Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Don screams into his laptop at Pandora.com: computer says no

Speedbumps on the road to the era of you

"No, NO, NO!! That is not what I want! Stop it!!"  That's me, this past weekend, rushing to click "thumbs down" again, and increasingly frustrated with each bad choice suggested to me by Pandora.com.  My situation: long-time enthusiast and Pandora user, multi-year payer of the annual $36 premium for ad-free Pandora One.  Trying to create a new station called "Jazz Bistro with Piano," that would recreate the feeling of a small acoustic jazz club, good music for twilight on into a peaceful evening.

The reality: bumping over and over into Pandora's music choice algorithm, which can't understand what I want, and has no means by which I can tell it.  After a while I had clicked "thumbs down" so many times I ran into the daily limit on skipped songs, so my custom radio station just stared at me blankly when I tried to give it feedback, one of those dreaded "computer says no" situations.

The state of personalization for ideas that involve personal taste, like music and movies has a long way to go. Right now, we could call it the era of "a little bit of you." Let's go into the Pandora experience and see this in action.

Example one:  my "Indigo Girls" station is acoustic singer-songwriters, with a bit of preference for female artists.  Besides the namesake duo, it's a natural place for artists like Carole King, James Taylor, and Laura Nyro.  Also for Mary Chapin Carpenter, or so I thought; Pandora groups her with country artists, making her an outlier in my station, but still well within my taste.  Alas, the result is an  open door to all sorts of country music I don't want on this station, and no way to instruct the system that Ms. Carpenter appeals for other reasons.  I like country music sometimes, but this station isn't where I want to hear it.

Cartoon from xkcd.com
Back to the "Jazz Bistro" effort: as you may know, you "seed" a Pandora station with artists or songs, and the system tries to figure out what you like.  In theory, a "thumbs up or thumbs down" toggle allows you to teach the station to reflect your preferences more closely.  But it works very poorly.  Case in point for this station: I seeded it with the name of French pop jazz composer Claude Bolling.  In the 70s, his "Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano" was the heart and soul of many a brunch, many a fern bar.  It was on the best seller charts for 10 years.  Bolling would be a great addition to my new station.  What does Pandora pick up on?  French. Flute. Classical (because Bolling was sold under a classical label.)  I spent the next 5 songs in a row clicking "NO" on classical french flute pieces, and finally went back in frustration to delete poor Mr. Bolling altogether.  It wasn't his fault, he was a victim of "a little bit of you," in which Pandora uses a sledgehammer where a pair of tweezers would have been a better tool.

Last year, Fast Company did a feature on Pandora's efforts to add social features, and to refine personalization.  They quoted Chief Technology Officer Tom Conrad, who believes that "personalization is the foundation for the total product and user experience."

Here's the thing: it's just not that personalized yet. Pandora is very proud of its Music Genome Project, which seeks to identify metadata on millions of pieces of music, feeding the ability of the algorithm to find music you like.  It's now added features to add input from others like you through the social tools.  But the core of "music you like," your own feedback, is still remarkably coarse and of limited use.  The general feeling Pandora's selection process offers is, "you're not really qualified to do something this advanced, but we are."

Pandora is a case where personalization has a good start, but with two steps, it can fully enter the era of you and give each user a richer experience.  Not to mention, it can give Pandora a competitive edge against a raft of competitors in the music recommendation field.

--Let users specify the elements that are important to them: for my attempted Jazz Bistro station, it would include

  • Jazz or jazz influence
  • Acoustic
  • solo or small ensemble
  • Mix of vocal and instrumental pieces
  • Some specific artists of my choice: like the Claude Bolling example above, or Bobby Short, who is to me the ultimate jazz bistro artist. 
--Use the Music Genome Project resources, but temper it with user input: When I went back to the Jazz Bistro station I've been trying to create, the first selection was by Nat King Cole.  That's good, in general, his music is perfect.  So I clicked, "why was this track selected" and got this:  "Based on what you've told us so far, we're playing this track because it features swing elements, smooth vocals, romantic lyrics, an electric guitar solo and a piano solo."  Right, as far as it goes, but I don't want electric guitar, especially a solo.  Each time this dialog comes up, Pandora should let me thumbs down the characteristics that don't fit and thumbs up the ones that matter. It should also be heuristic to learn the common metadata elements that drive my choices for this station.  

