What would we do without Alexa? She is so handy to have around the house, and doesn’t demand too much. Just a little electricity to keep her “turned on.” Now she can do even more. She may not be the only little device that can do all these tricks using voice commands to control light switches, thermostats and other smart home appliances, but she seems to be the most popular. And no new app is required in the case of turning the lights on and off, if you already have Alexa in your home.
Alexa and Ikea are now a couple and to work together all they really need are some voice-enabled light bulbs (you buy them). It’s almost like having a live-in pair who can answer questions for you, play music, and now, turn the lights on and off. The “marriage” of Alexa and Ikea is also a marketing boon for the smart home business. Amazon has said there have been “tens of millions of Alexa devices” sold, including various devices in Amazon’s Echo family of products and those from independent device makers as well. Smart home usage of various devices is growing rapidly.
Smart homes for smart people? It still might be fun to do these things ourselves. Maybe we will start having device-free days just to reminisce about the way life used to be.
Remember the Yellow Pages? I know I am walking down memory lane a lot lately, but things are changing so quickly. I often like to think about life before tech because it has certainly changed the way we do just about everything. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! What would we do now without Amazon or Google? As long as you are near a computer screen in whatever form you prefer, you can probably survive living alone on an island provided there is connectivity and free home delivery.
Here is what one NY Times reporter noted recently: “When the kids were born, it (Amazon) become my household Costco – supplier of diapers and other baby gear. Then it began a services designed to remove any decision-making from shopping: My toilet paper, paper towels and other consumables now come to my house on schedule, no thinking required. Then Amazon moves into media, and I was more hooked: It had me for packaged goods, so why not movies and TV shows too?” And now there is even more. Amazon gave us Echo, the company’s talking computer which speaks through a persona known as Alexa, and which has now infected American families like a happy virus.
But if it’s not Amazon for you, it’ll be one of other tech giants: Alphabet (Google), Apple, Facebook, or Microsoft. It’s too late to escape.
Do you ever think of social media as a business that has to be regulated in order to ensure fair competition in this marketing space. In the period of ten years we have gone from a time when the American marketplace was dominated by companies such as Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Microsoft, Citigroup and Bank of America to a new era of technology companies replacing them in the size of their market caps. Microsoft remains in the middle of this group at #3, but is now joined by its largest tech competitors: Apple (1), Alphabet (2, Google parent company), Amazon (4), and Facebook (5). We may eventually have to regulate these tech giants if they are determined to truly be monopolies that limit competition by smaller tech businesses in this space.
“We are going to have to decide fairly soon whether Google, Facebook and Amazon are the kinds of natural monopolies that need to be regulated, or whether we allow the status quo to continue, pretending that unfettered monoliths don’t inflict damage on our privacy and democracy. It is impossible to deny that Facebook, Google and Amazon have stymied innovation on a broad scale. To begin with, the platforms of Google and Facebook are the point of access to all media for the majority of Americans. While profits at Google, Facebook and Amazon have soared, revenues in media businesses like newspaper publishing or the music business have, since 2001, fallen by 70 percent.” So most Americans can now “proudly” say that they only know what they see on their computer screens (of varying sizes). Maybe this is really how all those fake news stories began?
Fewer newspaper readers, but more “screen” readers. Let’s face it, our social media markets are like the Wild West of the Digital Age. Maybe we do need a few Marshall Dillons to protect all of us law-abiding citizens (anyone remember Gunsmoke?).
Unfortunately, the censorship of apps on the Internet is a much easier tool for repressive governments to apply. In countries such as China and Russia, it is like a return to the “good old days” when books were banned by totalitarian governments or local authorities and other self-appointed censors. It seems like censoring apps can be done in a very effective and efficient way if any government so chooses. Banning an app from an App Store is like shutting down the printing press before the book is ever published. If the app isn’t in a country’s App Store, it effectively doesn’t exist. The censorship is nearly total and inescapable.
In the last few weeks, the Chinese government compelled Apple to remove the New York Times apps from the Chinese version of the App Store. Then the Russian government had Apple and Google pull the app for LinkedIn, the professional social network, after the networks declined to relocate its data on Russian citizens to servers in that country. Finally, two weeks ago, a Chinese regulator asked App Stores operating in the country to register with the government, an apparent precursor to wider restrictions on app marketplaces.
Decentralized communications was once a central promise of the Internet. Not any more. Big brother may be watching, and blocking.
