Tag Archive for bots

Google Home Review

I’ve been spending some time with a Google Home at my office. It’s. been a pretty interesting experience overall and makes me more confident in my previous assertion that of the big three in tech (Apple, Google, and Microsoft), Google is going to dominate the digital assistant / bot space. While my experience with Home was not perfect, it was a pretty impressive showing for a first generation device.

The Good: Google Home is smart as a whip! There’s just no way around that. My office mate and I spent hours trying to trip it up on trivia, calculations, and finding obscure movie and song facts and the device held up just fine. By far the most useful functionality for our office has been dictating songs to it and passing back and forth; prior to the Home, we would take turns playing (put your hate in the comments) vinyl records. Sure, we could do this with a PC or even an iPad but just being able to pick songs verbally has been an surprisingly enjoyable experience. I know this sounds a bit silly, but it reminds me of when I got my first iPad – I had mocked the iPad as just a large iPod Touch, but I changed my tune after my first few minutes using Apple’s tablet. This is just how I feel about Home, though I went in with a little more of an open mind than I did with the iPad.

The microphone seems fine but I do occasionally have to re-state requests to the device and it’s not clear if I just mumbled or my NJ accent was too hard for Home to parse on certain phrases. The speakers are pretty good and don’t have that tinny quality to the sounds that I was worried about before I got the device. For most users Home will likely be the highest quality speaker they have in their house, but I can see audiophiles wanting something a bit more.

The Bad: I’ve experienced occasional service outages with Home that required it to the restarted. The error message given suggests that my wifi may have been to blame, but every other device on the network was fine. It’s impossible to dig deeper into this, but it stands to reason that the issue is a service hiccup on Google’s end. Silly as it sounds, it kills the magic of a voice interface if you have to get up (in my experience) every other day to unplug and restart the device.

The Ugly: Google account management is a mess on just about every Google product and Home is not exception. Home only allows you to have one account on the device — this is a terrible design decision as it makes the assumption that one account equals one person. The reality for my use case and many others is that on e person will have multiple accounts. My guess is the most common case would be users (like me) have one Google account personally that has their Play Music, YouTube Red, and other Google entertainment services on it and also have a Google Work account used primarily for email and (most importantly for the purposes of Home) calendar. In my case, I put my personal Gmail on Home to get the entertainment functionality but am totally cut off from my work calendar. Ideally, I’d like a system where Google understands that users have different Google accounts for different contexts and allows the user to take calendar services from a Google Work account while using their personal account for entertainment and everything else.

All in all, I like the Home. It is definitely a first generation product, but most of the issues with it are fixable via software. Currently, I don’t see any real competition for Home other than Amazon’s Alexa but Amazon is in a very different business than the big three, so I would question their commitment to building a truly expandable AI assistant – Google’s opening of Actions to third party developers is a strong step in the right direction. Apple seems unwilling or unable to make Siri more than a lame parlor trick and even if they did, they’d likely be very paternalistic in terms of user privacy, severely limiting third party developer access. Microsoft is doing some really cool stuff, but they don’t have the platform beachhead that Google has in Android and all of the Google related services and that Apple has with iOS. The most surprising aspect of using Home is how it has me strongly considering picking up the next flag ship Android device to get that Google AI functionality on the road. Do you have a Home or comments / questions on this post, sounds off in the comments or Twitter.

Bye MacBook, Hello Lemur!

Apple is widely believed to be releasing new Macs next week and I am celebrating this long overdue update to the MacBook Pro by replacing my existing MacBook Pro with a Linux laptop from System 76. This isn’t one of those “Apple sucks posts” but I did want to go over briefly why I find myself moving away from Apple platforms and in to the open-source arms of Ubuntu Linux for my production needs but am still firmly entrenched in the i-ecosystem for my content consumption and light office productivity needs. Generally speaking, I am making a bet that the puck is going toward Linux powered AI.

Let’s start with content consumption. I ‘own’ over one hundred and eighty movies in iTunes, over fifty albums on iTunes, and a family subscription to Apple Music. I also have a number of newspaper and magazine subscriptions that just frankly have far better user experiences on iOS than Android. Basically, I’m pretty highly invested in the Apple content ecosystem, so moving away from Apple totally would be costly and more than a little wasteful. Also, I am pretty happy with the Apple TV / iOS devices / iTunes setup.

