportunity to create a different kind of Internet experience that’s more immersive and interactive. And that persistent connection is what allows us to create and experience the Alive Web. I think Chatroulette was an early signal of the Alive Web, although the world instead focused on the vileness of its content. Seamless connectivity allows us to mimic many offline behaviors online, and interactions are part of that mega-trend.

On this new Alive Web, what we miss doesn’t matter. What matters is the connection and the interactions. We get online to socialize instead of posting status updates, just as we would when we would go to our favorite club or a neighborhood bar.

This new web is less about page views and it is more about engagement and the economics of attention, two topics I have written about in the past. As I start to look into the future, it is clear that services and apps need to optimize around attention.”

Long misunderstood for years, Snap is a good example of a company that is all about “interactions,” and that’s why it is remarkably different from its competitors. It is still not synchronous, but its core behavior revolves around communication between a small group. Standing in stark contrast, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are about “broadcasting” to the bigger world. 

Ten years later, it seems we are finally on the cusp of that communal, immediate, and synchronous web. In a podcast conversation (published today) with Stephen Robles of AppleInsider, I talked about why I am excited about SharePlay (and other such technologies.) The reason I keep going back to the real-time and synchronous internet is mostly because all great conversations happen in real-time. 

Clubhouse and all those who are cloning it are furthering the cause of this synchronous Internet. We used to like to watch TV together or listen to music. It was a communal experience. The Internet made it a solitary activity, and then social networks turned it into “media” that needed to be broadcast and monetized.

Thus, the current notion of the Internet is based on scale. But in a synchronous web, we don’t need megascale. Intimacy of the experience is a feature, and not a bug. This is about creating synchronized experiences.  So, when you have something like SharePlay, you can have a more personal, intimate experience. It becomes about friendships and family.  

Other services have offered such communal experiences, but the sheer scale of Apple’s ecosystem has a potential of turning Shareplay into a game-changer. This could eventually be a catalyst for needed change in social media, which is stuck in a traditional mode of broadcasting and monetizing through advertising. The long-term gift of the crypto (and blockchain) revolution is not going to be the amount of cash many will bank, but instead, it will allow for new internet (and network) behaviors to emerge. Monetization beyond advertising will lead to experimentation in enabling niche but dense community experiences. 

Looking back a decade ago, I was quite naive and optimistic about the emergence of the alive web. Perhaps, I am a bit over-optimistic still. But I don’t think so — the pandemic has exposed us to the magic of being together, both online and offline. We have started wanting more intimacy in our collaborative lives online. We have a generation that is visually native. Their communication default is something akin to FaceTime. And that’s good training for expecting a synchronous Internet.

I am dreaming of synchronicity because it is how we are meant to interact. Phone guys might not realize it, but synchronicity is the killer app of 5G (and beyond.)

June 29, 2021, San Francisco

Believe it or not, the harsh glare of scrutiny on big technology giants has kept them honest, more or less. Realizing how much of their present and future business depends on folks wanting to use their services, they work hard to protect data and privacy. (Like I said, more or less!) After all, our data is what they use to bundle and sell as services to their real customers: advertisers. In the case of Apple, the new marketing pitch is all about “privacy” and how they are not collecting tracking data — a handy way to distinguish themselves from Google and Facebook. I buy Apple products precisely for their stance towards privacy, at least in the U.S. In short, a noble ideology that also helps them sell more gear with fat margins—not that there’s anything wrong with it.

The companies we should be worried about are the many smaller and mid-sized companies that most of us have never heard about. Whether it is app developers surreptitiously selling information to third parties, data breaches at retailers (and their digital platforms), or data-brokers with security systems that have more holes than swiss cheese, these companies will continue to be the cause of most headaches in our digital lives. And they are the group more likely to take liberties with data and privacy. 

I began ruminating on this earlier in the week when I read this article about electric utilities resetting the smart thermostats inside residential homes in Houston in response to the rising demand for electricity due to record-breaking heat. This story is a harbinger of our future: what at first seems like some minor convenience and even a seemingly good deal becomes a major problem for those who don’t spend time reading the complicated terms of service documents — which is to say, just about everyone.

