July 4th with a view

1 min read

#micro

On HomePod

5 min read

 

I've recently been thinking about the smart-speaker category, musing about Amazon's recently announced Echo Show, and speculating about if and when Apple would get into the game. Earlier this week, I got an answer when Apple announced the HomePod, a smart speaker with voice control powered by Siri. So, has the announcement of HomePod made my choice clear? Will I buy a HomePod, an Echo Show, or another smart-speaker?

Well. Its complicated.

Smart Speakers in Theory

In theory, smart speakers have several appealing features for me:

  • Convenient access to cloud-based music services like Apple Music, Pandora, and Spotify. Being able to whisper an incantation into thin air, and have the speaker play pretty much any song I've ever heard means that I'll spend more time listening to and enjoying music.
  • High quality audio¬†in my¬†great room, which is excellent for hosting parties, or just enjoying in the evenings after the kids have been put to bed.
  • An always-on assistant for my home, with a massive library of integrations and home automation support. I can imagine bringing up recipes on a screen for reference in the kitchen while I cook, only by using my voice, or setting multiple cook timers, asking for conversions, etc.

On the other hand, there are some significant theoretical drawbacks, the most significant of which is security and privacy. Having an internet-connected microphone in my house that is always listening is a bit scary. Is my information safe? Is the company that I am sharing it with a good steward of my data?

HomePod Tradeoffs

HomePod has really muddied the waters for me. I absolutely love the convenience, integrations, features, developer story, and screen on the Echo Show, but the dismal audio quality and significant concerns with privacy and security give me pause. The Echo Show is also not particularly well integrated with Apple's ecosystem, in which I am thoroughly entrenched, though that seems to be changing.

The HomePod has addressed my privacy concern very effectively. Apple made it abundantly clear that they don't send any audio up to their servers until you say "Hey, Siri," and that all information is encrypted in transit, and is anonymized to protect its users. I trust Apple more than I trust Amazon, Google, or pretty much any other major technology and services company. They're interested in selling me their products to improve my life, not in sharing my information with advertisers, or more effectively mining my information to enhance its retail offerings.

Audio quality is also huge focus for Apple with the HomePod. In fact, their marketing site introduces it as "the new sound of home," and spends significant time and effort discussing the internal speakers and adaptive audio features that use its onboard processing to optimize the sound to the room. While there's no way to beat, or even match, a properly tuned multi-speaker audio system, I am betting that Apple's engineers can make the HomePod sound pretty great. Certainly, much better than the Echo. In addition, Apple has built in multi-room audio features that put competitors like Sonos to shame, thanks to tight integration with iOS.

So, HomePod addresses my two main concerns of Smart Speakers with ease! Yet, the HomePod leaves me very conflicted. Why? Because, frankly, its not particularly smart. I was expecting to hear about a total overhaul of Siri, focused on improving accuracy, opening up the platform to developers, and closing the gap with Alexa. Yet, the HomePod has, in many ways, delivered the "same old Siri," which has no developer story to speak of. The only integrations you'll find are those with HomeKit, which thus far hasn't really taken off. Meanwhile, the Alexa Skills library is growing at a massive clip.

Finally, the HomePod clocks in at $349. Ouch. The Echo series ranges from $49 for the Echo Dot, $179 for the full size Echo, and $229 for the Echo Show, which features a touch screen and an integrated HD video camera. Now, Apple can always demand a premium price point, and I have no doubt that the industrial design and engineering quality of the HomePod will put the Echo to shame, but given the feature disparity, I am a bit disappointed in the price.

What's Next?

Given the tradeoffs and price point of the HomePod, I am almost certain to pass on the first generation. If Apple puts significant time and effort into Siri and the developer story, that may change. Early signs from WWDC are that they're interested in opening up HomeKit more, so I'm optimistic. I'm also hopeful that Apple will eventually release a HomePod with a screen with integrated Facetime support, which would be ideal for my kitchen.

Conclusion? Well, I think that the smart speaker category is pretty nascent, and its going to take a few more years to shake out. Amazon has the early lead, and both Google and Apple now have entrants that are playing catch up with varying degrees of success. As of now, I'm sitting 2017 out to see how things change before committing to a platform.

#micro

Micro.blog, JSON Feed, and Evergreen Give Me Hope for the Open Web

3 min read

I've long been a believer in the power of the open web, but my passion for saving it has been ignited by the IndieWeb movement, as of late. More and more people are discovering their distaste for creepy, ad-driven content silos like Facebook. Today's post by Dave Winer on the evils of Facebook, and John Gruber's hilariously sardonic "Fuck Facebook" reply do an excellent job of encapsulating my own frustrations. That said, there are reasons for hope.

The IndieWeb movement itself has been chipping away at the problem for years, but I've been particularly encouraged over the past few weeks by a few new developments.