Figuratively speaking that is. But this all about how technology has expanded as an industry that has a global reach. Not only in terms of the powers of the Internet, but its effect on humanity around the world. Many different races and people from all corners of the globe can now benefit and contribute to its continuing growth and reach. Silicon Valley has brought some of the most talented tech “workers” from around the world into the U.S. We are talking about companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft. Trump’s proposed immigration ban could impair the ability of top U.S. companies to recruit and retain such talent in order to better compete globally.
In a company-wide email, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, stated his opposition very clearly, particularly in terms of its impact on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. “I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply concerned about the executive order issued yesterday restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. I share your concerns. It is not a policy we support.” In open letters and other public statements during the Presidential campaign, tech executives and workers also objected to Trump’s anti-Muslim statements, and some signed onto a commitment not to help design his proposed Muslim registry.
Well, it’s the start of another work week at the White House. Although it’s only the second one, it already seems like a long time from the inauguration. I’m still waiting for the part where we become “great again!”
If you like the sight of “delivery drones” hovering over your head wherever you may be, then maybe the United Kingdom is the place for you. Not all Brits, however, are enthusiastic about this prospect. As one unhappy British citizen expressed: “They are testing the drones over here because they can’t do it in America. Whatever the Americans don’t want, I don’t want it either.” Talk about your trans-Atlantic alliances. Aversion to remotely controlled airborne technology may actually be strengthening international partnerships around the world. Amazon is in the forefront in the U.K. and retailers in other countries are already testing how these drones may play a more strategic role in their delivery of products that they sell online.
In Britain, Amazon is working with local authorities to test several aspects of drone technology like piloting the machines beyond the line of sight of operators, a practice still outlawed in the United States. It seems that much of the drone opposition is rooted in concerns for the historical preservation of the countryside that played a large part in Britain’s past. For example, the Friends of the Roman Road, a local organization that maintains centuries-old public footpaths near the Amazon drone testing site in Cambridgeshire, fear that the drones represent a threat to local wildlife and the wider countryside. Drones flying overhead would certainly detract from appreciating the historical significance of the Roman Road and the role it played in ancient times.
I guess we all know that times do change, but surely some things are worth preserving. Droneless skies over sites of historical preservation are well worth our consideration. Think of them as new types of “no-fly” zones.
Well maybe Tim Berners-Lee really did invent the Internet after all. Sorry Al Gore, but it looks like Mr. Beeners-Lee may become the most famous and richest early Internet pioneer. At least you still have that Nobel Peace Prize for “An Inconvenient Truth.” But enough about ancient history, let’s talk about 1-Click online shopping. Berners-Lee and hundreds of millions online shoppers have successfully lobbied the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to streamline online payments. A concept, I am sure, that we will all come to love. Particularly if you enjoy staying home, and/or spend all or most of your day online wherever you are.
More than half of online purchases now happen on mobile phones, and many more would probably happen if the online checkout process was simplified. Only forty percent of the customers who start filling a shopping cart online finish their transactions. The W3C has managed to bring in about forty of the biggest players in online commerce. PayPal and Amazon are two of the most notable holdouts. Both have gained business and fees with more streamlined checkout processes. Same old story: no one wants to wait in the checkout line whether online or in the store.
In this brave new world, your fingers will truly do the “walking,” as they used to say in the old Yellow Pages ads. Only you will not have to “walk” very far. Just 1-Click away.
“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The sweet smell in this case refers to the emergence of tech companies as stock market leaders in the U.S. At the close of trading on August 1, the four most valuable companies on the Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index (S.&P.) were tech companies: APPLE, GOOGLE, Microsoft and Amazon. That meant that tech companies, by one common definition, occupied the four top spots in the market capitalization rankings, a rare and brief occurrence.
We can easily identified these companies as “tech companies” in the traditional sense, but the fact of the matter is that the most successful businesses or companies on the S.&P. today are using technology to fuel their continued growth and expansion. These days every company is a tech company, but some have better niches, faster growth, more attractive offerings or more favorable share prices than others. Tech has already taken over in nearly every business sector.
So what’s in a name? Do we identify these stock market leaders as “information technology companies,” or do you prefer “consumer discretionary companies”? Your choice.
And now for something completely different. This past week a new book was published on Amazon as well as other online book publishing formats. I authored one of the essays in this book: “Changed During the Sixties.” The book’s title is “Turning Points: Discovering Meaning and Passion in Turbulent Times.” I hope you will enjoy reading these essays about personal and professional transitions made during this time.
During the remainder of August, I will only be posting commentary on Mondays. I will be “resting” on Labor Day, but will resume my posts on a regular M-W-F basis on September 12.
