Will AirPods spark the next technology wave? How ‘personal audio computing’ could reshape the industry

Note: This post originally appeared on GeekWire on April 27, 2019

Me, with my AirPods in, like always. (David Zager Photo)

Phone, keys, wallet. Oh, and AirPods.

It’s happened to me, and I bet it’s happened to you too. The trio of daily accessories I stuff into my pockets has become a quartet.

What began as simply headphones without the cord, AirPods have now become more essential for my daily life than their corded predecessors ever were. I feel naked without them. In fact, I recently lost a pair in an airplane mishap, and was struck by how much I missed them in the week between my instant re-order and their arrival.

As I think about the other technological member of this pocket-dwelling quartet, there’s a nagging parallel. The smartphone started as a better phone, and ultimately became the basis of a new, era-defining wave of computing. Could AirPods be the same? Could they be Apple’s dark horse strategy to own the future of technology, masquerading simply as “better headphones?” After all, AirPods have sold faster than almost any other Apple product in their first two years, including the iPhone and the Apple Watch (estimates are over 40 million). And Apple is already gearing up to launch new models.

The Rise of AirPods

Phone, keys, wallet … AirPods. (Ben Gilbert Photo)

What makes these dorky, buttonless, ear-clinging electric toothbrush heads so attractive to consumers? How did we go from “they look stupid” to a status symbol in two years?

Upon searching my feelings, my answer feels so obvious it’s almost boring: they make it just a little bit easier to do stuff. But a lot of stuff. Of course there’s making phone calls, listening to podcasts, and creating reminders. But there’s also the odd and the specific: like leaving one AirPod in for an hour while on hold, or putting them in while falling asleep so not to disturb a partner, or listening to a whole audiobook on a long bike ride where a cord would be a non-starter.

Extreme utility normalizes ridiculousness.

The AirPods’ automagical connection to the iPhone, lack of wires, clever battery case, and wonderful pocketability are all tiny innovations that seem to compound, creating a wildly differentiated product. At any given time, it is now much more likely that there is a speaker and a microphone in — or close to — your ear.

It now feels exhausting to take a phone call by holding my phone up to my head for longer than 60 seconds. And strangely, walking for more than five minutes without listening to a podcast, music, or audiobook feels insufferable.

In fact, the very reduction of friction brought by the smartphone that caused us all to become visually addicted to our phones may now be happening audibly with AirPods. I notice that I engage in “gap-filling” behavior through my ears as well as my eyes. The 30-second Twitter glance in the checkout line four years ago is 2019’s ten-minute podcast segment in my Uber ride. Even while our hands are busy, we can frictionlessly turn to a device that speaks to us (privately) through our ears to feed the constant thirst for entertainment and interaction.

So does all of this make AirPods the next wave of computing?

What makes a wave?

(Apple Photo)

The personal computer, the internet, and the smartphone. Each technology ushered in an era of computing that enabled innovators to create over a trillion dollars of value.

What makes these technologies so special? Why these big three, and not other technologies over the years, like tablets, smartwatches, or augmented reality glasses such as Google Glass?

There are three primary factors that are required in order to become a breakthrough computing platform.

1. A Massive Reduction in Friction

Each of these technologies tremendously reduced the necessary friction to accomplish a task. With the PC, we could recalculate a spreadsheet by changing one number instead of taking the hours to do it with paper, pencil, and a calculator. With the internet, we suddenly had access to all the information in the world without stepping outside. With the smartphone, we could answer an email or look something up on Google from anywhere — a task previously accessible only from our desk chair.

For the breakthrough computing wave beyond the smartphone, the technology must be “10x” faster to start using than reaching into your pocket. That’s quite the bar.

2. Powerful Scenarios

A trillion-dollar computing wave doesn’t happen by merely making it easier to accomplish jobs already being done by existing technology. It must enable new, powerful scenarios at scale that were previously impossible.

For example, in 2008, the iPhone 3G shipped with a GPS sensor, the App Store, and a set of APIs to access the hardware. This was the foundational building block that enabled Uber, Lyft, and countless others to build apps that let a person summon a car to their exact location at a moment’s notice. The ride sharing revolution went on to create a quarter trillion dollars of enterprise value alone.

The smartphone additionally brought the rise of casual gaming, real-time social networking, rich messaging, and more.

Similarly, the internet enabled the birth of the ecommerce industry from nothing, which is now over $3 trillion. Computing waves are not incremental: the new scenarios enable step-function creation of entirely new industries.

3. A Rich Ecosystem

Breakthrough technology waves require great platforms that can be built upon. The PC had Windows. The internet had the World Wide Web. The iPhone had the App Store. And each of these had associated business models that enabled enormous financial reward for the developers who succeeded in building on the platform.

If the company that built a technology doesn’t put in the work to enable the creativity of the masses, it may be a great product, but it won’t be a technology wave. It takes an ecosystem.

Could AirPods be the next major wave of computing? Before we answer that, let’s dive into `why we just can’t seem to pull them out of our ears.

AirPods: the next wave?

(Apple Photo)

Despite many platforms and technologies rising in the last decade, none have come close to the wild success of the smartphone. Smartwatches didn’t enable powerful-enough new scenarios. Tablets didn’t create a massive reduction in friction. AR glasses have largely been prototypes, and VR goggles haven’t reduced the friction to compute.