Extreme personalization can go the other way as well, into Pandora's own infrastructure and licensing models.  Last year I discussed this in an article on new models of content ownership based on our emerging stateless future.  The gist of it is this:  if I pay once, anywhere, for a license for personal use of a song, video, book, or software, it is my right to consume it anywhere, at any time, on the device of my choosing.  If I've ever bought James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," a Pandora micro-personalization subroutine should be able to poll my library of purchased works, and not pay a performance royalty to stream it to me.  If giving me the best possible personal radio station is the external expression of the era of you, this model is its internal, enterprise expression. 

I'm still trying to get my new station right, and ever-hopeful for the success of Pandora.com.  They are so close to being great, and I'd much rather have the imperfect version of today than be tied to old-fashioned terrestrial radio.  They just need to understand that personalization works best when you remember to involve the person at the deepest levels. 

You can listen to the two stations I discussed:

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The $4 Million Complaint Call | Inc.com

Inc. Magazine presents a great example of the idea that customer service is really the heart of social business, and something many companies don't understand.

In the era of you, individuals--customers--have much greater power to influence your success or failure.

The $4 Million Complaint Call | Inc.com:

'via Blog this'

Friday, June 15, 2012

My year with a Chromebook and ChromeOS: stateless in real life

Today is the one-year anniversary of the delivery of my Samsung Chromebook, the first commercially-available laptop with a stateless operating system.  So how did it go?  I'll do this in bullet points, ending with a few about what's going right with ChromeOS, and why many people still don't understand what's going on here.

--The best thing I can say about ChromeOS is that I haven't used anything else for the whole year.  There are a few exceptions: I've booted up my Windows laptop to use Skype, because some friends and I use it to stay in touch; there is no Skype version for ChromeOS.  That's more habit than anything else, Google Chat and Google Voice are fine substitutes, but the friend I talk with most often has trouble getting them to work on his Mac.  I've occasionally needed to create or edit something in Microsoft Office-compatible formats, and the locally-installed version of OpenOffice on my Windows computer still does that a little better than Google Docs. Since June 15, 2011, everything you've seen on Infrics.com has been written, formatted, and published from my Chromebook.

--Although I'm still using the same machine as a year ago, ChromeOS has grown into a completely new operating system in that time, with windows, a taskbar, drag-and-drop file ability, and as of today, even a desktop I can customize with my own images.  ChromeOS did another of its silent, in-the-background updates yesterday, and new features appeared like magic.  Notice that my own photo of the Golden Gate Bridge is now the desktop.

--One of the biggest challenges I faced a year ago was that ChromeOS didn't have a cloud-based equivalent of the familiar C:/ drive from my old computer.  I could--and sometimes had to--store things locally on the flash drive. It's still there, but in the Developer-mode version of ChromeOS I'm running, storage is now fully cloud integrated with Google Drive. I can save to, attach from, rename, delete, and drag-to-move files on the cloud directory as easily as those stored on my local machine. Or from one to the other, as shown in this screen capture.

Looks familiar: dragging a file from local storage to Google Drive, using windows on a desktop.
--I've never once been interrupted by a nag screen to update anything, or a virus scan that needs to run; neither of those is needed or possible on ChromeOS.

--The "what will I do if I have no internet" fear turns out to be unfounded. WiFi is almost everywhere, and when it's not, I use the built-in 3G Verizon connection, prepaid at 100mb/month free for two years.  Even though 100 megs is practically nothing in today's use patterns, I've never once used up the entire allotment in a month.

What's going right:

--Improvements to the user interface (UI).  The windowing environment is familiar and comfortable.  But it's all rendered using browser technologies, and has all the inherent benefits of a stateless OS.  It just LOOKS like other operating systems. I can take a sledgehammer to this machine, and not lose a thing; all I need do is sign on to a new one, and my whole world is there at once.  No other OS can make this claim, and it's huge.

--Upgrades to file management that reduce the need to store anything on the local machine.

--Improvements to web applications and Chrome extensions that extend the value of the "world from the cloud" experience.  The Google Docs suite of products is getting better--a lot better--all the time. There are more and better web apps every day, like the whole suite of photo and audio tools now available from Aviary.com.

