Microsoft Phone (Part 1)

There is a lot of focus on the death of Windows 10 Mobile, bringing an end to Microsoft’s dream of a world running Windows on every client device.  But I don’t believe Microsoft feels Mobile is any less important now than it did a decade ago when the rise of the iPhone caused it try the Hail Mary pass that resulted in Windows Phone 7.  Just because the Windows kernel is out of mobile doesn’t mean Microsoft is.  Any effort in Mobile has to address three areas: (1) Application Platform, (2) First Party Applications, and (3) User Experience.

A decade ago Microsoft had trouble seeing a path to success without Mobile, and a path to success in Mobile other than by making Windows succeed on Mobile devices.  I’m not going to revisit that entire discussion (of which I was involved in only small parts), but it took Microsoft down the road to an eventual dead-end.  The good side of that failure is that Microsoft was forced to revisit alternate strategies.

For example, I was in the process of transferring to DevDiv at the time that the Windows Mobile 7 Reset (the start of the Windows Phone 7 project) occurred.  My job in DevDiv was going to be to drive cross-platform development tools to allow Microsoft-oriented (e.g., C#/.NET) developers to write applications for multiple mobile platforms.  By the time I started in the position the strategy had changed to put all the wood behind the Windows Phone 7 arrow, with cross-platform development abandoned.  Now a decade later we have Microsoft fully back on that original DevDiv thinking, with Xamarin under its wings and most .NET technologies available as open source.  There is even evidence this strategy is working.

The rise of cross-platform .NET also represents the realization of .NET as the Microsoft platform.  That was always DevDiv’s dream, but proved controversial across Microsoft. .NET CLR’s contribution to the Longhorn/Vista disaster strengthened the case against .NET as a client application platform.  Windows Phone 7’s bet on .NET Compact Framework for all 3rd party apps was controversial, and Terry Myerson took a lot of flack for it.  Then Windows 8 tried to back away from .NET, alienating much of the developer community.  Some twists and turns later, .NET has become the universal application platform.

Another strategy discussion from a decade ago was putting Microsoft Applications on the iPhone.  Without revisiting, it wasn’t clear how to make that strategy succeed in the mindset of the day.  For example, would Apple’s control of the platform translate into control of the productivity apps?  It was also a financial problem, given selling client software was the only way to monetize most client applications at the time.  And the Office client applications were the source of much of the company’s profits.  Once they could be monetized in the cloud (or via enterprise servers) this problem went away.   The failure of Windows Phone to take off forced Microsoft to figure out a financially viable strategy for having its apps on IOS and Android years earlier than would have happened if Windows Phone succeeded.  And cloud monetization, along with the new mindset established by Satya Nadella, has led to an explosion of Microsoft applications for Android and IOS.

So we have a Microsoft Phone application platform, and we have the first party Microsoft Phone apps, what about user experience?  Well this is the area I’d classify as nascent.  Right now the applications are just standalone things you install from Google Play or Apple’s App Store.  And you painfully (especially if you are using 2FA) have to log into each.  Given Android is more flexible than IOS, Microsoft is focusing more attention on Android.  There is a Microsoft Apps App to help you find the available Microsoft applications.  But all it does is launch the Google Play store one by one for the apps you want.  The Microsoft Store is selling the Samsung Galaxy S8/S8+ Microsoft Edition that gets provisioned with some of the apps as part of the out of the box experience, but I can’t find a review for what that is like.  And then there is the Microsoft Launcher that starts to bring an overall Microsoft flavor to the Android experience.  Microsoft Edge is in preview, an important part of linking IOS and Android to the overall Microsoft experience.  Microsoft Launcher also offers to install some first party Microsoft apps for you, but it is a subset of the list in the Microsoft Apps app.  And it also just launches Google Play once per app to get and install.  When viewed as I want a couple of Microsoft’s apps on my phone this is all fine.  But when viewed as “give me a Microsoft Phone experience” it sucks.  In Part 2 I’ll delve into that and speculate on what 2018/19 will bring.

