May 22, 2011

Shared Spaces

This is the world of Jayne Lucier:

Jayne is currently working towards a PhD in Computational Linguistics at the University of Washington. She's single, fit, twenty two years old, with short brown hair worn spiky, brilliant green eyes behind a pair of barely there glasses, a penchant for plaid skirts and vests, grandmother boots and backpacks over purses. With a little exaggeration, she could pass for a Miyazaki anime character, though there are hints of the more mature woman in her smile and posture.

Jayne lives in a shared space with three other girls - Tanya, Candice and Mykie - in which each has a separate room but they share a communal kitchen and den along with two shared bathrooms. The rent isn't cheap, even with the four of them sharing it, but in this day and age that's hardly unusual. The walls in the common rooms have artwork screens placed at convenient locations, with the rule being that while anyone can set any or all art at any time, they can't be something that would send the parental units screaming in anger or fear. A couple of other larger screens are for more traditional uses - gaming, news, the latest shows - and they're on a first come, first serve basis, though if a roommate doesn't reclaim it every hour it's up for grabs.

Every girl has a smart phone and a pad, which the shared space uses to determine who is where at any given point. The phone's usually considered a better bet - pads, while important, usually tend to end up in backpacks. Jayne's room also has a full screen on her desk, along with a wireless keyboard that she can use in lieu of her device's still cumbersome onscreen keyboard. Besides, with the keyboard it gives her more real estate to write on.

The morning ritual is usually pretty much the same - up at 7am when Jayne's pad communicates with the audio in the room, playing everything from Gustave Holst to Emilie Autumn from her playlist at random, into the bathroom to take a shower while the pad on the medicine cabinet reads out comments from the students' she's doing Teaching Assistant for, as well as any messages that came during the night. She can also bring up the house status, both from the sensors on the internal systems - #toilet 1 has a leak and needs to be repaired,  report sent to building maintenance - and from the external ones: Candice->Mykie: The SalonCare Shampoo is MINE. You take it, you DIE!!!! . Yeah, Candice has issues.

The medicine capinet, cupboards, fridge and linen closet all have RFID scanners, as does her closet, though that one she could disable if she wants. She can see at a moment's glance what she has, where it is, how long it's been in there, what's likely close to needing to be replaced. The medicine cabinet informs her that she still needs to take four more doses of the Amoxycillin, which was prescribed to her after a fall cold turned into bronchitis, and grimacing, she pours out the foul smelling liquid into a small cup, drinks it, makes another face, and puts the lid back on, the top's click sending a signal via a simple active RFID transmitter in the bottle to decrement the count. 

The shared apartment has its own online presence - all of the ones in the building do. It includes a message queue (which she moderates - as the oldest and farthest along in her studies, there was no question that she would) between each of them, a shared chat thread (which is usually pretty quiet, but sometimes can see a lot of activity, especially when Tanya brought Jack home a few weeks ago which immediately set of a bidding war. Jack never knew how close he came to having Mykie hijack him, but she settled for a pair of Avril tickets. It also contained their respective calendars, showing who had what duties when, who was out of the house, who needed a few moments of privacy with a significant other. It didn't always work, but there was enough incentive there to keep it up to date that the girls participated.

Jayne dressed, frowning at the long list of clothes that were currently marked as dirty. She'd need to do laundry tonight, or she'd be down to one particularly inappropriate pair of rave pants and a peekaboo mesh blouse for teaching in - probably not something that Dr. Hannaford would be particularly pleased to see her in - though no doubt a few of her more erstwhile students might.

"Reminder - laundry tonight," she said to the air, and the air dutifully recorded her reluctantly claimed penance.  Somehow they never got around to automating laundry.

Dressed in a white blouse, forest green vest and green plaid skirt and knee-hi's, her hair up in a bun, she knew the image she projected, but frankly didn't care. It was her teaching image, and the one time she'd shown up in jeans and t-shirt (because she had forgotten to do laundry) everyone from her professor to half her students to her friends in Vladivostok and Stockholm had written notes of worry and concern. 