--New ChromeOS computers that use increased power to improve the UI in resolution and speed. The heart of the stateless idea is that the local machine provides connection to the cloud and the elements of a good UI experience; that's where you can add bells and whistles with good effect.

What people still don't "get."

--Complaints about the ability to run applications locally.  They miss the point: you use a stateless OS so that you don't need local apps at all. Google has added offline viewing of documents and e-mail, and ChromeOS has always had the ability to display .pdfs, play stored audio, and show locally stored images when not connected.  But each of those is geared for what turns out to be a very small number of cases, and the number of times when the ability to run offline apps is truly needed is growing smaller by the day. Working to make the offline experience on ChromeOS more like a legacy computer is wasted energy at best, a betrayal of the stateless promise at worst.

--Comparisons to Windows-this or Mac-that.  Microsoft and Apple are battling each other to make a better steam locomotive, while the stateless future is one of jets and rockets.  Fat OSes are just plain old-fashioned now, they are only relevant because of legacy, not because of need.  If I were AAPL or MS, I'd fight to perpetuate my fat operating system, too.  But I consider that battle to be essentially over, and they both lost.

--The idea that ChromeOS devices should be cheap.  I have to confess to mixed feelings about this; yes, you need less machine to run the stateless world, that's a big part of the stateless appeal.  Some stateless devices should be so cheap as to be practically throwaways, but some may be very elegant expressions of personal taste, status, and professional standing.  Today, we're somewhere in the middle.  But it does appear clear that the initial prices we're seeing for new-generation Chromebooks reflect the ability to get people to pay more in order to say "look, I'm first."  Look for prices to drop within 6 months.

Clearly, I have a point of view here, and it's on the side of any stateless device. But I don't arrive at those feelings out of thin air.  For a look at the Infrics.com complete coverage of stateless, click the Stateless Future tab on the page header.

More soon.  Please let me know of your own experiences, or your thoughts about ChromeOS and stateless, either in the comments, or e-mail, or message me on Google+.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The lure of the moving image, cloud cameras, and personal social networks: Sensr.net, part 2

Open source dog and cat images: openiconlibrary
Camera image: Sensr.net

This is the second part of my talk with Sensr.net co-founder Tom Sheffler.  In this part of our discussion, we learn that shared video can create important social networks that are personal and small, rather than large and wide-ranging.  We discuss the role of emerging technologies, and which will be most important (hint: bandwidth is big.)  Sheffler reflects on the expectation that internet services should be free, and how that impacts a company that both gives away and charges for its services. (read the first part of the interview here.)

DH:  One of the areas, one of the artifacts of the emerging world of business and technology is that they collide in new ways.  Small firms can look bigger, but conversely, with social technologies, if they do it right, a big firm can be more personal.  I think that’s a much bigger challenge for the big firm to find a way to relate to their millions of customers more individually.  It looks like a promise, and that leads me into what you’re seeing about the social use of video.

TS:  This is really interesting.  We had a researcher from Intel contact some of our users directly and she also took a look at our site, and what’s happening is that people--what she observed and we’ve observed--is that some people use the remote viewing of a space as a way to share an experience and to bond.  We’ve noticed a couple of examples, very small ways, but fascinating.

One case she gave was a guy who had a camera in his garage, focused on the dog. And he shared his view by sharing his account with his mother, who was in another state, and his mother used to look at the dog, used to love to, as a way to bond with her son.  One day the dog got out, or was eating something he shouldn’t.  The mom texted the son, saying “I just saw your dog, you better get home and take care of him.”  So they had this way of mom and son, over many, many miles, bonding over the shared remote viewing of the dog, so there’s this very small social circle forming around a shared resource, which is very different from a big social network like Facebook or something.  

On an individual level, because I’m building this service, I see how people are using it.  We have live views and I’ve seen people tuning in every day at their home from Cupertino and DC, and we’re not sure exactly what we’re doing, but somehow a traveler and someone at home, they would use the live feature to keep watch over something.  We’re trying to facilitate shared use of the camera for very small, very personal social networks.

DH:  So a child halfway across the country could keep an eye on an aged parent...

