Friday, September 26, 2014

The IoT & The New York Yankees


When I was a wee lad growing up in northern NJ, I was a big New York Yankees fan (and I still am, unabashedly so.) I was such a fan that my mother has a Polaroid picture of me when I was five years old, wearing pajamas that were modeled on the Yankees team uniform.

The Yankees have the most illustrious record in the history of professional sports, having won 27 World Series championships over the last century. The National Baseball Hall of Fame includes 44 players and 11 managers from the Yankees.Their historic roster is rich with the names of the greatest players the game has ever seen - Yogi Berra (he of the infamous quotes), Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Lou Gehrig, Reggie Jackson, Joe Dimaggio, Catfish Hunter and more besides. The list is simply awe-inspiring.

Though he is nearing the end of his professional career, Alex Rodriguez, or "A-Rod", continues the team's tradition of astonishing success and record-setting achievement. A native New Yorker himself, Rodriguez has the distinction of holding one of the most incredible records of any player in the history of the game. During his career, A-Rod has hit an astonishing 24 Grand Slams.

Some of you are likely thinking to yourselves at this point, "Look, baldie, if I want to hear about baseball, I'll watch ESPN. What's any of this got to do with the IoT?" I promise you, it's not only relevant, but critical.

Conventional thinking dictates that a winning baseball team must field top caliber players for each position. To be sure, a great shortstop or outfielder will be a valuable asset to any team. The Yankees have had their share of skilled fielders - Phil Rizzuto is an outstanding example. Yet either subconciously or deliberately, the Yankees have spent the last century focusing primarily on two things - a strong pitcher-catcher combination and, even more, as deep a team of sluggers as they could assemble.

Almost every single one of the greatest hitters the game has ever seen played for the Yankees. Even an excellent shortstop like Rizzuto was, interestingly, one of the game's best bunters. One could legitimately argue that an exceptional catcher-pitcher duo directly complements such a strategy, as this duo can minimize the amount of time the opposing teams have at bat and maximize the opportunity for the Yankee bench to affect the scoreboard.

Viewing the Yankees in that light, it becomes an inescapable conclusion that native New Yorker Alex Rodriguez simply doesn't belong anywhere else in professional baseball - his natural home is the Yankees. This is all due to the historic focus of the franchise on the key elements that determine success - a focus which comes from a deep understanding of what is truly essential.

Reason & Instinct

"Ninety percent of the game is half mental." - Yogi Berra

This brings us to the objective of this week's blog post - an operational framework for developing not just one, but a successive chain of killer applications for the IoT. The New York Yankees formulated a fundamental theme for success: concentrate everything on maximizing offensive strength. From that theme they derived a set of basic principles for how to build a winning baseball team, vaulting the franchise into preeminence for a full century. To create such a framework for the IoT, we will need to discover the elemental factors that determine victory or defeat for this general class of products. A process of reasoning and deduction applied to parsing the features of successful portable consumer electronics offerings should enable us to descry the root causes of what makes such devices appealing.

Sony Walkman
Unquestionably, this was the first killer app in the portable consumer electronics space. The initial Walkman products played cassette tapes and were first introduced to major consumer markets at the end of the 1970's. Sony subsequently transitioned over to CD players in the 1990's.

The Walkman incorporated a variety of appealing features that made it such a worldwide hit with consumers:
1. Somewhat neutral yet modestly attractive packaging & styling
2. Relatively unobtrusive and portable
3. Very simple, familiar and easy-to-use mechanical controls and interface
4. Long battery life
5. An amenability to personalization, both from available models & styles and, more significantly, the user's music selection
6. Good quality audio

Apple iPod
The Walkman attracted a lot of competition but remained preeminent until the arrival of the MP3/PMP era. The market's irresistible force proved to be Apple with its iPod, first released in 2001. In every sense, it was a profound improvement over the Walkman:
1. Appealing form factor with a wide selection of styles and colors
2. Small and light enough to stow in a pocket or hold in the palm of one's hand; also obviated the need to carry around bulky cassettes or CDs
3. Fully digital interface with excellent ergonomic design
4. Very long battery life
5. Far more personalization, both in models and in music selection
6. Good quality audio

The above lists, though, are actually quite shallow in their merely first order characterization of the innate attractiveness of these two portable music/media players. Only #5 from each list begins to approach the fundamental, even primal appeal inherent in these offerings - their focus on music.

"You can observe a lot by watching." - Yogi Berra

Despite the availability of a vast body of scientific work on the subject, there is no clear consensus regarding why humans like music or why there are so many very different kinds of it. All that can be said with certainty is that the development and appeal of various musical forms is very specific to historical periods, cultures, generations and above all individuals. Thru as yet unknown mechanisms, people associate music they enjoy with what distinguishes them as singular entities. Listening to one's favorite music is simultaneously soothing and reassuring, inducing a sense of calm from the reaffirmation and reinforcement of all the concepts, ideals and desires that constitute our identities. In other words, it is concurrently an intellectual and emotional experience.

Apple's advertisers seemed to understand this intuitively, targeting their promotions and messaging at a youthful audience that, in a humorous paradox, was eager to explore and express its individuality in the same way everybody else was doing it. Below is a typical iPod billboard vividly and memorably making a distinctly vulgar appeal to youthful narcissism:


Setting the coarseness of the billboard aside, the power of the PMP over a user's psyche is starkly evident in this representation. By sporting a Walkman or iPod, a user can block out the noise, confusion, distractions, frustrations and pressures of the world and remove themselves at least mentally to a privacy zone while out in public, walking around in a warm bubble of music they love that revives, bolsters and energizes them. 