Will AirPods be able to break through where the others have not? Let’s look at our three criteria.

They certainly reduce the friction to compute. For tasks like setting reminders, making phone calls, and listening to podcasts, they are one of the few devices that truly enable a 10x easier computing experience on-the-go. With the charging case conveniently always in my pocket, Apple has created a seamless experience to transition into “AirPods mode.”

There are powerful scenarios lurking on the horizon, though I don’t think we yet know what the “killer app” of the AirPods era of computing will be. I also think that there is a significant “creepy factor” to some of the scenarios. Imagine if the next generation of AirPods didn’t obstruct sound from the real world at all. Why ever take them out? What if they could identify the person you’re talking to and give you audio cues during the conversation? Or transcribe action items to send out? Or listen for commands to take far richer actions than just “remind me to buy more Nespresso pods”?

The one place where AirPods absolutely fall down in their current state is in building a developer ecosystem. Apple has wildly restricted the ways that apps can interact with Siri, the exclusive AirPods interface, and I don’t see this changing meaningfully anytime soon. There’s a strong chance it will not be Apple who succeeds in making frictionless, on-the-go audio the computing platform of the future.

Who will win?

The classic dogma in tech punditry implores that the victors of the previous war rarely win the next. Microsoft dominated the PC wave and missed the smartphone (and the internet for that matter). Apple, with their backs against the wall, was baggage-free to innovate and create a purpose-built operating system and device from scratch to invent a brand new paradigm with the iPhone.

To date, Apple has the only meaningful product in the landscape of “personal audio computing” (though we’re going to need a much catchier name than that — PAC for now?) They’ve chosen to tightly tie AirPods to iOS, Siri, and the iPhone ecosystem. It’s been a source of strength so far, as AirPods primarily extend use cases that people already do on iOS, but there’s a good chance that the platform that emerges victorious in this new frontier will build a new ecosystem from scratch, not dependent on an existing platform, the same way that Amazon seems to have won the war for the home with Alexa.

Speaking of Amazon: the company is reported to have their own AirPods-like device in the works that will likely have the full power of Alexa in your ear — Skills ecosystem and all.

To the extent that PAC is just an extension of the smartphone, we should already declare Apple victorious in this mini-wave and move on. But to the extent that we are seeing the emergence of a new computing wave, AirPods are the Windows Mobile, and the war is just getting started.

So will AirPods become the next wave in computing? No. But their descendants will be. And when coupled with augmented reality to provide a vision interface as well, the explosion of powerful new scenarios will be staggering — but that’s for another essay.

Author’s note: This post was originally inspired by a tweetstorm, which was itself inspired by a discussion on the Limited Partner bonus show of the Acquired podcast.

How I ditched my car and went full Uber

Note: This post originally appeared on GeekWire on March 8, 2016

In May of last year, I finally pulled the trigger: I got rid of my car, a 2013 Honda Civic. I was paying an exorbitant amount for parking as a resident of Seattle’s popular Capitol Hill neighborhood. And, as an unmarried, mid-twenties male, insurance companies weren’t cutting me any deals either. I was regularly taking UberX’s for all the usual reasons: To meet friends for dinner, drinks, or occasionally to get to work. The $6 ride downtown was far less expensive than parking if I was short on time (translation: I slept through my alarm).

I had been holding onto my car for outdoor adventures, errands to the suburbs, and theoretical “what-if” scenarios. I ran the numbers and came to grips with reality: I was blowing several thousand dollars a year on car ownership, and I wasn’t even taking advantage of it. I decided that it was worth it to sell my car and see if I could save money without sacrificing too much of the convenience I enjoyed in my car-owning days. I would take Uber everywhere, and join Zipcar for those rare far-away occasions.

Since I’ve gone “full Uber,” I have saved $4,000 per year by not owning a car.

Here’s how the numbers break down, according to data from Mint.com from 2015:

Expenses calculated by extrapolating the cost during the months of 2015 with a car and without a car to a full 12 months.

The overwhelming costs associated with car ownership in my life were parking and car insurance. I was also losing $1,500 per year to depreciation according to KBB.com’s depreciation calculator.

The crazy thing is how little the ridesharing line item increased. Here’s my month-over-month ridesharing spend:


Aside from the huge drop in August when I was backpacking, my ridesharing expenditures only grew 50%. Most of the time when I take an Uber now, I would have taken one before: Going to dinner or drinks, getting to a meeting downtown, or hurrying to work. The only incremental cost comes from errands that are farther than I can walk and a more freewheeling attitude toward opening the app; I now get to call an Uber guilt-free, so I do it in borderline situations where I wouldn’t have done so before. I also added the cost of a few Zipcars a year, but this is relatively insignificant.

The cost savings have been great, but I think the biggest benefit has been the quality-of-life increase. Imagine a world where you literally never have to worry about parking. Where it is impossible to drink and drive. Where transportation time can always be used for productivity, or to have an undistracted conversation when going somewhere with a friend. And another perk: I’m never stuck behind the wheel in rush-hour traffic.

