There’s always something to howl about

Q: Your smartphone has just been stolen. What should happen next? A: Your phone should get the cops on the horn and lead them to the thief.

Here’s the truth of your life: Your so-called smartphone is pretty damned dumb. For one thing, it’s always interrupting your work with phone calls, wiping out whatever screen you happen to be working on. It does this because Steve Jobs, genius though he was, never quite wrapped his head around the idea of the cell-phone function as just another arrow in the quiver of your smartphone’s capabilities. What you actually want, when your phone rings while you are working at something else, is notice that you can drop everything to take the call — or not — without the phone making that decision for you.

I can do more: There is no reason for caller ID to be as stupid as it is. I want Heidi, of course, a full-blown database look-up when a new caller shows up on my phone. But lacking that, a truly smart smartphone would at least Google the number and display whatever information that search suggests about the caller.

But once we’ve gone that far, we get to an important question: Why is your smartphone shipping phone calls to you as phone calls? Data is data, and there is no longer any hardware or software reason to transmit phone calls by Ma Bell’s antiquated protocols. There may be cost or efficiency reasons, but it remains that a file-server-based “switchboard” could be a whole lot smarter than present-day cell-phone vendors seem to be. A lot of the Constance the Connector ideas would be best implemented on a truly smart phone system — one that pre-manages your calls before anything in your pocket sets off a racket.

But here is an entirely new way of thinking about smartphones, one that lets me solve a problem Jim Klein threw my way way back in the last century: Your phone can manage your online security better than any other means devised so far. With the right hardware and software, your phone, together with Sarah and Constance, can manage all of your financial transactions with perfect security and impenetrable encryption. Your phone can identify you — by way of your Constance profile — to any other hardware devices or software services you might use, effortlessly networking you — and handling all of that idiotic password diplomacy. Best of all, your phone can monitor your personal security, calling the police when you are at peril — or when it is.

I want for any device that draws electrical power — wired, battery-powered or generated, as with your car — to be IP addressable, controllable and reprogrammable by remote software. Why would this matter for, say, a refrigerator? So that its performance can be optimized, both according to your own usage patterns and in keeping with the manufacturer’s design profile, as it ages. If the data collected by your refrigerator is shared into your Constance profile, then anyone who might be able to make productive use of that kind of data will have a lot of it to play with — which suggests that you might get some fat coupons around replacement time, with that replacement having been designed in cognizance of all of that real-world data.

That’s a simple example, but here’s a better one: Imagine that you’re at a wedding. The professional photographers are in control of their own equipment, but they’ve also made several PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) video cameras, mounted high over the crowd, available to the guests. Those cameras are IP addressable, like every good thing, so you can log-in to an ad hoc network that lets you control a camera remotely from your smartphone or tablet computer. Precedence is negotiated by the age-old “dibs” system, with limits on access so everyone gets a chance to play. At the end of the wedding, the video from those cameras is available to everyone who participated, each one of whom can edit his or her own perfect wedding video.

Making devices remotely IP addressable enables a new style of networking. By interacting with my smartphone, by way of Constance, I can take super-user control over any new hardware I install. The act of installation itself implies the integration of the new device into the existing network of computing devices, and the negotiations needed to effect that integration are all handled by hardware and software, with no immemorable passwords or arcane networking protocols needed from me. Where are the APIs and drivers needed to set up communication? On Constance, of course, with each type of device capable of this kind of networking having its own Constance profile, and with each new device in your network reporting its performance and usage data out to your own Constance profile.

So I just came home with a brand new printer. I unbox it and plug it in, and, as I am doing this, Sarah on my phone is watching me do it and is pulling all the data she will need to successfully network that printer. She knows where it is in space, approximately, but she knows precisely where it is in my network topology. What’s left to do comes down to hardware and software hand-shaking — and Sarah can put an unhackable password on that printer that will protect it from unauthorized use but which I will never have to even see, much less learn or remember.

