Don’t Track My MAC!

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The latest technology in mobile seems to be identification.  It has nothing to do with credentials.  Instead, it has everything to do with creating a database of who you are and where you are.  Location-based identification is the new holy grail for marketing people.  And the privacy implications are frightening.

Who Are You?

The trend now is to get your device MAC address and store it in a database.  This allows the location tracking systems, like Aruba Meridian or Cisco CMX, to know that they’ve seen you in the past.  They can see where you’ve been in the store with a resolution of a couple of feet (much better than GPS).  They now know which shelf you are standing in front of.  Coupled with new technologies like Apple iBeacon, the retailer can push information to your mobile device like a coupon or a price comparison with competitors.

It’s a fine use of mobile technology.  Provided I wanted that in the first place.  The model should be opt-in.  If I download your store’s app and connect to your wifi then I clicked the little “agree” box that allows you to send me that information.  If I opt-in, feel free to track me and email me coupons.  Or even to pop them up on store displays when my device gets close to a shelf that contains a featured item.  I knew what I was getting into when I opted in.  But what happens when you didn’t?

Wifi, Can You Hear Me?

The problem comes when the tracking system is listening to devices when it shouldn’t be. When my mobile device walks into a store, it will start beaconing for available wifi access points.  It will interrogate them about the SSIDs that they have and whether my device has associated with them.  That’s the way wifi works.  You can’t stop that unless you shut off your wireless.

If the location system is listening to the devices beaconing for wifi, it could be enabled to track those MAC addresses that are beaconing for connectivity even if they don’t connect.  So now, my opt-in is worthless.  If the location system knows about my MAC address even when I don’t connect, they can push information to iBeacon displays without my consent.  I would see a coupon for a camping tent based on the fact that I stood next to the camp stoves last week for five minutes.  It doesn’t matter that I was on a phone call and don’t have the slightest care about camping.  Now the system has started building a profile of me based on erroneous information it gathered when it shouldn’t have been listening.

Think about Minority Report.  When Tom Cruise is walking through the subway, retinal scanners read his print and start showing him very directed advertising.  While we’re still years away from that technology, being able to fingerprint a mobile device when it enters the store is the next best thing.  If I look down to text my wife about which milk to buy, I could get a full screen coupon telling me about a sale on bread.

My (MAC) Generation

This is such a huge issue that Apple has taken a step to “fix” the problem in the beta release for iOS 8.  As reported by The Verge, iOS 8 randomizes the MAC address used when probing for wifi SSIDs.  This means that the MAC used to probe for wifi requests won’t be the same as the one used to connect to the actual AP.  That’s huge for location tracking.  It means that the only way people will know who I am for sure is for me to connect to the wifi network.  Only then will my true MAC address be revealed.  It also means that I have to opt-in to the location tracking.  That’s a great relief for privacy advocates and tin foil hat aficionados everywhere.

It does make iBeacon configuration a bit more time consuming.  But you’ll find that customers will be happier overall knowing their information isn’t being stored without consent.  Because there’s never been a situation where customer data was leaked, right? Not more than once, right?  Oh, who am I kidding.  If you are a retailer, you don’t want that kind of liability on your hands.

Won’t Get Fooled Again

If you’re one of the retailers deploying location based solutions for applications like iBeacon, now is the time to take a look at what you’re doing.  If you’re collecting MAC address information from probing mobile devices you should turn it off now.  Yes, privacy is a concern.  But so is your database.  Assuming iOS randomizes the entire MAC address string including the OUI and not just the 24-bit NIC at the end, your database is going to fill up quickly with bogus entries.  Sure, there may be a duplicate here and there from the random iOS strings, but they will be few and far between.

More likely, your database will overflow from the sheer number of MACs being reported by iOS 8 devices.  And since iOS7 adoption was at 87% of compatible devices just 8 months after release, you can guarantee there will be a large number of iOS devices coming into your environment running with obfuscated MAC addresses.


Tom’s Take

I don’t like the idea of being tracked when I’m not opted in to a program.  Sure, I realize that my usage statistics are being used for research.  I know that clicking those boxes in the EULA gives my data to parties unknown for any purpose they choose.  And I’m okay with it.  Provided that box is checked.

