Sometimes 40-year-old technology actually is the best tool for the job

In the 1950s, this might have seemed like the inevitable future of technology. It didn't work out that way (fortunately!). Image Credit: James Vaughan/Flickr
In the 1950s, this might have seemed like the inevitable future of technology. It didn’t work out that way (fortunately!).
Image Credit: James Vaughan/Flickr

Technology changes far slower than we usually think it does.

In fact, a pretty-good technology that achieves widespread acceptance has a way of sticking around for years, even decades. Just look at how many people still listen to AM radio, buy CDs at concerts, or drive cars with internal combustion engines and four wheels.

Or, as Twilio co-founder and CEO Jeff Lawson told me in this week’s “What to Think” podcast, look at the way telephone technology has evolved over the past century and a half. Yes, we’ve added some pretty snazzy new features, like cellular data and VoIP calling. But the underlying infrastructure is, in some ways, much the same. Your fancy iPhone still has a touch-pad dialer for connecting you to the telephone network, and that dialer is basically a digital representation of something that has existed since the 1960s.

The persistence of old-but-acceptable technology has some big implications for the future of the Web. After all, the Web is hardly cutting-edge tech. The basic protocol on which the Internet is based, TCP/IP, is over 40 years old. HTTP, the hypertext transfer protocol used to move Web data from server to browser, is about 25 years old. (Yes, both of these protocols have been revised since their early days, but their basic principles are intact.) JavaScript and Adobe Flash, God help us, are both about 20 years old.

So if you’re waiting for a transformative change in how we consume information online, you could be waiting a long time. The Web may be a rickety stack of outdated protocols and standards, but it works, mostly, and it’s free and open to all comers. That, for the past few decades, has proven to be a pretty winning combination.

But will it change as we shift to a mobile-centric era? There are a lot of observers who say that apps are winning out over the mobile Web, and that Web-based standards like HTML5 will become less relevant as we move to proprietary systems for delivering information and communication: Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat, Vine.

I’m not so sure. I think there are signs that people are becoming frustrated with the limits imposed by these “walled garden” apps. Yes, Facebook’s Instant Articles might be much faster and allow more elegant presentations than a Web page. But how many publishers have actually published on the Facebook platform since its ballyhooed debut two months ago?

Speed of human travel, 1750-1950, with 1950-2000 projected

I was thinking about this while reading a post by Maciej Cegłowski called Web Design: The First 100 Years, in which he talks about how air travel looked in 1965. That decade was an era of exponential growth in air travel: Humans had only been flying airplanes for about sixty years, and the U.S. and Soviet Union were rapidly expanding their space travel capabilities. If you plotted a line of human transportation speed from 1750 to 1950, it would form an exponential curve. In the near future — a 1960s futurist might think — we would soon be flying on huge, comfortable supersonic jets. And shortly after that, we’d be riding on incredibly fast rockets, then nuclear rockets, and perhaps enjoying near-light speed interstellar travel by the early 2000s.

But it didn’t turn out that way. Supersonic jets turned out to be way too expensive and way too damaging to the ozone layer. Ordinary, high-capacity jets like the Boeing 747 turned out to be good enough, and economical enough, that they became the de facto standard. The models Boeing created in the 1970s form the backbone of the company’s lines today, with very slight differences and enhancements that are mostly invisible to non-experts. In fact, Cegłowski writes, some of today’s planes are actually slower than their 1970s predecessors: The Boeing 787 is slower than the 707.

We might be at a similar inflection point with Internet technologies today. In the past twenty years, we’ve seen enormous changes in the way people access and create information. The wide dispersion of Internet access has brought the world’s knowledge to every corner of the Earth; the shift to mobile devices has put that knowledge literally into the hands of everyone who can afford a cellphone and a monthly contract. Social networks make it easier than ever to connect with like-minded people around the world, and digital maps are shining a clear light into every corner of the Earth, simplifying navigation and enabling armchair travel to the most interesting, remote locations.

So you might think that the Web is advancing at the same, exponential rate that it has for the past 20 years. You’d be wrong: The Web is advancing only slowly, and in some ways, it’s getting worse.

Nilay Patel, writing this week in The Verge, pointed this out: The mobile Web sucks, the mobile browsers we use today are, in fact, slower and less capable than desktop browsers of five years ago. Our mobile browsers are more like 787s than Concordes.

Is the answer to app-ify everything, throw out the 20-to-40-year-old technology stack powering the mobile Web, and start over with something much faster, whizzier, and more modern?

I think not, for the simple reason that the mobile stack, flawed as it is, is the best platform we’ve got that isn’t totally controlled by Facebook, Google, or Apple. What we need, as Patel argues, are better browsers for our smartphones. We need, as Cegłowski argues, more widespread access and some decent fonts.

What we need is to stop thinking of the Web as a platform for transformative, exponential innovation. That kind of innovation is still happening in other spheres — like transportation and health care — but not in the Web. Stop expecting media companies, or encyclopedias, to behave like startups. Keep the open standards open, get a few billion more people onto the Web, and see what they come up with.

