Health Care: Internet Use is Good, but Much More Needed

The following column is one of the last our partner Steve Wildstrom wrote for us. As many of you know, he passed away last week after losing his battle with brain cancer. However, even while he was fighting for his life and having to deal with our healthcare system, he was still using this experience to bring to the fore some of the key issues he saw regarding patient security, the problem with closed systems, the potential virtue of open systems and applauds Apple’s HealthKit program. I know how hard it was for him to write this in June but, as you can see, his mind was still very clear and his writing top notch. With this column, we honor the contribution he made to us and our Tech.pinions audience and he will always be part of the Tech.pinions team.

Tim Bajarin
President, Creative Strategies
Co-founder Tech.pinions

Hospital photo

For those who have been following me (mostly on Facebook) you know I have had a lot of experience with the health care system. In addition to what has generally been very good treatment, I have learned about the impact of the internet and other communications on medicine. There’s a lot being done but much more is needed.

One of the pieces of news is the protection of patient security is very good. In the fairly infrequent cases such as the hacking of Anthem this winter, the attack on information has involved almost entirely financial, not medical records.

The reason is straightforward. The Health Insurance Portability and Affordability Act (HIPAA), in effect since 1996, imposes both very tough rules and stiff penalties for violation. A leak of information in the hospital is likely to produce seriously discouraging prosecution. Make the cost expensive for those who want to pass info on and you discourage trying.

But the HIPAA effort is far from free. The big problem is it is one of the major policies that gets in the way of effective sharing of information among doctors, medical centers, and hospitals. Electronic medical services, from general companies such as IBM and GE to specialists such as Epic and Cerner, should keep track of whatever is going on, from record keeping by doctors during exams to blood tests to pharmacy data to MRI and CT tests, and just about everything else.[pullquote]One piece of news is relatively younger doctors seem much more comfortable with the technology than their older colleagues.[/pullquote]

Of course, how well this is all used depends on how good the administrators are in making it useful. One piece of news is relatively younger doctors seem much more comfortable with the technology than their older colleagues. Another is the effective use in facilities both hospitals and centralized medical centers. I am a patient of Kaiser Permanente’s staff-based HMI and their national complete usage of the Epic system works well (except for occasional network problems).

Closed systems. These are, however, effectively closed systems, whether relatively small or a massive operation like Kaiser. Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has a close relationship with Kaiser Permanente Mid-Atlantic and, while both use Epic systems, don’t expect them to communicate with each other electronically. Giving Johns Hopkins copies of MRIs made by Kaiser required me to pick up DVD copies of the tests and deliver them to Baltimore. Written records need to be printed and delivered too.

That’s just a nuisance. Even worse is the situation if you get ill while traveling. If you need medical treatment while traveling, it can be very difficult for the personnel to get your records while complying with HIPAA. It’s safe, sort of–no one else will get it. But it can be ridiculously hard to transfer. Very solid systems have been built, in many cases on 20-year-old technology. There are secure and better systems out there. And, while the government’s caution is valuable, it is really time to develop better systems.

Fortunately, there some real developments. HIPAA makes make it hard–still a mixed challenge–but we are starting to get serious use of the Internet of Things medical devices to deliver important information to medical professionals. Most of these systems begin with the transformation of data on private networks, such as Qualcomm’s 2net Platform and Verizon’s Converged Health Management.

Open systems. As happens in the rest of the IoT world however, we are moving toward more open, more general, and more easily shared systems. Apple, which has a deep interest going back at least to Steve Jobs’ serious illness, has seen the value of iOS devices for the collection of information. And, in a new move for Apple, but in line with techniques strongly favored by developers and researchers, the new software is to be built using open systems.

Apple’s ResearchKit, launched this spring, has made progress in several medical apps: asthma, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, breast cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Based on iPhone apps with Apple Watch likely to join, they use the device’s ability both to collect and transmit (of course, working within solid security features that are HIPAA requirements) information from the patient to researchers.

For example, Share the Journey, organized by Sage Bionetworks, is for women being treated for breast cancer. They regularly enter information on activity and perform specific tasks to improve researchers’ experience on what is happening in the case, allowing them to study and improve treatment.

Health patients. Stanford’s MyHeart Counts uses the iPhone itself to collect and transmit a considerable variety of information on what’s happening in the body. Unlike other ResearchKit efforts designed primarily for the treatment of conditions, MyHeart Counts wants to look at the data generated by healthy patients to gather information.