Closing the door (it automatically locked when her phone left the room unless she voice-overrode it) Jayne wandered down the hallway, looking at the latest artwork choices of her roomies - Kandisky (Tanya), a DNAngels anime drawing (Mykie), Hot Firefighter for October (Candice - that one bordered a little too close to the edge of the parental unit rule) and Waterhouse's Lady of the Lake (hers). Candice splayed out on the couch, texting furiously with her ... girlfriend, Jayne remembered, the gender and identity tended to change weekly - while Mykie came out of her room with her oversized pad in her backpack and the zombie-look of Starbucks withdrawal plastered on her face. 

Mykie was their resident artist, and the pad she carried was her canvas and palette as well. She'd taken one look at Jayne when she'd let the empty room (Kirsten had graduated the previous semester) and immediately pulled out her electronic pad, slapped a sheet of paper on it, and started drawing. The schoolgirl that had emerged from Mykie's pen had ended up both on her wall and on her "school wall", one if physical media, the other in virtual, and Mykie had been delighted to let Jayne use that as her "logo". 

Tanya emerged from the refrigerator, a bowl of cereal and nearly empty jug of milk in hand. 

"We're almost out of milk," she said around the cereal already in her mouth.

"Already on the delivery queue," Jayne replied, "and it's your turn to meet and greet the delivery man."

"Oh, da- ... sorry, I forgot. I've got another appointment."

"Did you calendar it?"

"Um, er ... no ..."

"Fine, then you either work it out with the delivery guy or you get to pick up the tab for all the groceries this week, 'cause I'm not going to have the milk spoiling and soggy ice cream because someone forgot."

"I ... okay. I'll see if I can reschedule."

"Good. 'Nuff said."

Jayne despaired at Tanya - she was a good kid, but she tended to have her head in the clouds, and they weren't electronic ones. She grabbed a sweet roll from the pantry, threw another one Mykie's way that was caught deftly as the artist headed out the door, and waved an unreturned bye to her remaining roomies. 

As she walked out the door, the local shared space handed her off to the outside world (her choice, she usually wanted to maintain context awareness). She could still bring up the apartment's shared space if she needed to, but the phone typically latched onto whatever context (usually spatial, but occasionally temporal) was most appropriate for configuring the apps available to her. Jayne liked called her phone her context machine.

She grabbed the phone from her vest (she liked the vests because they included an outside pocket ideal for phones and inside one ideal for pads) and pressed the UW bus app, which picked up her location automatically and passed it to a central dispatch which in turn aggregated the calls and arranged for a least time path between pickup points. The app returned a modal notification: "Green Bus in 10 minutes". She'd bought a year pass, but if she hadn't, the app would have simply debited the fare from her account. The university had taken their time getting the system in place, but this had proved one of their biggest successes. It pushed ridership up dramatically while insuring that they didn't have buses driving empty when they didn't have to. There were still a few traditional loops, but they were being phased out as the number of non-online students dropped precipitously.

Jayne shared an office with Doug Stillwell, a PhD student in Computational Linguistics, though truth be told they could have just about hotelled the grad student offices, which were, for the most part, little more than closets. They'd already started doing that in other buildings, and she suspected that Informational Systems was probably next. When she needed to face-to-face with a student, Jayne usually preferred to meet them in the mini-cafeterias in the basement. The professors were still very jealous of their own offices, and could not understand why the younger generation seemed to be so blasé about giving up theirs. Of course, Jayne thought, the whole university institution was undergoing so many changes that it was likely not to exist in a remotely recognizable form ten years later - the Post-University Deconstructionist Movement, as the more philosophical members of the school called it.