I bet that will lead to far more profound transformations than any new chat app or publishing platform could.

This story originally appeared on VentureBeat.

Sometimes 40-year-old technology actually is the best tool for the job

Body cameras are the first step to reducing police brutality


Let’s get one thing clear: No gadget will fix bad policing. There is no app to cure racism.

But putting body cameras on police officers is one hell of a start. It is one of the few areas where a new technology offers a clear, unambiguous social benefit.

Usually there are tradeoffs and unintended consequences to any new tech: We get smartphones, but they hurt our spines. We embrace social networks, but they contribute to the disintegration of real-world relationships. We love Amazon, but it makes it hard for local businesses to compete.

In this case, though, I don’t see any real downsides. If we put video cameras on police officers’ uniforms, we’ll get greater accountability, more data, and hopefully better policing. That’s why U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan, announced this week, to help equip police departments with body cameras is a great start. Every state and local government should embrace this initiative with all speed.

Will body cameras change police behavior? Probably not immediately, especially if grand juries continue to refuse to indict police officers, even in the face of overwhelming video evidence. But I believe the longterm effects will be profound.

Body cameras will help provide documentation and accountability. When things do go terribly wrong — as they did with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Levar Jones, or John Crawford (WARNING: These links go to videos that contain disturbing images of actual people being shot and killed) — there will be additional video that can help grand juries (and regular juries) figure out what happened.

Body cameras will encourage more responsible law enforcement. Police already must know that any passerby with a cellphone could start recording their actions at any minute. But for some reason, this still often comes as a surprise to them, provoking some cops to anger. Putting a chest-mounted camera on an officer’s uniform will be a constant reminder that their actions are in the public eye. Maybe that will help remind them of their training, encouraging them to act like responsible law enforcement officers.

Body cameras will provide a rich source of video data for analysis. Advocates of open government data might use declassified police camera data to understand how police actually do their work. Anti-racism activists might be able to conduct statistical analysis of who, exactly, gets stopped and frisked in cities that still do that. Law and order types could use video evidence to show how police really are protecting us and stopping crimes. Police departments will be able to use video in their own evaluations and in training, helping improve the skills of their officers.

And body cameras will give the public some reassurance. Police officers are public employees, after all. A camera should be a reminder that the police work for us, and that we have a right to know what they are doing, particularly when things have gone wrong.

There is one potential downside, and that’s the specter of even-more-ubiquitous surveillance. But I think that’s a pretty mild drawback, given how widespread fixed surveillance cameras already are. In many ways a camera strapped to a uniformed officer’s chest is less of a privacy threat than a camera hidden on a high wall or next to a street light.

Given all these advantages, I think there’s no serious argument against body cameras.

For me, this is a particularly personal concern. I’m a white man, as you can tell by my author photo, but my children are black. My son, now eight years old, is just four years younger than Tamir Rice was when he was shot and killed by police officers in Cleveland — for playing with an Airsoft pistol, the kind of toy that is freely sold in Walmart and which generations of American boys have played with. In 10 years he will be the same age as Michael Brown was. In 14, he’ll be John Crawford’s age.

All of these individuals were shot by police who believed they were facing a terrifying threat, and who responded far too quickly to assess the situation accurately. Rice’s killer shot him about two seconds after getting out of the police car, sooner than he could have reasonably issued a warning or established the reality of the threat. We know this because it was caught on a surveillance video.

The heartbreaking fact is that for most police, as for most people in America, young black men are frightening figures, regardless of how they dress or act. Holding an Airsoft gun in a Walmart isn’t terrifying. Holding an Airsoft gun while being black is. We can’t change that through any technology. Sadly, my son will need to learn to live with that reality.

But we can provide greater accountability, and that will help keep people — especially those we equip with lethal weapons — from acting hastily out of fear, anger, and racism.

While videos may not lead to convictions — or even indictments — they’re a start. Maybe by the time my son is old enough for police to perceive him as a threat, there will be cameras helping to keep them honest, and him safe.

Body cameras are the first step to reducing police brutality

What Yo’s $1.5M round tells us about the state of tech marketing

The guys who invented Yo are not stupid.

Their app may be — depending on who you talk to, the idea of an app that does nothing but send the message “Yo” is either charmingly clever or incredibly annoying — but the founders are not.

Moshe Hogeg is the CEO of photo- and video-sharing site Mobli and the instigator of the Yo app. Or Arbel developed the app — in about 8 hours, he says — and now serves as the “CEYo” of the new Israel-based company.

Amazingly, Yo now has 2 million downloads just a few months after its launch on April 1 (yes, it was April Fool’s Day). One million of those downloads happened in a whirlwind span of four days last month after the press picked up on the app and turned it into a worldwide phenomenon — for now.

But how long will the party last?

We don’t know, for instance, how many of those 2 million people who downloaded Yo are still using it. Six months from now, will it still seem as cute or as fun to send a “Yo” to your wife or your coworker?

For instance, during the World Cup playoffs, Yo could send you a notification whenever someone scored a goal.

