Why Text Message Read Receipts Are So Important

Remember that time you received a text message from your crush? You thought to yourself,

“oh no, I don’t want to appear desperate and reply right away. shit, how long am I supposed to wait before sending a reply?? oh shit! I forgot to turn read receipts off on my new iPhone! they already know I saw this message… what will they think if I don’t answer?? surely, I must never speak to them again. so embarrassing!”

Me neither.

A cursory scan of Google results for “text message read receipts” yields something I might have expected from a trashy teen romance novel about vampires. (why are they always about vampires?!) The top results are blog posts imploring you to turn off your read receipts, lest you be transparent to your potential friends. It’s almost as if being clear and straight-forward about your intentions is a sure-fire way to lose friends and be labeled a loser.

If Google is to be believed, the status quo has devolved into a sea of people neurotically manufacturing reasons why they didn’t reply to a text message immediately. The most common reason seems to rely on an overt lie:

“oh, I didn’t see your text message.”

While many people appear to agree with this approach, they may not realize it sends a different message than they might intend. By choosing the path of active misinformation, they accidentally send this message instead:

“I don’t respect you enough to be honest about my interactions with you.”

The reason I turn on read receipts, and also why I have great respect for the friends who do the same, is quite simple. I may take time to compose a response after receiving a message from someone, sometimes hours or even days later. But I’m not worried if they think I’m dead or in jail or that they’ll think I don’t like them anymore when I don’t respond within a few minutes. They are confident in our relationship and trust that I will honor them with a response eventually. They understand I am a respectful and thoughtful person who genuinely tells people when I don’t want to interact with them, that I am direct and honest in my communication with others. They are compassionate souls who empathize with the perpetual state of being busy with work and life. Like most people, they just want to know if I saw the message.

And if they don’t receive a read receipt from me, letting them know I saw the message, when it’s urgent, they pick up the phone and call me. And if I can, I answer, because that’s the kind of friend I want to be. I don’t always answer, but I always make time to return the call. Because it matters to me that they understand how much I respect them.

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Mentorship is Worth the Pay Cut

I’ve been writing a lot lately about humility and vulnerability and leadership. All of those things involve a great deal of sacrifice and a willingness to embrace the unknown. This week, I spent a few hours each day helping kids build software. Most of them had game ideas. Some had seemingly impossible goals they achieved and surpassed. A few finished early and went on to make two and even three apps. All of them showed something on a mobile device or laptop after only a week of development. We’re talking about campers age 10-12 building fully functioning games from nothing in a few days, all with original artwork.

As someone who started learning to build software at age 13, I am humbled to see what these amazing young people are doing each day. The rate at which they are able to absorb and apply the fundamentals of interactive product design is simply breathtaking. What was most astonishing to me was how much they remember. With every adult I’ve trained, they all universally needed to be shown something more than once. These aspiring engineers are routinely demonstrating their attention to detail and appreciation for the moral and ethical implications of their efforts.

As someone who has worked with intellectual property for years, I feel great pride in these intrepid young people. They recognize the right of the creator to be credited and possibly compensated for use of their work, even when discovered through Google Images. I feel embarrassed for my marginal use of such copyrighted material in my past work.

I’ve written before about the rockstar curse and what it feels like to be openly referred to as a god (still happens, still uncomfortable). My experience this week changes everything. I thought my choices were limited because I have trouble finding anyone with more skill or expertise than I have. As it turns out, I was looking the wrong way. Mentoring is the right way. I learned more this week than in the last month of client work. But it’s not about me. It’s about the brilliant young minds who will go on apply what we’ve taught them. That’s worth more than money can buy.

Wearable Society

Let’s do a thought experiment. Try to remember the first time you encountered someone in a wheelchair. In your eyes, it was an anchor. You most likely focused on the limitations they must encounter regularly in everyday life. In their eyes, it was a rocket ship. With a little finesse, it could take them to places their body would not avail.

I think of social media in a similar way. Some people see it as a possible threat to personal security. Others see it as a mechanism to provide security through community. No one disputes the additional exposure we incur for using location services on our mobile devices. The key is to provide the sensory value while also offering the ability for the individual to control their level of exposure. This personal authorization layer is critical to the long-term survival of any mainstream solution for data publishing.

As personal devices multiply, the infrastructure required to coordinate all the information becomes exponentially more complex. Sharing this information in real-time helps people make decisions. Decisions are the currency of the internet of things. The choices we make now ripple outwards to subscribing devices, which take actions based on our decisions. In many ways, this is the definition of society. Disney got it right when they depicted a team of dishes and appliances working together in harmony to achieve the goal of cleaning the house. Usually, they represented this as magical in nature. I’m sure Arthur C. Clarke would agree that we have achieved sufficiently advanced technology that we barely believe our own abilities.