When I find out my data is being collected without my consent, it gives me the creeps.  When I learned about the new trends in data collection for the grand purposes of marketing and sales, I wanted to scream from the rooftops that the vendors needs to put a halt to this right away.  Thankfully, Apple must have heard my silent screams.  We can only hope that other manufacturers start following suit and giving us a method to prevent this from happening.  This tweet from Jan Dawson sums it up nicely:

The Compost-PC Era

Generic Mobile Devices

I realized the other day that the vibration motor in my iPhone 5s had gone out.  Thankfully, my device was still covered under warranty.  I set up an appointment to have it fixed at the nearest Apple store.  I figured I’d go in and they’d just pop in a new motor.  It is a simple repair according to iFixit.  I backed my phone up one last time as a precaution.  When I arrived at the store, it took no time to determine what was wrong.

What shocked me was that the Genius tech told me, “We’re just going to replace your whole phone.  We’ll send the old one off to get repaired.”  I was taken aback.  This was a $20 part that should have taken all of five minutes to pop in.  Instead, I got my phone completely replaced after just three months.  As the new phone synced from my last iClould backup, I started thinking about what this means for the future of devices.

Bring Your Own Disposable

Most mobile devices are a wonder of space engineering.  Cramming an extra long battery in with a vibrant color screen and enough storage to satisfy users is a challenge in any device.  Making it small enough and light enough to hold in the palm of your hand is even more difficult.  Compromises must be made.  Devices today are held together as much by glue and adhesive as they are nuts and bolts and screws.  Gaining access to a device to repair a broken part is becoming more and more impossible with each new generation.

I can still remember opening the case on my first PC to add a sound card and an Overdrive processor.  It was a bit scary but led to a career in repairing computers.  I’ve downright terrified to pop open an iPhone.  The ribbon cables are so fragile that it doesn’t take much to render the phone unusable.  Even Apple knows this.  They are much more likely to have the repairs done in a separate facility rather than at the store.  Other than screen replacements, the majority of broken parts result in a new phone being given to the customer.  After all, it’s very easy to replace devices when the data is safe somewhere.

The Cloud Will Save It All

Use of cloud storage and backup is the key to the disposable device trend.  If you tell me that I’m going to lose my laptop and all the data on it I’m going to get a little concerned.  If you tell me that I’m going to lose my phone, I don’t mind as much thanks to the cloud backup I have configured.  In the above case, my data was synced back to my phone as I shopped for a new screen protector.  Just like a corporate system, data loss is the biggest concern on a device.  Cloud storage is a lot like a roaming profile.  I can sync that data back to a fresh device and keep going after a short interruption.  Gone are the wasted hours of reinstallation of operating system and software.

Why repair devices when they can easily be replaced at little cost?  Why should you pay someone to spend their time diagnosing a bad CPU or bad RAM when you can just unwrap a new mobile device, sync your profile and data, and move on with your project?  The implications for PC repair techs are legion.  As are the implications for manufacturers that create products that are easy to open and contain field replaceable parts.

Why go to all the extra effort of making a device that can be easily repaired if it’s much cheaper to just glue it together and recycle what parts you can after it breaks?  Customers have already shown their propensity to upgrade devices with every new cycle each year.  They’d rather buy everything new instead of upgrading the old to match.  That means making the device field repairable (or upgradable) is extra cost you don’t need.  Making devices that aren’t easily fixed in the field means you need to spend less of your budgets training people how to repair them.  In fact, it’s just easier to have the customer send the device back to the manufacturing plant.


Tom’s Take

The cloud has enabled us to keep our data consistent between devices.  While it has helped blur the lines between desktop and mobile device, it has also helped blur the lines tying people to a specific device.  If I can have my phone or tablet replaced with almost no impact, I’m going to elect to have than done rather than finding replacement parts to keep the old one running just a bit longer.  It also means that after pulling the useful parts out of those mildly broken devices that they will end up in the same landfill that analysts are saying will be filled with rejected desktop PCs.

FaceTime Audio: The Beginning or The End?