First is the successful launch of Manton Reece's Micro.blog project to his Kickstarter backers. I'm a backer myself, as is my employer, and I've had the pleasure of using the platform for a few weeks now. Its early, but the project is already bearing fruit, with a rapid development pace, a vibrant community, and lots of excellent people to follow. Micro.blog is built on the notion of independence and respects your ownership of your data.

Next is the announcement and early success of the JSON Feed format created by Manton and Brent Simmons. JSON Feed is a new format designed for content syndication, similar to RSS and Atom, but based upon the JSON serialization format, which is popular with developers these days for being extremely easy to properly generate and parse. Since its announcement, there's been a flurry of activity around JSON Feed, including outcry about "yet another standard," and those who are upset that JSON Feed was created at all when there are other JSON-based syndication formats in existence. Over all of the noise, though, the adoption rate has been impressive. Many projects have been updated or created to generate and parse JSON Feed, and consumers are starting to adopt the format as well, including Feedbin, News Explorer, NewsBlur, Inoreader, and a few podcast apps. I've even jumped into the fray, creating an initial implementation of JSON Feed for the Known CMS that runs this website, and a second pass that aims to build in additional information through JSON Feed extensions. Regardless of competing standards, shortcomings in the format itself, etc., its undeniable that JSON Feed is generating real, palpable excitement for the open web, and that's undoubtedly a good thing.

Finally, in the midst of all of this, Brent Simmons has announced that he's working on a new, open source feed reader for macOS called Evergreen. Brent was the original creator of NetNewsWire, which was at one time my favorite app. In fact, I created several themes for NetNewsWire back in the day, and was a member of the beta testing and feedback group that Brent set up. Evergreen has a chance to take a fresh look at the problem of consuming feeds, and with JSON Feed and the new capabilities it could support through extensions, I am hoping that Brent takes a crack at solving the bigger picture that I blogged about in March. Imagine an open source app that bundles consumption (through feeds, including JSON Feed) with content creation and interaction (leveraging Micropub, a newly minted W3C recommendation, and Webmention). I'm looking forward to seeing what Brent produces!

So, yes, I lament the state of the web, thanks to walled gardens like Facebook, but I'm optimistic about the future.

#indienews #indieweb

Tim Bray on Blogging in 2017

1 min read

Replied to a post on tbray.org:

Thank you, Tim, for still blogging, and owning your own identity on the web. Your presence makes it more vibrant, unique, and diverse.

The great dan­ger is that the Web’s fu­ture is mall-like: No space re­al­ly pub­lic, no store­fronts but na­tion­al brands’, no vi­su­als com­posed by am­a­teurs, noth­ing that’s on of­fer just for its own sake, and for love.

This sentence in particular resonated with me. I want the web to be a massive, interconnected network of independant thinkers, businesses, artists, communicators, individuals, etc., not just a collection of brands shouting into the void, hoping to attract consumers.

#indienews #indieweb #micro

Disqus, Self-Hosting, and Owning Your Interactions

3 min read

This morning, I read an interesting post by Don Williamson about how he removed Disqus comments from his site and moved to hosting his comments on GitHub, using some very creative hacks. Learning about the hacks he used is pretty fun, but I actually found his exploration of Disqus and its aggressive tracking more interesting. On the impact of performance on his site from using Disqus, Don pointed out:

Load-time goes from 6 seconds to 2 seconds.

There are 105 network requests vs. 16.

There are a lot of non-relevant requests going through to networks that will be tracking your movements.

He then goes into detail listing all of the ad networks and trackers that are pulled into a site when Disqus is enabled, and its terrifying:

disqus.com - Obviously!

google-analytics.com - Multiple requests; no idea who’s capturing your movements.

connect.facebook.net - If you’re logged into Facebook, they know you visit this site.

accounts.google.com - Google will also map your visits to this site with any of your Google accounts.

pippio.com - LiveRamp identify mapping for harvesting your details for commercial gain.

bluekai.com - Identity tracking for marketing campaigns.

crwdcntrl.net - Pretty suspect site listed as referenced by viruses and spyware.

exelator.com - More identity and movement tracking site which even has a virus named after it!

doubleclick.net - We all know this one: ad services and movement tracking, owned by Google.

tag.apxlv.net - Very shady and tricky to pin-point an owner as they obsfuscate their domain (I didn’t even know this was a thing!). Adds a tracking pixel to your site.

adnxs.com - More tracking garbage, albeit slightly more prolific.

adsymptotic.com - Advertising and tracking that suppposedly uses machine learning.

rlcdn.com - Obsfuscated advertising/tracking from Rapleaf.

adbrn.com - ‚ÄúDeliver a personalized customer journey across devices, channels and platforms with Adbrain customer ID mapping technology.‚ÄĚ

nexac.com - Oracle’s Datalogix, their own tracking and behavioural pattern rubbish.

tapad.com - OK, I cant’t be bothered to search to look this up anymore.

liadm.com - More? Oh, ok, then…

sohern.com - Yup. Tracking.

demdex.net - Tracking. From Adobe.

bidswitch.net - I’ll give you one guess…

agkn.com - …

mathtag.com - Curious name, maybe it’s… no. It’s tracking you.