There are a few other magical things that make this work. First, we are in the honeymoon phase of ridesharing. Uber and Lyft are offering crazy incentives to get customers to integrate their services into their daily lives. I have the Capital One Quicksilver card, which currently gives me 20% off all purchases at Uber. For a while, Lyft was also doing an insane promotion in Seattle where I received 50% off all rides, but that unsustainable strategy appears to have passed. I have spent the vast majority of my transportation time with Uber over the last year, as it proved to be the most reliable of the services with shorter pick-up times, not to mention that killer credit card offer that came with it.

There are a few caveats to this. This lifestyle is only possible because I live and work in the city. It also has, what I like to call, “the friends-and-family tax.” I now have an unintentional dependency on those close to me, as I can no longer drive to hikes or weekend trips. Sure, I could rent that Zipcar that I budgeted for, but when a friend has a car of their own, they just end up volunteering to drive. At the end of the day, there is one more cost that isn’t reflected in that spreadsheet: Drinks and meals bought for those who generously volunteered.

All-in-all, going full Uber was a massive net win. It’s not for everyone yet, but as transportation continues to become more autonomous (reducing cost), and intelligent about economies of scale (with things like Uber Hop), it just may be soon.

In the meantime, if you consider following this car-less playbook, here’s a pro-tip: Brush up on your small talk skills. You’ll be riding around in a lot of Priuses amidst awkward silence otherwise.

23 Events, 6 Years, and Countless Friends: How Startup Weekend Shaped My Life

This piece was originally an impassioned Facebook post that quickly became the longest I’d ever written. After I published it, UP Global syndicated it on their blog, so I figured I may as well do it too. It is the most cathartic thing I’ve ever published here.

It is nearly impossible to accurately measure the impact that Startup Weekend has had on my life. It’s difficult to picture who I would be without it. Today’s news about joining Techstars has been an impetus to reflect on it. In thinking through the ways it affected my path to (maybe eventually) becoming a grown-up, there are four major things that come to mind.

1. Creating my first app. I first attended Startup Weekend in Columbus and worked on the app “Photo Food Journal.” It’s funny looking back on how many times I’ve heard this idea pitched at subsequent weekends, and how some larger companies are working on the idea as well. There’s always that set of apps (parking, beer tracking, food tracking, travel planning, etc.) that attendees pitch. It’s a right of passage for the first-time entrepreneur. Photo Food Journal led to me becoming an iOS developer on the side while I was a student. This begat SeizeTheDay, which was an app I developed featured by Apple, and made real money for a college student. This gave me the entrepreneurial itch.

I also credit starting SeizeTheDay in college as the reason I landed my first job working on the then-unanounced Office for iPad at Microsoft.

It also just so happens that this was the weekend I met my dear friend, backpacker comrade, and mentor, Nick Seguin. If this post stopped right here, it would have been enough. Or, as we Jews say, Dayenu!

2. Learning how to speak in front of people. I’ve been involved with 23 startup weekends now, from Columbus, to Seattle, to Kamloops – and even to Malaysia. At Startup Weekend, after you attend, you can help organize your next one, and eventually become a facilitator to go and run the event in other cities. When I facilitated my first event in 2010 in Columbus, I was a Junior in college, and a CS major with no “business side” to compliment. I’ve never had a problem with self-confidence, but I was no business person, and I certainly wasn’t your typical charismatic emcee. As I facilitated my next 10 events, Startup Weekend was my platform to sharpen those skills. I now find such joy in being able to talk to a large group of people and share stories from projects and teams I’ve been a part of.

It is worth mentioning that these skills have a profound impact on my social life as well. The personal self-confidence that spills over from of talking to groups about entrepreneurship is enormous. It’s a rock of stability by which I’ve drawn other courage and strength.

3. First press. Okay, this one is silly, but it’s worth mentioning. In September of 2010, just before I left my CoTweet internship in SF to go back to school, Eric Kerr and I attended the pitches for Startup Weekend Education and hung out with the one and only Shane Reiser. Sitting in the back of the room (and doing some extreme pattern recognition), we created and launched http://itsthisforthat.com during the pitches. After indulging in a few libations to grow the pool of “this’s” and “that’s”, we launched the site, tweeted about it, and I had my first taste of virality. It was my first time ever being written up in TechCrunch, and it led to introductions with talented people for years to come.

4. Making lifelong friends and working with world-class people. The list here is far too long for this post, but I want to name a few.

When I was working on Office for iPad at Microsoft, I was facilitating Startup Weekend events several times a year as a volunteer on the side. Liane Donald Scult happened to be in attendance at the Seattle event I facilitated, and asked me, “If you’re doing this in your free time, why aren’t you doing this for your job?” This was the first event in a series that led to running The Garage at Microsoft, and continuing to work on the vision that Quinn Hawkins, Liane, and many others had started. For those of you counting out there – that’s my first 2 jobs out of college.

When I moved out to Seattle for my first gig with Microsoft, Nick Seguin introduced me to Greg Gottesman. Greg and Nick were friends from the Startup Weekend board, and thought we should get to know each other. My coffee with Greg turned into a 3-hour walk, some really bad 1:1 basketball, and a teriyaki run. Greg stayed a close mentor and friend for a couple of years after that, until I left Microsoft to start Madrona Venture Labs with Greg last year. Let the scorekeepers know that they should add a 3rd to the list of jobs I’ve had because of Startup Weekend.