BlackApple

The world of mobile devices is a curious one. Handset manufacturers are always raising the bar for features in both hardware and software in order to convince customers to use their device. Yet, no matter how much innovation goes into the handset the vendors are still very reliant upon the whims of the carriers. Apple knows this perhaps better than anyone

In Your FaceTime

FaceTime was the first protocol to feel the wrath of the carriers. Apple developed it as a way to facilitate video communication between parties. The idea was that face-to-face video communications could be simplified to create a seamless experience. And it did, for the most part. Except that AT&T decided that using FaceTime over 3G would put too much strain on their network. At first, they forced Apple to limit FaceTime to only work with wireless connections. That severely inhibited the utility of the protocol. If the only place that a you can video call someone is at home or in a coffee shop (or on crappy hotel wireless) that makes the video call much less useful.

Apple finally allowed FaceTime to operate over cellular networks in iOS 6, yet AT&T (and other carriers) restricted the use of the protocol to those customers on the most current data plans. This eliminated those on older, unlimited data plans from utilizing the service. The carriers eventually gave in to customer pressure and started rolling out the capability to all subscribers. By then, it was too late. Apple had decided to take a different track – replace the need for a carrier.

Message For You

The first shot in this replacement battle came with iMessage. Apple created a messaging protocol like the iChat system for Mac, only it ran on iPhones and iPads (and later Macs). It was enabled by default, which was genius. The first time you sent an Short Message Service (SMS) text to a friend, the system detected you were messaging another iPhone user on a compatible version of software. The system then flipped the messaging over to use iMessage instead of SMS and the chat bubbles turned blue instead of green. Now, you could send pictures of any size as well as texts on any length with no restrictions. 160-character limits were no longer a concern. Neither was paying your carrier for an SMS plan. So long as the people you spoke with were all iDevice users the service was completely free.

iMessage was Apple’s first attempt to sideline the carriers. It removed a huge portion of their profitability. According to an article published at the launch of iMessage, carriers were making $.20 per message outside of an SMS plan for data that would cost about $.0125 on a data plan. Worse yet, that message traversed a control channel that was always present for the user. There was no additional cost to the carrier beyond flipping a switch to enable message delivery to the phone. It was a pure-profit enterprise. Apple seized on the opportunity to erode that profitability.

Today, you can barely find a cellular plan that *doesn’t* include unlimited text messaging. The carriers can no longer reap the rewards of a high profit, low cost service like SMS because of Apple and iMessage. Carriers are instead including it as a quality of life feature that they make nothing from. Cupertino has eliminated one of the sources of carrier entanglement. And they’re poised to do it again in iOS 7.

You Can Hear Me Now

FaceTime Audio was one of the features of iOS 7 that got swept under the rug in favor of talking about flat design or parallax wallpaper. FaceTime Audio uses the same audio codec from FaceTime, AAC-ELD, to initiate a phone call between two iDevice users. Only it doesn’t use the 3G/LTE radio to make the call. It’s all done via the data connection.

I tested FaceTime Audio for the first time after my wife upgraded her phone to iOS 7. The results were beyond astonishing. The audio quality of the call was as crisp and clear as any I’d every heard. In fact, I would compare it to the use of Cisco’s Wideband G.722 codec on an enterprise voice system. My wife, a non-technical person even noticed the difference by remarking, “It’s like you’re right next to me in the same room!” I specifically tried it over 3G/LTE to make sure it wasn’t blocked like FaceTime video. Amazingly, it wasn’t.

The Mean Opinion Score (MOS) rating that telephony network use to rate call clarity runs from 1 to 5. A 1 means you can’t hear them at all. A 5 means there is no difference between talking on the phone and talking in the same room. Most of the “best” calls get a MOS rating in the 4.1-4.3 range. I would rate FaceTime audio at a 4.5 or higher. Not only could I hear my wife clearly on the calls we made, but I also heard background noise clearly when she turned her head to speak to someone. The clarity was so amazing that I even tweeted about it.

FaceTime Audio calling could be poised to do the same thing to voice minutes that iMessage did to SMS. I’ve already changed the favorite for my wife’s number to dial her via FaceTime Audio instead of her mobile phone number. The clarity makes that much of a difference. It also helps that I’m not using any of my plan minutes to call her. Yes, I realize that many carriers make mobile-to-mobile calls free already. However, I was also able to call my wife via FaceTime Audio from my iPad as a test that worked perfectly. Now, I not only don’t use voice minutes but have the flexibility to call from a device that previously had no capability to do so.

