Week 46

Pick of the Week – Smart Retail

A new arena of smart retail is emerging in which card based notification interfaces across multiple mobile form factors including wearables are being combined with Bluetooth beacons and other sensors within a built shopping environment.  Some of the possibilities this mix affords to retail brands were evident at the #AppsWorld conference this week in London from exhibitors such as PowaTag:

Business

Rudy de Waele (@mtrends) has published a good primer pulling together the various underlying enablers that will underpin the development of smart retail from the “notification as interface” trend to beacons and wearables.  His key observations are:

  • Notifications are becoming a primary mobile device interface (“channel”) to users.
  • Notification interactions are simplifying their focus around relevant calls to action to the user via a rich card pattern.
  • Attracting user attention is crucial but it’s also critical not to avoid the trap of “over-notification” to avoid user annoyance.
  • Wearables and beacons represent the next wave for the “notification as interface” paradigm and mobile app developers are looking to capitalise on that now with the first wave of wearables.
  • Working out the right notification balance will determine whether your retail brand gets any footprint in this potentially large new space for innovation.  Or not.

Smartphones and Devices

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Apple Market Cap

“It’s simple. If you are considering a Vertu phone, then buy the Aster. It eclipses every other Android phone the company has produced in just about every way. It’s damn good-looking, more than fast enough, comes with a real personal assistant, and has a battery that will last you for a couple of days. The camera takes some great pictures, and if you’ve got the cash, Vertu will personalize the leather and a case to match.”

Vertu AsterVertu Aster

Smart Cases

“The small French startup has been working on turning your smartphone into a miniature Polaroid camera since January. They’ve spent much of that time visiting Shenzen to source parts and iterating on a simple design that sends a photo to the case over Bluetooth and then prints it by heating paper filled with ink.”

Prynt Case

  • LG’s Aka range of phones are a cross between a phone and a tamagotchithanks to sleeve covers embedded with smart chips, the phone changes between four pre-set personalities“.  So, a smart case of sorts:

Google and Android

  • Joshua Topolsky and Matias Duarte have fun interviewing each other as they discuss product development, focus groups, Android’s new look and user-centric design:

  • Google have been busy refining and upgrading their application suite for Lollipop with Google Calendar updated, a new threaded unified Messenger app and even an updated Google app all Material Design inspired. In addition Google have rolled out their smart email client Inbox and updated Gmail to v5 introducing support for IMAP, POP3 and Outlook.   Many users should now be in a position able to compare Inbox and Gmail5.   This review suggests you try both and see what works best.  Inbox is perhaps best for Google fans and early adopters for now whereas Gmail5 is more an incremental evolution from a widely used and known base:

inbox bundled  gmail inbox

  • Facebook “sees more than half a billion people connect each month from more than 10,000 different Android device models” which puts them in a unique position of being able to categorise all the device variety they see in the field.  This code.facebook.com post outlines how Facebook have built a performance classification system built on the concept of a “year class” to tune how they communicate with Android devices.  It turns out from using this system that:

“about two-thirds of the phones connected to Facebook are equivalent to something released in 2011 or earlier.”

  • Google Health and Calico may have had more of the limelight recently with talk of moonshots involving nanoparticles and extended lifespans.  However Google Genomics, Google’s cloud-based genome storage service, could prove even more important. It offers organisations and institutions the chance to store genomes in the cloud for “$25 a year”.  Once there, Google analytic capabilities could be applied to mine the data for interesting patterns.  There are of course many privacy questions around such a proposition but also a certain inevitability given the fierce competition to lead the field:

“Google Genomics could prove more significant than any of these moonshots. Connecting and comparing genomes by the thousands, and soon by the millions, is what’s going to propel medical discoveries for the next decade. The question of who will store the data is already a point of growing competition between Amazon, Google, IBM, and Microsoft.”

Apps and Services

  • Amazon AWS Reinvent developer conference provided a raft of new announcements to absorb.  The introduction of an EC2 Container Service that allows the integration of Docker containers into AWS was a particular highlight along with a trio of new AWS tools called CodeDeploy, CodeCommit and CodePipeline.  These tools could be used to potentially move source code management and BITR (build, integration, test, release) infrastructure into the AWS cloud.  In many companies focussed on embedded software, BITR is still handled in house:

AWSReinvent

  • AWS CodeCommit seems to address the issue of security, access control and storage of binary blobs which are all frequent concerns in the world of embedded software:

“a secure, highly scalable, managed source control service that hosts private Git repositories. CodeCommit eliminates the need for you to operate your own source control system or worry about scaling its infrastructure. You can use CodeCommit to store anything from code to binaries, and it supports the standard functionality of Git allowing it to work seamlessly with your existing Git-based tools. Your team can also use CodeCommit’s online code tools to browse, edit, and collaborate on projects.”