Meanwhile, I need to let Sarah know who else in my home or office is also authorized to use that printer, and which of those people share super-user powers with me. Ideally, I will have already set this up in my “circle” for this particular network. In other words, my printer will have been fully integrated into my network by Sarah, and all I had to do was plug it in. For the PTZ cameras at the wedding, the “circle” for that temporary network might have been the wedding invitation list or perhaps just every smart device within a radius of 50 yards or whatever. Once we have established that your smartphone is your digital ID card, any sort of networking is just a software problem.

So let’s think about what might make for a smarter smartphone. Sarah and Constance are doing the heavy lifting, but first the phone needs to be able to know that it is dealing with you and you alone. It must be able to identify you perfectly, without error. How can it do this? Biometrics.

I want for Sarah to be watching you all the time, as much as you will let her. She should be watching you from your phone’s cameras, but she should also watch you from any other camera in your vicinity that she can control. The data from those cameras is actually more than enough to identify you in a fault-free fashion, but your smartphone should also be monitoring your pulse, your skin temperature, your breathing, your speech patterns, etc. Your phone — and hence Sarah — should know with absolute certainty if the hand holding it is yours or someone else’s.

And that’s why your phone should call the cops as soon as it is stolen: It will know this has happened at once, since all of the biometric data will be suddenly and wildly different. Apple’s “find my phone” feature is cool — for now — but there is no reason that a truly smart smartphone should not be able to manage its own theft and recovery. Note the implication: No phone this smart would ever be stolen. The manufacturer would have to build a special procedure to permit resale, which, essentially, would mean reinitialization.

Jim Klein’s problem was this: How can I shop online without exposing my credit card information, possibly making it accessible to thieves? Just that much is a Constance job — my identification at checkout is @gswann. But Constance could easily take the next step of querying my phone to see if it’s really me shopping, or if someone is pretending to be me. All of the security hand-shaking can be handled by Sarah, deploying robust encryption and using protocols that are not even available to wet-ware devices like you. This is perfect identification coupled with perfect security — all of it super-fast and unimaginably cheap.

And all of the personal security ideas I wrote about in my discussion of ubiquitous video can be effected by these same means. If your smartphone is watching you and everyone around you all the time, it would be duck-soup to do the kind of facial recognition, behavioral profiling and data-base mining I talked about in that essay. With nothing more than a phone sticking out of your shirt pocket and the appropriate software on the server side, you would be forevermore protected from virtually all common crime. There is no accounting for madness or rage, but crimes-of-calculation against your person — mugging, pick-pocketing, rape — would be a thing of the past. You don’t even need elaborate software to achieve this outcome, just live streaming from your phone into the cloud — one snapshot a second would be plenty — so you create an incontrovertible evidence trail wherever you go.

There’s a lot more to this that I can take up in a weblog post. Because your phone is your personalized interface into the universe of IP addressable hardware and password-mediated software, a smarter smartphone endowed with the kind of software I am talking about, both in the phone and in the cloud, could take over most of the management of the devices and software services you use. At some point I plan to talk about the software design paradigm that will have to replace the ever-more-chaotic world of “apps,” but this, ultimately, is what you have to look forward to: Not a world without “apps” or desktop applications or browser-based software, but a world where your smartphone and its support software are smart enough to handle virtually all of the things you are currently doing by touchpad, mouse or keyboard.

How will you know when this day has arrived? When your smartphone shoots you an email to let you know that it had been swiped but that the police have already recovered it. If you want for that day to be soon — and it easily could be — you’ll have to let Apple, Samsung, HTC and all the other vendors of dumb-ass smartphones know that they can, should and must do better.

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30 Comments so far

  1. Chris Johnson February 2nd, 2012 12:18 pm

    Anyone can talk….

  2. Greg Swann February 2nd, 2012 12:23 pm

    > Anyone can talk….

    Do you have an argument?