In this case, if a customer signed up for an offering called “Smart Savers Texas” from a company called EnergyHub (which is owned by Alarm.com, a seller of security services), they could be entered into sweepstakes. In exchange, they gave permission to EnergyHub to control their thermostats during periods of peak or extreme demand. 

This is yet another example of how, though we dread the future controlled by big technology companies, we will ultimately suffer most at the hands of what I call “non-technology” companies that now have access to our private data and control over our lives.  

And at the top of the list are companies that have always been hostile to their customers: telephone companies, electric utilities, insurance companies, for-profit hospital systems, big airlines, and other such organizations. They will only use “smart data” to amplify their past bad behavior. 

Dark patterns around offers like “Smart Savers Texas” make it virtually impossible for you and me to really discern what we might be signing up for. After all, no one sifts through the pages-long terms of service agreements. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on this one company — this “unclear” behavior is part of the entire digital ecosystem. 

Try getting out from under a contract at a health club or canceling your subscription to The New York Times. Good luck. In this digital age, these seemingly simple tasks have only gotten harder. I have been trying, without much success, to unsubscribe from emails from a publishing company for almost a decade. And this is neither the first nor the last time you are going to see “utilities” or other entities muck around with what you assume to be private spaces. 

What happened in Houston is among a rapidly growing list of incidents that make me pause about embracing the Smart Home, even though I was an early adopter. The safety of our “connected devices” is increasingly unclear. I have little trust in Amazon’s ability to police its digital shelves. What if the device we are buying is fake or is sending data surreptitiously to an overseas destination? I don’t know if you remember (or even read) this scary story in Vice about seemingly innocuous apps that collect personal data and sell it to anyone willing to pay. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is increasingly important to pause and consider: is cheap really cheap, or is there a bigger price to pay in the long term?

Belatedly, and thankfully, Apple has introduced AppTrackingTransparency (ATT), which will force apps to seek permission to track us and our activity across apps. Deservedly, many have written about the impact of this on Facebook, but it goes beyond that one company. Still, as EFF points out, it doesn’t do enough. 

“It doesn’t do anything about ‘first-party’ tracking, or an app tracking your behavior on that app itself,” EFF writes on its blog. “ATT might also be prone to ‘notification fatigue’ if users become so accustomed to seeing it that they just click through it without considering the choice. And, just like any other tracker-blocking initiative, ATT may set off a new round in the cat-and-mouse game between trackers and those who wish to limit them.”

And that’s the challenge. The pressure of protecting our digital sanctity is falling on consumers, not those who profit from it. Even Apple’s efforts shift the workload to ordinary people, and many of us are just not equipped to handle the cognitive load or don’t understand the impact. 

For nearly a decade, I have raised questions about an individual’s rights pertaining to how data is collected and used. In 2014, naively I wrote about something called “Terms of Trust,” in which companies explain what they would do with our data in plain language, instead of legalese. 

Eight years later, we are still stumbling through the fog — even in our own homes.

June 22, 2021, San Francisco


I find myself on Disquiet, a blog run by Marc Weidenbaum, about once a week. I enjoy reading everything he wrote and shared during the preceding seven days in one sitting. And of all his regular features, the one I love best is how he aggregates the tweets he sent out during the week. When I asked him about this habit in an email, he responded: 

“I’ve found that the once-a-week habit has been useful, cyclically reflective. Often, the previous Monday feels very faraway in retrospect. Also, knowing during the week, in the back of my mind, that I will likely repurpose the Twitter material on my website makes me a little extra conscientious of what I am posting.”

Marc’s purposeful approach to Twitter results in stream of tweets with a seamless flow that reflects clear, insightfulthinking. In fact, I like the practice so much that I am going toshamelessly copy it. Below, you’ll find my first stab ataggregating (some of) my tweets from the past week. Next week, I’ll know I’m headed toward this final product, so perhaps my own flow will become smoother. If nothing else, this will allow me to easily remember what I was thinking about during aspecific time. And it gives me the chance to correct my grammar and spelling (When are we getting an edit button, Jack?).