The bus dropped her off at Mary Gates Hall, and she ambled to her classroom. She'd spent the evening grading papers online (for her XML class) then laughed quietly as she realized that there'd never been a paper anything - she'd read through each q&a pair as they came up on her screen, marked up wrong answers both inline and in a separate comments block and invited additional comments and clarification, gave each answer a rating, then summed up the rating for a grade. In a few places, she'd annotated with links to their textbooks at the appropriate paragraph or external links to the web, and in a few others she'd added video commentary directly, though she preferred not to do that - more than once, she'd found her face staring back at her on Youtube under the heading "Hot for Teacher", usually with a contemporary rock song playing in between her pauses. Never give students ammunition they can use against you.

She entered her classroom with ten minutes to spare, and stood in the doorway as Doug (soon, Dr. Doug, as she liked to tease him) finished up his own lecture on semantics. Doug was ... cute - puppy dog nerd cute, but was finally growing into his 6' 7" in frame. He'd never be a face person, but he was passionate about his research, was damned good with the electric mandolin, and not only could he get a computer to sit up and beg, but he looked good in a Steampunk outfit, as he'd shown when he arrived at the office after a weekend at a con. They'd already been out on a couple of dates, but neither were in any hurry.

The classroom itself was tiny, no surprise there, but what was surprising was that it was intended for a class of  up to 300 students, even though there were only sixteen seats in the room itself. A teacher in this day and age was expected to be a television performer; the video setup in the backroom was mostly automated, though there was usually a kid - Steven or Kaitlin for her own classes - who sat and monitored all the classrooms just in case from a central station. The school, like most universities, had realized that students could record lectures and leave, and that seats in butts was becoming an increasingly anachronistic concept. Some students still showed up for class, but for the most part classes were taught remotely, and questions were handled asynchronously and offline. 

As a consequence, her classroom was tiny, but her blackboard was infinite. The classroom's shared space had picked up her pad the moment she walked in the door, but wouldn't relinquish control until after Doug chose to, which he did with a flourish ...

"... and up next, the sexiest Computational Linguistics teacher on the UW campus, the ever lovely and charming Jayne Lucier."

"I'll get you for this," she mouthed at him as he walked past her, and he winked in reply.

Still a little flushed, she headed to the front of the room, her pad activating the university presentation app, automatically slaving the monitors to its controls. She rather liked the presentation that she'd come up with last night - her presentation skills weren't quite at the level of Mykie's, who could do absolutely incredible game quality work, but like most people her age she'd cut her teeth editing digital video and presentations - it didn't hurt that she had also paid Mykie a reasonable sum of money to help her put together clips for her talks.

The students filed in - she was female, she was pretty, and she liked interacting with live students, so she had a pretty full room - but she also noted that her class was currently being audited by 1,052 people worldwide, though she set a maximum of forty participating students just to keep ahead of the homework. The auditors could take the tests and would eventually see the answer keys so they could self correct, but they didn't get credit. Still, they could (and did, vigorously) participate in the chatter stream, and often times would provide help or assistance even as she was giving her talk (there were a couple of professors at MIT who interacted with her show regularly, as well as several engineers at Google, Microsoft and Intel, and she doubted she'd have much trouble landing a job or a post-graduate position once she was done with her own PhD).

The teleprompter monitor just outside of the camera's vision, which showed her with the composite background from her pad as compared to the green-screen behind her, flashed the ten second signal  ... five, four, three, two, one ..

"Welcome to XQuery 102, Week Fourteen, class 25. I'm Jayne Lucier, your instructor. Last week, we examined the use of faceted search methods in order to ..."

This particular sketch - not quite a story, more a bit of exploratory narrative - originally came to me in a dream . It highlights both what could be in the very near term future and where we are not quite yet at. There are a few key highlights that should be food for thought:

Smart phones in particular truly are context machines - at any given point, they know who you are (assuming you are the owner of the phone), know where you are, and know when you are. This is a powerful combination. With these three pieces of information, shared spaces become possible. A shared space is place that can take advantage of that context to make facets of itself available. The applications that you need at home (whether shared or not) are different from those that you need at work or on the road. 