TS: Exactly. And to help that, we now have the ability to invite other users to view your camera and also share text on there if you want.  The use of watching your parent, that’s a great example.  You may not need to see what they’re doing every day, exactly what they’re doing, but it’s enough to see that, “OK, Dad got up and moved around today.”  You can imagine an older parent with each of their children being granted access to that camera.  And our job is to provide the security that no one’s looking at that that shouldn’t be.  We do see people sharing a view of a space as a way to stay in touch with each other, and a way to facilitate a personal relationship. So it’s not just a tech tool.

DH: As if their house were next door when it can’t be physically.

TS: And sometimes I think a passive viewing of a space, is a little bit...it seems that people like it in a way that’s different from picking up a phone and having a very structured communication. It’s “ah, I want to see what’s going on over there. OK, everything’s good.”

DH: Do you think, as bandwidths improve, you’ll see a market for essentially, a picture window, where there will be high definition cameras at amazing viewpoints around the world, and you can choose what you’re seeing?  Would Sensr.net be part of delivering that, do you think, or would that be someone else’s business?

TS:  We could be part of delivering that.  We’re a video delivery, but we’re also an archive and analyze platform, too.  We’re definitely going to be providing that, and we have stop motion video now, we’ll have smoother video.

DH: As the technologies, the enabling technologies for your business evolve and get better, what impacts do you see on your ability to do what you do? In terms of bandwidth and cameras, what are you thinking about along those lines?

TS: Sensr.net’s been up an running for over two years, two and a half years, we’ve been working on this for three years, and we’ve seen a noticeable speed increase in uploads and downloads, and downloads to handheld devices in particular.  Some of what we were trying to do a few years ago seemed very aggressive in terms of the end-user bandwidth to the home and the bandwidth to the viewer. We shot for an aggressive bandwidth growth; we shot for performance on uploads and downloads that seemed a little aggressive at the time and now is working very well for us.

DH: I came to know of Sensr.net by talking to Jenna at Mission Cats, I don’t know if she was one of your early customers, but she’s certainly a fan, and I see on your website that you have a picture of Mission Cats as one of your customers.  It looks great.

TS:  Yeah I personally love Mission Cats, they’re big fans of ours.

DH: The ability of individuals to choose and deploy technology has certainly changed a lot in the last ten years, even in the last five.  The ability of a company of yours to come into existence, essentially just buying things out of thin air as services from other cloud providers, has changed a lot, too.  Is this your first startup?

TS: It’s my first startup.

DH: Tell me what it’s like to begin a company with those kinds of technological abilities that you have now...

TS: The things I’ve worked on have always been about high performance.  I was with NASA, I worked on supercomputers.  (When I was with Rambus) I worked on the memory chips for PlayStation 3...the fastest memory chips on the planet when we made it.  So when I saw this challenge, I saw a tremendous amount of compute power and bandwidth growing, and I thought, ‘What I know how to do is to manage complexity and bring it to people,” so this has been really exciting, because we’re building something that really hasn’t existed in this form--as a consumer, public cloud service.  It’s really exciting to me, not just to build it, but to watch people like Jenna put it work.  (They tell us) ‘We’re using this so that the parents of our guests (that’s what they call the kitties) can look in and see what’s going on, and that’s a capability that Jenna wouldn’t have been able to put up servers or video relays, or develop plug-ins.  She didn’t have to.  But make no mistake, they’re very sophisticated.  

They’ve got cameras and software set up, and an alarm system.  Have you met her?

DH: I interviewed her at Mission Cats when I was here in November.  I do cat rescue, I have cats at home.  7x7 San Francisco did a feature on them, and I learned about 7x7 because (author of Tales of the City) Armistead Maupin posted about the 7x7 website on his Facebook page.  So because of that post by Armistead Maupin I knew of them, and because of visiting them, I knew of you.  And that in itself is a kind of social thing that is unlike what we have been used to in the past.  

How would a company like Sensr.net have made itself known to the world before the existence of the online social world out there?

TS: We’ve done a good job I think in blogging and capturing word of mouth.  I personally like Mission Cats because I like what they’re doing.