Fortunately for our childlike dreams of magical solutions, reality isn’t far removed from the dream. We have just enough understanding of the idea of connectedness to envision a world where the conversation involves machines. We’ve all seen it from early life, when we watch robots make jokes with each other using noises we can’t understand (but still laugh about) in Star Wars. We’re already indoctrinated by science fiction to accept this future as a natural, inevitable outcome, and we couldn’t be happier about it.

So, when the waste band of my running shorts tells my shoes to cool off my feet, so my body temperature cools, allowing me to reach a higher natural speed, I doubt I’ll be aware that they’re having a conversation at all. In fact, I won’t even know it happened until I look at the details of my weekly fitness report and see my average cruising speed has increased. And if I can authorize my doctor and my immediate family to see those same details, I guarantee I won’t be angry if they comment about it in casual offline conversation. It would be wonderful if I could share this data with a wellness coach, so they can make adjustments to my daily regiment (diet, exercise, rest, etc) on my behalf. Granted, I’ll still eat a pint of ice cream all to myself from time to time. You can’t fight basic carnal desire…

All of this is possible with a little magic, if you choose to see it that way. Any way you look at it, we can not ignore the impact of machines on human society. I don’t think we’re headed for the Matrix, but I do believe wearable technology will change the fabric of humanity, pun absolutely intended. I, for one, would love to have a rocket-powered hover chair, which is clearly the natural evolution of the wheelchair. Duh.

A Halloween Costume Worthy of Song

I don’t often celebrate Halloween to the extent I’d prefer. Inevitably, every year the event is suddenly a week away, and I have occasion to run around like a maniac, seeking a creative solution to my lameness. This year, I am planning ahead… by a week. But! This is what 2-day shipping is for. And without further delay, I present to you my plan for costume excellence:

This evening, I purchased some awesome hardware, called a LilyPad Arduino (http://lilypadarduino.org). It’s basically a flexible circuit that can be woven into any textile product using conductive thread. It has a USB adapter that allows me to program the system from my laptop. Simply plug in, download the firmware, unplug, and go. So, what exactly are we building?

Real-time interactive motion-sensitive performance art

Using embedded wearable electronics, we combine the computing power of a microcontroller with data from an accelerometer to control the intensity of an array of red, blue, green, and white LEDs woven into the fabric. In fact, all this is sewn right into the leather. We specifically chose to use gloves for this project because the hands are often the most expressive part of the body. The position of the arms dictates the direction of gravity measured by a sensor in the wrist. This signal is carried through stainless steel thread up the back of the hand into the LilyPad, where it is used to control the timing of signals out to the LED arrays for each color. When standing with arms down by your sides, the color is blue. With arms straight out, it’s green. With arms up, it’s red.

This motion-sensitive color presentation is wonderful on its own. When combined with dance, it takes on a new dimension, especially at night. The bright color against the dark makes for an ethereal experience. But that’s not far enough. We wanted to give some extra depth and richness to the experience, some way for the dancer to control the lights, either through movement or some manual interface. So, we added interactivity to the fingers. When pressing the thumb and index finger tips together, the LEDs flash slowly. The middle finger and thumb yield a medium frequency flash. The ring finger and thumb produce a high frequency flash.

With this combination of movement and touch, the dancer conjures a very specific visual experience, blending motion, light, and song. Observant readers will note I have not described a costume for myself. No, this costume is intended for my girlfriend. I will most likely go as Zombie Steve Jobs and watch her dance. She is, after all, a ninja dancer. *smoke bomb*

Breaking the Skin: Some Thoughts on Nanotechnology

Many of us have seen Star Trek, where the doctor has this little handheld gadget that delivers medicine into your neck. It’s allegedly painless and harmless as long as you hold still. At least, that’s what the fictional dialog would have us believe. Well, this morning, in random conversation that often takes place around the front desk of First Wave Venture Center (http://firstwaveventurecenter.org), an idea was born. Probably not the first time anyone has ever thought about this, but new to us and fun to talk about.

The conversation evolved from acupuncture to an intern’s fear of needles to a story about a splinter. Somehow, we stumbled onto the concept of a blood sugar measurement kit. That prompted us to vamp about how much better it would be to extract blood for the measurement without the pin prick. Instead of thinking of a stiff metal tube that must penetrate the skin and the wall of a vein, maybe we could find another way to deliver medication or extract blood. Someone mentioned the idea of equipment inside the body that might interface with equipment outside the body to achieve the desired result.

To be clear, when I say “equipment,” I mean some man-made device implanted in the body.