The week I moved to Seattle, Andy Sparks, one of my best friends from school, introduced me to fellow Startup Weekenders Kav, Donald, and Scott. When I had no friends in Seattle yet, they took me out for drinks. I suddenly had friends in a new city. This sort of thing has happened over and over again. Zachary Cohn, another of my first friends in Seattle, was a fellow Startup Weekender.

I knew Keith W. Armstrong and Adam Stelle only from their Startup Weekend email addresses for years, and have developed great friendships since moving out. Chet Kittleson and I even started Red Ride together at a Startup Weekend, and while that no longer lives on, our friendship will for years to come. Two of my closest friends, Tori and Philip, are friends from the Startup Weekend we held at Rover (a company started at Startup Weekend!) The list goes on.


When I search my Gmail inbox, I have 3,852 emails containing the phrase “Startup Weekend.” That’s a company I’ve never worked for. Startup Weekend is a fascinating case study in bottom-up, grassroots organization. I am just one of the hundreds of thousands of lives around the world that have been touched by it, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Startup Weekend hasn’t changed my life. It’s created the life I have today. The people, opportunities, and ideas over the last 6 years have done far more than I can articulate in this post. Thank you Marc, Clint, FranckAndrew and everyone else who has built it along the way. Congratulations, and enjoy the next chapter of the journey with Techstars.

If We’re in a Bubble, What Should An Entrepreneur Do?

There’s been a lot of talk recently, most credibly by Bill Gurley[1], that we’re in the midst of a bubble that’s due to pop. I won’t speculate on the magnitude of such a decline, but what goes up must come down eventually, and we’ve certainly got a wealth of capital available to startups right now. In this post, I’m going to examine what entrepreneurs can do if and when this happens. But first – an aside on short-selling.

There are many different reasons to short-sell a stock . A recent episode of Planet Money has a very good overview. One that I find particularly interesting is shorting an exchange-traded fund that tracks the entire S&P 500 (SPY)  as a hedge. Let’s imagine this scenario:

  1. You want to bet that a specific company will get more valuable over time, so you buy the individual stock.
  2. You’re concerned that a drop in the market as a whole could ruin your smart bet on the future of that individual stock.
  3. You short the entire market (hopefully with a limit order) so that if the market does drop as a whole, you don’t lose all of your money on that stock you loved so much, even though it wasn’t the fault of that company that they plummeted.

Stock does well? You miss out on some of the gains. Stock market crashes? You aren’t too upset that your favorite stock got dragged along with it.

Now – back to startups. If there’s going to be less capital available, what should we do about it? Can we as entrepreneurs and investors, like the individual public company investor, make a hedge with our time and money to weather the storm? There is no ETF tracking private companies. One way that I can think of is analogous to inferior goods, in the economic sense:

Inferior Good: a good that decreases in demand when consumer income rises (or rises in demand when consumer income decreases) [via Wikipedia]

Startups are the providers of goods or services. If we’re building a business-to-business startup, we can imagine the rest of pre-IPO companies in the world as consumers in the definition above.[2] After all, with less available sources of capital, their “income” decreases. We can then think about our product offerings this way: what will businesses need when they’ve got less money to play with? I’ve got a few things in mind.

  • There is a big opening for low-end disruption in operational expenditures. Companies will be willing to sacrifice the full-fledged functionality of some large software packages for “good enough” ones that are an order of magnitude less expensive (or free with an alternate business model). [3]
  • There is an opening for products that enable remote work. As employees have more power in the employment relationship, many will not relocate or will want to work from home. Younger companies may wait longer before committing to office space due to the expense as well. If the bubble hits hard enough, people will have to relocate away from expensive city centers, and tools to enable remote work or satellite offices in suburbs will be practical.
  • There could be an opportunity to change the hiring model to mitigate “bad hire” risk. Recruiting companies could form a model to take on some of the risk of bringing on an employee in the first few months so a business doesn’t bet the farm on a bad hire.
  • With less capital available, investment terms may be less entrepreneur-friendly. Some companies will turn to debt financing, peer-to-peer lending, or crowdfunding to get off the ground. There will be opportunities in providing alternatives to angel and VC money to start a company..

There are surely plenty more, but these are the ones that hit me right away. I generally agree with Paul Graham’s assertion, “Technology progresses more or less independently of the stock market,” but there is plenty of opportunity in applying and combining existing technology to new applications in a market-dependent manner.

In starting companies like these, we’re hedging our bet on the bubble bursting (again, if we’re in one at all). We’re still taking the risk to start a new company, but we’re taking the possible impending decline into account. If companies have less money to spend, what will the side effects be, and who will prosper?

Update: Discussion on Hacker News.



[1] Sam Altman also makes a great point that we’re all over-hyping this, and we should get back to thinking about what stuff we can build that people want. Hopefully, that’s more of what this post is contributing.

[2] The businesses directly affected will be startups that require VC and PE funding, but all businesses will feel an indirect effect if there is a bubble burst. Consumers may feel it as well depending on the magnitude, expanding this thesis from merely B2B companies to B2C companies.