Google is really just one of over a hundred websites blocked in mainland China. How do I know this, besides reading about it in the New York Times? As I mentioned in previous posts, I landed in Guangzhou, China, in flying to and from Hanoi over the past two months. I politely told one of the hostesses in the airport travelers’ lounge that I was unable to connect to Google, and received a very terse reply, “No Google.” Once over the border into Vietnam, I again became part of the Internet world, or at least to that part of the connected world where I spend a lot of my time.
I only revisited this topic in reading the Times’ article this week about China’s Internet Czar, Lu Wei, “stepping down” from his post. He had visited the U.S. this year and met with some of Silicon Valley’s giants such as Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg (I think he even wore a tie for the occasion). The Times article describes this leadership change as “a surprise move, but unlikely to signal a change in restrictive digital policies.” As for Mr. Wei, please don’t worry too much. China experts predict that he will likely end up getting a promotion in another area of the bureaucracy. It’s not uncommon for these important positions to be moved around frequently. Not exactly like the “up or out” policies in many other workplaces around the world.
What will happen next in terms of China’s digital policies is really anyone’s guess. Now if you had access to Google, you could probably just type in “social media in China.” I just did and got “very local and fragmented.” I guess that’s it, for now?
My apologies, but I couldn’t resist paraphrasing this “Donald Trumpism.” It’s just that now is that time of year when education publishers, and now tech companies, start to unveil the latest and most exciting “products” for the next school term beginning in September. So, I think the big news here is the dramatic change in the traditional textbook sales business. Here is a more professional analysis from the Software and Information Industry Association: “Schools in the United States spend more than $8.3 billion annually on software and digital content . . . That spending could grow significantly as school districts that now buy physical textbooks, assessment tests, professional development resources for teachers and administrative materials shift to digital systems.” Goodbye, Mr. Chips!
This trend has certainly not gone unnoticed in the digital publishing world. Publishing giants such as Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and in online higher education, edX, have easily recognized the business value of making their products and services more available digitally. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) is now holding its annual 2016 convention in Denver this year, and if you attend the proceedings there with 16,000 other teachers and school officials, or follow them remotely, you will be introduced to these new digital ventures in a more formal way. Remember the days when you had to go to the Bookstore each semester?
Please believe me that I am not really trying to be nostalgic, well maybe a little. During my college summers I packed and shipped textbooks to university campuses in the U.S. for the Collier-Macmillan Publishing Company. Now technology can do all that for you personally. I often wonder if I have actually been replaced by a robot?
They really do need us. Just when I was starting to worry that Artificial Intelligence (AI) would become so pervasive that it would eclipse our limited human capacities, I now read that the tech behemoths (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft) are now hiring real people to make these virtual assistants sound more human. Microsoft, for example, has hired poets, novelists, playwrights and former television writers to be members of their writing teams. So technology may help us become more literate after all, or at least will provide more employment opportunities for those who are literate. Oh, I forgot to include comedians in the list of desired writing team members. That makes me happy!
This is very good news for job seekers in the U.S. By 2025, 12.7 million new U.S. Jobs will involve building robots or automation software; by 2019, more than one-third of the workforce will be working side by side with such technologies. That’s only three years away (Forester Data). What a change in the work place! In the old days you just had to worry about getting along (or not) with the humans you worked with. Now you will have to get along with your “artificial” colleagues as well. I’m not sure that they will become supervisory personnel in the future, but I would guess that many of you are thinking that you have already worked for some real “bots” in the past.
Some early studies of human-robot interaction have found that attempts to make robots seem more humanlike can inspire unease or revulsion instead of empathy. Maybe we all just have to learn to “get along,” but I don’t know if robots can be programmed for that?
I know I have been posting frequently about Facebook’s role in the social media world, but they are truly becoming the leader in shaping your reading habits. Or should I say making you more comfortable in just subscribing to the news you want to read. Other tech companies are also competing in this contest of becoming subscribers’ gateway to the digital world; such as Google starting a social network, Amazon making a phone, and Apple helping you shop online.
Now what’s wrong with that? I guess that’s something we all have to decide, but a couple things come to mind as possible pitfalls in self-selecting the news or information we want to receive. When the protests were happening in Ferguson, Missouri, there was little commentary on these events on Facebook. One advertising website recently reported that just three years ago, forty percent of traffic came from search engines and fourteen percent from social media. Today, social media has outpaced search engines as the preferred gateway to that site.
I may be overreacting but I hope that we will all maintain some autonomy in the use of our digital “guides.” Let’s be careful that they don’t become our “Big Brothers.”