Shared context can be combined with membership to identify groupings of services, and to provide appropriate levels of access for those services. Jayne and her roommates could purchase specific food for themselves as well as food used in common with that handled by automatic debiting, could have the food ordered in the background, could have it delivered at a time and space most appropriate for everyone (though someone still has to put it away :-). Shared spaces allow the access to display devices (the various public screens in the apartment), services (online delivery of movie content) and responsibilities (who gets to take out the trash or wash the dishes this week).

Such a shared space is a web presence (Facebook for places, if you will), and it's about more than just people - the toilet announcing that it has a leak, giving a telematic warning to the building's superintendent, or the shared space of an individual, the clothes in her closet and the medicines in her medicine chest. It's also a space that knows it's own physical boundaries - Jayne walking out the front door hands her off from the apartment's shared space to other broader shared spaces. She can still log into the more focused ones, of course, but ultimately it is the ability to move from one appropriate context to the next that makes remote devices so compelling.

Shared spaces also open up some interesting issues; monetary transactions become largely background issues. We're getting close to that now, but for the moment, such transactions are still largely at the institutional layer (and the need to wander around with dozens of cards). Things like QRCodes and Near Field Communication (NFC) should speed that along - the ability to go from visual to device to web is powerful, as is the ability to use the device as a physical replacement for credit cards, vendor cards, metro bus cards, membership cards and so forth. Of course, security becomes a much bigger concern as well - loss of a phone could be inconveniencing, theft of one could be financially (and reputationally) damaging, but I frankly do not believe that this factor alone will be sufficient to deter these technologies from moving forward.

Indeed, one area that I think QRCodes in particular could help is that it provides a powerful way to change your shared space. Go into a store and scan it's QRCodes, and all of the apps that are available for that store become visible, from deals to chat rooms to means of optimizing payment. Go to a convention and can it's QCode, and you then have the whole shared context for the convention's activities, feeds, maps, and presentations. Scan a course's QRCodes, and you have apps that provide links to syllabi, bios, resources, feeds.

In this respect a shared space is a portal, but its a portal of both links and applications, and what's more its a portable that knows you and can provide you services based upon access levels and need. Because it knows time, it can look at your calendar, it can update lists of things that need to get done, and it can even make inferences once enough history is gleaned.

One additional aspect of this is that we're moving to a world where physical proximity is no longer necessary in order to interact with the world, because we can replace this with information about context. Mass transit systems -- especially buses -- are comparatively inefficient - they still require that you move to an access point in the system in order to get on it or get off it, and that access point may be very inconvenient from where you need to go or be picked up from (this is especially true in suburban neighborhoods). On the other hand, by aggregating requests and using that to determine the optimal routes moves you to a door-to-door service while at the same time providing for the most efficient distribution of stops. While some communities have a similar system today that's phone based, for the most part these are limited to people with disabilities, and as such have a comparatively small participation rate. 

Similarly, teaching, training, sales conferences, and the like have been moving to a distributed model for some time, though the public educational system is perhaps slower there. In many respects one of the central problems with distance teaching is the belief that it is necessary to build elaborate software presentations on top of content. That's certainly possible, and I think as we move forward the ability to present effectively online will need to become a much bigger skill-set for teachers at all levels, but at the same time, the rise of collaboration tools means that it becomes increasingly possible to use proven pedagogical principles in order to teach - even Q&A type essays can be handled in this manner, and over the web (and especially over mobile) this may in fact be the most effective means to teach complex content.

Additionally, there's a need to recognize that mobile devices (pads in particular) will become the de facto mechanisms for both giving and receiving instruction moving forward - and that these will be used asynchronously. We don't think with our butts. We think with our heads focused upon a particular instructor or information provider, and the reason that the lecture is still a fundamental tool in the teaching lexicon is that such a lecture is a means to achieve that focus. 