  3. Chris Johnson February 2nd, 2012 5:57 pm

    …make something. It’s easy to fantasize and it’s easy to criticize.

  4. Greg Swann February 2nd, 2012 6:13 pm

    > …make something. It’s easy to fantasize and it’s easy to criticize.

    I have done nothing for my entire life except make things you had not conceived of before I made them. An appropriate response to an essay like this would be, “Thank you for showing me a world I could not have foreseen.” An even better response would be for someone who can profit by these ideas to pay me for them. I understood a long time ago that I should not expect appropriate — which is to say rational — responses from other people. More is the pity — for them.

    Now, if you want, you can tell us which part of your anatomy is itching.

  5. Jim Klein February 2nd, 2012 6:46 pm

    Chris, I’m not sure what your point is. If you’re saying that in a business context, implementation is key, I think that’s very right. There are a zillion legitimately great ideas out there–I mean truly great and potentially very profitable–that never happen for want of implementation. It’s a huge step from imagination to manifestation.

    OTOH your comment also implies a misunderstanding of what production is. ALL production is of the mind—the so-called “labor” of it is just that, the implementation. Someone had to think of every single drop of wealth production that’s ever happened, before it happened. Oil rigs might physically bring the oil from the ground, but the actual production was figuring out how to do it, and how to build them.

    That production–ALL of it–is done in a mind, and it’s expressed conceptually, which means with words or maybe charts and diagrams. A person doesn’t just “do something;” he figures out what’s to be done and then figures out how to do it. In the case at hand, and at the level Greg is speaking, it’s not the sort of thing for which you go out and buy a plastic mold or something like that. Or make a video.

    I’m not writing this to defend Greg; he hardly needs that, after all. I’m writing it so that maybe you’ll come to understand what’s involved. If it were as simple as you say, and you were such a do-er as your comment implies, you’d go out and “make something” of this, and take your few billion as your share. Given enough time, there’s little question that someone will.

    Plus, it’s false that “anyone can talk.” Very few can talk like this.

  6. Chris Johnson February 2nd, 2012 7:25 pm

    Talk is cheap.

    This is delusional or entitled. In the Valey, Boulder and Cambridge, product/idea guys are fungible. Nontechnical founders (like me) are a dime a dozen unless they execute with aplomb, vigor and an absense of babysitting.


    You have to get people together and build stuff. Lead them to it, don’t just bitch about how you’re an unrecognized genius.

    Nobody’s doing it for you. Nobody’s going to help, nor will anyone see a deranged realtor with an acid tongue and say ‘get me some of that action.’

    Build it. Ship it. Masturbation to the singularity is best left to Tech Crunch.

    We’re entitled to nothing, nada. An idea is fungible. Profoundly so, there are many great ideas all over the place. For every Steve Jobs, there are 50,000 tantrum throwing product guys that claim without proof that they are right.

  7. Greg Swann February 2nd, 2012 7:54 pm

    I am happy with my life — well beyond delighted, all the time. Why is my life so unsatisfying to you?

  8. Chris Johnson February 2nd, 2012 7:28 pm

    @jim I get it. But producing something in the mind, thinking it’s sensible to pay for it, without any idea of getting from here to there is just useless. Of course we’ll have a solution approximating that in months. But to get there, it’ll be built a brick at a time, perhaps with a biometric ap for smartphone cameras. Perhaps with something else, but it’ll take people and parts, and marshaling those things isn’t going to happen in a blog.

  9. Chris Johnson February 2nd, 2012 8:15 pm

    Good for you, Greg.

  10. Greg Swann February 2nd, 2012 9:29 pm

    > Good for you, Greg.

    Good for you, too, Chris. Good for many people over the years. There is no one who thinks like I do, but people who have read me here have been exposed to quite a lot of my thinking. I know that reading me has been good for many of those folks, albeit bad in the end for a few. Regardless, writing has always been an undiluted good for me — the only person I am working for.

