Category Archives: Rough Drafts

Prose that hasn’t been published elsewhere

Amazon’s Fire phone — and what it means

Hello everyone!

I wrote this post about the Amazon Fire phone yesterday morning.

At the time I wrote it, I didn’t yet know what the phone was called or any of its exact details — that came later in the day, with Amazon’s official unveiling. But, thanks to excellent reporting by VB writer Mark Sullivan and solid context from the rest of the VB team, I was able to put together a pretty good picture of what it would likely mean.

What Amazon’s ‘Fire Phone’ means — and why it could be a real contender

Why does a company that started as a bookseller, evolved into an e-commerce giant, and has seen some success selling Android tablets think that it can take on the ruthless market of smartphones?

What we have, in Amazon’s Fire phone, is a first draft of a smartphone from a company that has all the advantages of an Apple or a Google — and then some.

Amazon, in my opinion, is one of the few companies with a “full stack” of technology to back up a consumer electronics business: cloud services, software, an app store, content. In addition, it has an enormously efficient retail operation and it has credit card details for millions of consumers, making its phone a powerful potential digital wallet.

What we didn’t know is the extent to which Amazon would try to use its product knowledge — via its “Firefly” image recognition feature — to insert a wedge between its customers and the retail outlets they usually frequent. Imagine standing in the aisle at Walgreens, picking up a bottle of Excedrin, and pointing your phone at it. The phone recognizes the bottle, gives you details on what it contains — perhaps more than you can easily get from the label — and offers to ship you the bottle for substantially less. Because it has text recognition capabilities, the phone knows exactly what price Walgreens is selling it for, so Amazon can always undercut that price.

So far, nobody seems excited enough about this phone to actually buy it. But this is just the first version. I will say this, I’m getting a little scared of Amazon.

I’d like to hear what you think!

Some more coverage of the Amazon Fire phone from VB’s team:

 

 

In other news, I went to Paris last week to learn about the French tech economy. (I had some pretty good meals too.) What I saw was substantially different from what I expected. Here are some of the highlights:

 

 

The surfers v. the VC

Martins Beach photo from Yelp.

Martins Beach photo from Yelp.

So I’m on jury duty this week, and as I walk out of the courthouse on our lunch recess, I happen to see an older bearded gentleman in a suit, surrounded by some other suits, holding forth to a small pack of reporters.

“Oh, a courthouse steps interview,” I thought, so I sidled up to hear what was going on.

I quickly learned that the bearded gentleman was renowned California lawyer Joe Cotchett, and that he was there representing the Surfrider Foundation in a lawsuit against venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

Khosla, you see, bought a bunch of land south of Half Moon Bay back in 2008 and promptly closed off the access road to a popular beach that ran through the land. Called Martin’s Beach, it became a rallying point for locals who had been accustomed to using that beach — via this road — for decades.

It seems that Khosla’s lawyers had resisted bringing Khosla himself into court, but this morning, the judge ruled that he would have to appear, which was the occasion of Cotchett’s impromptu press conference. I hung around, pulled out a notebook, and got a few words with both Cotchett and former U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, himself a partner in Cotchett’s firm. I also heard them tell the story of how the firm sent McCloskey down to Martin’s Beach to jump the gate and trespass on Khosla’s land, which he did — though the sheriffs declined to arrest him for that, much as I’m sure the lawyers would have loved that.

So I banged out a couple hundred words after lunch, and filed my quick little story before going back into my (totally unrelated) trial.

All in all, it was a pretty classic moment in courthouse reporting, and almost made me wish I was on that beat.

Here’s my story, for what it’s worth:

Surfers to VC Vinod Khosla: We’ll see you in court

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning,” said Mark Twain.

An editor’s job, at its best, is about turning lightning bugs into lightning.

The future of education: Tablets, or hands-on?

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

Two Bit Circus founder Brent Bushnell with an interactive game.

I read the Times story on Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s 650-person startup aimed at reinventing education via tablet games, with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, as I wrote in a piece today on VentureBeat, this is exactly the vision — shared by One Laptop per Child — first outlined in Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age.” A self-guided curriculum, embedded in a digital book, that could teach children everything they need to know via engaging songs, games, and interactive projects.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

Screenshot from an Amplify video.