Who Needs A Phone?

Think about the iPod Touch. It is a device that is very similar to the iPhone. In fact, with the exception of the cellular radio one might say they’re identical. With iMessage, I can get texts on an iPod touch using my Apple ID. So long as I’m around a wireless connection (or have a 3G MiFi device) I’m connected to the world. With FaceTime audio, the same Apple ID now allows me to take phone calls. The only thing the carriers now have to provide is a data connection. You still can’t text or call non-Apple devices with iMessage and FaceTime. However, you can reduce the amount of money you are paying for their services due to a reduction in the amount of minutes and/or texts you are sending. That should have the mobile carriers running scared.


Tom’s Take

I once said I would never own a cellular phone because sometimes I didn’t want to be found. Today, I get nervous if mine isn’t with me at all times. I also didn’t get SMS messaging at first. Now I spend more time doing that than anything else. Mobile technology has changed our lives. We’ve spent far too much time chained to the carriers, however. They have dictated what when can do with our phones. They have enforced how much data we use and how much we can talk. With protocols like FaceTime Audio, the handset manufacturers are going to start deciding how best to use their own devices. No carrier will be able to institute limits on minutes or texts. I think that if FaceTime Audio takes off in the same way as iMessage, you’ll see mobile carriers offering unlimited talk plans alongside the unlimited text plans within the next two years. If 50% of your userbase is making calls on their data plans, they need for all those “rollover” minutes becomes spurious. People will start reducing their plans down to the minimum necessary to get good data coverage. And if a carrier decides to start gouging for data service? Just take your device to another carrier. Or drop you contact in favor of a MiFi or similar data-only connection. FaceTime Audio is the beginning of easy Voice over IP (VoIP) calling. It’s the end of the road for carrier dominance.

Why An iPhone Fingerprint Scanner Makes Sense

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It’s hype season again for the Cupertino Fruit and Phone Company.  We are mere days away from a press conference that should reveal the specs of a new iPhone, likely to be named the iPhone 5S.  As is customary before these events, the public is treated to all manner of Wild Mass Guessing as to what will be contained in the device.  WIll it have dual flashes?  Will it have a slow-motion camera?  NFC? 802.11ac?  The list goes on and on.  One of the most spectacular rumors comes in a package the size of your thumb.

Apple quietly bought a company called AuthenTec last year.  AuthentTec made fingerprint scanners for a variety of companies, including those that included the technology in some Android devices.  After the $365 million acquisition, AuthenTec disappeared into a black hole.  No one (including Apple) said much of anything about them.  Then a few weeks ago, a patent application was revealed that came from Apple and included fingerprint technology from AuthenTec.  This sent the rumor mill into overdrive.  Now all signs point to a convex sapphire home button that contains a fingerprint scanner that will allow iPhones to use biometrics for security.  A developer even managed to ferret out a link to a BiometrickKitUI bundle in one of the iOS 7 beta releases (which was quickly removed in the next beta).

Giving Security The Finger

I think adding a fingerprint scanner to the hardware of an iDevice is an awesome idea.  Passcode locks are good for a certain amount of basic device security, but the usefulness of a passcode is inversely proportional to it’s security level.  People don’t make complex passcodes because they take far too long to type in.  If you make a complex alphanumeric code, typing the code in quickly one-handed isn’t easy.  That leaves most people choosing to use a 4-digit code or forgoing it altogether.  That doesn’t bode well for people whose phones are lost or stolen.

Apple has already publicly revealed that it will include enhanced security in iOS 7 in the form of an activation lock that prevents a thief from erasing the phone and reactivating it for themselves.  This makes sense in that Apple wants to discourage thieves.  But that step only makes sense if you consider that Apple wants to beef up the device security as well.  Biometric fingerprint scanners are a quick method of inputting a unique unlock code quickly.  Enabling this technology on a new phone should show a sharp increase in the number of users that have enabled an unlock code (or finger, in this case).

Not all people thing fingerprint scanners are a good idea.  A link from Angelbeat says that Apple should forget about the finger and instead use a combination of picture and voice to unlock the phone.  The writer says that this would provide more security because it requires your face as well as your voice.  The writer also says that it’s more convenient than taking a glove off to use a finger in cold weather.  I happen to disagree on a couple of points.