 

 

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Posted in Computer and Internet, Microsoft, Mobile, Windows Phone | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Using DNS for Security – Comodo Dome Shield

I’ve written a number of times about DNS offerings that allow for increased security.  Blocking you from going to a website that does a drive-by download of malware, blocking phishing sites, blocking your IoT devices from talking to a BOT command-and-control domain, etc. While I think that we are moving to a more comprehensive alternative of whole-home internet security devices, a malware-blocking DNS service remains useful for many of us.  In particular, when you want to increase security without changing hardware or you can’t get the new hardware solutions to work.  I wrote about my disaster with CUJO, and I found one case where EERO’s new EERO Plus offering won’t work.  I’ll write about my EERO experience later, but for those considering buying one to use EERO Plus beware that isn’t an option if your Internet Provider uses PPPoE.  CenturyLink customers, this means you.  You can use EERO in Bridge Mode, but that precludes the use of EERO Plus.  So in my CenturyLink-connected house I’m trying a new option, Comodo Dome Shield.

Back in 2012 I first wrote about using DNS to block malware using OpenDNS and Norton Connectsafe.  I’d already moved away from OpenDNS since they reserved most of their malware-blocking for the enterprise offering.  Norton Connectsafe remains an option for a DNS that blocks domains based on Norton Safe Web’s scanning for malicious sites.  Comodo also has their free Secure DNS, that is an alternative to Norton Connectsafe.  Recently I discovered that Comodo had introduced an Enterprise-oriented DNS service that includes full URL filtering capability.  And they were offering it for free.

There are two advantages to using Comodo Dome Shield.  The first is transparency.  Norton Connectsafe and Comodo Secure DNS are pretty much black boxes, where you can’t tell what subcategories of malicious domains they are protecting you from.  While Comodo Dome Shield offers a default security rule for blocking phishing/malware/spyware that is also somewhat of a black box, you can create your own rule and choose the subcategories you want protection against.  For example, it isn’t clear the default rule blocks DDoS sources.  But by creating your own rule you can make sure those are blocked.  You can also block addresses for known spammers, for example.

The second advantage of Comodo Dome Shield is that it give you complete control over blocking access to non-security related domains.  Want to block access to Gambling sites, you can do that with a content rule.  I don’t have a reason to block access other than for security, but I did use a content rule to block access to so-called “Parked Domains”.  These are domains that have fallen into disuse and usually are just landing pages with links to other pages.  In my experience the links on those parked domains all too often lead to malicious sites.  And since the control of the parked domain is often questionable, the odds that it is taken over and used to distribute malware seems much higher than with actively maintained domains.

The disadvantage of blocking more domains is that the odds of you blocking a safe and useful domain go up.  For example, there will be lag between a parked domain being claimed and used legitimately and during that lag (if you are blocking parked domains) you won’t be able to access the site.  Or, it is pretty common for a domain to be flagged as sending SPAM even though that was a temporary situation.  It can be very difficult for someone to get themselves removed from a spam blacklist once they are added, so if you block domains classified as spammers be prepared to lose access to some pretty mainstream sites from time to time.  That’s the reason the default security rule, as well as Norton Connectsafe, don’t block those domains.  So use your power to block broader categories with caution.

Because Comodo Dome Shield is aimed at enterprises it is a bit difficult to set up and manage.  You have to sign-up, and (if you have a dynamic DNS address) run an agent on a machine on your network that is always on.  The agent keeps Comodo informed of your network’s current external IP address so it can map requests to your filters instead of just using the defaults.  You create rules for security and content blocking, and associate them with a policy for your network.  You then point your router at Comodo’s DNS servers and your policy is enforced.  Comodo Dome Shield also provides comprehensive reporting so you can see what all the devices on your network are accessing or being blocked from accessing, and it can be an eye-opener.  As an enterprise product, Comodo Dome Shield has other capabilities that I haven’t explored, such as using agents on roaming devices to enforce domain access rules.