PDAs and Smartphones

The PDA, made famous by the likes of Palm and Blackberry, was the first portable consumer electronics gadget to venture beyond the format of the standard mobile phone and attempt to serve as a portal for personal data and communication other than just voice. Frankly, I hated these contraptions. I tried two of them (Nokia and Motorola), and between the never-ending difficulties in keeping the software updated and severe service and functionality problems, I could think of no productive use for these pieces of plastic electronic junk other than perhaps using them for batting practice.

There were others who had happier experiences with PDAs, finding productive use for such features as:
1. An integrated PMP
2. A mechanical or touchscreen keyboard and command I/F (with either a stylus or one's own fingers)
3. Cellphone functionality
4. Handwriting recognition (though user satisfaction varied widely)
5. WiFi support for internet connectivity (though web pages usually did not display well)
6. Bluetooth support to connect peripherals (popular with users of wireless earpieces)
7. Synchronization with a user's PC or laptop

Smartphones, led once again by Apple with the iPhone, beat the stuffing out of PDAs in every respect, with vastly superior touchscreen GUIs, a built in camera with 720p record & playback, internet connectivity thru LTE and so forth.

Now users can withdraw from the chaos and confusion of reality into a virtual bubble not just to distract, soothe and entertain themselves, but to exercise control over that reality and the demands it places on them by sending and receiving text messages & emails, capturing, sending & receiving images and video, finding useful information on the internet, navigating to destinations, shopping, paying bills and so on.

In this form, the Personal Processor is much closer to realization as a combined personal secretary and master tool for creating a virtual world for the user. Such a device serves many of the instinctive priorities that are hardwired into the human cerebellum. From this primitive part of the brain we derive our instincts for fight or flight, identification and reaction to environmental threats and opportunities, the urge to search for patterns in our environment, participation in social interactions with a group and so forth.

Loading the Bases

"The future ain't what it used to be." - Yogi Berra

Our combined instincts serve as the basis from which we form our actions and reactions at both an emotional and rational level. Thus we are confronted with the irony that we must come to grips with the most basic and primitive part of ourselves in order to properly define our most advanced personal technologies.

It is thus incumbent on any designer or inventor who wishes to participate in the creation of IoT offerings that they develop detailed answers to the following sorts of questions:

- What sorts of data are provided to the user?
- Does the user have any control over the gathering, analysis and interpretation of the data, and if yes, how so?
- How does the data affect the user's understanding of his/her surroundings?
- Does the device permit the user to react to the data, and if so, how?
- Can the user receive, transmit and interact with data in a manner that is already familiar?
- To what extent does the user employ all of his senses when interacting with the device?

- How does the device's operation support user interactions with others?
- When interacting with others, how well does the device permit the user to observe someone's gestures, expressions, body language and tone of voice?
- how many methods or channels can the user effectively employ when trying to communicate?

This list is by no means comprehensive. It is, in fact, simply a starting point - the beginning of a testing regimen against which an idea for an IoT "killer app" can be properly vetted. The easiest way to interpret test results is to accept as a maxim that any single failure of interaction represents a failure of the offering to completely and properly find appeal at an instinctive level. Stated differently, if one user in a thousand encounters difficulty or frustration when using the device, it cannot be the fault of the user, but is by definition the fault of the design, since the design is supposed to connect effectively with human instinctive drives, impulses and priorities - a set of precepts which are identical to us all, regardless of age, creed, race, ethnicity or culture.

We thus have a basic theme defined for IoT definition and design - users must have a positive reaction to the offering in all its aspects that is visceral in its intensity and sense of naturalness. Their embrace of it must be, in short, instinctive.

From this theme and historic examples from previous "killer app" portable consumer electronics products we can develop a list of "do's and dont's" for an IoT offering. This should include at a minimum:

- Don't promote the product from a 'speeds & feeds' perspective. Nobody really cares at this point, and it can in fact be alienating and intimidating to people who are not technically versed, thus restricting the product's appeal.
- It should be instinctively obvious to everyone how the product can simplify and enhance their life and help them deal effectively with their daily cares, woes, ambitions and desires.
- The ability to connect to information, people and resources intuitively and in multiple ways is vital.
- The greater and wider the positive impact on a user's personal and professional life, the better.
- The less concern a user has with the ability to connect, the better.
- Though a picture is worth a thousand words, interacting with the product thru flashy images and displays is not always best. Simplicity and ease of use go hand in hand.
- Existing infrastructure should be able to handily accommodate the functionality of the device.
- The form factor and presentation of the product should not negatively impact the user's appearance, convenience or sense of style, nor should the designer make any assumptions concerning the suitability of the device to enhance the user's popularity or public image. In other words, unobtrusiveness and neutrality of appearance are more important than an attractive shape and/or color, as fashion is fickle.

Whether deliberately, instinctively or by accident, Sony and Apple have followed most of the guidelines in the above formulation and created landmark product offerings that have reshaped our lives socially and professionally. In the same way the Yankees stack their batting order to position A-Rod to bring everyone home with one of his patented Grand Slams, the "do's and dont's" list borrows from the success of others to guide aspirants in the IoT space so that they can figuratively step up to the plate, IoT product in hand, with bases loaded.