On the other hand, like the Times writer, I have an urge to yell at the tablet-focused kids in the book: Go outside! Climb a tree! And in fact I probably do yell that at my own children, from time to time, when they are on the verge of disappearing into a screen-centric vortex of digital media.

But then it occurred to me that an interactive tablet is perhaps not the best way to use technology to engage children. It’s certainly not the only way.

Earlier this year, I visited the studios of Two Bit Circus, an exciting experiment in “STEAM” education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics — the A is an addition that makes the acronym much more interesting, and inclusive, than the usual STEM). I wrote about Two Bit Circus and their STEAM Carnival project when it was just getting started on Kickstarter. The project achieved its funding goals, and the team has been busy putting together their act since then.

The project, in a nutshell, is to create a traveling “carnival” that would amaze children with steampunk- and Maker Faire-like circus attractions. Instead of slamming a hammer down to make a pellet ring a bell, the hammer would make an electrical arc rise up on a Jacob’s Ladder. Instead of a 3-ring circus with lions and clowns, the circus would offer the chance for kids to pit robots they’ve made against one another.

The Steam Carnival approach to educational technology is to make kids understand that tech is something they can build, not just something they use. I like that approach, and I think it’s increasingly important.

In other words, don’t just go outside and climb a tree. After you come down from that tree, figure out how to make a robot, a computer program, a musical score, or a digital video that you can show others. Put it together, wire it up, program it, direct it, edit it.

The tablet should be a tool for engaging creativity, not just a game that helps kids learn rote lessons mapped out by their state board of education. There’s room for both, I think. But the vision is not fully realized unless children are hacking into their tablets and writing their own software for it.

Or using their tablets to control battlebots.

The lovely leather of Walnut Studiolo

About a year ago I wrote about Walnut Studiolo, a Portland-based craft shop that makes leather and wood accessories for bicycles.

If you think it’s reasonable to spend $72 for a leather cup holder that’s the perfect size for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, then you’ll love Walnut’s work.

I love the way their stuff looks, and their barrel-shaped saddlebag ($126) looks like an amazing piece of kit to tuck behind your Brooks saddle. Some of it is pretty silly though, like the leather six-pack holder ($89).

But now a video crew called Cineastas has made a short, loving documentary of all the hand-crafted labor that goes into making Walnut’s goods. It’s pretty gorgeous, in image and in sound.

You can almost smell the leather as Geoffrey Franklin carves strips of it with his razor-sharp blades.

This story deserves an award of some kind for business writing. A subject like this calls for just the right mix of completely straight-faced reporting and just a tiny hint of a wink. Plus, of course, a huge love of Doritos.

I laughed, and I wept a bit for the outright enthusiasm that Taco Bell’s CEO expressed over his company’s innovation. Or, should I say, “innovation.” But, as they say, welcome to America!

Also, those locos tacos actually taste pretty good. Though they don’t sit too well inside.

Deep Inside Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco

What to do about the complete failure of gun control

Here’s the deal: The NRA is simply *far* better organized than the gun control lobby. A passionate minority will prevail over an apathetic majority any day, in our political system.

Here’s what I think gun control people need to do, if they’re serious:

  • Start a “National Gun Safety Association.” 
  • Make the debate about “gun safety” not “gun control.” Focus first on how limiting crazy people’s access to guns is a safety issue, not a control issue.
  • If that shows some success, expand the safety discussion to limiting magazine size and assault weapons bans — also safety issues, not rights issues.
  • Pair the above efforts with an extensive gun safety training outreach. Offer training so people who own guns can learn how to use them safely — and how to store them safely.
  • Make the spokesmen people like Gabby Giffords, who are gun owners, not liberals like Mike Bloomberg, who are not — and make it clear that the organization has no opposition to safe gun ownership. 
  • Make it a membership-based organization that not only raises funds, but can also mobilize its members to write letters and call senators/congressman. Throw parties. Have events. Make people feel like they belong to something.
  • Throw money at strategic congressional and senatorial races to aggressively punish politicians who vote counter to the organization’s goals.

If there’s an organization out there like this, I want to join it, and I will contribute.