“When you watch the interaction between Cook, one of the biggest champions of MCX, and Visa’s McCarthy, this should come as no surprise. Nor should the realization that Walmart will never accept Apple Pay, the service that the credit card networks support.”

Bubley

Asia

“Beijing, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Bangalore occupy the top four ranks in terms of the rate at which VC deals are being made, according to new data compiled by research firm CB Insights.”

Chart1

  • Quora is really big in India with only the US having more respondents.  Naturally enough there is a Quora question asking why.  The chief reasons cited are the fact that Quora is an English-only proposition, network effects particularly within Indian academic institutions, the curious and intellectual mindset of many Indians and a love of talking and debate.

Security

  • The fake base station attack NSA-style:

Wearables and the Internet of Things

“the Company has invested close to $10MM in research and development to expand its capabilities in home automation, specifically within Apple’s HomeKit framework.”

iGrillmini

“Of 16 Glass app makers contacted by Reuters, nine said that they had stopped work on their projects or abandoned them, mostly because of the lack of customers or limitations of the device. Three more have switched to developing for business, leaving behind consumer projects.”

“With Apple, iBeacon is enabled through the App Store software; with Proximity, it functions on a system level. That means potentially deeper integration for companies employing proximity-based beacon technology — think push notifications and the like.”

  • This Realtag Bluetooth LE sensor wearable is now available on Amazon for £16.19.  It can be programmed with iOS app Multitool and is barely bigger than the CR2032 3V battery on the other side:

  • The Garmin Vivosmart is an update to the popular Vivofit fitness band with added social media + messaging integration.  Engadget reviewed the product and though they were impressed with a quoted 7-day battery life, they had several issues with the product.  In particular the relatively basic nature of the partner smartphone app and an inability to action any of the notifications on the band:

Garmin Vivosmart review: where fitness band meets smartwatch

  • The latest flagship version of Garmin’s popular Forerunner fitness watch series, the FR 920XT, gets a very much better write-up by wearables specialist DC Rainmaker.  In an exhaustive review, even by his epic standards, he underlines the fact that a great product doesn’t necessarily have to include new technology. Sometimes it’s a case of polishing what already exists:

“Overall, the FR920XT is the best multisport watch in the market with the most features  …  What’s core to understand is that by itself the FR920XT doesn’t contain any shockingly new major functionality.  Rather, Garmin has just plucked out all of the new features from numerous devices since the FR910XT was released three years ago.  They grabbed the Running Dynamics from the FR620 series, the additional pool options from the Garmin Swim, the Live Tracking from the Edge 510 & 810, and the activity tracking from the Vivo series.  The FR920XT just unites everything under one device roof.”

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Drones

The fungal body has a protective covering of sticky cellulose “leather” sheets grown by bacteria in the lab. Coating the sheets are proteins cloned from the saliva of paper wasps – usually used to waterproof their nests. Circuits were printed in silver nanoparticle ink, in an effort to make the device as biodegradable as possible.

Made by fungus and bacteria <i>(Image: CNASA/Ames)</i>

  • Finally the DJI Inspire is a $2800 “Hollywood calibre” device that the Verge thought was the “coolest drone ever”:

Djioneinflight2_verge_super_wide

Space

  • The Rosetta’s incredible ten year, four billion mile journey to comet 67P culminated in the eventually successful touchdown of its Philae probe on a four km wide lump of ice, rock and dust.   The navigational equivalent of throwing a dart across the Atlantic at a bullseye on Empire State building.  Unfortunately Philae seems to have landed in the shadow of a crater wall meaning scientists had to race against time to conduct as many experiments as possible before its batteries ran out. Nevertheless it seems that a lot of valuable data was sent back by Philae before it went into idle mode.

  • The probe had its own Twitter account and sent some of the most poignant messages ever transmitted as its batteries ran down:

  • The excitement over Philae adds fuel to one of the central arguments in Interstellar namely that “we humans are curious creatures, and inherently explorers“.   Many of us still dream of being astronauts.  This thought-provoking Engadget review presents an image that ought to make us reflect on that a little:

“Interstellar looks to the greater mysteries of the world around us. It’s a reminder that we might want to spend more time looking up and wondering what’s out there, rather than down at the phones in our hands.”

Interstellar is a 2014 science fiction film directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica

Microsoft and Open Source

“Microsoft will port the core server-side .NET runtime so that it runs across Windows, Linux and the Mac. This will allow developers to build ASP.NET 5.0 applications that can be deployed and run on Windows, Linux and/or Mac environments.”

