Bippity Boppity Boom! The Impact of Enchanted Objects on Development, Infrastructure and the Cloud

I have been spending a bunch of my time recently thinking through the impact on what David Rose of Ditto Labs and MIT Media Lab romantically calls ‘Enchanted Objects’.  What are enchanted objects?   Enchanted Objects are devices, appliances, tools, dishware, anything that is ultimately connected to the Internet (or any connected network) and become to some degree aware of the world around them.   Imagine an Umbrella that has a light on its hilt that lights up if it may rain today, reminding you that you might want to bring it along on your travels.   Imagine your pantry and refrigerator communicating with your grocery cart at the store while you shop, letting you know the things you are running low on or even bypasses the part where you have to shop, and automatically just orders it to your home.  This approach is going to fundamentally change everything you know in life from credit cards to having a barbeque with friends. These things and their capabilities are going to change our world in ways that we cannot even fathom today.   Our Technology Industry calls this emerging field, the Internet of Things.   Ugh!  How absolutely boring. Our industry has this way of sucking all the fun out of things don’t we?   I personally feel that ‘Enchanted Objects’ is a far more compelling classification, as it speaks to the possibilities, wonderment and possibly terror that lies in store for us.  If we must make it sound ‘technical’ maybe we can call it the Enchantosphere.

While I may someday do a post about all of the interesting things I have found out there already, or the ideas that I have come up with for this new enchanted world,  I wanted to to reflect a bit on what it means for the things that I normally write about.  You know, things like The cloud, big infrastructure, and scaled software development.   So go grab your walking staff of traffic conditions and come on an interesting journey into the not-so-distant world of Cloud powered magic…

The first thing you need to understand is, if you work in this industry, you are not an idle player in this magical realm.  You are, for lack of a better term, a wizard or an enchanter.   Your role will be pivotal in creating magic items, maintaining the magic around us, or ensuring that the magic used by everyone stays strong. While the Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy book references are almost limitless for this conversation I am going to try and bring it back to the world we know today.  I promise.  I am really just trying to tease out a glimpse of the world to come and the importance of the cloud, data center infrastructure, and the significant impacts on software development and how software based services may have to evolve. 

The Magical Weaves Surround Us

Every device and enchanted item will be connected.  Whether via through WIFI in your work and home, over mobile networks, or all of the above and more, these Enchanted Objects will be connected to the magical weaves all around us.  If you happen to be a network engineer you know that I am talking to you.  All of these objects are going to have to connect to something.   If you are one of those folks who are stuck in IPv4, you better upgrade yourself. There just isn’t enough address space there to connect everything in our magical world of the future.  IPv6 will be a must. In fact, these devices could just be that ‘killer app’ that drives global adoption of the standard even faster.   But its not just about address space, these kind of connected objects are going to open up and challenge whole new areas in security, spectrum management, routing, and a host of other areas.   I am personally thinking through some very interesting source-based routing applications in the Enchantosphere as well.   The short of it is, this new magical world is going to stress the limits of how things are connected today and Network Engineers will be charged with keeping our magical weaves flowing to allow our charmed existences to continue.  You are the Keepers of the Magical Weave and I am not talking about a tricked out hairpiece either.

While just briefly mentioned above – Security Engineers are going to have to evolve significantly as well.   It will lead into whole new areas and fields of privacy protection hard to even conceive at this point.  Even things like Health and Safety will need to be considered.  Imagine a stove that starts pre-heating itself based on where you are on your commute home and the dinner menu you have planned.  While some of those controls will need to be programmed into the software itself, there is no doubt that those capabilities will need to be well guarded.  Why, I can almost see the Wards and Glyphs of Protection you will have to create.

The Wizard’s Tower

imageAs cool as all these enchanted objects could be, they would all be worthless IP-enabled husks without the advent of the construct that we now call The Cloud.  When I talk about ‘The Cloud’ I am talking about more than just virtualized server instances and marketing-laden terminology.  I am talking about Data Centers.  I am talking about automation.  I am talking about ubiquitous compute capabilities all around the world.  The actual physical places where the magical services live! The Data Centers which include the technologies of both IT and facilities infrastructure and automation, The proverbial Wizards Tower!  This is where our enchanted objects will come to discover who they, how they work, what they should do, and retrieve any new capabilities they may yet magically receive.  This new world is going to drive the need for more compute centers across the globe.  This growth will not just be driven by demand, although the demand will admittedly be huge, but by other more mundane ‘muggle’ matters such as regulatory requirements, privacy enforcement, taxation and revenue.  I bet you were figuring  that with all this new found magical power flying around we would be able to finally rid ourselves of lawyers, legislators, government hacks, and the like.   Alas, it is after all still the real world.  Cloud Computing capacity will continue to grow, the demand for services increasing, and the development of an entire eco-system of software and services that sit atop the various cloud providers will be birthed.

