Monthly Archives: February 2012

Over-designed: the iPhone

Brian Chen of the New York Time reported on February 7, 2012 that Halliburton has dropped the Blackberry platform for iPhone. For me, this is yet another confirmation that the iPhone platform has emerged as the more mature and stable cell phone technology.

I am so disappointed with HTC’s Android 2.3 update to my Incredible cell phone.  It is now unstable, restarting regularly (complete with annoying “Droid” sound). The Sense Launcher (the operating system’s user interface) restarts every time I use the browser… and this takes many seconds, delaying me from using the phone. It has been widely reported that the Android ecosystem is fragmented. My experience is proof that there is little control over the quality of the user experience. It may be time for me to switch to an iPhone.

That being said, if I go to the iPhone, I will go with reluctance.

Steve Jobs famously said: “This is what customers pay us for – to sweat all these details so it’s easy and pleasant for them to use our computers. We’re supposed to be really good at this. That doesn’t mean we don’t listen to customers, but it’s hard for them to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”

I don’t believe this totally applies to the iPhone.

The iPhone is, at least, remotely like a cell phone.  Since it is like a cell phone, users do have certain expectations.  One is to be reminded of missed phone calls and voice mails. This functionality has been on cell phones for at least a decade such as my Motorola StarTAC. This functionality is VERY important to the way I use my cell phone.  I have a great app on my HTC Incredible that serves this function and had a similar app on a previous Blackberry.

As of IOS 5, this feature does not exist. There have been FIVE different versions of the iPhone’s operating system, NONE OF WHICH support this feature. Moreover, for “security” reasons, Apple prevents developers from adding this functionality through an app.

Given all of this appears, the lack of these reminders appears to be conscientious design decision on Apple’s part.

If the lack of customizable audible reminders is a design choice, I argue that the iPhone is over-designed.  By over-designed I mean that the design forces a specific usage model on a user and a model that is inconsistant with the way some users function.

That being said, I figured that since Apple is filled with such great designers, starting with the late Steve Jobs, I might be wrong about this. Therefore, I set out to find a rationale for this design choice.  Here’s what I came up with:

  • The iPhone is not really a phone.

If we assume this is correct, then why does IOS 5 have a setting to remind users of missed SMS messages? (even this is a shortsighted: the reminders max out at 10 reminders spaced every two minutes, for a total of 20 minutes of reminding… so if you are away from your phone for 20 minutes, you miss it). No, this can’t be it: even the name, iPhone, has “phone” in it.

  • Since iPhone users constantly look at their phone every waking moment of the day, they will see a visual notification.

Even though I use my cell phone a lot, it isn’t the center of my existence.  I don’t check it all the time. From other comments throughout the internet on this topic, there are a lot of us who don’t look at their cell phones all the time and need audible reminders of missed calls and voicemails.

The point is this…

The way we use our cell phones is very personal.  They are now part of how we function.  The phenomenal success of the App Store is a testimony to this statement: people personalize their phone with apps, cases, docking stations… well, you get it, the whole ecosystem that has sprung up around the iPhone. They buys these things to allow the phone to support they way they function.

Originally Steve said that the apps that came with the iPhone were all everyone would ever need.  (See an article in The Guardian here about this).  Steve got this wrong… so wrong that Apple is about to celebrate 25 BILLION APPS being downloaded from the App Store.  Indeed, the iPhone and the App Store are the epitome of empowering the user to use the iPhone the way they want it.

With this as a backdrop I’ve got to ask this: why doesn’t the Apple allow iPhone users to personalize how their phones remind them of missed calls, voice mails, missed SMS, etc, like virtually every other smartphone, even the lowly Blackberry line?

The only rationale I have left is this: Steve didn’t like to be interrupted by a cell phone reminding him of something.  Steve didn’t like to be nagged.  

I’m about a third of the way through reading Isaacson’s biography of Steve.  Based on everything I’ve read, this seems to be the most plausable.