[3] Classically, The Innovator’s Dilemma and low-end disruption theory. Which brings up an interesting question – is low end-disruption likely to occur at a more rapid pace after a bubble pops?

Thanks to David Rosenthal, Jon Fish, Andy Sparks, and Logan Frederick for reading drafts of this.



18 Observations from CES 2015

Ah, CES. CES (Consumer Electronics Show) is the closest thing we’ve got to a World’s Fair in our modern era. It promises to show off visions of the future alongside the newest technology we’ve got today. After spending the past few days down in Las Vegas, I’ve put together some observations of general trends from the show.

  1. Wearables. Most attendees suspected this would be the case going in, but the wearables are certainly out in full force. Any self-respecting consumer electronics company had a band with some set of fitness tracking, phone integration, notifications, and more. There were a tremendous number of Asian knock-offs of the forthcoming Apple Watch and current Android watches. Honestly though, for the whole space, the hype feels bigger than the market.
  2. Consumer health is emerging. Building on glorified pedometers, devices are incrementally becoming more about preventative medical care. The same aforementioned large self-respecting tech companies (Panasonic, Samsung, Sony, etc.) are producing devices that are “connected” to the rest of their ecosystem, allowing consumers to take their blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate, and temperature. This could be an interesting trend going forward in alleviating medical costs through preventative integrated devices.
  3. 3D Printing, or lack thereof. Maybe I missed it, but there was way less 3D printing than I thought would be there. For all of the attention it saw in 2014, I expected half of a showroom floor dedicated to it, not a random scattering of smaller companies. It’s largely still a cool technology looking for a big market. [Edit: there was more 3D printing in Eureka Park, which I didn’t have a chance to attend.]
  4. Drones, drones, everywhere. Drones have certainly found their use case in creative video production. Manufacturers want there to be more, but a second major market hasn’t emerged yet. There has been an explosion in the number of drone companies in the last year. I’d expect this to narrow to the big guys in the coming year:
    • High-end: Select $20k+ manufacturers for a heavy camera payload.
    • Mid-range: DJI and 3D Robotics duking it out for amateur and non-Hollywood-grade professional video.
    • Low-end: Parrot dominating the consumer market.
  5. Curved TVs and monitors. Sure, curved screens are theoretically nicer than looking at a flat panel when you’ve got several next to each other, but it feels gimmicky. Prediction: it will go the same way of the 3D TVs. Speaking of which:
  6. 3D TVs are dead. They were nowhere to be seen. That was fast.
  7. Smart TVs are table stakes. Nobody was bragging or showing off how their TV was “smart”. Attendees just assumed they all were.
  8. 4k TVs. It’s the new standard. You’re a sucker if you’re buying 1080p. Like we’ve seen before, the displays are outpacing the content, but 2015 will be the year that any major budget film or TV show can be expected in 4k.
  9. 8k TVs. A few manufacturers were boasting 8k TVs, but they didn’t look close to market. For example, Panasonic’s 55″ was LCD (not LED) and was only available to view privately in a demo showroom. One use case they were showing off is several-page document review when laid flat, but with 160 pixels per inch, you can see the pixels upon inspection. Show me a 55” retina display, and then we’re talking.
  10. OLED 4k TVs. These are really nice. The blacks truly are black. The dynamic range is significantly wider. The colors pop, and there’s no bleed-over. The one I saw at LG next to their top-of-the-line regular LED 4k TV was immensely better. It was about twice as much ($10k price tag), but that should come down drastically in the next year or two. The LG booth attendee also mentioned that their yield per batch of displays has gone from 20% at the debut of HDTVs to over 80% now. You can bet that’s the main driver of cost reduction of HDTVs, and we should benefit from the same savings on OLEDs when the same trend occurs.
  11. VR is for real. Oculus had private demos in your own little padded room of the new Crescent Bay prototype hardware. It’s 2.2 pounds lighter than the DK2 model, has integrated sound, and a new display technology with vastly reduced screen door effect. I wanted to stay in the Rift world for hours, though I only got 8 minutes. The head tracking felt exactly on par with real life, and the final demo that used the Unreal engine was freakishly realistic. VR will have implications in everything from entertainment to education, and I could even see productivity applications. While VR has proved that it can create a compelling, natural experience, I’m not convinced 2015 will be the breakout year. I’d imagine this is the sort of experience that the iPhone team felt in 2005, knowing they had something, but still over a year out from serious commercial adoption. Even at launch in 2007, the iPhone was a niche luxury product, and I don’t think we’re going to see any serious consumer market adoption in 2015 for VR.
  12. There’s some pretty crummy VR. Samsung Gear VR isn’t nearly as enjoyable to wear and didn’t grip my attention. It’s Oculus tech under the hood, but it’s hard to know their motivation to release a premature product when they’ve got such an impressive one in the works. At least it doesn’t have Oculus’s name on it.
  13. Automotive tech is and will always be automotive tech. The automotive industry was the worst offender of “future tech that may never get released” syndrome. There were incredibly early prototypes of self-driving cars that will keep showing up in various forms for the next several CES shows. More realistically, most manufacturers demoed digital and touch panels in cars to replace physical knobs, following Tesla’s lead from the last 5 years (though I’m still not sold on that for safety and convenience). Speaking of Tesla, they showed off the Model X SUV. Except Tesla as a company was nowhere to be found, ignoring the automotive section of the show entirely. Instead, the Tesla Model X was on display in Panasonic’s booth talking about their joint venture in the Gigafactory for advancing battery technology. Yes, the Model X has gull-wing doors.
  14. Plenty of connected home / “Internet of Things”. Like wearables, we expected this, and every major player had a suite of smart appliances that communicated to a cloud services. Many integrated with Apple’s HomeKit, but the Apple’s solution didn’t seem fully baked yet. The devices themselves were thermostats, motion detectors, power strips, lightbulbs, security cameras, humidifiers, fire alert systems, etc. Move along folks. Nothing you didn’t expect to see here.
  15. Bitcoin. While much of the hype has vanished, several bitcoin companies are trudging onwards and growing. Bitcoins themselves have lost a lot of value in the last year, but their value is significantly more stable than it used to be. This is the greatest asset that the bitcoin enthusiasts praise, in hopes that stability will dispel fear and increase adoption. Even more interesting is the applications being built on the blockchain other than a currency. Identity verification could be an interesting one.
  16. There was an entire floor of “iAccessories.” Business is still booming.
  17. Selfie sticks. Everywhere. All the time. As a friend remarked, “It’s gotta be the highest-growth category ever in one year.”
  18. Asian “Manufacturers.” There was a plethora of Chinese “manufacturers.” Though many were just white labeling the factory next door. It’s pretty tough to know who distributes and who actually manufacturers. There are a couple of interesting things here:
    • Any of them seem to be able to do anything. There were endless booths containing a mishmash of cameras, vaporizers, cables, keyboards, and a million accessories. They have a warehouse and machines that can mold and shape. If you’ve got a desire to put electronics into plastic or metal, they’re willing to do it (with volume priority, of course.)
    • Amongst the confusion and language barrier, there were several “trust organizations” that emerged. Their sole purpose is to help you find a reputable manufacturer overseas, and serve as a relationship broker for a fee.