There’s also the issue of time’s insistent march on. iOS and mobile platforms in general are extremely mature. That’s great for users but less than exciting to me as a developer. Don’t get me wrong I still love iOS and Android development, but it’s just not that exciting or bleeding edge anymore. The sad fact being that both those platforms are very mature and most apps are just re-implementations of commonly accepted design patterns; that goes doubly for those that are clients to relatively simple REST APIs.

Going forward for the next five to ten years, I think there’s going to be some serious action in the field of AI or ‘bots’ if you prefer. In my opinion most of the most significant innovations are going to be on cloud-based Linux servers that power these pieces of software. Of course mobile platforms will likely be the most common front-ends for this type of software, but my guess is that will be in a more limited thin-client capacity. That’s the bet my Twitter followers may have figured out that I have been working on some side AI bots for months now and that’s where I think this is all ultimately going.

Let me know what you think especially if you think that I’m crazy! If you’re curious, the laptop I went with for my MacBook replacement is the Lemur by System 76. The Lemur joins my home office’s Ratel as the second machine in my growing Linux / System 76 fleet.

Apps, Bots & Cloud Oh My!

Apps are the newest thing! Apps are dead, long live the cloud! The cloud is old hat, it’s all about bots and machine learning now! If you follow the tech press like I do, you might be led to think that we have come through some sort of supersonic period of technological creative destruction. It’s certainly true that we’ve seen a good deal of innovation, since the release of the iOS App Store in 2008, but it isn’t entirely accurate to draw a linear progression from apps all the way to bots in terms of direct technological replacement. Apps, Bots, and the Cloud each bring something to the modern way we approach software presently.

Apps: It’s hard to overstate how much Apple releasing the App Store changed standards in the wider software development industry in terms of user experience and visual design. Simply put, the popularity of iOS devices and apps raised the minimum bar for what is acceptable UI for even line of business applications and elevated the role of designers from Photoshop jockeys to having a head seat at the table on most development projects. Of course, with the good also comes bad – I’ve sat in more than one meeting at large enterprises where two designers derailed a meeting by having passionate but ultimately futile debates over Helvetica / Helvetica Neue and different shades of blue.

Bots: We are way too early in the technical life-cycle for bots to make any sweeping statements about their influence on software development as a whole, but if taken through the lens of apps, they can be seen as almost a reaction to the design-heavy / design-first focus that apps have taken. This can of course be seen in their minimal UI but also in the purity of their focus on functionality above all else. Ultimately, the promise of bots is to remove that one to one relationship between user actions and software actions that apps focus on; ideally, the bots of the future will predict what you want to suggest it to you / do it for you unlike apps where you have to initialize all actions. Unfortunately, bots are little more than glorified text interfaces running some clever scripting on the cloud. We’ll need to see some pretty significant advancement in bot functionality before they are really useful and so far the top tech vendors are taking radically different approaches:

  • Microsoft: Microsoft wants you to build bots on their Bot Framework and hopes that you’ll tightly integrate with Azure or at least Skype. While there are definitely problems with their approach (for instance splitting the community by having both a C# and JavaScript SDK) it is likely the most interesting for third party developers that want to develop on one of the big vendors’ tooling. Still, I’ve been burned by betting on new Mircosoft platforms before (I was one of the fools who made an investment in Windows 8 / RT) and I’ll need to see some re-assuring signs that Microsoft is going to continue active development and support on this before I jump in with both feet.
  • Facebook: Zuck and Co have one question for you – ‘what is it going to take get Facebook Messenger to be your default messaging platform?’ Facebook’s bot implementation is the most disappointing, since it’s one of the more interesting technically (their implementation of Wit.AI shows a lot of natural language processing potential) but is ultimately rendered useless (and frankly silly) by the huge strategy tax of being tightly coupled to Facebook.
  • Apple: What hasn’t been said about Siri that hasn’t been said about a 1992 Honda Civic? It’s relatively reliable if you know what it’s good for but lacks much of what would be desired at this point. WWDC is in couple of weeks and if Apple doesn’t deliver, then they’re likely to be an also ran in the bot space. My money is on some improvements to Siri, but Apple is likely to philosophically opposed to data mining and opening this sort of data to third party developers to make any bot framework they may provide anything more than a minor curiosity for the most hardcore of Apple loyalists. Apple will likely be left with little choice but to use it’s control of the iOS platform to either not allow competing bots on their platform or (far more likely) allow them but now allow them to integrate on a system level greatly degrading their usefulness to iOS users.
  • ‘Google:’ In place of a queen you will have a colorful gender-neutral ‘G’, not dark but productive and intuitive as the dawn All shall love Google and despair! Apologies to Tolkien but Google’s shown what is easily the most impressive bot to date and it’s name is simply Google. While it’s heartening to see such impressive predictive reasoning on a bot, it’s also a little scary in terms of the privacy implications and what it means for the greater bot ecosystem. Simply put, Google is in the best position to make the best bot of anyone in the industry and probably of anyone in the world in terms of targeting the mass-market consumer user-base. Ironically, Google’s aptitude in bots and related technologies will likely stifle innovation, since Google will be able to do a better job for cheaper (since they won’t charge at all) which will likely push many smaller potential competitors out of the market. At IO, they did say there’d be some sort of developer access, but right now they’re just making the best bot themselves and that’s a little disheartening as a small software vendor.