A Face For Radio

Facial recognition unlock for phones isn’t new.  It’s been in Android since the release of Ice Cream Sandwich.  It’s also very easy to defeat.  This article from last year talks about how flaky the system is unless you provide it several pictures to reference from many different angles.  This video shows how snapping a picture on a different phone can easily fool the facial recognition.  And that’s only the first video of several that I found on a cursory search for “Android Facial Recognition”.  I could see this working against the user if the phone is stolen by someone that knows their target.  Especially if there is a large repository of face pictures online somewhere.  Perhaps in a “book” of “faces”.

Another issue I have is Siri.  As far as I know, Siri can’t be trained to recognize a users voice.  In fact, I don’t believe Siri can distinguish one user from another at all.  To prove my point, go pick up a friend’s phone and ask Siri to find something.  Odds are good Siri will comply even though you aren’t the phone’s owner.  In order to defeat the old, unreliable voice command systems that have been around forever, Apple made Siri able to recognize a wide variety of voices and accents.  In order to cover that wide use case, Apple had to sacrifice resolution of a specific voice.  Apple would have to build in a completely new set of Siri APIs that query a user to speak a specific set of phrases in order to build a custom unlock code.  Based on my experience with those kinds of old systems, if you didn’t utter the phrase exactly the way it was originally recorded it would fail spectacularly.  What happens if you have a cold?  Or there is background noise?  Not exactly easier that putting your thumb on a sensor.

Don’t think that means that fingerprints are infallible.  The Mythbusters managed to defeat an unbeatable fingerprint scanner in one episode.  Of course, they had access to things like ballistics gel, which isn’t something you can pick up at the corner store.  Biometrics are only as good as the sensors that power them.  They also serve as a deterrent, not a complete barrier.  Lifting someone’s fingerprints isn’t easy and neither is scanning them into a computer to produce a sharp enough image to fool the average scanner.  The idea is that a stolen phone with a biometric lock will simply be discarded and a different, more vulnerable phone would be exploited instead.


Tom’s Take

I hope that Apple includes a fingerprint scanner in the new iPhone.  I hope it has enough accuracy and resolution to make biometric access easy and simple.  That kind of implementation across so many devices will drive the access control industry to take a new look at biometrics and being integrating them into more products.  Hopefully that will spur things like home door locks, vehicle locks, and other personal devices to being using these same kind of sensors to increase security.  Fingerprints aren’t perfect by any stretch, but they are the best option of the current generation of technology.  One day we may reach the stage of retinal scanners or brainwave pattern matches for security locks.  For now, a fingerprint scanner on my phone will get a “thumbs up” from me.

iOS 7 and Labels

wwdc-13-apple-reveals-ios-7

Apple is prepping the release of iOS 7 to their users sometime in the next couple of months. The developers are already testing it out to find bugs and polish their apps in anticipation of the user base adopting Jonathan Ive‘s vision for a mobile operating system. In many ways, it’s still the same core software we’ve been using for many years now with a few radical changes to the look and feel. The icons and lack of skeumorphism are getting the most press. But I found something that I think has the ability to be even bigger than that.

The user interface (UI) elements in the previous iOS builds all look very similar. This is no doubt due to the influence of Scott Forestall, the now departed manager of iOS. The dearth of glossy buttons and switches looked gorgeous back in 2007 when the iPhone was first released. But all UI evolves over time. Some evolve faster than others. Apple hit a roadblock because of those very same buttons. They were all baked into the core UI. Changing them was like trying to correct a misspelled word in a stone carving.  It takes months of planning to make even the smallest of changes.  And those changes have to be looked at on a massive scale to avoid causing issues in the rest of the OS.

iOS 7 is different to me.  Look at this pic of an incoming call and compare it with the same screen in iOS 6:

iOS 7

iOS 7

iOS 6

iOS 6

The iOS 6 picture has buttons.  The iOS 7 picture is different.  Instead of have chiseled buttons, it looks like the Answer and Decline buttons have been stuck to the screen with labels.  That’s not the only place in the UI that has a label-like appearance.  Sending a new  iMessage or text to someone in the Messages app looks like applying a stamp to a piece of paper.  Taking all that into consideration, I think I finally understand what Ive is trying to do with this UI shift in iOS 7

Labels are easy to reapply.  You just peel them off and stick them back on.  Unlike the chiseled-in-stone button UI, a label can quickly and easily be reconfigured or replaced if it starts to look dated.  Apple made mention of this in Ive’s iOS 7 video where he talked about creating “hierarchical layers (to) establish order“.  Ive commented that this approach gives depth to the OS.  I think he’s holding back on us.