That’s all, folks. Happy 2015!

Bitcoin and Thoughts From Bill Gates

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Bitcoin recently.

Here are some of Bill Gates’ thoughts that I’ve pulled together:

“[Its] unique position arises from a number of elements. TCP/IP protocols that define its transport level support distributed computing and scale incredibly well. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has defined an evolutionary path that will avoid running into future problems even as eventually everyone on the planet connects up.”

“Most important is that [it] has bootstrapped itself… It has enough users that it is benefiting from the positive feedback loop of the more users it gets, the more content it gets, and the more content it gets, the more users it gets.”

“[It] is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981. It is even more important than the arrival of the graphical user interface (GUI).”

“Another unique aspect of [it] is that because it buys communications lines on a commodity bid basis and because it is growing so fast, it is the only “public” network whose economics reflect the latest advances in communications technology.”

“Eventually you will be able to find the name of someone or a service you want to connect to… and rerouting your call to temporarily be a point-to-point connection will happen automatically.”

“[It] is at the forefront… and developments on [it] over the next several years will set the course of our industry for a long time to come.”

Okay, I haven’t been completely forthright. These are indeed Bill Gates’ quotes. But they’re from his 1995 memo to his Executive Staff, “The Internet Tidal Wave”. Every time Bill referenced “The Internet,” I replaced it with the pronoun “[it]”, forcing myself to consider these same properties, when applied to the Bitcoin network instead of the Internet.

I have found it to be a productive exercise to look at the opinions around the Internet in the early days to understand the current state of Bitcoin. It has many similar properties:

  • Confusion – how can consumers and businesses rely something that’s decentralized?
  • Dismissal – we haven’t seen the killer popular applications built on top yet, so we don’t “get it”.
  • Fear – the famous early uses have been scary – “hackers” using it for governmental or subversive purposes, and incredible volatility.

The more we see sites like Coinbase make Bitcoin understandable to the general public, and the more mainstream merchants we see accept Bitcoin as a currency, the less we’ll see of the confusion, dismissal, and fear.

Bitcoin is a platform in need of killer applications. The very principles that made the Internet so disruptive to every facet of life – decentralization, lower barriers to value-creation, and ease of value-transfer – are mirrored in Bitcoin. We’ve seen the global revolutions with the PC in 1981 and the Internet in the early 90s – will we see another in 2014 with Bitcoin? Time will tell, but I’m bullish.

Instant Karma At SXSW

I’ve long been a believer in Karma. Not in a supernatural way, but in the idea that through a series of loose and indirect actions that help others, what goes around does indeed come around. This week, at SXSW, I experienced full-blown instant Karma, and the story is too good not to share.

I left my Airbnb, and headed out to find a car2go to drive into downtown Austin. (Side note: 2 of those 3 proper nouns didn’t exist 5 years ago.) When I found a car, I reached down to put the key in the ignition, and my hand grazed a shiny new iPhone 5s. It was on, unlocked, and had no service. Apparently, the previous owner had already given up and cancelled the service. After a brief second of hesitation (sorry, Mom), I decided the rest of the day would be my mission to track down the owner and save him 700 bucks. Having been the target of a stolen iPhone earlier this year, I remembered that sinking feeling and knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night unless I made an honest effort.