  • Apple paid $230B to developers on App Store since its launch 13 years ago. That roughly Apple’s cut of 30% at $98.5B of the total $328B since launch. That’s about $7.5B/year. In its most recent qtr, @Apple sold $48Bn worth of iPhones. iPhone Gross Margin of 35% = $16.8B In a utopian world, Apple (Tim Cook) decide to take no cut from developers making less than $1 million a year. They can afford it.
  • I just noticed that I could use two HomePods as a pair using Apple AirPlay on my desktop. When did this happen? This is so great.
  • Safari browser redesign is a major improvement, but still quite jarring for someone like me who is used to the old-style browser. Tab clustering feature might be overrated, but then I am also not a mega-tabber like some.
  • In 2021 it is amazing to regularly experience a subpar mobile website experience made worse by pop-ups inviting you to sign-up for marketing drivel before even perusing the contents of the site. This bad design pattern is intentional as you can’t seem to find the X button.
  • This story about Kevin Durant by Sam Anderson in The New York Times Magazine is achingly poignant & masterfully written. It is not just a sports story. It is not a story about a sportsman. It is a story of a journey. The lead alone is worth reading, not to mention KD’s quotes.• Both iPadOS & MacOS Monterey are Apple’s most stable beta OS releases I have ever downloaded. Twenty-four hours later, I feel like they have always been on the iPad Pro 12.9 & M1-based MB13 Pro. So many subtle (but important) tweaks. It will make it worth upgrading in Fall 2021.

I don’t tweet about Apple this much all the time, but it makes sense that it was the focus this week — it was WWDC, after all.

June 12, 2021. San Francisco

 

You may have read the news that the University of Nevada, Reno, will give every member of its incoming freshman class an iPad Air (along with a keyboard and a pencil.) In and of itself, this development isn’t all that newsworthy, but it does hark back to something I have been thinking about for a long time: the coming — and necessary — paradigm shift in how we compute. 

Apple was once a much-beloved part of the US education system. Lately, Google’s Chromebooks have been taking over. They are cheaper, which may appeal to cash-strapped school districts. (By the way, kudos to Sarah & Ev Williams for giving $10 million to help the San Francisco school system.)

Now, suppose we can forget the politics of Google versus Apple. Personally, I don’t care either way. Chromebooks (like their Apple or Microsoft counterparts) are simply an extension of the old paradigm of computing — one that is heavily reliant on a keyboard, a mouse, and a semi-tethered setup. Sure, Chromebooks live on and benefit from the cloud, but they still pretty much rely on traditional computing. Whether it is Google Docs or Google Slides, nothing about them is remarkably novel. 

Essentially, the kids in school are getting trained on the classic model of computing. Meanwhile, at home, many of the same kids are growing up with touch devices — iPads, iPhones, and Androids. They are also growing up talking to (mostly) Alexa, (maybe) Siri, or (sometimes) Google Assistant. Every time I interact with my goddaughters — both are below five-years old — my jaw drops. They know FaceTime, iMessage, and other apps inside out, including stickers and other fun features. They are well versed in making a video call and having a chat.

And it is not just my goddaughters. I see kids who are handling kid-centric content on their touch devices with fantastic dexterity. Their engagement with interactive apps is higher than with static books, and they have more opportunities for visual learning. Swiping left or right for accessing or navigating through information is already part of their mental model of interacting with the digital world. I remember hanging out with some kids in Ladakh, and they were entirely at ease with their Android phones, typing, swiping, and taking selfies. 

The point of my soliloquy is this: we have a generation that is growing up with modern computing interfaces. Instead of creating new tools for education, we are still pushing the “classic” models onto them. Why? If computing has to become modern, then we have to use modern models for everything — from play to teaching and learning. 

Giving iPads or other tablets to kids will not achieve this goal on its own. It will require a complete systematic overhaul of the proverbial educational food chain. This must start with teachers, who need to become adept in teaching with new technology, not just the old paradigms. App developers, app store operators, and parents also need to internalize the idea of moving beyond the traditional interfaces for computer-based learning to more modern methods. That is how the paradigm will change. 

PS: I, for one, would love to see Apple introduce a program where, whenever I buy a new iPad (or any Apple device), I can give an iPad kit to a student. Sort of like what Toms did for footwear and Warby Parker did for eyeglasses.


Updated on July 12, 2021: California State University system will give a similar package to 35,000 of its incoming and transfer students in 2021. More here