Update: Sunlight Foundation has stats on how much money various organizations on both sides of the gun debate have contributed since 1989. Detailed stats here. Notably, the NRA doesn’t even show up on the list of top contributors to the last election cycle.

Update 2: I found an organization matching many of the above points. It’s Americans for Responsible Solutions, founded by Gabrielle Giffords and Marc Kelly. I gave them $50.

Discussion on Facebook

My stance on covering the latest Silicon Valley rumor fest

There are a lot of rumors going around about a certain blog founder. My take is that most of it is completely unfounded and comes from people with an obvious interest in discrediting him. So for now, VentureBeat is not covering this “story.”

After I posted this note on Facebook, I got asked: Are we afraid to cover this story because we’re afraid of blowback from the accused guy? And would we treat this story differently if it had to do with a true Silicon Valley bigwig, like Apple CEO Tim Cook?

I can answer with some concrete examples. Keith Rabois, COO at Square, left his company after accusations that he sexually harassed an employee. We covered that, because A, he really left the company, and B, he wrote a post about it. We also covered a sexual harassment case at VC firm CMEA, and last year, we covered the sexual harassment case at Kleiner Perkins.

VentureBeat has been one of the few (if not the only) tech blogs to cover all three big sexual harassment cases in Silicon Valley in the past year. In all three cases, we didn’t hesitate to take on a story about someone powerful and/or friendly with us. (Rabois has been a speaker at VentureBeat conferences, for instance, and KP is obviously hugely powerful in the valley). In all three cases, we stuck to reportable facts but didn’t pull any punches.

So to answer the question: Say Tim Cook gets accused of harassment. We’d cover immediately if there was a civil or criminal action. But suppose it’s all rumors and hearsay, and thanks to mob mentality all the other tech blogs start covering it. In that case we’d probably weigh in with a post saying “Here’s the rumor that everyone is talking about, but there is no evidence for it at all.” Because at that point, the chatter itself is newsworthy, and the absence of evidence would be the most salient, reportable fact.

Back to our competing blog founder: We’re staying away from the story because of lack of evidence, not fear. But also we have a special reason to be reticent, which is that he founded a competing site. I know from experience that we care more about our competitors than our readers do. Readers really aren’t looking to VentureBeat for stories about our competition, and they get annoyed when we get sucked into blog wars. So we have a special reluctance to cover competitors for that reason.

We’ll override that reluctance if there’s anything material to talk about. But for now, I see no reason to publish anything.

What is wrong with HTC’s Android sync service?

I’ve had several HTC phones, and I never seem to learn. The latest is an HTC One V. They all start out great — excellent hardware, seemingly fast and snappy interfaces — and turn into useless, molasses-slow junk within a few weeks.

I think I’ve isolated the source of the problem: It’s something to do with HTC’s approach to contact syncing and, in particular, the Contacts Storage app. I have about 3,000 contacts in one Google account and 700+ in the other, so I might represent a minority case, but it seems to me that this isn’t an inordinate number of contacts. Somehow it gets incredibly bloated on the phone, though: 62.7MB at the moment. I’ve tried deleting the data file and letting it re-sync, and it quickly zooms back up to the same gigantic number.

By contrast, when I export my contacts to a CSV for backup, both sets combined take less than 3MB of storage. So HTC is somehow increasing the storage needed for my contacts by 20X.

This causes a huge performance hit. Any app that needs to access contacts gets incredibly slow to open. Just opening the phone dialer can sometimes leave me staring at a blank screen for 30 seconds. Mail is the same story. I can get notifications about incoming text messages, but tapping on the notification to actually open the message itself will put the phone into a wait state that lasts two or three minutes.

It seems to be worst if the phone is actually syncing data (indicated by the “sync” icon in notifications). Over a 3G network, this sometimes takes ages — even when there are no significant changes to my contacts.

On top of that, a previous HTC phone littered my contacts’ notes fields with strange HTC codes. It’s as if some HTC engineers decided that people never use their notes fields, so they might as well just throw sync tokens in there. It’s disconcerting and rude behavior.

But rudest of all is the notion that the phone, when it’s syncing, is too busy to respond to me. That’s a fundamentally broken UI. Computers should always be immediately responsive to humans, and should always be interruptible. There is no reason a sync operation could not be stopped so I could make a freaking phone call.