I like the idea of nanotechnology embedded in my body if it’s painless, unobtrusive, and doesn’t require a recharge. If such a device could ease in the extraction of blood or delivery of medication, it’s worth any trivial irritation, especially for regular occasions. Diabetics would love to be able to test their blood sugar without pricking their finger several times a day. This all sounds great, and I can envision a surgical procedure for installation. Let’s take it one step further and challenge ourselves to do it with a device that only temporarily embeds itself in the body.

Imagine a spacefaring vessel docking at a station. (Trust me, this is going to make sense) There is typically an airlock umbilical mechanism that connects the two structures together in a way that allows people to move from one to the other without freezing and exploding in open space. The station literally reaches out to the docking ship, grabs ahold, and forces a fluid through the resulting sealed cavity. If we extend this metaphor, we might think of the station as the doctor’s gadget and the docking ship as the skin on your neck. As the surface of the gadget approaches your skin, it injects a mechanism into your skin, gently enough to leave skin undamaged, but firmly enough to transfer fluids. If we establish several of these conduits across the contact surface, we can increase the flow rate and reduce the impact of the device on the surrounding tissue. Then, once the desired amount of fluid transfers, the mechanism disengages and retracts from the skin, leaving no wound or evidence of the exchange.

We don’t yet know how to design the nanotechnology that might repeatably self-assemble and form a fluid transfer seal, nor how to protect the tissue from wear, nor how to convince the politicians that it’s safe and better than needles. Those challenges are for another day.

Endnote: special thanks to our intern, Holly Bishop, for indulging my crazy ramblings this morning, as I distracted her from her front desk duties and attempted to solve a nanobiology problem with an aerospace solution.

Power Armor, Superheroes, and Kurtzweil’s Singularity

I never was much a fan of Iron Man. I could never really relate to the character. He was too normal, just a chump in a metal suit, without any mutant powers. He can’t teleport or read minds or steal life force. He’s just a rich kid in an expensive and wholly over-designed tuxedo. Granted, a tuxedo that can fly and shoot bad guys, but still a suit, made by man. Nothing magic or mysterious about it. Lame, right?

And yet, I might use very similar words to describe Batman, and he has always been a role model to me. As I say every day, perception is complicated, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

So, I wrote off Iron Man as a child, preferring to focus on the more traditional superheroes, complete with super-human strength or laser vision, things I couldn’t ever imagine could be based in technology. To me, a superhero is special because the universe chose them by randomly imbuing them with magical powers. Sometimes, it’s more complicated than that, as in the case of Wolverine, where man meddles with destiny to exploit the mutant power toward their own ends. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the complicated things in life. Complicated is interesting.

Iron Man is complicated, much more than I ever thought as a child. Maybe it’s the innocence of youth that blinded me to the harsh truths of life. Maybe I wasn’t ready to consider addiction as a primary driving force behind what motivates us to do impossible things, both for good and evil. Since the popular movie franchise has revitalized the Iron Man persona, I’ve been digging deeper into the story. The impetus for this post was speculation about the plot line of the third installment of the movie series. Rumors are flying about what the main story will be, but it seems clear that the yin and yang of Tony Stark’s alcoholism and brilliance, coupled with the seemingly insurmountable threat of the Mandarin, will lead inevitably to the Extremis story arc. This is where nanotechnology blurs the line between man and god.

For those who haven’t read and/or watched the Extremis story, it centers on the intersection of biology with technology. It’s basically a programmable virus that can act as a means of designing new components within the body. Instead of surgically implanting silicon and cobbling together some crude interface between man and machine, we might use programmable nanotechnology to grow cybernetic organs. If this is starting to sound like Kurtzweil’s Singularity, you’ve been paying attention.

A few weeks ago, we discussed biological computing on our podcast (http://distilled.podomatic.com). We whimsically discussed some potential uses for such technology for frivolous things like weight loss. But what happens when this technology starts to find its way into society? As the capabilities of the technology evolve, we are stuck in a hopeless cycle of divergence.

As Einstein famously said, “it is a great tragedy that our technology has surpassed our humanity.”

We are doomed to continue to diverge until we take measured action to inspire more consideration for the moral and ethical growth that is necessary to govern the connected populace. Maybe Kurtzweil was wrong. Yes, the technology is inevitable. It will continue to advance at breath-taking speed. Text-by-thought is no more than 10yrs away, and that barely begins to address the magic of tomorrow’s technology. As we experience this unavoidable intersection of man and machine, it is critical that we remember to remain grounded, lest we lose all of ourselves in the phoenix fire.

We can not predict the extents of our technological capabilities 25yrs from now, but we can guarantee total global annihilation if our moral and ethical evolution does not keep pace with technology. Humanity may not be ready for Iron Man, but power armor will be available on the consumer market before the end of this century. If we do not have an enlightened sensibility about the governance of such incredible power, wielded by average citizens, we will surely suffer. Maybe we can start by putting even 10% of the defense budget into education about peace, mutual prosperity, and tolerance. God knows we’re going to need it. And by “God” I mean Iron Man. In 50yrs, it may be hard to distinguish between them.