Many of you are thinking, well that’s a lot of work when I just want fire-and-forget protection against malicious domains. It was the more powerful capabilities of Comodo Dome Shield that attracted me, but Comodo Secure DNS or Norton Connectsafe are more appropriate for most people.  Certainly if I didn’t like playing around with security offerings as a hobby I’d just point my DNS at one of the secure DNS offerings and be done with it.

In most cases you should be using a secure DNS to protect your home network.  While that is built-in to the new generation of security-centric networking devices, you can easily set up your router to use one.  And in this era of IoT devices, where you can’t run security software on the device, the extra layer of protection of a secure DNS is one of the few things you can do to protect your home.

 

 

 

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Does per-incident support make sense in the cloud?

Although I haven’t looked at this deeply I know that AWS, and it appears Azure as well, only offer subscription-based support models.  On-premises Microsoft offers both subscription-based models and per-incident support.  So does per-incident support make sense in the cloud?  I really want to hear from customers across cloud platforms, although my musings are clearly AWS-focused.

AWS does not currently offer a per-incident support option, and spending a lot of time in the Amazon RDS Forum one sees the potential for them to offer one. Keep in mind that the forums are targeted at community discussions and not individualized technical support from AWS. If you check the comparison of AWS Support plans you see that Basic Support, the free option, does not include Technical Support. So customers post technical support requests in the forum and, most of the time, no one from AWS responds.  On top of that, whereas there is a strong culture of community participation in (both company and third-party) forums on Microsoft offerings, that culture is not as well developed around AWS.

AWS does offer an inexpensive support plan for Developers, though it can be used to obtain support for production systems as long as you can live within its limits (e.g., only email, respond only during business hours, 12 hour response time on impaired systems). What you can do if you have that once/year kind of need for technical support is sign up for developer support, open a case via email, then cancel support before the next billing cycle. If your monthly spend with AWS is under $1000/month ($966 actually) then you effectively have a per-incident support price of $29. If you are spending over $1000 your effective per-incident price is 3% of your total AWS bill for the month using this “subscribe only for a month” technique.

For more critical support incidents you could sign up for AWS’ Business support for a month then cancel that.  If you do this for a single incident it effectively costs you $100/incident if your spend is under $1000 a month, but escalates rather quickly as it is 10% of the monthly bill.  Actually the 10% applies to the first $10K, with higher spend levels getting volume discounts, but we will ignore that for this discussion.  Using the current Business support subscription pricing in the “subscribe only for a month” technique to obtain per-incident support only makes sense for smaller customers.

Figuring out if “subscribe only for a month” pricing is an adequate substitute for a true per-incident offering could use a benchmark, and we have one.  Microsoft charges $499 per incident for its on-premises (non-consumer) products.  If AWS were to price per incident support comparably you would need to be spending over $16,700/month for that to be cheaper than just signing up for Developer Support for a month then cancelling.  The Microsoft per-incident offering is closer to AWS’ Business Support, but even there the “subscribe only for a month” technique is cheaper as long as your monthly bill is under $5000.

To put this further in perspective, how many organizations are spending more than $200K/year (the breakeven point for our per-incident benchmark vs one month of Developer Support) on a cloud provider?  Or $60K/year (the breakeven for Business Support)?  I’m going to speculate that for 99.9% of customers the “subscribe only for a month” technique is a better option than per-incident, based on the chosen benchmark.  So if this is true in the cloud, why isn’t it also true on-premises?  On-premises support subscriptions are generally annual (or longer) contracts, so you can’t subscribe for a month then cancel.

Is Microsoft’s $499 benchmark the right comparison?  On the surface it seems expensive, but that is because it is one size fits all.  From things that can wait a day and then resolve with 15 minutes of effort to production system down situations that need fast response to complex issues that take person-days or weeks of effort across multiple expertise domains. That’s also why support subscriptions are priced as a % of total spend, because the more complex the environment the more the requests about product/service X turn into debugging a problem across product/service X, Y, Z, and the customer’s app that requires multiple engineers to be engaged.   Services pricing reflects the overall cost structure of delivering services, not the cost of your (potentially really simple) request.