Through a series of jumping between apps, the lost phone, and my phone, I got ahold of one lucky dude on Google Voice. I’ll leave his name out and refer to him as “Darren” for this post.


“Your Facebook says you partied too hard last night, had a #SXSFail, and bought a new iPhone this morning. You can go ahead and return that!”

You can imagine where the conversation went from there. I was already content just feeling like I did the right thing, but was promised a round on Darren for my troubles. I’m not one to argue with that. I headed downtown to the bar he set up as the meeting point. As I walked up to “Chicago House,” the door was full of security guards who wouldn’t let me in. That’s when Darren came to the door and said “It’s cool – he’s with me.”

This is where it gets awesome.

It turns out, Darren is a local DJ and producer. He was setting up the sound for Rahm Emanuel’s private party to host a bunch of big wigs from the City of Chicago. Not only that, but Rahm wanted local Chicago artists there, so The Hood Internet was in the back room setting up for their set later that night. As Darren slapped a VIP wristband on my hand, he brought me into the dance club in the back and asked “want to meet the band?”

Darren was eagerly sharing the story with everyone who would listen. I had a pre-show dance party with the one and only White Mystery Band, talked shop with The Hood Internet, reminisced about my late hours of coding in college to their music, and snapped a nice little souvenir shot.


And just to add another layer on the cake, having a little chat with the mayor of Chicago himself wasn’t too bad either.


Obviously, this sort of direct and instant Karmic exchange won’t happen every time you track down that poor soul who lost his phone. But it’s certainly a great reminder the next time I’m at a crossroads: good things happen when you’re good to people. And it just feels all warm and fuzzy.

Grassroots Innovation: It’s about Permission

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the UP America Summit, in friendly Iowa City, Iowa. It was put on by UP Global, the folks behind Startup Weekend, StartupDigest, NEXT, and Startup America. They got a bunch of us who run innovation programs together for a dedicated corporate track, to share our common learnings, struggles, and success stories. I represented The Garage, Microsoft’s grassroots innovation community, along with people from Coca-Cola, Sprint, The World Bank, GoDaddy, American Airlines, ACT, Hallmark, and others.

I put together a few of the key themes that emerged over and over within the group and wanted to share them here. The one that absolutely resonated with everyone instantly, is the title of this article, and the first point I’d like to call out:

  1. Grassroots innovation is about permission. Fueling creative tinkering with new ideas can’t be management-directed, but it must be management-supported. Those closest to the customers, problems, and existing products (typically at the bottom of a hierarchy) have the most personal drive to try a new approach to a problem, and this autonomy fuels their projects long after an executive mandate has worn off. However, if an employee feels that their efforts to innovate are counter to their “real job,” the project tends to die off over time. One thing that we practice at The Garage is having passionate employees plan and organize a Garage Week (think: blue-sky hackathon within an product team), but have executives promote participation via an email to the whole organization to grant such “permission to innovate.”
  2. Innovation is about a culture shift, not just money or ideas. Nobody owns innovation. Neither infinite resources, nor the “perfect platform” to surface the most innovative ideas will succeed without an organization-wide chutzpah toward innovation. We found that many of our companies have seen various forms of “internal Kickstarters,” idea voting platforms, and contests that did not achieve their goal of finding “that next big innovative thing” without a cultural embrace.
  3. Open innovation is important. Mathematically, the sum of experts with skills and experiences outside of any given company is larger than the sum of experts inside. We are often blind to a future innovation because we don’t embrace those outside our organization who can truly define the problem and solution. Getting employees outside the walls of the company and out into the community is paramount.
  4. Access is the greatest thing we can provide startups. And more specifically, access in a timely manner. If a startup is working toward a partnership with a large company, they often waste an incredible amount of time being passed around internally. If we really want to encourage open innovation and allow an idea to flourish, the greatest service we can do is recognize if it isn’t a good fit early, cut the chord, and save the startup valuable time by being honest and closing the door. If we can think of an introduction we can make that’s a better fit, that’s a bonus too. The list of startups that had an interesting new product that failed due to partnerships with a big company that never quite materialized is far too long.
  5. Innovation isn’t new. We can learn from our company history. Every billion dollar company, whether it is innovative today or not, had at least one enormous innovation in the past. It could have been business model (such as the advent of loyalty programs) or technology (such as the computer mouse), but that billion dollars didn’t come from doing the status quo. So, we should look within our companies at the environments that created those innovations in our past. The nuance is that recreating these conditions is hard since the these often occurred before exponential growth. Innovation at scale is a much trickier problem since it involves a massive amount of communication, collaboration, and precision. But at least, by examining our history of disruptions, we’ve got a great place to start.

The most important thing that we can do now: keep sharing our successes and failures with each other. We can approach corporate innovation the same way that we approach Startup Weekends: experiential education, where we learn by trying new things, and iterating when something seems to stick.

Passive Calorie Tracking Will Be A Gold Mine

Consider these two statements:

1. Humans are generally lazy.
2. If you measure something, and can see the results, it will improve.

Weight loss and gain are approximately determined by the simple laws of thermodynamics. If you put more energy into your body than you require, it will be stored as mass, and vice versa. Therefore, the simple equation of Calories in minus Calories out is a pretty easy way to determine if a person will gain or lose weight.