Jonathan Ive created UI layers in the OS so he can change them out more quickly.  Think about it.  If you only have to change a label in an app or change the way they are presented on screen, it allows you to make more rapid changes to the way the OS looks.  If the layers are consistent and draw from the same pool of resources, it allows you to skin the OS however you want with minimal effort.  Ive wasn’t just trying to scrub away the accumulation of Scott Forrestal’s ideas about the UI.  He wanted to change them and make the UI so flexible that the look can be updated in the blink of an eye.  That gives him the ability to change elements at will without the need to overhaul the system.  That kind of rapid configurability gives Apple the chance to keep things looking fresh and accommodate changing tastes.


Tom’s Take

I can almost hear people now saying that making future iOS releases able to be skinned is just another rip off of Android’s feature set.  In some ways, you are very right.  However, consider that Android was always designed with modularity in mind from the beginning.  Google wanted to give manufacturers and carriers the ability to install their own UI.  Think about how newsworthy the announcement of a TouchWiz-free Galaxy S4 was.  Apple has always considered the UI inviolate in all their products.  You don’t have much freedom to change things in iOS or in OS X.  Jonathan Ive is trying to set things up so that changes can be made more frequently in iOS.  Modders will likely find ways to insert their own UI elements and take these ideas in an ever more radical direction.  And all because Apple wanted to be able to peel off their UI pieces as easily as a label.

The Microsoft Office Tablet

OfficeTabletI’ve really tried to stay out of the Tablet Wars.  I have a first generation iPad that I barely use any more.  My kids have co-opted it from me for watching on-demand TV shows and playing Angry Birds.  Since I spend most of my time typing blog posts or doing research, I use my laptop more than anything else.  When the Surface RT and Surface Pro escaped from the wilds of Redmond I waited and watched.  I wanted to see what people were going to say about these new Microsoft tablets.  It’s been about 4 months since the release of the Surface Pro and simliar machines from vendors like Dell and Asus.  I’ve been slowly asking questions and collecting information about these devices.  And I think I’ve finally come to a realization.

The primary reason people want to buy a Surface tablet is to run Microsoft Office.

Here’s the setup.  Everyone that expressed an interest in the Pro version of the Surface (or the Latitude 10 from Dell) was asked a question by me: What is the most compelling feature for the Surface Pro for you?  The responses that I got back were overwhelming in their similarity.

1.  I want to use Microsoft Office on my tablet.

2.  I want to run full Windows apps on my tablet.

I never heard anything about portability, power, user interface, or application support (beyond full Windows apps).  I specifically excluded the RT model of the Surface from my questions because of the ARM processor and the reliance of software from the Windows App Store.  The RT functions more like Apple/Android tablets in that regard.

This made me curious.  The primary goal of Surface users is to be able to run Office?  These people have basically told me that the only reason they want to buy a tablet is to use an office suite.  One that isn’t currently available anywhere else for mobile devices.  One that has been rumored to be released on other platforms down the road.  While it may be a logical fallacy, it appears that Microsoft risks invalidating a whole hardware platform because of a single application suite.  If they end up releasing Office for iOS/Android, people would flee from the Surface to the other platforms according to the info above.  Ergo, the only purpose of the Surface appears to be to run one application.  Which I why I’ve started calling it the Microsoft Office Tablet.  Then I started wondering about the second most popular answer in my poll.

Making Your Flow Work

As much as I’ve tried not to use the word “workflow” before, I find that it fits in this particular conversation.  Your workflow is more than just the applications you utilize.  It’s how you use them.  My workflow looks totally different from everyone else even though I use simliar applications.  I use email and word processing for my own purposes.  I write a lot, so a keyboard of some kind is important to my workflow.  I don’t do a lot of graphics design, so a pen input tablet isn’t really a big deal to me.  The list goes on and on, but you see that my needs are my own and not those of someone else.  Workflows may be simliar, but not identical.  That’s where the dichotomy comes into play for me.