That added up to a lot of Yos when Germany was beating the crap out of Brazil last week. It was a little less interesting when Netherlands and Argentina played 120 scoreless minutes.

But suppose Major League Baseball lets you get a Yo whenever someone scores a run during the World Series this fall. Or suppose the NFL gives you the capability to get a Yo when your favorite team scores a touchdown. Will anyone still care — especially since you can get notifications like this from a host of sports and news apps?

The fact is, Yo could fizzle out almost as quickly as it blew up.

When I asked them about their plan B last week, Hogeg and Arbel answered that they were working on building as much momentum as possible. With enough people using it, plus brands using the app to communicate with their own customers in idiosyncratic ways, Yo might have a chance of staying viable.

Money will help. Yo has closed on $1.5 million in funding so far, Hogeg told me, and may raise even more. Investors include his own seed fund, Singularity, as well as other angels and a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

Note: Against rumors that the funding was merely promised, not delivered, Hogeg says “most of the money is already in the bank.” And his own fund is far from the only investor.

The challenges the company faces now, though, are not technological: They have to do with securing marketing partners, signing on big brands, figuring out which features to add to the app, and retaining those early-adopter customers.

Moshe was clear about this. He said that Yo’s advantage is not technological: It’s related to marketing, momentum, and customer lock-in.

Product-market fit is all you need

What Yo is going through now is a pretty classic story in tech. In some ways, even though Yo came from Israel, it’s the Silicon Valley story of the past two decades. It’s the playbook that we learned from Clayton Christensen and Geoffrey Moore and countless other pundits and gurus: Figure out which direction the market is moving. Make a product that is incrementally better than what the incumbents offer, or which is radically cheaper, or which captures people’s interest somehow. Test, iterate, and repeat until you find what works. Then scale like crazy until you have built an insurmountable barrier to would-be competitors — what the VCs like to call an unfair advantage.

That unfair advantage could come from the network effects of your customer base, which make your product valuable simply because of the sheer number of people using it — like Facebook or Twitter. Or some kind of customer lock-in that makes people reluctant to leave your product behind — like Google Docs or Microsoft or Salesforce. Or sheer brand credibility that makes people love using your product, trust you more than anyone else, or feel like your product is an indispensable part of their lives — like Apple or Evernote.

The thing is, and Yo shows it to be the case, is that you don’t need anything particularly techie to make this happen.

Now, as a tech reporter, I’m a little sad about that. My fundamental bias is toward cool technology. My favorite billionaires are the guys who make amazing things, like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, rather than the pure marketers or brand builders or business optimizers, like Michael Dell or Jeff Bezos. So I’d be happy if there were more really outstanding hardcore tech stories to talk about.

And in the long run, I’m convinced that hardcore tech is what it takes to create a lasting advantage in the tech industry. Marketing that tech well is always going to be critical. But it won’t be in the driver’s seat forever. So as the frothy enthusiasm for advertising- and social media-driven startups starts to fade, I’m looking forward to hearing about a new crop of startups focusing on chips, wireless tech, new materials, batteries, robots, and more.

Until then, though, smart marketing rules.


What Yo’s $1.5M round tells us about the state of tech marketing

How Microsoft can break the logjam of carrier anti-innovation

In my column this week, I return to the subject of Microsoft — and suggest a way that the company can give its Windows Phone OS a boost.

Carrier subsidies are increasingly standing in the way of innovation.

“We’re drunk off the subsidy model,” IDC analyst Ramon Llamas told VentureBeat last week.

The lure of cheap, subsidized phones underwritten by massively long two-year contracts stands in the way of competition and innovation. The big carriers use their contracts to lock in profits and help limit the customer “churn” that would otherwise make their revenues too unpredictable. But those two-year contracts keep people from upgrading as quickly as they would otherwise, stifling handset makers’ ability to get the latest models in our hands.

Carriers also stifle OS upgrades, keeping you from upgrading to the latest version of Android because they don’t want to invest the time to make it work with a string of older phones: They’ve already got you locked in to a contract, so why would they want to make your phone any better than it already is?

The U.S. is not unique in its dependence on carrier subsidies, but it’s not the only way: In many European countries, for instance, people buy their phones and SIM cards separately, without long, onerous contracts.

Some carriers are starting to see this as a wedge issue. T-Mobile, for instance, promises to do away with contracts and subsidies altogether. The carrier sees it as a more honest, direct model, and I agree: I’m done with contracts. I recently paid $245 to get out of my contract with a large carrier after I had endless problems with its service and its phones.

In an earlier column, I blamed Microsoft for not being able to solve these problems. It was an unfair criticism, but it does reveal an opportunity for the Redmond, Wash.-based software company.

We need someone to break the logjam. Could it be Microsoft?

Instead of standing by and playing the same ballgame as every other mobile phone maker, Microsoft should take a page from Apple’s book and rewrite the game. It’s got the leverage, it’s got the installed base, and it’s got a powerful weapon: cash.

Read the full story:

How Microsoft can break the logjam of carrier anti-innovation