It’s not surprising that the ResearchKit efforts are focused on some of the dominant conditions. It’s a likely place for relatively quick gains. The provisions that make the sharing of information through public but secure networks offers an even greater advantage.

I don’t know if Apple finds much business out of this, but it is a big and important deal. To the extent they can push for better communication of health care information of all sorts while maintaining security, it is a even better gain.

CVS, IBM, and a New Future for Medicine


CVS is a huge brand with 7,600 drug retailers whose specialty seemed to have been disorganized stores that were out of stock on whatever it was I needed. IBM is something quite different; an old-line professional company focused on enterprises willing to pay a lot for high-end services. Their partnership seems unlikely — a combination for improved medical service.

It’s clear both companies needed to do something. Drug stores need action about markets to compete with companies such as Amazon and any other online services to deprive existing retailers of profits. One direction stores have been adding is medical services, from flu shots to basic treatment. IBM meanwhile, has faced an army of increased competition in services and shrinking profits.

watsonBut IBM has an incentive of its own to build a better service. It has gone through a movement of traditional IBM design to build ways to develop large, open-system databases that can be searched rapidly for answers to questions. The company cleverly showed the public the phenomenon on national television by using a machine called Watson. It starred in the 2011 TV quiz show Jeopardy!, where it defeated human champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter.

For IBM, it only looked like a stunt. But the real goal was to make Watson a powerful search tool for discovery of information in the world. It has taken a while before the business really took off, but health care has turned out to be a leading choice. Improved information is badly needed in medicine, where there is a lot of information often poorly organized, but there is research effort and a lot of money. It’s no accident that Watson’s first commercial effort was a search of lung cancer data for Memorial Sloan-Kettering. The IBM-CVS move, which oddly has not yet been given a name, has launched a big new approach.

Although the financial arrangement between IBM and CVS has not been disclosed, it is clear how both sides can be winners. CVS gets access to a wealth of information from Watson that will improve its ability to diagnose and treat customers. Ultimately, this capability could help CVS to eventually move its business from cosmetics and pharmacy goods to the quick exams and shots it handles today, to true medical centers.

IBM’s gain is different. Its goal is to use Watson to collect, sort, and classify the tons of information it can take in through the CVS program. The advantage of Watson is the more data it gathers, the more knowledge it has about the total situation.

Kyu Rhee, IBM’s chief medical officer, is counting on major progress:

Today, we’re taking another step forward with a sweeping partnership with CVS Health aimed at transforming the way individuals and their caregivers engage with essential members of that patient-centered, community-based primary care team—CVS pharmacists and healthcare providers at your local CVS MinuteClinic.  These team members are committed to not only address your acute healthcare needs including a sore throat or a sinus infection, but also manage key chronic conditions including heart disease, diabetes, asthma, arthritis, depression, and cancer.

IBM is planning to use information it collects to combine medical and pharmacy records, wearables, fitness devices, home monitoring devices, and mobile apps.

Another goal is to use the CVS-based services to help carry out doctors’ instructions without needing more appointments. CVS and Watson together can help keep track of physicians’ plans.

IBM is also bringing a growing collection of newly acquired services to the effort. Phytel has built its own integrated population health management software. Explorys is a platform for sampling big data information across the platform. And Cúram Software creates social program management organizations. The goal, according to IBM Watson executive Mike Rhodin is, “extraordinary capabilities in patient engagement and population health, enabling us to deliver a powerful solution that supports individuals wherever they are, whenever they need it.”

CVSOf course, the effort is not without risks. A particularly big one is protecting the massive medical information that IBM and CVS will be collecting and transferring between each other. CVS already has a less than good record of protecting customer records. It has lost a number of credit card records, though there has not been too much medical information stolen. We cannot even tell what IBM is collecting with serviced because today, if data is taken, it’s going to be blamed on other companies.

It’s also critical that patient information gathered by CVS and IBM be passed on to third parties, such as pharmacy companies to address discovered customer needs. Keeping anything involving the relationship between CVS and IBM private is vital and any action must be passed on to the patient, not a third company.

The problem is the information being exchanged between IBM and CVS is a lot more of a risk than mere credit card numbers. Protecting actual medical information must not only provide the privacy that patients expect but the extensive requirements of the HIPAA law and other government and insurance company terms. And, of course, we do not yet know how much it will cost CVS, IBM, or customers.

All of which probably explains why it will take a while for the service to become broadly available. But the agreement is likely to produce a major new medical service. That could be big deal.