We’ve had one round of investment...a lot of the way we’ve built the traffic and the business is through very personal channels. I have my own blog. We’ve done search engine optimization.  In the end, it’s just all work.

DH: The process of innovation, where someone looks at A and B, and sees the C--I’ve written a couple of articles on what I call technology triggers.  For instance, the invention of the cassette led people to accept the idea of mobility for their music. With the Sony Walkman, people began to think of music as something that was mobile and that they could structure--mixtapes.  And then the advent of the CD introduced the digital format, and along came broadband.  The outcome was the near-destruction of the CD industry because it couldn’t adapt to the “C” that the “A” and “B” created, the possibility of shared music.  

I’m always curious to think about what’s going on right now, what technologies are the “A” and “B” now that some creative minds are out there saying, ‘if I can do THAT, and I have THIS ability, then I can create this product.  You guys seem like a classic example of the growing pervasiveness and lower cost of home-based cameras, the pervasiveness of internet connection and the presence of cloud-based storage and traffic management services, so the outcome of all of that is the ability to have a company like yours.

TS: The cameras have been around for a number of years. Individual home bandwidths have been really important for making this a usable system.  Another thing is just the pervasiveness of WiFi in homes.  I’d say that’s kind of an obvious one, but most of these cameras are wireless and it really hasn’t been until fairly recently that people are comfortable putting all sorts of WiFi devices in their homes.  It’s been a couple of years now.

DH: We probably have ten or so in our own home.  

TS: Think back ten years ago, which is an age ago in internet time.  I don’t think I had anything wireless. And now I have music systems and computers and cameras. If I do a network scan, there’s 20 things that show up, some of which are things that are not computers that I interact with myself, they’re machines talking to machines.  

Part of the genesis of Sensr.net, the reason the name is “sensor” and not “camera” is because we saw--and Adam, our CEO, had a lot to do with this vision--a future of all sorts of things emitting data.  Machines that sense their environment and send out information about that environment.

DH: Would your product tap into that as it emerges?

TS: Yeah.  What happened was, we built some environmental sensors, for example a power sensor monitoring a TV, we had light sensors.  And the graphs of these data were interesting, but what was really captivating was video. There’s just no way around that. Video grabs peoples’ attention. That’s what people seemed to be interested in.  I think going forward, it would be great to be able to cross-correlate data of environments with visual representations of those environments.

One of the problems with video is there’s just too much of it.  If you want to make sense of a remote environment, we believe that compute power in the cloud can help.  And right now we offer a somewhat simple version of video summarization.  We capture the frames where something’s happened, and we’ve thrown away a lot of it, and we help bubble up to the top the most important information through summaries.

DH: ...but the machine interpretation of what’s going on is completely in its infancy.

TS: It’s very primitive right now.  I would say that right now, Sensr.net is laying the pipes for funneling the information around, and we’re doing some elementary analysis.  But I can imagine a world where, you walk in and one camera picks you up and a sensor notices a light change, and you travel to a different camera, and up in the cloud we’re seeing “here’s Donald. He entered this room, he entered another room.”  We can stitch these together and summarize the scene and mail it to Tom, who’s responsible for managing this space.

DH: Or send me a text if my ex shows up at my front door.  Or any number of possibilities. What about third party analysis and search enablement of your publicly-displayed video?

TS: Right, right, like a Twitter feed...

DH: Or if Google starts monitoring Sensr.net public feeds and say you want an image of the new Audi model, and it could analyze the cameras and tell you if one is nearby.  In the new Avengers movie, there’s a scene where they’re looking for Loki, the bad guy, and they’re using technology to analyze every publicly-available video feed in the world, and they stop him when he shows up in Germany.

TS: People see things like that in movies and they come to expect it, and then it comes to be.  It’ll happen.  

DH: When I saw that, I started to think about your company.

TS: I know in security agencies they have the ability to scan crowds using high-def cameras.  What we’re trying to do is to bring some of those very advanced supercomputer techniques to a level where consumers have access to it.

DH: It may not be that far away.

TS. It’s probably NOT going to be that far away.  We already do have the ability to recognize faces in a feed, so with fairly elementary motion detection we can annotate images where we see something moving.  In the lab, we can detect the presence of a face, which is an interesting thing.  We don’t know whose face it is.  It could be an intruder, it could be the UPS guy, but just the presence of a face could be interesting enough to generate a text.  A person has shown up at your house.