Yet attending a lecture when awake, when distracted either mentally or physically (school chairs, anyone?), or when attempting to digest a previous lecture on a different topic, is usually counterproductive. By separating the presentation from the perception, it makes it possible for the student to determine the time when he or she is focused. It also makes it possible for the crowd sourcing phenomenon to extend beyond the immediate moment, giving it time for people to ask questions or make points, and for informational gestation to occur.

The idea behind putting this scenario out is to help understand where the technology is (and more importantly where it isn't and could be) and to envision given that what improvements in technology (or even what technologies themselves) are needed to achieve that technology. I hope to do this again in different contexts.

First published at

May 10, 2011

Bad Call? Microsoft buys Skype

Software titan Microsoft just purchased Skype, whose voip-based services have made it one of the largest players in the web telecommunications space. The deal, for $8.5 billion in cash, provides a major benefit to Microsoft, which has struggled to remain competitive with their Live Meeting offerings and significantly expands their consumer base, but also indirectly provides benefits to Facebook, a Microsoft investee - by marrying Skype capabilities with Facebook's core systems, Facebook can get a significant leg up on phone connectivity between its members significantly expanding its standing as a social communications medium.

For Skype, the acquisition by Microsoft also places the company into a position where they can expand their offerings into the enterprise space that Microsoft has a major presence in, a market that Skype had difficulty penetrating before. This in turn provides a direct challenge both to Google, which has been trying to expand its Google Voice offerings to do the same (in conjunction with Google Docs and their email services), as well as Cisco's enterprise VOIP and virtual meeting software and hardware.

What I find intriguing about this particular buyout is that Skype will in effect become a separate division of Microsoft, one reporting directly to Steve Ballmer. Not only does this put one of their divisions almost completely in Silicon Valley, where Microsoft has had but a token presence until now, but it also emphasizes the underlying realization by the company that VOIP has become a major pillar and diffentiator for the largest software concerns, and needs to be treated as more than a minor offshot to their office strategy.

This last year has also seen an increasing validation of a strategy to try to keep companies intact with only a secondary ancillary branding as a Microsoft entity. This can be seen in Facebook, which bears little outward mark of being a Microsoft invested company, and ironically, if (and it's a big if) Microsoft can get Facebook and Skype to play well together, there may be some advantages to be had.

At the same time, the acquisition of Skype may also be a case of Ballmer chasing after brand and market share rather than technology, an approach which has burned him more than once. VOIP is reasonably well understood at this stage, and Skype's been sold once before because it couldn't make the revenue match predictions (it was losing money in its PC to PC communications, which of course was its prime attraction). Admittedly, it was still outcompeting Live Meeting, but there's a major question about whether the effort to integrate Skype into the Microsoft line-up (and the costs attendant with any such reorganization) may ultimately make this a losing proposition. If Microsoft reduces its service offerings there, it also reduces the appeal of the Skype service, and given the fairly mature state of the VOIP market, the primary paying customers may very well end up sticking with their dedicated providers.

In the end, I suspect that this will be modestly successful, but not a major game changer. The buyout helps Microsoft recover lost market share in a critical market if the integration remains minimal, but if Ballmer tries to bring Skype too much into the Microsoft fold he risks both customer and employee defections. Moreover, while voip should be a major part of a company strategy for a company the size of Microsoft, it may also prove a distraction to those areas where it needs to be far more focused, such as the related mobile market space, and even with a fair amount of cash still in the books, the cost of acquisition and integration is going to eat up a not insignificant part of that at a time when other markets are likely to be more profitable long term.

Moreover, there's the question of whether this deal was motivated more by the need for Ballmer to show himself as being aggressive in the marketplace than it was for the stockholders. Ballmer has been far less aggressive in the market space than Gates was, and has often been swayed more by the desire to get the hottest properties rather than the ones that made the most competitive sense for the company. Skype was an old maid - it had been sitting out in the marketplace for a while, represents older technologies, and really was most valuable for its installed customer base - most of which were looking to pay as little as possible to use its services. This doesn't really bode well for Ballmer moving forward - indeed, it may prove to be the final misstep in a series of questionable buyouts and investments.