Vendors really hate the idea of unbundling support because it can create tremendous customer dissatisfaction.  You take your dog in to have its teeth cleaned for a simple published price.  Then they tell you it is highly recommended that for a dog of its age they do bloodwork and an EKG before administering anesthesia.  You choke on the price, but you’d hate for your dog to die just because its teeth needed cleaning, so you say ok.  Then they find something in the bloodwork that indicates there could be a problem with the liver.  You are already paying for the anesthesia, so do you want them to x-ray the liver as well.  There in the x-ray is a growth, should they biopsy it?  Etc.   Your $100 teeth cleaning is turning into a multi-thousand $ bill.   The veterinarian you love has just given you the choice of your kids hating you because you didn’t try to save their dog, or being unable to afford their college education.  You can’t blame the veterinarian for the cancer, but you love them less because of the process they put you through.  So it is really hard for a vendor to say something like we will sell you support for your database server, even if you don’t want support for everything else, because they don’t want to come back to you in the heat of a situation and say the problem spills over to the application server and you don’t have support for that.  It will cost you $X for us to continue the effort over there.  Yeah, right.

Low cost vs. reality of support vs. customer satisfaction is a conundrum.

So is there a per-incident model that would work for customers and fit in what I called the “reality of support”?  One rational per-incident offering to explore would look something like current monthly business support pricing with a cap. So it would be greater of $100 or 10% of total spend up to a maximum of some amount. Using Microsoft’s per incident price as a proxy for not having AWS Support cost data to work from, let’s say that cap is $500/incident. Is that the kind of per-incident support that would be attractive to AWS customers?  How about customers of other cloud providers?

Posted in Amazon, Cloud, Computer and Internet, Microsoft | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A newfangled buggy whip is still a buggy whip

One of the downsides of falling in love with a technology is that you miss it, really really miss it, at times when it isn’t available to you. Take your smartphone. I wonder how many people have popped a Xanax after being in a no Cell or WiFi signal area for an extended period. Well I’m starting to have that problem with Amazon Alexa. I don’t like being somewhere I can’t say “Alexa, time” or “Alexa, turn on the outside lights”, or “Alexa, ask CNBC the price of Amazon stock” rather than drop the Ming vase to get the phone out of my pocket. As Paul Marcarelli used to say, can you hear me now? So when Garmin launched the Garmin Speak with Amazon Alexa a couple of weeks ago I didn’t wait for reviews, and I didn’t think about it for even a second, I just went to smile.amazon.com and ordered one.

Ok I lied. I read the announcement of the Garmin Speak and thought, “hey I’m going on a trip and wouldn’t it be neat to take Alexa along?” Oh, and “it might be nice to have a dedicated navigation device in the rental car”. Then I shut off my brain and ordered. I forgot how many times my old standalone GPS devices had taken me on a bad (even dead end) route. I didn’t think about how much better navigation has been since I switched to Waze a few years ago. Or how helpful little touches, like Apple Maps picking up the destination address of the restaurant from the Yelp app, can be. Or, “you realize you are going to spend $149.99 for a subset of the $49.99 Echo Dot’s capabilities?” I just ordered.

Let me get the easy part out of the way, I loved having Alexa along for the ride. I can’t wait for it to appear as a native capability in car infotainment systems. Or for Amazon to find a way to expose it through the infotainment systems via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Or for a true Echo Dot Auto device to be introduced by Amazon, or one of its partners. I don’t even regret that I had to pay 3x what it costs to put an Echo Dot in my house to have one in the car. And as long as you are think about the Garmin Speak as no more than an expensive Echo Dot you’ll probably be happy. One caveat, do keep in mind that not all Alexa functionality is available yet on the Garmin Speak. Indeed all the third-party devices are missing true 100% Echo compatibility, so if you are expecting specific functionality (e.g., Alexa Voice Calling and Messaging) on the device then you’ll need to do some research before buying.