Really great designers often seem to act like gods for the masses. They bring design and order to where there was none.  I, for one, respect a lot of designers.

But there are two ways of acting like a god:

  • You can dictate and force your design vision on to the masses, or,
  • You can allow your design to empower the masses

I think Apple is schizophrenic in this sense: it plays both ways.

I challenge Apple, now that Steve is gone and not dictating anymore, to be less schizophrenic. Empower users by meeting all of their expectations, not just the ones that meet a narrow definition of what a product should be. Please, give us a complete cell phone experience, not a limited over-designed iPhone cell phone experience.

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Posted by on February 29, 2012 in Apple, design, innovation, iPhone, smartphones, users


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I don’t need those ads anymore… I already bought that!

This will be short rant.

While I was reading the New York Times I was served an ad for tires for my car from Town Fair Tire.

I was served this ad because well over a week ago I was searching for tires and in particular BF Goldrich dealers… because my BF Goodrich Traction TA radials died a premature life and my warranty said I needed a dealer to inspect them before I could get compensated.

The problem is that I bought the replacement a week ago.

There are two things I am absolutely certain of:

  1. I am not the first person to comment on this stupid behavior of the system.
  2. It is mostly impossible for web based ad servers to automatically know what I bought.  This isn’t strictly a technical problem.  I’m sure that it would be technically possible to create an opt-in service such that consumers would give their permission for the credit card company to push transaction data to web advertisers.  The only problem is the people part: who in their right mind would tell an advertising firm what they are buying?

I’m quite sure that this has been proposed, but why can’t ads have a “I bought that already” button so that more relevant ads would be served up?  I’m just asking…


Posted by on February 12, 2012 in advertising, business model, privacy, technology


Context, personal relationships, id, ego, and Facebook

Today I read the New York Time article “Don’t Tell Me, I Don’t Want to Know” by Pamela Paul. It talks about the profound sense of loss of privacy, for both source of information as well as the informed.

There is something about Facebook’s business model that troubles me. It seems to monetize the human need to share. It works at the level of the id, a place where motivations are chaotic and ill-formed. How many stories have you heard just this week about people using guns in relationship to a Facebook event? (Here’s two, if you missed them: “Father Shoots Daughter’s Laptop Over “Disrespectful” Facebook Post” and “Facebook ‘Defriending’ Led to Double Murder, Say Police”)

It seems to me that the being “open and transparent” that Facebook supports, and the deep emotional sharing that occurs sometimes thoughtlessly on Facebook, seems to exploit people at their weakest: when they are operating more out of their id, their heart. Moreover, it appears (based on the two previously mentioned articles), that Facebook content is sometimes consumed it that same frame of mind.

Zuckerberg has said in his letter on the eve of the IPO that “Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness” and “By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information.” He closes with lip-service to past criticisms of Facebook “We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.”  It is interesting to point out that the issue of control is mentioned only once in the entire letter.

In the real physical world of personal relationships, sharing is framed with some context. This context is lacking in Facebook. That is what makes the control issue so problematic: how does one represent the context so that a person operating more from the id can move to operating more from the ego and make rational decisions?  And, moreover, what is Facebook’s business motivation to prevent people from sharing? None that I can see.

“Good fences make good neighbors” is about social order being built on boundaries.  Facebook is about removing those boundaries.  Is this a good thing? I’m not so sure.

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Posted by on February 11, 2012 in Facebook, humanity, privacy, relationships


I miss CompUSA

I was reading Brent Leary’s posting Christmas 2011: a Great Example of Smarter Commerce in Action | SmartData Collective tonight and it got me thinking.

I remember going retail shopping with the only motivation being to find something cool to own and bring home.

I don’t do that anymore.

I suspect there are a lot of reasons: I’m older and more careful with the family coffers.  I’ve got all the stuff I need.  But honestly, I think it all boils down to this:

Retail outlets, because of their reduced SKUs (stock keeping units), have less interesting stuff for me to buy. There is less variety in the stores.