    Your behavior today was atrocious. I think you are scourging yourself, not me, but, if so, I don’t care. I think you should care, but that’s your business. But I will tell you that if you ever address me in this way again, I will have nothing further to do with you.

  11. Jim Klein February 2nd, 2012 9:53 pm

    Hmm…it looks like marshaling those things might very well happen in a blog! That remains to be seen, of course, but I always find it noteworthy how odd, and even incorrect, creative thinking always appears.

    I mean, duh. Anything truly creative has never been thought of before, so of course it’s out of the realm of our experience and must be “wrong” in the context of everything we already know.

    It’s a much wider point than Greg’s ideas, or how he chooses to handle those ideas. It’s the reason this society is going off a cliff. Creativity, which translates into production, is so disincentivized that it’s completely disappearing.

    This country used to be chock full of people like Greg or Jeff Brown’s dad; Michigan alone was overrun with them for almost a century. Now they’re either relics to remember, or someone for everyone to jeer at.

  12. Greg Swann February 2nd, 2012 10:47 pm

    > It’s a much wider point than Greg’s ideas

    Bless you, sir. I should point out, too, that this post and all those I linked to within it are expressions of the ideas of ontology and teleology I have been talking about all my life. I know no one is writing about technology in this way, because no one comes at these ideas in the way I do.

    And: I truly hate being spit at for my virtues. It’s not new to me, obviously, but it stinks most especially in the case of this essay: It ties up a lot of ideas I’ve been laying out, and it does so in a way that is thoroughgoing but understandable and still — I think — very readable. I’ve been playing with these ideas with Cathleen for a couple of weeks, but I had despaired of the time needed to write this theme out. I lucked into an hour in the middle of the day yesterday, and that’s where that one came from. My thinking has never been more clear than it is now, and the words just pour out of me.

  13. Chris Johnson February 2nd, 2012 10:50 pm

    >>But I will tell you that if you ever address me in this way again, I will have nothing further to do with you.

    Understood and undsurprised.

    You’ve been talking about big ideas for years. Why not actually take one to market?
    I’m not talking about some ipo delusion, I’m talking about a nifty little company.

    You think this is a personal attack? Please.

    You think that I don’t think that your ideas- or some close cousin- are inevitable? Again, please. Someone will create a variant of this and/or many other ideas.

    I just hope that you are brave enough to try. Posting here gets you no closer to that goal.

  14. Greg Swann February 3rd, 2012 5:58 am

    > You think this is a personal attack?

    I do. But I’m not the person you’re annoyed with.

    > several people that are thinking along very similar lines

    They’re not. I wish they were. You have no idea what I’m talking about, as evidenced by your diatribe, but Jim has already told you why that’s so.

    Attend to your own affairs, leaving me to mine, and we’ll get along fine.

  15. Chris Johnson February 2nd, 2012 11:05 pm

    And – FWIW – i know (personally and professionally) several people that are thinking along very similar lines in everything from consumer facing software to enterprise software.

  16. Jim Klein February 3rd, 2012 6:27 am

    Chris, please understand that I’m only interested in the philosophy of this. My first sentence to you was, “Chris, I’m not sure what your point is.” Now I REALLY don’t know what your point is!

    As I noted, I thought you were trying to denigrate the creation aspect of production (the “mind” part) as opposed to the implementation aspect (the “labor” part), which I thought was a mistake. This, because the actual production is the creation part, which is expressed conceptually.

    But now I’m really confused. Judging from your comments, and explicitly stated in your last comment, it appears you’re trying to prove, “And what you’re presenting is cheap anyway, Greg.” Besides the fact that I don’t believe that for a second (but maybe I’m wrong; this isn’t my field of expertise), for the life of me I can’t figure out why you’d want to make that point. Prima facie it looks straight Randian, that you believe your worth can somehow be increased by trying to lower the apparent worth of someone else.