DH: People like you, who are involved in unifying those information feeds, are a part of a bigger picture that’s emerging that none of us quite understand yet.  We see pieces of it.

TS: We see pieces of it. We know that some of those feeds have to be there.  I think that’s part of my feeling about what we’re doing.  There’s a lot of uses for this data, and someone has to build a conduit first. “

We have seen the first wave of spontaneous capture of images and sound as more and more people carry smartphones, which allow them to capture both on the spur of the moment.  With the Google Glass project, that could become a hands-free real time ability: “take a video of this conversation.”  I asked Sheffler about just that possibility.

TS: I don’t think it’s too far away. I don’t think it’s too long until people are used to the fact that they’re carrying around something that records everything they’re doing, and the sooner it gets off the device that’s attached to you and into someplace where it can be analyzed and shared, the better.

DH: the other piece of that I’m seeing on the way is, I see you approaching 50 yards away, and think “I know that guy. Where do I know him from?”  It recognizes your face, interacts with my history, and tells me “That’s Tom Sheffler, you interviewed him last night.”

TS: Actually, that’d be helpful for me too.

DH: Let me wrap up by talking about your monetization model.  You’re a freemium model, you have a free offering and then tiers of priced services.

TS: Right.  So our free service is useful and limited, and what we hope is that it offers utility to people but that they also get a glimpse of what they could do if they had more data stored, and alerts, and higher resolution images.  

DH: There’s no advertising on Sensr.net, you’re not using that model at all.

TS: And we’re hoping not to.  I think that’s going to be a challenge.  We want people to find value in what we offer and want to pay.  We do have people doing just that, we have people praising us.  We have a couple of people that have solved crimes using the service. There was a woman who went to court over a building issue at her store.  Because she had her Sensr.net camera on in the middle of the night, she caught the building owner doing something, and they settled in court.  These things happen where the ten or thirty dollars a month we’re asking an individual or a business to pay isn’t really very much.  The challenge is that many people think that things on the internet are free; but the things that are free are ad-supported.

DH: If you grow more into the enterprise space or the business space, do you think there will be more inherent acceptance of the idea of paying?

TS: I do.  A business expects to pay for monitoring, and with a payment comes a promise of quality and we’re offering that promise of quality and security and backup even on our free plan.  We may be giving too much away right now.

Friday, June 1, 2012

On the cloud, of the cloud, and all stateless: Sensr.net delivers cat-cams, community, but not complexity

A capture from Mission Cats' Sensr.net live stream
Sensr.net: from left, co-founder Yacin Bahi,  web designer Chris Whitefield,
co-founder Tom Sheffler
Here is a picture of a cute cat. If it weren’t for our insatiable appetite for cute cat photos, the internet might not be what it is today.

Sensr.net delivered this picture as part of their online service.  Individuals and businesses upload feeds from webcams, where the video is available online; camera owners choose who can see them, from one or two family members up to public views accessible to anyone.  In itself, that isn’t remarkable, it just sounds like a good business idea.  Sensr is a freemium service; basic access is free, with paid options to add higher quality video, notification services, and more archiving.

What is remarkable is the way Sensr.net does that, what it represents for technology in business, and what it tells us about the ways online social communication is evolving.  In this first of two parts, we’ll look at the technology of a “stateless company,” in which cloud services allow Sensr the agility to change at will, scale on demand, and operate from anywhere.

“We’re consumers and users and believers in the cloud,” said Sensr.net co-founder Tom Sheffler when we sat down to talk in Burlingame, CA, at Sensr.net’s office.  Although the location is in the heart of all the silicon valley tech glamor, it’s a modest set of three or four rooms on the second floor of a bank building.  It could be your accountant’s office.  

Therein lies the way Sensr.net is practically an icon of the new possibilities of the services oriented enterprise.  Sensr.net is a cloud company; you buy and consume their entire offering from the cloud.  But it is also a company built on the cloud, with no data center, no onsite technology at all beyond a bank of three or four laptops and monitors.