I don’t know if many of you have read Robert Jordan’s fantasy series called ‘The Wheel of Time’, but in that series he has a a classification of enchanted objects called the Terangreal.  These are single purpose or limited power artifacts that anyone can use.   Like my example of the umbrella that lights up if its going to rain after it checks with Weatherbug for weather conditions in your area, or a ring that lights up to let you know that there is a new Loosebolts post available to read, or a garden gnome whose hat lights up when it detects evidence of plant eating bugs in your garden.  These are devices that require no technical knowledge to use, configure, but give some value to its owner.   They do their function and that is it.   By the way, I am an engineer not a marketing guy, if you don’t like my examples of special purpose enchanted objects you can tweet me better ones at @mjmanos. 

These devices will reach out, download their software, learn their capabilities, and just work as advertised.   Software in this model may seem very similar to todays software development techniques and environments but I believe we will begin to see fundamental changes in how software works and is distributed.   Software will be portable. Services will be portable.   Allowing for truly amazing “Multi-purpose” enchanted objects.  The ability to download “apps” to these objects can become common place.   Even something as a common place as a credit card could evolve to a piece of software or code that could be transported around in various devices.  Simply wave that RFID enabled stick (ok, wand) that contains your credit card app at the register and as long as you are wearing your necklace which stores your digital ID the transaction goes through.  Two factor authentication in the real world.  Or instead of a wand, maybe its just your wallet.  When thinking about this app enabled platform it gives a whole new meaning to the Capital One catchphrase Whats in your wallet?  The bottom line here is that a whole host of software, services, and other capabilities will become incredibly portable, and allow for some very interesting enchanted objects indeed.

The bottom line here is that we are just beginning to see into a new world of the Internet of Things… of Enchanted Objects.   The simpler things become the more complex they truly are.   Those of us who deal with large scale infrastructure, software and service development, and cloud based technologies have a heck of a ride ahead of us.  We are the keepers of the complex, Masters of the Arcane, and needers of a good bath.

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Familiarity Breeds “Unsent”–The Modern Email problem at Scale.

Everyone has heard of the old sayings “Familiarity breeds contempt”, so I thought it apropos to introduce it as a less understood concept when it comes to large scale Internet mail challenges.   The “spark” for me was a copy of a TechCrunch article entitled “Why No one has tamed e-mail” by Gentry Underwood that was forwarded to me this morning.  It’s a really good article and highlights some of the challenges the mail space is / has been / continues to go through.  Not sure if it really matters, but for full disclosure TechCrunch is an AOL company, although the content was generated by the guest author. 

The article highlights many of the challenges with mail today and how it is broken, or more correctly how it has become broken over time.  The challenges around SPAM, the content of mail being long and convoluted, most e-mail clients being absolutely terrible and the like.  The author also correctly highlights that it’s a hard problem to solve from a technology, design, and business perspective.  As good as a primer as I think this article is, there are some larger issues at play here to truly fix the mail problem.

 

First Problem – This is not an Email Problem

E-Mail is just a symptom of a larger set of challenges.  I would posit that the problem space itself has evolved and morphed from e-mail into a “Digital Lifestyle Organization” (DLO) issue.  Solving issues relating to e-mail, only solves part of the problem space.   The real challenge is that users are now being bombarded by messages, information, news, and the like from tons of different sources.   The signal to noise ratio is getting extremely high and is resulting people’s frustrations to grow increasingly caustic.   Yes, there is Spam.  But there is an equal amount of opt-in notes and messages, social updates from various social media platforms, RSS feeds, News updates, and a lists of other categories.  It can all be a bit mind-boggling and off-putting.  The real question should not be how to solve the e-mail problem, but rather – how to solve the Digital Lifestyle Organization problem.   Mail is simply a single element in the larger problem.

That’s not to say the points in the article are wrong or cant be applied to this wider definition.  You still face a huge design, interface, workflow challenge trying to organize this kind of data.   The client in whatever form it takes must be easy to use and intuitive.  A task that is elusive in the e-mail space to be sure, and is likely to be even more rare in this new “DLO” world. 