    Is that what’s going on here, or is there something else? I’m asking because this is what interests me. Plus, I think this world is upside-down in large part because the good is constantly spurned while the bad is constantly chosen. To me, it seems that this can’t lead to anywhere but death, so I’m always interested in why anyone, let alone someone as bright as you, would choose that path.

    This has nothing to do with Greg. If you wish, you can stipulate whatever you wish about him and his ideas. I’m trying to figure YOU out, and what possible benefit you’re seeking to gain. If you can address that, I’ll be very grateful for it.

  17. Chris Johnson February 3rd, 2012 8:53 am


    Talk is cheap is a challenge. Make this stuff. In about 18 months, I’ve made connections from San Jose to Cambridge, MA. From Bangalore to the UK.

    That there are pieces of this daisy chain that are being built for the purposes intended. I say that stuff like the Fit Bit will evolve into a platform that can become useful for more than its initial purpose of tracking fitness. I’ve seen more confidential roadmaps – from half the people speaking at the RSA Conference.

    I’m not beset with self loathing or whatever tired argument greg trots out… I’m hoping to challenge greg to get a team together and build something great. That’s the goal.

    What do I seek to gain? Well, I don’t know. I’ve gotten a dozen or so people over the years out of shitty careers and engaged in the work of their lives. A conversation that I had led to the creation of the Foundation for a Free Society, another dude quiting his job and making some nifty WP plugins, etc, etc.

    Greg’s been spouting ideas for years. that part of things is easy. Getting an idea to market requires a deeper commitment than a blog post or some midnight work. Talk is cheap, even when the ideas are good.

    Building a community requires restraint and long term thinking. It’s easy to indulge your temper and self destruct. It’s hard to think 5 moves out and build a company or a product.

    I love to see companies get built. I love it when people stop talking and start making something. I am doing my damnedest to augment my service business with a product, and it’s hard.

  18. Jim Klein February 3rd, 2012 10:33 am

    Okay, Chris. I’m not sure which part of this you think Greg doesn’t get, but that doesn’t interest me. Thanks for answering.

  19. Greg Swann February 3rd, 2012 10:50 am

    Of all the tech posts I’ve written here, this one — The death of mediocrity — is the one that matters most. I know no one in business is thinking the way I do, because their thinking, like mine, would emerge top down, from philosophical principles to practical applications. I’m not writing technology, I’m writing philosophy. And when I am writing the philosophy of technology, I am approaching it as well-informed fiction, practically speaking. I know no one will build the things I am talking about. There is a chance they will build better things — less crappy crap — because my ideas have spread to other people.

  20. Chris Johnson February 3rd, 2012 12:35 pm

    What you describe seems novel to those that don’t work in or near Silicon Valley. Trust me: the best of Generation Y wants to mete out justice to the mediocre. They relish the opportunity. I assure you that this is not novelty- it’s like saying that human beings will have an instrument panel. We can argue over if this takes 18 years or 18 months, but it’s inevitable.

    Will you get to be part of it in a meaningful way? Corporations educated us on how to get a product together.

  21. Greg Swann February 3rd, 2012 3:24 pm

    We’re not having a discussion. You staged a rant, who knows why. You don’t know what I’m talking about, and you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll thank you to stop wasting my time. If you want the last word, have at it. You’ve squandered your capital with me either way.

  22. Jim Klein February 3rd, 2012 6:07 pm

    “The death of mediocrity — is the one that matters most.”

    If there’s ever been an essay worth reading closely, that’s it.

    Chris probably figures I’m either a hero-worshipper or sycophant. He also once figured I was an RE agent seeking his services; pretty funny. Just so you know, Chris, Greg could never persuade me of something that isn’t true, because NOBODY has the power to do that. I just call ’em as I see ’em, and give credit where credit is due.

    Find the ideas in that essay anywhere in the whole of the human record, and I’ll be impressed. You ain’t gonna do it, because it doesn’t exist. You’ll find SOME of the ideas in SOME places, but there’s never been an integration like that. Never, not once before that essay. That’s creativity; that’s production.