Here is an excerpt from our conversation, in which Sheffler explains what that means: “The genesis of this company--our 3 co-founders, we all have PhDs in Computer Science, we all come from supercomputer backgrounds, we love building big systems, and we have personal needs and saw a general need.  ‘Boy, there’s these cameras on the market, I would love to be able to watch my environment, I’d love to be able to check in on things, and it’s just too difficult.’  

We really wanted to simplify a big problem and we didn’t see a product out there to do it. And what’s been really fascinating for me, as part of a startup, is building a cloud service on top of other cloud services.  It used to be that to build something like this you’d have your own data center, and power, and air conditioning.  So we’ve built it using Linode as our service provider, Amazon S3 is our storage, we use Google voice for our phones, we’ve used Expensify to track our internal expenses.”

DH: You introduce an idea I haven’t even really covered yet, essentially a stateless company.

TS: That’s an interesting way to put it.

DH:  An enterprise that really hardly has any capitalization at all.  

TS: That’s an interesting idea....

DH: Is that an accurate way to describe Sensr.net?

TS: Yeah.  I think so. I think so.  You know, most of our...we have a couple of people here, we all move around a lot, we’re kind of a modern version of a garage startup in that we’re a cloud startup. We have a small office, we have a couple of people here,  we have a few distributed around the country.”

When I speculated, “this is just rental space, you could be anywhere,” Sheffler agreed, and I went on to ask if the bandwidth to the office was an important part of their needs.

TS:  The bandwidth is with our service providers. We don’t need a lot.

DH: Do you need any disaster recovery?

TS: That’s handled in the cloud.  That isn’t handled here, we’re relying on the security and redundancy of Amazon S3 to handle that for us, and we rely on the redundancy of Linode and their data centers to provide that for us.  Our job is to develop the platform in such a way as to make use of the redundancy and protection in the right way.

DH:  When I talk to people in traditional enterprises, and they think about moving any piece of their enterprise to the cloud, to something that they don’t physically touch and own, disaster recovery and data security are among the first things you see expressed as “reasons not to.”  Or fears that they’ll expose themselves if they do that.

TS:  Well, for many of our applications, I think, we are going after a consumer market and somewhat of a do-it-yourselfer, and for many of the applications, people would want to see what’s going on in their house, but they also want to be prepared for the intruder or the emergency and in that case, it’s best to move data offsite as soon as possible, get it up in the cloud where it’s safe.  And I contrast this to more traditional security systems where you have a hard disk in your house and maybe the robber steals that, or if there’s a catastrophe, your home computer equipment gets destroyed.  In these circumstances you’ll want this out of your house, and it’s gotten into our system and we’ve analyzed and cataloged and put it in the cloud, it’s safe.

DH: None of your users ever has to consciously think about backing up anything.

TS: No.  It’s always backed up.

DH: The second piece of that, that came to mind immediately when you began to talk about that is, enterprises traditionally, whether they think about it or not, have some kind of ecosystem within their application hierarchy of data and security and authentication and so forth.  Is part of what you do at Sensr.net that integrative layer among these various cloud services that you consume and then deliver to your customers?

TS: Oh, absolutely.  We’re providing the user authentication layer for the consumer to come into our system. We are protecting his data and interfacing with--we’re authenticating to Amazon S3 and authenticating to Linode and we’re setting up our own virtual routes to protect the user’s data from their home up into the cloud and then to insure that only the proper users have access to the data they’re supposed to.

DH:  So you are an ecosystem on behalf of your users so they don’t have to authenticate.

TS:  That’s right.  For a single user to build a system like this, they’d have to interface with a number of services, they’d have a much more complex authentication problem, they’d have all the ones that we did, they’d have to recreate.  And we’ve simplified it to a few mechanisms of login and camera setup.”

In the Infrics.com articles on the Service Oriented Enterprise--one based on service tiers that can be managed to enable simplicity and agility--I talked at some length about complexity management.  You can either choose a simpler process than you’re using now, or you can manage complexity at each service tier in such a way that you abstract complexity away from those who consume the service.  It appears simple to the user because you’ve designed it that way.  I asked Sheffler if Sensr.net is abstracting complexity away from customers.