Now for the hard part, I found myself as disappointed with the navigation capabilities of the Garmin Speak as with all the earlier Garmin’s I’ve owned. It was kind of magical to say “Alexa, ask Garmin to take me to the u-haul moving center in Smithtown” and have it start giving voice instructions and displaying the next turn on its small but easy to read display. When it decided to route me on a small tertiary road through a neighborhood I had a bit of deja vu. Back in the 90s I would sometimes take Route 522 over the top of Lake Washington on my way from Woodinville to Seattle. As you would approach the entrance to I5, my original Garmin would have you turn into a neighborhood apparently calculating there was a shortcut. It would then route you in a circle through the neighborhood and back on to 522. I almost crashed the car my wife and I were laughing so hard. But you only laugh the first time. Twenty years later the Garmin Speak didn’t take me in a circle, but when it got to the intersection of the tertiary road and the Main Street my destination was on it told me I’d arrived. I looked around and couldn’t see the U-Haul dealer. Following the street numbers myself I located it a half mile north of where the Garmin Speak had taken me. First time use, big fail.

I wish I could say that my initial failure navigating with the Garmin Speak was an isolated case, but it wasn’t. Although I turned off the option to avoid u-turns, the Garmin Speak still insisted on taking me on a wild goose chase to get to the house I was staying in rather than do a simple u-turn that took me right to the neighborhood entrance. Waze doesn’t have this issue. Up until a year or two ago that intersection didn’t allow u-turns, so this suggests to me Garmin isn’t processing map updates very quickly. It is almost as though Garmin still works on the old annual cycle for shipping map updates, while Waze and other cloud-born solutions pick up even entirely new neighborhoods within weeks or months. More broadly, over a week of use the Garmin Speak did ok but was an inferior experience to Waze, Google Maps, or Apple Maps.

One other issue I had with the Garmin Speak was its mount. Don’t get me wrong, the magnetic mount works great and sticks to the windshield all too well. The problem with the mounting system is that it isn’t suitable for rental car use. Garmin’s design center, and they say this in their documentation, is for permanent installations. The magnetic disk glues solidly to your windshield and is very hard to remove. The wiring is intended to be routed under your car’s headliner, so the USB cable goes upward rather than down with an awkward bend if you want a straight connection to the power outlet. When you use it in a rental, where a suction cup mount would be more appropriate, you’ll be disposing of one of the two magnetic disks Garmin gives you. And I haven’t found where they sell replacements. You also may be buying tools for removing the disk from the rental car. Note that if you are not going to use the Garmin Speak for navigation, you can forget the mount entirely and just throw it in a cup holder for Alexa access. That’s how I’ll be using mine in the future.

Garmin fans may think I’m nuts and have all kinds of counter-examples of Garmin doing a better job of navigation than Waze et al. I believe those users would have been better served by integrating Alexa into a traditional Garmin GPS form-factor than the Speak’s attempt to hew to the Amazon Echo design language. For example, the Garmin Speak’s display very clearly shows you the next turn and distance to it, but it doesn’t show you the name of the street that you’ll be turning on. Or a map or turn list for those who like to think ahead. Those are just too much for a watch face sized display being viewed from a couple of feet away.

Overall the Garmin Speak is a new fangled buggy whip. I’ll leave the rest of the analogy to the reader.

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Amazon Key: Bad idea or evolutionary pressure tactic?

Like most people, or at least much of the Twitterverse, I am a bit freaked out by the idea of having a stranger open my front door to put a package inside. If you want to get freaked out a little more than the idea of a stranger unlocking your front door while no one is home, imagine it happening while you or a family member are home. When I hear someone fiddling with my front door I very quickly go to DEFCON 1. My brother once showed up when I wasn’t expecting him, and by the time I got to the door he had assumed I wasn’t home and was fiddling with opening the door with his key. I arrived at the door to hear someone apparently trying to break in, and was fully prepared to open a can of whoopass. I wonder how many couriers making deliveries for Amazon are going to end up at the wrong end of a can of whoopass, or how many criminals will take advantage of us getting used to strangers opening our front door and figure out how to subvert it deliver some whoopass of their own? Sorry, it’s the New Yorker in me.

