Into the Cloud (with zombies)

Today's New York Times carries a front-page piece by James Glanz on the massive energy waste and pollution produced by data centers. The lovely cloud that we've all been seeing icons for lately, turns out is not made of data, but rather of smog. 

The basics here aren't very new. Already six years ago, we heard the apocryphal story of a Second Life avatar consuming as much energy as the average Brazilian. That data centers consume huge amounts of energy and contribute to pollution is well known.

On the other hand, Glanz does make a few critical observations. First, much of this energy use and pollution comes from our need to have data instantly accessible. Underscoring this, the article ends with the following quote:   

“That’s what’s driving that massive growth — the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of research at Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”

Second, much of this data is rarely, if ever used, residing on unused, "zombie" servers. Back to our Second Life avatars, like many of my readers, I created a few avatars a half decade ago and haven't been back since. Do these avatars continue consuming energy, making Second Life an Internet version of the Zombie Apocalypse? 

So the ideology of automobliity—that freedom consists of the ability to go anywhere at anytime—is now reborn, in zombie form, on the Net. Of course it also exists in terms of global travel. I've previously mentioned the incongruity between individuals proudly declaring that they live in the city so they don't drive yet bragging about how much they fly.  

For the 5% or so that comprise world's jet-setting, cloud-dwelling élite, gratification is as much the rule as it ever was for the much-condemned postwar suburbanites, only now it has to be instantaneous and has to demonstrate their ever-more total power. To mix my pop culture references, perhaps that is the lesson we can take away from Mad Men. As Don Draper moves from the suburb to the city, his life loses its trappings of familial responsibility, damaged and conflicted though they may have been, in favor of a designed lifestyle, unbridled sexuality, and his position at a creative workplace. Ever upwards with gratification, ever downwards with responsibility, ever upwards with existential risk. 

Survival depends on us ditching this model once and for all. 

Continue reading “Into the Cloud (with zombies)”

Apple’s Missed Opportunity

Apple refreshed the iPhone 5 and a new line-up of iPods today, but in doing so, it missed an opportunity. Handily dominating the world market for smartphones and tablets, Apple now faces the challenge of expanding its market significantly while introducing merely more mature versions of existing products.

In 2008, Apple introduced the iPhone 2, which made locative media a reality through its App Store and integrated Assisted GPS (aGPS). To be fair, earlier phones had the ability to install apps and aGPS*, but the iPhone's ease of use, large user base, and often-fanatical developer following made it a huge hit. But the now what? The iPhone 5 is merely a refinement of the iPhone 4. Apple CEO Tim Cook has promised "Amazing new products," but thus far we've seen little we wouldn't reasonably expect. The predicted smaller iPad is no different, just a smaller form factor at a lower price.

What then, would be the proverbial "next big thing?" I think the answer is clear: DIY ubicomp. I've been watching with interest a number of Kickstarter projects that aim to bring remote-sensing capabilities to the masses. Twine is the most sophisticated of these. This simple sensor will hook up to a Wi-Fi network and, when outfitted with appropriate sensors, can Tweet that your basement is flooding, e-mail you that your TV has been on for three consecutive hours, or send a text message you when a major earthquake happens. Operating for months on AAA batteries, Twine is a huge step forward in taking the kind of capabilities recently available only to hobbyists who bought Arduinos and went through complicated processes of assembly and programming.

So when Apple announced the new iPod Nano, it was quite a let down. The previous Nano was a small, square device that could fit on a wristwatch. Even though it only appeared to run the iOS, there is no reason why Apple couldn't have come up with a rudimentary programming interface that could let developers program Apps for it. With Wifi and one more port, perhaps the "Lightening" port Apple introduced today, a new Nano could have had access to a new market of inexpensive sensors that could make it aware of the world. Even at $99, which is more than the price of a Twine, marketing and momentum would likely have made the device a huge hit. If Apple had then committed itself to downward price migration, a ubicomp world could have been ours quickly.

I'm looking at my BBQ and imagining a future $50 device that I could plug into my temperature probe to text me to let me know when the temperature gets out of range. I think about my back yard, where deer are all too present and wonder if such a device might not wait in ambush to alert me with a message to my phone to let me know that there was motion in my back yard. I imagine that the tiny screen on the device might communicate some basic, useful information to me, like the temperature outside and the air quality, as sampled by another sensor connected device.  I wonder what my crafty children, or for that matter, someone like Mark Shepard or David Benjamin would do with such a thing. 

It may be that Twine itself is the next Apple II, to the Arduino's Apple I, and certainly that could be a better thing if Twine is a more flexible and open platform than the notoriously closed one at Apple. But still (and perhaps only because I own Apple stock…a disclaimer that I need to make), I regret that Apple has not rethought the Nano. For ubiquitous computing is already here, but it's just not yet for the masses. And that, I am convinced, is the proverbial next big thing.       

*Memory fails me, but I believe my Kyocera 7135, which ran the Palmo operating system and was first released in 2002 had aGPS.

Continue reading “Apple’s Missed Opportunity”