TS: That’s right, and we give people a simple user interface, and we also have programming interfaces, APIs, that abstract all this complexity that we’ve harnessed into a service. A camera service.  The API is where a user or another company can say ‘on behalf of me, on behalf of this other company, I’d like to allocate a user at Sensr and provision a camera upload.’  And behind the scenes, we’re managing a lot of the compute resources, the storage resources,  the routing resources, to allow that abstraction, that very simple video abstraction for an individual or another company.

DH:  You mentioned that a lot of your customers are individuals, and relatively low tech, although an awful lot of people are more sophisticated than we think...

TS: They’re getting pretty sophisticated.

DH:  What about big enterprises? If someone wanted you to manage a thousand cameras in their enterprise, how’s your ecosystem set up to scale?

TS: Well, it’s set up to scale up that way.  We do have--I wouldn’t say they’re fully ready to go--developer APIs, so a company that wanted to personalize the Sensr experience, to provide it through their own channels, we offer a platform for developing video services on, and I think you’ll probably see us announcing more of that in the next year.

We’re a consumer product, but we’re also a video platform for other products to be built on.

DH:  If your enterprise is itself stateless, it stands to reason you would also deliver your own service in a stateless way: a web application rather than an “app,” a locally installed client-server application on a computer or mobile device.  Is that the case with Sensr.net?

TS: Our goal is to render users’ information on standard devices, using widely-available technology, so right now that’s HTML5, javascript, and a little bit of Flash.

DH: So you’re not having to do a locally-installed app, say on an Android or iOS device?

TS: Not right now, and right now, Sensr.net does not require an app.  That’s been great for us, because we’re leveraging these technologies that have huge development efforts behind them.

DH: Did HTML5 give you the ability to do things that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise?

TS:  Through the use of javascript, HTML5 and Flash, we’ve been able to give an experience that is almost like that of an app on a mobile device.  And our experience will get even better.

DH: I follow the big research companies because I used to be a client, I used to manage that research, that’s what I did for those other companies, and Forrester right now is engaged in a fairly big corporate-wide push that we’re entering an era they call the “app internet.”  They’re seeing the success of the Apple app store, for instance.  I think they’re right as far as they go, that people have more power to choose and deploy things.  But when you have to download and constantly update an actual application on any device, you lose the benefit you get with something like HTML, where if you make it better, you do it once on your server and you get that update automatically by consuming the service.

TS:  Yeah, I love that model, I personally suffer from app update fatigue, and our user experience is continually improving because we’re using HTML5 and javascript and a little bit of Flash, and I think we’ve been able to push out a lot of changes without asking our users to reinstall anything--and they’ve had a great mobile experience too.

DH: Would you rather have a million individual homes with one or two cameras, or ten Target Corporations, or Wal-Mart, or both?

TS: Yeah...I think both. They’re slightly different.  I think what’s interesting is that to me, personally, is that the individual consumer market is underserved right now.  I don’t think that there are services quite like what we’re offering at the consumer level.  I think we’re defining a market that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been served, and that’s really exciting to me.”

By showing us in startup form what a stateless company can look like, Sensr.net demonstrates the way technology has changed the rules of business engagement.

  • Complex business processes can be managed as services in such a way as to appear simple to those who consume the service. If those service consumers don’t have to know or care about the complexity, it has been abstracted away from them.  This is perhaps the single most important benefit of the service oriented enterprise.
  • Sensr itself is a service consumer; Linode, Amazon, and others have themselves abstracted complexity away from Sensr, so that it consumes those services itself: DKDC (Don’t Know, Don’t Care) cascades through the service chain.  
  • Sensr used existing features of the services it consumes and did not need those services to be customized.  They developed a highly-specialized service using highly standardized components: exactly the model that can be scaled up to multi-billion dollar enterprises.
  • Sensr is an enterprise built with ideas more than one built with money.  The amazingly low capital inertia of the cloud makes this possible.  Your current and future competitors, those who succeed against your own business, will know this and use it.  Or maybe, your own company will act on the new rules instead.  Which will it be?

This article is about Sensr.net’s cloud and service architecture, the technologies that make a stateless enterprise possible.  But what they do is also fascinating as an expression of the social uses of technology.  In part two, Tom Sheffler and I talk about the ways people are using personal video networks, from viewing cats to maintaining family connections.