Of course, what Amazon Key promises to allow is for someone known to Amazon to unlock your door and place a package inside with the entire event being caught on video. And I believe, or can invoke WSOD, that Amazon has the technology to make this safe. Or sort of safe. Video helps in bringing a criminal to justice, it doesn’t stop a crime in progress. And while, like an alarm system, it may cause a criminal to focus on softer targets (like your neighbor who has no security systems) it also enables the criminal equivalent of a spear phishing attack. It actually becomes a tool they could subvert in a complex burglary scheme. If you think all criminals are dumb, listen to a crime prevention officer describe how burglars figured out a gap in a high-end security system so they could break into a house and steal an expensive piece of art.

Lest you think I am completely down on Amazon Key let me dissuade you. There are circumstances where it makes sense. For example, we have a house in the city. The neighborhood is very safe, except there is a fair amount of low-level property crime. Packages are regularly taken from porches, if you leave your car unlocked the items inside will be given new homes, and occasionally if you leave a door unlocked or a ground floor window open someone may enjoy your hospitality. If we need a package delivered we use an Amazon Locker a few blocks away. Sometimes that isn’t an option, or the most convenient option, and I would love to use Amazon Key. But they aren’t getting in my house. There is a detached garage, and I would happily install Amazon Key on it and let them leave packages inside. It is a different risk/reward calculation.

I wonder how big the Amazon Key opportunity is, particularly for the next decade. How many people have a secure area that doesn’t expose their entire house, like my detached garage? Or if they are willing to consider allowing someone to access their home directly, have to turn off their alarm system or at least bypass some of their sensors? In the long run Amazon Key could disable certain sensors just for the duration of the delivery (and you may be able to do it now if all the pieces, including IFTTT, come together), but I bet we are at sub-1% penetration of that capability. And what about family pets? At a minimum you need to make sure your escape artist doesn’t take advantage of the front door being opened. And a lot of the most loving and gentle dogs draw the line at a perceived home invasion. Talk about opening a can of whoopass!

I’ve been going back and forth, and mostly negative, on Amazon Key for fun. It is a disruptive idea, though not particularly far fetched. A recent projection is that online sales will exceed brick and mortar sales for the first time this holiday season. In a world in which most of our goods are delivered to us we can, and should, expect that our homes will change to accommodate that lifestyle. My city house also has a mud room. The mud room has both an outside door and a door into the house. We don’t ever close the inner door, and it has no lock on it. But we could install a lock and alarm the inner door as well, and allow delivery access into the mud room while keeping the house (and pets) secure. A lot of houses built in the last 30 years have mud rooms, and they could (some easily, some with significant work) evolve to be package delivery rooms. The same could be said for the entrance rooms/halls of houses and apartments. When we renovated a Seattle-area condo we could easily have turned the entrance hallway into an area that was securable in a way that allowed for direct package delivery without giving easy access to the rest of the unit. Homes used to be built with doors that allowed the milkman to deliver dairy products directly into a box inside the house and slots for the postman to securely deliver the mail. A decade (or two) from now we are all going to have a way to securely receive a large variety of packages at home. In that context, Amazon Key is just one of the forcing functions that will cause homes to evolve.

Posted in Amazon, Retail | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Amazon HQ2 – The Uber Test

Let me start off by saying I have no non-public information about Amazon’s search for a second headquarters, aka HQ2.  And I have no idea how Amazon’s senior leaders will ‘score’ proposals and make a decision.  But I have a couple of observations I’d like to make based on how Amazonians think.