    So the only question remaining is the one that started this…why does that bother you so much?

  23. Chris Johnson February 3rd, 2012 8:33 pm

    Jim…yes, you’ll find something approaching integration in, and many others see this future plainly. Human Computer interaction isn’t new or novel.

    Feld.Com, Fred Wilson’s blog riffs in this way regularly. Except…

    They are trying to get us there. They don’t pontificate all that much publicly, and neither do anyone else that are “doers.” I can assure you that these ideas exist, we all know that everything will have an api…from a light switch to a toaster…and everything will be addressable via some protocol in a fashion that will suck at first, but iterate quickly. There might be bridge devices to get us there, but the ethos exists.

    This is the age of the platform, and we are creating bits of software with addressable bridges on all ends of it.

    Why does it bother you? | I hate it when people don’t have the courage to deploy what they think they know. I’m trying to goad Greg into taking action. He’s not wired that way, it’s far easier to insult others than it is to put yourself out there to be insulted.

    This is where I end my time at BHB and in this club of nondoers. I was willing to leave this alone with Talk is Cheap. Because even after all of this, all I see is someone that will keep making excuses, declaring his happiness while insulting the work of those that make real things and bring them to market. That’s the antithesis of the hacker.

  24. Jim Klein February 4th, 2012 7:14 am

    Talk about full circle. If you go back to my first comment, I said you were “very right” about implementation. I also wrote, “Chris, please understand that I’m only interested in the philosophy of this.” Repetition is a waste, and you are being wasteful.

    Clearly, you don’t know what you’re looking at. That’s alright; lots of people don’t. The interesting part to me is that you choose to punish yourself for it.

    That’s the part I don’t understand, and I think I’ll never understand it. You said it best…”all I see” is someone else. Simply put, you’re looking in the wrong direction.

  25. Chris Johnson February 4th, 2012 10:49 am

    I know what I’m looking at. I’ve been looking at it for 4 years now. The paternalistic ascribing of emotion I don’t posses is showing your futility. You are committed to telling Greg he’s right and the end product will be that he never makes an effort to get in the ring.

  26. Jim Klein February 4th, 2012 2:36 pm

    I’m paternalistic because I care; that would be about me. On top of everything else, you don’t know what you’re doing to yourself. Here’s more paternalism for you…take a breath, open your eyes to what counts–that would be you–and move forward from there. That is, “Do better.” Nobody has ever suffered for taking the high road.

    Good wishes to you, Chris; that’s about the best I’ve got.

  27. Brian Brady February 4th, 2012 3:18 pm

    “What do I seek to gain? Well, I don’t know.”

    I think that’s the real problem. I admire your turnaround story, Chris but admire less your increasingly surly discourse here.

    You’re not the first thirty-something who decided to rapell down the cliff rather than jump off it and you won’t be the last to think you’re invincible for doing the logical.

    Since you used to seek my advice about salesmanship I’ll offer you an unsolicited pearl: It’s generally unwise to purge a relationship unless it is harming you or your goals.

  28. Audrey Huffenreuter February 17th, 2012 2:18 pm

    Thanks for the post, Greg. I’m not here to stir up arguments. Jut wanted to say your post got me thinking about things a little differently.

  29. Andrew Arroyo February 21st, 2012 5:49 pm

    Very interesting post Greg, makes me reconsider having a smartphone at all!

  30. Greg Swann February 22nd, 2012 7:10 am

    > Very interesting post Greg, makes me reconsider having a smartphone at all!

    Thanks — I think. 😉

    There’s one more step I’ve left out, the first principle in the argument that makes all the rest of it coalesce into all one thing. I can envision an operating paradigm that makes every sort of human effort massively more productive. You’ll see bits and pieces of the way things could work, over time, but The Big Picture I’ve been talking about in these posts will never happen. It’s raining soup, and none of us has a bowl.