In part, it’s hard to see what bots really mean for the industry since there are different approaches being taken for them; for instance, they will likely be far more useful for Android users than for iOS users initially. Still, the common thread here is using personal and cohort data to predict what actions you might want to take via a simple voice or text interface.

The Cloud: Bots may be getting all the tech press but they’d be nowhere without the cloud. Or would they? What is the cloud anyway? Well, do you remember Thomas Watson of IBM fame who said: “I think there is a world market for only five computers.” On the face of it that’s laughable wrong but in more practical terms of what computers used to be defined as, he’s basically right. Instead of computers we call them “clouds” (think Azure, AWS, etc) and we are basically renting usage from them which will sound awfully familiar to anyone who has ever rented time on an mainframe in the 80s. Don’t get me wrong I am well documented as being bullish on cloud technologies (i.e. Docker) but to be honest the most interesting and impact-full innovation of the cloud for most people’s day to day use is the pricing model. That’s right. The main reason the cloud has had such a positive impact on the software development industry and the greater world as a whole is that it’s cheap. Cheap computing power allows even small companies (like mine) to invest and try new product ideas out with very little financial investment in infrastructure.

So we’ve taken a look at apps, bots, and the cloud but what is the point in all of this? Well, all of these things go together. You see bots aren’t replacing apps or the cloud. There is no linear progression. Bots and whatever come after them are and will likely continue to be built on the cloud and possibly viewed via or at least supplemented by traditional mobile apps. In fact, my bet is that for a few years the key to successful software products will be to blend all of these technologies together in natural ways.

Questions? Comments? Uncontrollable rage? Reach out to be on Twitter.

Brutal Bots

Bots are the new hotness that Microsoft, Facebook, and others hope will be the next tech phenomenon, supplanting the maturing app market. It makes sense that Facebook and Microsoft would be looking for the next big thing, since they largely missed out on the app gold rush and were relegated to the role of software provider on Apple and Google’s platforms. At their most basic level, bots are cloud-based text-driven software that have some modicum of natural language processing and AI capabilities and are designed to complete / automate tasks. In particular, they’re well suited for tasks that involve tying one web service to another — for example integrating Skype with Slack or Facebook Messanger with 1-800 Flowers’ ordering service. Granted your desire to order Dominos may not be nearly as keen as Microsoft would have had us believe during their recent Build conference in which they featured a bit for just that purpose, it shows the real impact of bots — automating low level clerical task. Put more bluntly, white color job elimination.

It may seem overblown to say bots are coming for your white collar and that’s likely because right now their coming for your assistant’s. If you had a bot that could manage your calendar do automated customer outreach and some basic bookkeeping / reporting why have an assistant at all?

Not only do bots have the potential to do your assistant’s job but a bot doesn’t come with all that pesky liability. Think about it. Bots can’t be on payroll, so you avoid the wage and all payroll taxes. Bots don’t get sick. They won’t ever need parental leave or berievment time. They will never look elsewhere for better paying employment or try to renegotiate their wage after you’ve invested in them. They can’t file a complaint if they feel they are being treated unfairly. And for all the Silicon Valley bros, you can sexually harass a bot all day long and be totally safe from a lawsuit as well as the corresponding bad press.

This may all seem a bit brutal but as someone who employs people in one of the most employer hostile states in the country, I often have to look at a candidate and weigh the various risks holistically before making a hiring decision and the reality is for low value clerical work, I’d do well to avoid the expense and liability with a bot. Now, if only I could pick a bot framework….