 

Including third-party JavaScript libraries on my site like choosing a sexual partner: you better know who that third party has been in bed with, or you'll be in for a nasty surprise.

Comments and comment spam are hard. But, that doesn't mean we should turn over control of our interactions to companies that choose to leverage your audience and your data for their own profit. Own your interactions!

#indienews #micro

User Experience and the IndieWeb

6 min read

Those of you who have been following me on this site and on Twitter for the last few years know that I've been a proponent of the IndieWeb and its ideals, and would like to see a return to the open web.

Earlier today, I published a series of tweets about my desire for better, more unfied experiences for people who want to actively participate in the IndieWeb:

I received some great replies from fellow members of the IndieWeb community, including some links to interesting building blocks that people have been working on for years:

Ryan Barrett also shared his thoughts on the topic way back in 2015, with many great ideas.

Building Blocks vs. Unified Experiences

Tools like Granary, Indigenous, and InkStone are great pieces of the puzzle, as are open source CMS's like Known and WordPress with support for Micropub, Webmention, and other IndieWeb building blocks. But, the reason that silos like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are popular is that they provide a convenient, easy, and attractive unified experience for content consumption, content creation, and interactions. In order to be successful, and drive mass adoption, the IndieWeb must provide a user experience on par with silos on all three of these fronts.

I think that Manton Reece's Micro.blog project is another good start on attacking the problem, and may get us closer than we've ever been before, which is why I pushed my employer to back the project. But, again, its likely not enough on its own.

Between RSS and Atom, Webmention, and Micropub, the building blocks are there to create such an experience in a decentralized way, with participants in the network owning their own domains, websites, and data, pulling in content from a variety of sources via feeds, and creating posts, reactions, and interactions to their own sites with notifications to other participant sites.

My Vision for a Unified Experience

Today, most people's experience of the web is through algorithmically generated, ad-supported timelines like Twitter and Facebook. Frequently, its on mobile devices in the native app clients for these silos, rather than through a web browser. That's really a shame.

These algorithmically curated timelines are filling the gap that feed readers and aggregators like Google Reader left open. Web browsers have also ceded ground to silos, focusing purely on navigation, tab management, and search, rather than thinking about the bigger picture.

The ideal solution to this problem would be a native application for desktop operating systems and mobile platforms that places user experience at the forefront, and provides:

  • Content consumption for both the open web, through RSS/Atom, and silos like Twitter and Facebook in separate tabs or timelines.

  • Content creation for both the open web, through Micropub, and silos like Twitter and Facebook via syndication or their APIs.

  • Rich interactions for both the open web, through Webmention, and silos like Twitter and Facebook via their APIs.

Back in the early days of Twitter and the iOS App Store, John Gruber wrote about Twitter clients as pioneers of user experience. He was absolutely right! Twitter's (then) open-ish API enabled indie software companies like The Iconfactory, Atebits, and others to innovate and create incredible user experiences. In fact, the early work of The Iconfactory in Twitterific led to the hashtag, @-mention, and other patterns to take hold. The concept of "pull to refresh" was born out of this storm of innovation. Then, as it tried to figure out how to monetize its VC-backed platform, Twitter closed up its APIs, cutting off this innovation.

A unified experience for the rebirth of the open web is a massive market opportunity. The building blocks are there. History has shown that these kinds of experiences can become massively popular and drive innovation.

Opportunity for Who?

This opportunity begs the question: who will build this unified experience? Well, this time, the building blocks are truly open, so anyone can participate. All of those amazing indie developers who were creating Twitter clients back in 2007-2012 could absolutely dust off their code, and pick up where they left off.

That said, I think that browser vendors are in the best possible position to create these experiences, as this is all about driving people to the open web, and consuming it inside of web browsers. I firmly believe that innovation in web browsers has been stagnant for years, with the focus mostly being on search, navigation, rendering, and tabbed browsing, while the ultimate user experience has remained fundamentally the same.

Because of its values and origins, Mozilla is perfectly suited to the problem, and needs to reinvent itself after years of declining market share for Firefox. Mozilla has spent years on distractions like phone operating systems, and a client for enabling publishing, interaction, and content discovery and consumption on the open web, free from silos, is a great opportunity to get back to its roots.

How Can I Help?

For my part, I'm going to continue to advocate for the IndieWeb, support the members of the community that are making the future possible, and work with my employer, DreamHost, to help enable people to own their own digital identity with open platforms like WordPress.

How can you help? Well, that's a blog post for another day.