Dear Author

The Future Arrived While I was Napping

Dear Readers:
I went on vacation at the end of May and never came back mentally. Trying to think of new things to write about for Tech Sunday was wearing me down but I know that this is a vital feature of the Dear Author blog. Therefore, I reached out to the community for help and JSON responded. JSON is not only a romance reader, but a technological expert along with having a wealth of knowledge about publishing. Sunday’s feature isn’t changing with JSON at the helm; it’s only getting better.

Are you Wired?

I dithered about what my first tech post here would be about. I started and abandoned a couple of topics. But now I think I have it. I’d like to expand on The Internet of Things, a subject Jane wrote about in this post, which touched on wearable technologies and the Internet connected house.

It’s the future right now. As long as the devices are actually usable–that is, designed thoughtfully and carefully–consumers will find them useful in ways they did not expect.

Frictionless Design

Here is an example of what I mean by thoughtfully designed: Some years ago, my job supplied me with a BlackBerry phone because my tech position required me to be on call 24/7. Email was pretty easy on the phone, and I got texts and phone calls. The phone did what it was required to do, and it did it well. That was pretty much all it did. There was internet, but it was a pain to get there and do anything.

Enter the iPhone. I bought one for my personal use. Once, though, I handed a young teen my BlackBerry and asked him how he would get to the internet on the phone. He was unable to figure it out.

My next work phone was a Motorola smart phone that I could barely use. I could usually answer the phone but email and texts were a nightmare. Every single feature that was an effortless swipe on my iPhone was buried in a confusing hierarchy on the Motorola. I gave a silent cheer when that phone died. My current work phone is a Samsung Galaxy 4S which is a joy to use. It’s no accident that Apple sued them for patent infringement.

The point is this: the iPhone is near frictionless. Functionally speaking, there is almost no barrier to using its features. Since I am fully abled, I can only represent that my understanding is that the iPhone is also a device with fewer barriers to those who require adaptive technologies.

The iPhone did what no Internet capable phone before it did: spawn a billion dollar industry in apps and undreamed of uses for connected devices. Previous phones were not thoughtfully designed; they were engineered. A user interface was imposed over the engineering: a veneer that did not resolve the fundamental un-usability of the device.

The design that went into the iPhone created an environment that changed our interactions with everything else, too. Need to deposit a paper check? You no longer need to find an ATM or go to the bank. If you have a smart phone or tablet, you can deposit the check right where you are.

We’re Here!!

I own two of the connected systems mentioned in Jane’s article. I read the comments to that post with great interest, and I found myself thinking that some of the lack of enthusiasm had to do with the friction of our current experience, either because of a fault in the device itself or because the technology is presented through the lens of current knowledge.

I have a Pebble watch. The Pebble is an eInk device. (Funded, by the way, via a Kickstarter.) The watch runs software that requires updates. You can download different watch faces, and you can download apps. It needs to be charged every few days. It connects to a smart phone via Bluetooth. There is no keyboard. Navigation is through buttons on the watch, a system that is functionally the same as navigating through any non-smart, non-connected, digital watch.

My expectations of the watch in no way matched my actual experience of it. I bought it because I needed a new watch, and I’m a technology geek who had the $150.00 on hand.

With the Pebble, I can change how the watch displays the time. (I get bored easily.) If I don’t happen to have my phone in hand and someone calls me, I can glance at my watch to see who is calling me. This is astonishingly useful when the boss is standing at your desk, or if you have stepped away but remain in range. I can decide whether to let a call go to voice mail or pick up my phone and answer it. Breaking news? On the watch. Someone retweeted you? On the watch. Sports results? On the watch.

Yes, you can set which notifications you want to get: lots, some, or none.

The Pebble, as shipped to me, did not have a countdown timer, which meant I still used my old Casio to set timers. Six weeks later, there were several very nice timer apps. My Casio is not updateable. It still has the exact same functionality it had when I bought it five years ago.

The Pebble can connect to iPhone apps. Runkeeper (a workout app) became far more useful to me when I could glance at my watch to see my time and pace instead of breaking the concentration of my workout because let’s face it, sweaty hands can drop an iPhone.

In short, the Pebble is convenient and useful in ways I could not imagine at the time I ordered it. This technology will only get better, too.

Fiat Lux

On a whim I bought the starter kit for the Phillips Hue light system. (It contains a hub and three lights.) These lights connect to a hub that connects to your home wireless network. The lights form a mesh network– they connect to the hub and to each other. You can still use the light switch to turn them on or off (if you’re old fashioned). Through a tablet, smartphone or, yes, a Pebble watch, you can control the lights individually or in groups that you create. Lights can be grouped in any combination you find useful. A group of all the lights in the living room. A group consisting of one light in every room. Just the left side of a room. All the lights.

At the time of my purchase, I believed my primary use of the lights would be to play with changing the colors. Because yes, you can make the lights just about any color or combination of colors you like. You can also adjust the intensity of the lights. How fun is that? Pretty fun, it turns out. But is all the fun and entertainment worth the money? The starter kit is $200. Bulbs are $60 each. On the face of it, that’s some pretty expensive fun.

Give up my mesh-networked lights? You will pry my Hue lights out of my cold dead hands. Not because I can turn the lights orange if I want, or the colors of the rainbow, or various intensities of white.

Before long, I had replaced most, but not all of the lights in the house. The lights can be put on timers. You can turn them on or off even if you are not in the room. Or home. If I am in bed and can’t recall if I turned off the lights in another room, I can check without getting out of bed and turn them off if need be. The lights wake me up in the morning. When I’m working from home, the lights in my office are set to fade in and slowly become brighter.

They are fun. They amuse the kids. You can prank other people in the house. (Wow, who could have turned the lights in your room jellybean colors?) The ability to set timers and fade in and out on a schedule is useful and beneficial in ways I could not and did not imagine. There are other devices that can talk to your lights and allow you to turn them on or off via motion.

I did some arithmetic. The lights last seven years. Based on their energy efficiency and compared to what other light bulbs cost to operate, the lights I have purchased so far pay for themselves in three years.

These technologies will only get better. The ones that are so thoughtfully designed as to be frictionless will be useful in ways we cannot presently imagine. But, like our smart phones, we may find we can’t imagine life without them.

And now, A favor?

I would love to know what you’d like to see discussed and covered here. Product/Gadget reviews are a definite Can Do! What gadgets would you like to see reviewed?

As to topics, I can broadly cover subjects such as Information Security, from principles to why your password is probably terrible (and why it’s not really your fault but you are still at risk so you need to do something); cryptography concepts; how technology has radically changed how we store, think about, and deliver data. Computers, servers, software I love, software I hate. New and interesting ways to consume stories. Technology for readers. Technology for writers.

Any comments and suggestions you have would be much appreciated.