And I think this is a vicious cycle that is eating retail.  Retailers, with the high cost of distributed inventory, reduce the number of SKUs to only those items with the most mass-appeal. People go to the stores, can’t find what they are looking for, go home, get on the web and buy it.

And web retailers are getting much better at fulfillment:

  • shipping is increasingly free: 93% for this past Christmas vs. 85% for the season before (let’s be real: it is built into the price) (see USA Today article quoted by Brent)
  • shipping is increasingly fast

Let’s dwell on the last bullet.  My younger son had a small fender-bender with one of the family vehicles requiring a turn signal lens to be replaced.  On Friday, I placed an order with, with normal, non-expedited shipping.  I received the lens on Monday.

I miss CompUSA (the retailer not the current web store).  Toward the end of CompUSA’s retail existence it was awful, but there was a point that they had a wide variety of SKUs and I could always walk out with something I needed but didn’t go in to buy.

Microcenter, the closest of which is over two hours away in Boston, is still like the old CompUSA somewhat. That being said, the last time I was in one, I was disappointed that they, too, had cut back on the SKUs.  I haven’t been to a Fry’s for a while, but suspect it is the same story there, too.

For a reality check, have a look at this article in the NY Times about the problem of malls.

Short of Star Trek transporters or replicators, I’m not sure what the answer is to change this transformation.  One thing that I wonder is whether there is a point when the current just-in-time mass-appeal SKU/local inventory system breaks because of the cost of fuel for 18 wheelers.  One could imagine a point where it is actually makes sense to spend less money on fuel by having very full trucks of goods go to retail stores and create larger local inventories that have to be replenished less often.

I wonder, also, about the fabric of society that shops local retail less.  Is that a good thing?

If you’ve got some opinions on this, I’d love to hear from you by way of comment.

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Posted by on February 8, 2012 in business model, internet, retail


SCIESF epilogue

Just a quick note to say how amazing it was to judge the SCIESF again (see my previous post on judging at SCIESF).

And what’s not to like? I get to see friends again and I get to immerse myself in science topics I would not otherwise look into deeply.

It was also an opportunity to meet some incredible students.  I’m always fascinated to hear the stories what led them to their research:

  • In one case, it was a students fascination withBioluminescence that led him to pursue optogenetics and find a mentor at Yale University
  • In another, it was a group of students answering a STEM challenge set forth by Sikorsky Aircraft
  • One student wanted to pursue forensics, but didn’t like blood and gore so she thought pursuing document forensics was more her suit
  • Another, it was the pursuit of the basic mechanisms that cause cancer
  • And yet another the research was the end point of three years in understanding the mechanisms of gene expression.

My hats of to these student, their teachers, mentors, and parents.  The pursuit of science, in all of these cases at a college or even post-graduate level, meant that these students had been lead to understand the value of understanding complex systems, communication and cooperation with others, and hard work.

I am wondering which will be a Nobel laureate.

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Posted by on February 4, 2012 in education, growing up, innovation, learning, thought


Southern Connecticut Invitational Engineering and Science Fair Judging

This will be a brief post… but I’m really excited about judging the Southern Connecticut Invitational Engineering and Science Fair tomorrow.  Here’s the research I’ll be judging.  I’d like to remind you that this is the research of Southern Connecticut high school students, even though it is most often at a bachelor’s or sometimes even graduate level.