We’ve gotten pretty good at passively measuring caloric output. I’ve been wearing the BodyMedia Fit Link Armband, and plenty of others around the globe are monitoring with other “Quantified Self” devices such as the Jawbone Up, Nike+ Fuelband, various FitBits, and the Basis B1.

The thing we’re not good at is measuring caloric input. I’m good at it, but I’m not a normal person. When I’m cutting body fat, or performing an experiment that I’m determined to stick to, I track every macronutrient and Calorie that goes into my body with MyFitnessPal or DailyBurn. However, normal people aren’t that diligent (see rule #1), and they often don’t want to face the reality that the donut that they just ate may be half of the Calories that they require for the day. Ignorance is bliss, even if it’s self-imposed.

These “Calories out” measurement devices are proving that passive measurement tools work. If a person doesn’t have to perform work to measure their energy output, they’re perfectly willing to track and analyze it. In fact, it capitalizes on rule #2: If you measure something, and can see the results, it will improve. Dick Talens of Fitocracy recently wrote an awesome piece on generating a positive feedback loop for results, and I couldn’t agree more.

The thing that we haven’t gotten yet, is passive measurement and visualization of Calories in. The moment we can hook up some sort of combination glucose monitor + heart rate monitor + mass differential measurement tool to even ballpark the Calories we’ve ingested, there will be a gold rush to create weight-loss tracking tools with merely the effort of strapping on a device.

I don’t know where the state of scientific research is in this area, but the race is on. And if you’ve got any ideas of how to guess at how many Calories a person has ingested, I’d love to work with you.

My Measured Life: Graphs and Insights from Wearing The BodyMedia Fit Armband

For the past few weeks, I’ve been wearing the BodyMedia Fit Link Armband. It provides a measurement of how many Calories per minute I’m burning. Using a combination of motion measurement with an accelerometer, steps taken, galvanic skin response (skin moisture), skin temperature, and heat flux (heat produced by the body that escapes), it can provide these measurements with a mean error less than 10%. It also provides data on when I was actually asleep at night, total sleep time, and brings in data from third party services like MyFitnessPal (where I’ve been tracking food intake) to provide net caloric balance. It’s got a mobile app that syncs over Bluetooth, so I can get graphs on-the-fly of my caloric burn during various parts of the day. I’ve noticed a few interesting trends, and I wanted to share them here.

This is a graph of Calories burned per minute on a day where I ran in the morning before work, and lifted weights after work.


This is a graph of Calories burned per minute on a day where I went skiing.


This is a graph of Calories burned per minute on a day where did an hour of hot yoga before work (6 AM – 7 AM).


This is a graph of Calories burned per minute on a day where I did a lot of weightlifting (short heavy sets) and a quick run, followed by some walking around to run errands afterwards. I also went out to bars the night before, which explains that 2 AM spike for the stumble home.


Here are a few of my most interesting observations from this data:

  • Not surprisingly, running is the most time-efficient way to burn calories. I was running at roughly an 8:30 pace, and was right around 10 Calories burned / minute the entire time.
  • When I’m at my desk, I may as well be asleep as far as my caloric burn is concerned. That’s a scary thought for those of us with desk jobs. Even scarier: most of the time I’m using a standing desk, which didn’t seem to affect much. Those spikes throughout the work day are just when I wander around to other people’s offices.
  • Lifting weights burned about 3x the amount of Calories per minute as sleeping, but at 5 Cal/minute, it’s still only about half that of running. Lifting is obviously beneficial for other purposes though, like gaining strength.
  • That skiing graph is pretty funny to look at. It’s obvious where I took lunch, and skiing seems to provide running-like caloric burn rates when on the hill, but low points at about ~2x sleeping while sitting on the ski lift between runs.
  • In general, I’m amazed at how fast my caloric burn rate returns to that of sleeping after I work out. It seems to have little effect on my burn for the rest of the day.
  • The yoga day is perplexing to me. The caloric burn during the yoga class was surprisingly low, never exceeding 6 Cal/minute. This can be attributed to one or both of the following:

    • All of that sweating really is just from the room being 104 degrees.
    • The BodyMedia Fit is poor at estimating in this case since there isn’t a lot of bipedal movement to make the accelerometer think I’m in motion.
  • Another interesting takeaway from yoga: It took a long time for my caloric burn rate to return to my sleeping rate after I finished. The class was 6 AM to 7 AM, and despite sitting in a car driving home, it took about 45 minutes to decrease below the average rate from the class. My guess is that during this time, my nervous system was still pretty messed up from the temperature change and stressed body movement, and it takes a lot of Calories to recover.
  • Merely walking around is pretty effective for burning Calories at about 5 Cal/minute. I guess that living 15 minutes from the bus stop to work really is a great lifestyle choice.
  • Stumbling home from bars is surprisingly effective for burning Calories.

I’m going to continue testing the BodyMedia Fit for at least another couple months, until my free trial of the web service is up. I’d love to chat about my other experiences with the device, its sleep tracking, integration with the mobile app, and other devices you’ve used, so feel free to reach out on Twitter at @gilbert.