  • Miguel de Icaza, the driving force behind Mono (the open source port of .NET) has strongly endorsed the move.  He has indicated that the Mono project and Xamarin, the commercial vehicle that drives Mono based product development, will look to work with Microsoft to integrate the open sourced .NET stack onto non-Windows platforms:

“Like we did in the past with .NET code that Microsoft open sourced, we are going to be integrating this code into Mono and Xamarin’s products.  With the Mono project, we have spent 14 years working on open source .NET. Having Microsoft release .NET and issue a patent covenant will ensure that we can all cooperate and build a more vibrant, richer, and larger .NET community.”

  • Microsoft are also making a free Community version of Visual Studio to replace Visual Studio Express.  This should help boost developer takeup of what is a universally recognised, albeit non-free to date, tool.

Software and Technology

  • Building modern end to end connected mobile software features requires in-depth knowledge in so many different areas that “just keeping up with the advancements and new programming interfaces in each category is almost a full-time job“.   This article highlights the some of the complexities suggesting it is “virtually impossible for a single developer to program across the modern full stack” and that a team is needed to cover all bases: 

“it is critical to have at least one person with at least a functional understanding of each of the composite parts who is also capable of connecting various tiers and working with each expert so that a feature can actually be delivered. In a way, these tier-connecting, bridge-building software architects — who are likely experts in only one or a couple of tiers — are less full stack developer and much more full stack integrator.”

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  • The full cost of developing such features also needs to factor in concepting, prototyping and QA efforts as well as future evolution and maintenance.  When considered across a full connected app proposition built from the ground up, you could easily be hitting anywhere from £360k to £500k:

“It should be clear by now that building and maintaining an app is not an insignificant task. Despite what many think, it is a major investment of time, money and vision. You should expect to involve a team of six to ten people for about six months or more.”

  • The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany has demonstrated 1GBps data throughput over Infrared in a system they’re calling “LiFi”.   The technology could become a contender for environments where large data transfer speeds are required in relatively fixed physical configuration.

“Li-Fi supporters contend that using the vast amounts of readily available free and unlicensed visible light could not only solve issues of limited and congested RF spectrum but also deliver much faster wireless speeds.”

“By simply tapping two smartphones together Keyssa can transfer an HD movie between devices in mere seconds.”

Design

  • Useful TNW primer on how to hire a web design outfit.  Good things to focus in on during initial discussion include the process, obtaining references and scope for maintenance.
  • GigaOM on why the future of UI could be more like listening to music as a background activity that can be turned up when needed: “computing could some day become so omnipresent and sophisticated that it could recede into the background and only emerge when a user needs or wants it.”  The inspiration for this vision comes from the Spike Jonze film Her from which in terms of ideation seems to have struck a real chord for many in technology:

The handheld device in the movie Her, image courtesy of Warner Brothers.

Work and Culture

  • In the UK, the decline of professional and middle-class managerial jobs has led to a crisis of job security which could have profound implications for society:

“The retreat of government and unions in recent decades in favour of the free market has resulted in a less secure labour market for all, especially those recently entering it. This has meant that young people newly seeking employment have had to settle for lower-paid, less skilled jobs that are not commensurate with their education and training.”

  • This article surveys the gloom and exhorts the government to concentrate less on lecturing the workforce about “employability” and more on actually creating employment.   After decades of progress, social advancement is going into reverse: “while people are still moving between classes at a rather constant rate, this is increasingly the result of people moving down the social ladder rather than upward.”
  • Part of the employability mantra is becoming more entrepreneurial.  In a bracing read, @startupljackson explains why that isn’t perhaps as simple as you may think.  The kind of counterintuitivity suggested here isn’t generally taught at school or necessarily even accessible to the conventional:

“The simple fact is that the majority of great software startups today (slightly dated) required no technical insight to start, and you can always hire experts to help you scale. The driver of these innovations is an uncommon understanding of what the customer (aka humans) wants or how to deliver an understood solution it in a better way.”

  • This LinkedIn post suggests that saying “thank you” is the “most underutilized tool in making people happy at work”.  Any acknowledgement of effort is always welcome within the workplace but likely to be even more powerful when meaningfully applied to a specific achievement or action rather than liberally applied using a gimmicky social media feature:
  • The dark side of the Internet is explored in the disturbing story of Alex Lee, a 16-year old from the US who works as a part-time shop assistant in Target.  A tweet of him at work went viral without his knowledge and he found himself facing an inevitable deluge of trolling and hatred without asking for it.  There seems to be little option other than switching off when as J-Law puts it the Internet has scorned me so much:

“Thousands have taken to social media to call Alex names (including vulgarities) or fabricate stories about him being fired. Twitter is littered with posts that denigrate his looks (e.g., “Alex from Target is so damn ugly”) or spew envy at him (“Alex from Target is a nobody who doesn’t deserve fame”).  There have even been dozens of death threats on social media and in private messages (“Alex from target, I’ll find you and I will kill you”).”