  • Optogenetic Interrogation of Prefrontal Cortex Dopamine D1 Receptor-Containing Neurons as a Technique to Restore Timing: A Novel Approach to Treat Prefrontal Disorders
    • I don’t know much about it yet, but I’m reading like crazy.  Found a great website that describes optogenetics
  • The Effect of Carbohydrate Inhibitor Tris-HCl on Creating Ketogenic Diet Conditions to Treat Epilepsy
    • Cool, I’ve been on a ketogenic diet, so I know a little bit of what is going on here.  I never knew that ketone bodies replace glucose as an energy source when passed through the brain and that apparently glucose in the brain can trigger epilepsy.
  • Sikorsky STEM Challenge
    • Designing an engine mount for a WWII F4U Corsair carrier based fighter airplane… Tim Allen cool! (cue his famous grunting noise…) Never flown in a Corsair, but I’ve been up-close and personal with one!
  • Individual Characteristic Analysis of Stamps Retrieved From Scanned Documents
    • Something I’ve actually studied while I was at Pitney Bowes. I’m actually a co-inventor of a patent in this area (7,889,885).
  • Creating a Cre/Lox Barcoding System: A Potential Breakthrough in Tracking the Heterogeneity of Glioblastoma Multiform
    • Just learned a lot about Cre/Lox recombination (thank you Wikipedia) and apparently this research is about using it to understand the performance of Glioblastoma Multiform, the most common and malignant form of primary intracranial tumor.
  • Finding the Optimal AlphaScreen Conditions for SMCX, a Histone Demethylas
    • Last thing to study tonight… AlphaScreen is a novel proximity-based assay developed by Connecticut’s PerkinElmer to measure gene expression and methylation. Methylation either promotes or silences gene expression, which of course can lead to either causing or stopping cancer. This research led to understanding the optimal conditions for this important test.

If you’d like to see a listing of all the projects, they can be found right here.

Unfortunately, Trumbull High School doesn’t participate in this event.  I wish it did.

And to my previous blog entry on the cost of today’s education… I’m quite certain that funding “just the basics” would not have allowed the participating school districts to create these opportunities for high school students.  And isn’t it important to our future that these opportunities are afforded students who want the challenge? Isn’t allowing students to pursue challenges where tomorrow leaders come from?  High school challenges come in many forms besides athletics.

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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in education, growing up, innovation, learning, taxes, thought


All they need is farming and military service… really?

I live in Trumbull, Connecticut.  Like virtually all municipalities, the town is forced with making difficult decisions about what parts of the budget to fund. And, again as in most municipalities, the school budget is a very large part of the overall budget.

Last night our first selectman (mayor, to those outside of Connecticut) held a town wide meeting on the budget.

Shocked, I read the following report on the meeting from an article in the town’s weekly newspaper, the Trumbull Times: “Carmen Denicola also urged financial restraint. He said he had lived in town long enough to remember when Trumbull High graduates ‘had only two choices, farming or the service.’

“Denicola said his generation had been raised differently than children of today.

“‘I see a lot of spoiled kids at the high school,’ he said. ‘Young people with children need to tighten their belt a little bit. You don’t need everything, you need the basics. With the basics you can do anything.'”

Honestly, all I can say is that this logic scares me. It scares me that someone would actually think this and it scares me even more that someone would actually say this in a public forum.

Tomorrow I’ll be judging at the Southern Connecticut Invitational Science and Engineering Fair. There I will see high school students who are working with college professors to research Alzheimer’s Disease, cancer, and genetic defects, to name a few of their projects.

I’m also on the board of directors of the Connecticut Invention Convention which provides a curriculum and competition around innovation to over 100 K-8 schools in Connecticut. One of last year’s winning inventors, a seventh grader, has created a lollipop that is particularly effective in curing hiccups especially for cancer patients on chemotherapy… and she was recently invited to ring the bell on the NYSE.

While I’m not advocating fiscal waste, I recognize that an education that allows children to reach for the today’s future in an increasing complicated world comes with a price.  That price is more than when children were taught enough to be farmers and soldiers.  And that education is necessary because our children, OUR COUNTRY, is competing on a bigger world stage than back then.

For some, it appears, that the American Dream of wanting better for our children is dead if the children are not their own. It is my sincere hope that this is not held by the majority of my Baby Boomer cohort.  We need today’s children, tomorrow’s adults, to be better, to have more than just the basics, so that we are ALL better.

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Posted by on February 3, 2012 in demographics, education, growing up, innovation, taxes

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