Why Apple Has Already Won

Hopefully, after reading the title, you’re now thinking I’m an obnoxious Apple fanboy. In many respects, you’re not wrong. I’ll ask you to set that aside for a moment, though. I promise this post is objective (mostly).

Opening Thoughts

Let me start off by stating the obvious. Apple started first. Before the iPad, the next best thing was a netbook (yawn). Sure, iPhones were very popular, but there was a big gap between the phone and laptop form factors, and most manufacturers questioned the value of introducing a product in the middle. Before the iPhone hit the market, there were some stylus-based convertible laptops, but they never really captivated the market. Netbooks offered an inexpensive option with less power and smaller screens, in exchange for better battery life. However, they suffered from the same isolation problem that all laptops had prior to the App Store. Getting apps for a netbook is virtually impossible if you are not tech savvy. Knowing where to go to find apps for your netbook was easy for DIY folks with lots of free time to learn the intricacies of Linux. Common folks are not apt (pun intended) to use a command-line tool to install software on their device. They don’t know how a virtual machine works or why they would need Java to run something they downloaded from some dark corner of the internet. For them, it must be simple.

Ecosystem

If Microsoft is to have any success with their Surface tablet, they must offer an easy centralized way to find apps for people to buy, download, and use on their tablet. They can not rely on the hope that the user only needs word processing, web browsing, social networking, and photo sharing. They must offer customers the ability to find and easily install software that is not preloaded, software that is designed specifically for the device by a third party. Apple already has 6yrs of experience doing exactly that.

With over half a million apps, Apple has a more diverse collection of software than all other sources on the planet combined (I have no proof for this, but I believe it to be true), and it’s all available for sale in one place on every user’s device. More importantly, it’s a curated list. There are no viruses, spyware or malware apps, or even trojan horses. Apple has strict rules for publishing apps, and they’re very serious about security. Their policies promoted an ecosystem that attracted developers and customers in droves. Microsoft has yet to announce anything like this.

Developer Relations

The best hardware in the world with the most sophisticated interface and the cleanest, prettiest display won’t make a lick of difference if there’s no software to run on it. If you can’t inspire developers to publish apps on your platform, you’re dead before you ever take off. Apple was very wise to launch to developers first, before they ever spent a penny in consumer advertising. By approaching key developers from a wide variety of software genres (games, productivity, etc), Apple guaranteed that when it came time to launch a few months later, consumers would have a substantial collection of apps to browse. This included many popular and familiar titles from the desktop/laptop world.

Yes, it’s true that the very first iPhone launched with only apps developed by Apple, but remember we’re talking about iPad, not iPhone. There were over 200k apps on the App Store when the iPad launched. Today, there are over half a million. As of about a month ago, there were 883 titles available on the Xbox 360 (source: http://www.statisticbrain.com/xbox-statistics/). As a point of reference, there are over 90k iOS developers.

Marketing

Apple has always been masters of design and usability, but their real strength is in marketing. When they launch a product, they hold an event where they literally put it on a pedestal on stage, point a camera at it, and say “behold!” They highlight the feature offering, and give the audience just enough to get excited before moving on. Then, at the end, they tell you how much it costs and when it will be available. People stand in a queue for hours, waiting for the slim chance that the Apple Store will have enough iPads for them. Mock these people if you like (I do), but you can’t deny the statement they’re making.

Today’s Microsoft event, unveiling the Surface tablet, involved a lot of repetition. Balmer really seemed to want to hammer home how awesome this product is. The harder he tries to sell it, though, the less exciting it is. There are some interesting features being introduced with this tablet, but there was no mystery or magic in this launch. Plus, they didn’t bother to tell anyone when it would be available nor how much they would cost. This means people can certainly yearn for it, but they can’t start saving for it or planning their budget for it.

Conclusion

Microsoft has had plenty of opportunity to plan the “iPad killer” product that would shift the balance of the tablet space back toward the middle. They’ve seen three generations of iPads launched. They’ve seen the meteoric rise in sales figures that Apple publishes each quarter. They needed to do everything at least as well as Apple does, and they fell short. This is why they’ll always be playing catch-up, hoping to find that magic formula that inspires millions to buy their product, but never quite getting there.

The only thing that would change this analysis is end-user price. If Microsoft offers this device at $150-200, that would put it at or below the price of most Android tablets, but with better features. I expect the price to be closer to $400, which is low enough to beat the low-end iPad. Don’t be surprised, though, if they achieve this by cutting corners on built-in storage (4gb?) and hyping up the SD card slot.