When people start looking at using a different device for their workflow, they have to make adjustments of some kind.  Especially if that device is radically different from one they’ve been using before.  Your phone is different from a tablet, and a tablet is different from a laptop.  Even a laptop is different from a desktop, but these two are more simliar than most.  When the time comes to adjust your workflow to a new device, there are generally two categories of people:

1.  People who adjust their workflow to the new device.

2.  People who expect the device to conform to their existing workflow.

For users of the Apple and Android tablets, option 1 is pretty much the only option you’ve got.  That’s because the workflow you’ve created likely can’t be easily replicated between devices.  Desktop apps don’t run on these tablets.  When you pick up an iPad or a Galaxy Tab you have to spend time finding apps to replicate what you’ve been doing previously.  Note taking apps, web browsing apps, and even more specialized apps like banking or ebook readers are very commonly installed.  Your workflow becomes constrained to the device you’re using.  Things like on-screen keyboards or lack of USB ports become bullet points in workflow compatibility.  On occasion, you find that a new workflow is possible with the device.  The prime example I can think of is using the camera on a phone in conjunction with a banking app to deposit checks without needing to take them into the bank.  That workflow would have been impossible just a couple of years ago.  With the increase in camera phone resolution, high speed data transfer, and secure transmission of sensitive data made possible by device advancements we can now picture this new workflow and easily adapt it because a device made it possible.

The other category is where the majority of Surface Pro users come in.  These are the people that think their workflow must work on any device they use.  Rather than modify what they’re doing, they want the perfect device to do their stuff.  These are the people that use a tablet for about a week and then move on to something different because “it just didn’t feel right.”  When they finally do find that magical device that does everything they want, they tend to abandon all other devices and use it exclusively.  That is, until they have a new workflow or a substantial modification to their existing workflow.  Then they go on the hunt for a new device that’s perfect for this workflow.

So long as your workflow is the immutable object in the equation, you are never going to be happy with any device you pick.  My workflows change depending on my device.  I browse Twitter and read email from my phone but rarely read books.  I read books and do light web surfing from a tablet but almost never create content.  I spend a lot of time creating content on my laptop buy hate reading on it.  I’ve adjusted my workflows to suit the devices I’m using.

If the single workflow you need to replicate on your table revolves around content creation, I think it’s time to examine exactly what you’re using a tablet for.  Is it portability beyond what a laptop can offer?  Do you prefer to hunt and peck around a touch screen instead of a keyboard?  Are you looking for better battery life or some other function of the difference in hardware?  Or are you just wanting to look cool with a tablet in the “post PC world?”  That’s the primary reason I don’t use a tablet that much any more.  My workflows conform to my phone and my laptop.  I don’t find use in a tablet.  Some people love them.  Some people swear by them.  Just make sure you aren’t dropping $800-$1000 on a one-application device.

At the end of the day, work needs to get done.  People are going to use whatever device they want to use to get their stuff done.  Some want to do stuff and move on.  Others want to look awesome doing stuff or want to do their stuff everywhere no matter what.  Use what works best for you.  Just don’t be surprised if complaining about how this device doesn’t run my favorite data entry program gets a sideways glance from IT.

Disclaimer:  I own a first generation iPad.  I’ve tested a Dell Latitude 10.  I currently use an iPhone 4S.  I also use a MacBook Air.  I’ve used a Lenovo Thinkpad in the past as my primary workstation.  I’m not a hater of Microsoft or a lover of Apple.  I’ve found a setup that lets me get my job done.

Incremental Awesomeness – Boiling Frogs

Frog on a Saucepan - courtesy of Wikipedia

Frog on a Saucepan – courtesy of Wikipedia

Unless you’ve been living under a big rock for the last couple of weeks, you’ve no doubt heard about the plunge that Apple stock took shortly after releasing their numbers for the previous quarter.  Apple sold $54 billion dollars worth of laptops, desktops, and mobile devices.  They made $13 billion dollars in profit.  They sold 47 million iPhones and almost 23 million iPads.  For all of these record-setting numbers, the investors rewarded Apple by driving the stock down below $500 dollars a share, shaving off a full 10% of Apple’s value in after-hours trading after the release of these numbers.  A lot of people were asking why a fickle group of investors would punish a company making as much quarterly profit as the gross domestic product of a small country.  What has it come to that a company can be successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and still be labeled a failure?