Yesterday’s big news on the HQ2 front was how Newark was offering $7B in incentives if Amazon chose it for HQ2.  The $7B was composed of $5B over 10 years from the State of New Jersey and $2B over 20 years from the city.  Nice.  But cities that think Amazon will make its decision based on short term, and 10 years is short term, incentives are sadly mistaken.  Incentives are going to be a tie-breaker, not the primary driver of a decision.  Amazon thinks long-term, so senior leadership is going to be thinking about picking a location that they believe will be the right one for 2030, 2040, and 2050.  Incentives that mostly run out in the 2020s won’t mean much if it means having 50,000 people in the wrong place in 2035.  So they will narrow things down based on other criteria, get to a few finalists, then start weighing the value of the incentives.  At least IMHO.  I’ll get back to Newark later.

On Facebook a friend, who grew up in Memphis, suggested that city for Amazon HQ2.  This was in response to the New York Times’ analysis saying HQ2 would go to Denver.  Memphis isn’t an obvious choice, and I don’t know how it lines up with the official criteria.  So how can one quickly weigh if Memphis, or any other location, would be a good choice for Amazon?  Amazon is a company where it is always Day 1.  Amongst other things that means it tends to pursue disruptive ideas, such as using drones for deliveries.  Amazon would want HQ2 to be in a location that is supportive of a Day 1 company, if not outright still in Day 1 itself.  What I needed was a simple test for Day 1 type disruptions, and the last decade presented us with a perfect one.  Ride Sharing, and more specifically Uber.  Another interesting test would be AirBnB, but I haven’t pursued that one.

Uber has been disruptive in applying technology to an urban transportation system (taxis)  that hasn’t changed significantly in almost a century, and has deeply entrenched interests.  Moreover, that system had become highly regulated with substantial public bureaucracies and government revenue streams linked to them.  So wherever Uber (or Lyft or…) went it was going against “the system” and friction was to be expected.  What you could measure, very quickly thanks to Google and Bing, was just how much friction (or support) Uber ran into with local government.

So I did a search on Memphis and Uber and discovered that in 2013 the city of Memphis has sent its police force to arrest Uber drivers.  That seemed like a pretty extreme case of being unfriendly to Day 1 type disruptions, and played that back to my friend.  He pointed out that was 2013, so I did a search on Denver and Uber and discovered that in 2013 the Colorado Legislature became the first in the country to explicitly legalize ride-sharing.  What Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said at the time was “Colorado is once again in the vanguard in promoting innovation and competition while protecting consumers and public safety.”  And when there was some friction in the city of Denver after that, the Police Chief acted quickly to resolve it.  Which makes more sense to locate the HQ of a Day 1 company in, a place that sent the police to arrest Uber drivers or one that acted quickly to accept and encourage the disruption?

So let’s get back to Newark.  There are many reasons I could think of for picking Newark as HQ2.  In particular the close proximity to New York City and all its benefits, with much better housing costs.  Making the reverse commute from Manhattan to nearby New Jersey cities has even become reasonably common in the last 20 years.  The incentives being offered are nice, but again they are a short-term benefit in a long-term play.  So I applied the Uber test to Newark, and it failed miserably.  Newark was still trying to force Uber into their Taxi regulatory scheme as recently as 2016, banning them from Newark Airport and train station in February and planning to enact further regulation in April.  Uber was planning to abandon the city when a last minute deal was reached.  Compare what Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said about Uber, “Just because they have a great idea, doesn’t mean they have an exemption from rules and regulations that have been in existence for decades” with the earlier quote from Colorado Governor Hickenlooper.  I was particularly caught by the “rules and regulations that have been in existence for decades” part.  That doesn’t read like a Day 1 supportive location to me.  It is quite possible that those words will come back to haunt Mayor Baraka when Amazon is evaluating the HQ2 proposals.