Second Problem – There is comfort in an old pair of Shoes

One of the interesting things I have learned here at AOL since taking on the role of CTO is that there is actually strata of different kinds of users.  I would place myself in the category of power user willing to try and jump platforms for better look/feel, even minor differentiated features and capabilities.  This layer of “Technorati” are constantly looking for the next best thing.  There are other strata however, that don’t necessarily embrace that kind of rapid change, moderate change, or in fact there are layers that don’t like any change at all!  It’s a complicated set of issues and engineering challenges.  At a rough business level, you can lose users because you change to much or don’t change at all.   Some of my friends in the space consider this a timing issue… of when to perfectly time these transitions.  The facts are however, these different stratas change at their own pace and we should understand that certain strata will never change.  In essence you have a few options – An introduce a platform that changes regardless of the user base desires, stay stagnant and never change, or try to find some kind of hybrid solution knowing that it may ultimately increase some of the cost structures around supporting different kinds of environments.  Unless, of course, you build something new that is SO Compelling at to change the game entirely.  

Candidly speaking, this is an issue that AOL has struggled with longer than just about everyone else in the space.   Historically speaking we have oscillated across all of these solutions over close to 30 years with varying degrees of success.  While we can debate what ‘success’ looks like, there is no denying that we have been looking at the science of e-mail for a long time.  With a loyal user base of tens of millions to hundreds of millions users, it provides us with a rich data set to analyze behaviors, usage patterns, user feedback, costs, trends, and the like.   Its this data that highlights the different usage patterns and strata of users.   Its data that is impossible to get as a start-up, and so immensely massive that categorization is no trivial task.

The process we use in terms of understanding these strata could best be described as ‘Electronic Ethnography’.  There are some interesting differentiations in how mail and Digital Lifestyle in aggregate  is used across a variety of variables.  Things like age, gender, location, locale, friends, social circles, and a host of others all play a role in defining the strata.  Simply speaking there are some strata that simply don’t want to change.   Others are very comfortable with their current e-mail experience and don’t see a driving need to change, etc. 

 

An example of Electronic Ethnography

This essentially nets out to the fact that E-mail and information aggregation is a very complex space.  We must face the fact there will be segments of users that will simply not change because something cooler has come about or some features were added or modified.  In my personal opinion the only way to truly impact and change these behaviors is to come up with something so compelling, so different, that it changes the game and solves the DLO issues.

 

Third Problem – BIG and Complex

While this was called out by Gentry Underwood in his article it cannot be stated enough.  Whether you focus on mail, the larger DLO space, or any kind of personal information aggregation – there are a host of factors, variables, and challenges to really solve this space.   It also drives big infrastructure, operations, and the like.  Its not going to be easy.  As the TechCrunch article headlines – Go Big or Go Home.   It’s a huge problem space, It’s a huge opportunity, and half measures may help but in and of themselves wont do much to move the needle.   Mail and what I call the DLO space is a huge opportunity of the future of our usage of the Internet medium, in fact it may be the biggest.   There will likely continue to be many casualties trying to solve it.

 

Fourth Problem – Monetization

From a pure business perspective – Its hard to make money off of mail.   The most common way to monetize mail (or aggregated information) is likely to be advertising.  However, advertising has a direct negative impact on the overall user experience in general and is a key driver of user loss.  You can easily see this in the overall reduction of “advertising” in mail across a number of key players.   Another method is tying it to an overall paid user subscription. But this is challenging as well, are the features and overall “stickiness” of your product something that customers will see a continued value for.  At AOL we have both models in use.   Interestingly, we have users in both models, that fall into the strategy that consider “change” as bad.  As mentioned in the third problem, mail is a big problem, and will require some kind of monetization scheme to justify some of the efforts.  While the larger players have existing user bases to help with this challenge, it’s a real issue for some of the more innovative ideas coming out of smaller start-ups, and is likely a key reason for their potential demise.  The person or firm who comes up with a non-ad/non-subscription based monetization strategy will truly change the game in this space.

 

With Google’s purchase of Sparrow, the re-design of Microsoft’s Outlook product, some interesting announcements that we have coming out, and a small explosion of start-ups in this space – Things are starting to get interesting.  Hard.  But interesting for sure.  May have to post more on this in the near future.

 

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