The world has become accustomed to incremental awesomeness.

Apple is as much to blame as anyone else in this matter, but almost every company is guilty of this in some form or another.  We’ve reached the point in our lives where we are subjected to a stream of minor improvements on things rather than huge, revolutionary changes.  This steady diet of non-life changing features has soured us on the whole idea of being amazed by things.  If you had told me even 5 years ago that I would possess a device in my pocket that had a camera, GPS, always-on Internet connection, appointment book, tape recorder, and video camera, I would have either been astounded or thought you crazy.  Today, these devices are passé.  We even call phones without these features “dumb phones” as if to demonize them and those that elect to use them.  We can no longer discern between the truly amazing and the depressingly commonplace.

When I was younger, I heard someone ask about boiling a frog alive.  I was curious as to what lesson may lie in such a practice.  If you place a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will hop right back out as a form of self-preservation.  However, if you place a frog in a pot of tepid water and slowly raise the temperature a few degrees every minute, you will eventually boil the frog alive without any resistance.  Why is that?  Well, by slowly raising the temperature of the water, the frog becomes accustomed to the change.  A few degrees one way or the other doesn’t matter to the frog.  However, those few degrees eventually add up to the boiling point.

We find ourselves in the same predicament.  Look at some of the things that users are quibbling over on the latest round of phones and other devices.  The Nexus 4 phone is a failure because it doesn’t have LTE.  The iPad Mini is useless because it doesn’t have a Retina screen.  The iPhone 5 is far from perfect because it’s missing NFC or it’s not a 5-inch phone.  The Nexus 7 needs more storage and shouldn’t be Wi-Fi only.  Look at any device out there and you will find that they are missing features that would keep them from being “perfect”.  Those features might as well be things like inability to read your mind or project information directly onto the cornea.  I’ve complained before that Google is setting up Google Glass to be a mundane gadget because they aren’t thinking outside their little box.  This kind of incremental improvement is what we’ve become accustomed to.  Think about the driverless car that Google is supposedly working on.  It’s an exciting idea, right? Now, think about that invention in 5 years time when it becomes ubiquitous.  When version 6 or 7 of the driverless car is out, we’re going to be complaining about how it doesn’t anticipate traffic conditions or isn’t able to fly.  We will have become totally unimpressed with how awesome the idea of a driverless car is because we’re concentrating on the things that it doesn’t have.

We want to be impressed and surprised by things.  Even when we are confronted with groundbreaking technology, we reject it at first out of spite.  Remember how the iPad was going to be a disaster because people don’t want to use a big iPhone?  Now look at how many are being used.  People want to walk away from a product announcement with a sense of awe and wonder, not a list of features and the same case as last year.  We’ve stopped looking at each new object with a sense of wonder and amazement and instead we focus on the difference from last year’s model.  Every new software or hardware release raises the temperature a few more degrees.  Before long, we’re going to be boiling in our own contempt and discontent.  And the next generation is going to have it even worse.  Even now, I find my kids are spoiled by the ability to watch TV shows on a tablet in any room in the house on their schedule instead of waiting for an episode to air.  They no longer even need to remember to record their favorite show on the DVR.  They just launch the app on their table and watch the show whenever they want.  Something that seems amazing and life-changing to me is commonplace to them.  All of this has happened before.  All of this will happen again.

Instead of judging on incremental advancements, we should start looking at things on the grand scale.  Yes, I know that some companies are going to constant underwhelm the buying public by delivering products that are slightly more advanced than the previous iteration for an increased cost.  However, when you step back and take a look at everything on a long enough time line, you’ll find that we are truly living in an age when technology is amazing and getting better every day.  Sure, I’m waiting for user interfaces like the ones from Minority Report or the Avengers.  I want a driverless car and a thought interface for my computer/phone/widget.  But after seeing what happens to companies that are successful beyond their wildest imaginations I’ll be doing a much better job of looking at things with the proper perspective.  After all, that’s the best way to keep from getting boiled.