The Uber test isn’t perfect for a couple of reasons.  One is that pretty much no locality that regulates Taxis and Limousines won’t try to put some regulatory regime around ride sharing.  The other is that Uber itself has valued confrontation with local governments and agencies over reaching an accommodation, and that in some cases has raised the heat significantly.  For example, I know of airports where Lyft was able to pick up months before Uber, because they negotiated a deal while Uber was still trying to fight the local airport authority.  But in most cases Uber fights the regulatory fight, and gets painted as the bad guy, then Lyft and other competitors benefit.  So the Uber test isn’t black and white, it is varying shades of grey.  But compare the light grey of Denver to the very dark grey of Newark and it, at the very least, gives an indication of which city would be more accommodating to a company where it is always Day 1.

 

 

 

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Sonos and Alexa, now for Niles…

It seems like I’m on a continuous journey of how to play music at home.  It all started when we built our ranch back in 2003-2004 and I had the bright idea of doing a whole-house A/V system.  Our timing couldn’t have been worse.  Components were not network aware.  IR, Coax, and RS-232 were the technologies of the day.  There were no smartphones or wireless controllers, let alone something like an Amazon Echo, to control the system.  It was so primitive!  And expensive.  Better options started to appear almost before we moved in, but it was too late.

Over the years I’ve ripped most of the old system and wiring out.  Gone are the Escient Fireball music server, the Sony CD Jukebox, the video distribution system so you could control the Escient remotely (basically IR repeaters would send the commands to the Escient, but you needed to display its UI on a TV).  What remains is the Niles built-in speakers, wall panels, and a Niles ZR-4630 Multi-Zone Receiver.  Years ago I hooked a Sonos Bridge (now called the Connect) to the ZR-4630, so we could play all that Sonos goodness throughout the house.  Of course, controlling this is still a bit of a pain.  You have to use an old Niles panel to select the Sonos to play in that zone, then control the Sonos with your smartphone.  And you may have to play with the Niles volume controls as well as those on the Sonos.  So not quite that simple, but better than the previous setup by a mile.

Today I linked my Sonos account with Alexa.  The Alexa app discovered the Bridge and I said “Alexa, play the Bill Joel channel from Pandora on the Media Room” and lo-and-behold…nothing happened.  Well it did happen, but I had to jump up and press the button (still labeled CD for the old Fireball) to route the Sonos to my office.  And then beautiful music was coming through the ceiling speakers.

Like others, I found the announcement of Alexa support for Sonos very confusing.  The focus of the announcement was the new Sonos One, which is basically a Sonos Play:1 enhanced with far-field microphones and Alexa support.  It looks like a really nice device, and if I had a room calling for really music-focused “Echo” I would go for the Sonos One instead.  The confusion was that the announcement made it sound like you needed a Sonos One to use Alexa.  Either that Alexa only could control the Sonos One, or that one Sonos device in the house had to be a Sonos One to control the others.  Fortunately that isn’t true, you can control existing Sonos devices on your network with Alexa today.

Despite our whole-house system we have been using Echos as standalone music devices at the ranch.  My wife tired of the complexity of using the Niles panel (which in the kitchen/family room has some weird legacy dynamics) and the Sonos app.  She liked the simplicity of an Echo and put one in the kitchen.  Now she can just walk in and say “Alexa, play The Beatles” and she has music.  There is also a weird legacy dynamic in the exercise area because we’d run out of zones on the ZR-4630.  So there is a separate legacy amplifier that had two zones itself, and well….  I will spare you the details, but it is very hard to get music into the exercise area.  I finally just put an Echo in there too, and now I can tell Alexa what to play from the Elliptical.  As well as do all the other great things Alexa supports.

If only I could control the ZR-4630 with Alexa!  Ok, that’s not going to happen given it is a 14 year old device.  So I checked the Niles website and can’t find any indication they have an Alexa-compatible replacement.  The only Alexa-compatible multi-zone receiver I know of is the Denon Heos Drive, and it is only 4 zones.  I need at least 6, preferably 7.  Given the rapid adoption of Alexa I probably don’t have to wait too long for additional multi-zone options.  Either that or I finish ripping out the whole house system and go for an entirely wireless (Sonos or Denon, for the moment) system.

Talk about first world problems.

 

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