Bad Web Sites Can Be Silly, Ultimately Dangerous

There’s little doubt that our new web distribution systems often fail to do the best job in protecting information. Sometimes, as in the case of the massive loss of federal government information and the theft of retail credit card info, the problems are desperately in need of improvement.

But sometimes problems turn out to be downright miserable in ways that can cause ridiculous amounts of trouble. This week, I was looking for additional examples of information theft as I am trying to build suggestions for more protection. Good approaches are often being used especially for new services and eventually even the government will be forced to make things better. Others are another story.

I came across an interesting account from Master Herald with the headline “Accounts Hacked!” It may not have been terribly important, but it shows how screwed a company can be. A report claimed intruders found an opportunity to steal a “forgotten password” for access to Valve’s Steam, a service that makes a variety of online games available on the internet. There was a published account found through a Google search of considerable detail on the alleged attack. Usually when something like this occurs, there are multiple internet reports but here the detail seemed only to repeat the text from Master Herald. I’m not going to link to it because the link has some very nasty components; search on you own if you want to risk it.

Master Herald declares itself a news service based in Muscat by Al-Mashroot Akhbar Co., unrelated, as best I can tell, to any other network service. The one thing we can be grateful for is the Steam report did not get much coverage. The only secondary report was on Y Hacker News and it was a bunch of comments that referred back to the Master Herald report–with dozens of suggestions that turned out to have little to do with the alleged Steam issue.

Still, the Y Hacker News report is very safe compared to the Master Herald web page. The Master Herald page looks very confusing, filled with non-working links. DO NOT click on the links; you won’t get what you want and what you get may cause trouble.An example of the text (links delinked):

Valve’s Steam is the biggest platform in the PC gaming market, with Valve themselves being one of the most prominent companies in the gaming industry as a whole. Steam has millions of accounts all over the world, and in some cases people have invested literally thousands of dollars into their own accounts. Which is why a security breach like the one that just occurred a few days ago is something to take very seriously.

Click on any of those links and you generally get an ad totally unrelated. It brings a box—uncopyable—that takes you to a new screen of something. Mostly the web screen you get is pointless but harmless. But sometimes it will lock your browser with a blue screen that cannot be copied. Then you get one of several boxes like:


This then locks up your browser, if you are lucky, or freezes the system. As best I can tell, the ultimate goal of all this junk is to get you to call the “toll free helpline” for assistance. I wasn’t willing to go that far.

What is this sort of thing all about? I found it essentially impossible to make sense. But I guess there must be enough uninformed silly users that they will actually try. Still, it is troubling that what begins as a report on a somewhat scary (if false) Valse Steam problem ends up doing a good job of messing up your system temporarily.

The proof that it’s possible to put up really dreadful web sites. It’s your job to be careful.

Windows 10: Microsoft’s New View

Window 10 announcementIn 1995, Microsoft introduced its first really popular operating service, Windows 95, which was so attractive customers stood in store lines to buy it when it became available at midnight, and was a bargain when retailers offered it for $210, or $110 for an upgrade from something such as Windows 3.11. There was no built-in support for the internet by dial-up or anything else and a package of added features put another $50 on the cost.

If you wanted new Windows, you paid for it. It might be a good version—Widows 98 Second Edition or Windows 7—or bad—Windows ME or 8—but when you went for retail, an enterprise tool, or the OS on a new computer, it would cost.

There’s been a lot of change lately, especially since Satya Nadella took over as CEO. Users with Windows 7 were able to upgrade to 8.1 for no charge (although there’s no particular reason most would want to). Office, the most important Windows software, once had to be purchased for each PC individually, is now available in a five PC system for $100 a year, is automatically updated, and serves both Windows and Macs (additional versions cover iPhones, Android, and Windows Phones without charge). A terabyte of cloud storage for five users on OneDrive and 60 minutes of Skype are thrown in.

The official announcement of Windows 10, scheduled for July 29, is very different from what Microsoft customers are used to. Most recently, if you wanted to upgrade from Windows 7 to 8.1, you would pay $120. The new announcement to customers:

*Windows Offer Details

Yes, free! This upgrade offer is for a full version of Windows 10, not a trial. 3GB download required; standard data rates apply. To take advantage of this free offer, you must upgrade to Windows 10 within one year of availability. Once you upgrade, you have Windows 10 for free on that device.

And unlike the legal standard boilerplate, you get:

Our lawyers made us say this:

Windows 10 Upgrade Offer is valid for qualified Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 devices, including devices you already own. Some hardware/software requirements apply and feature availability may vary by device and market. The availability of Windows 10 upgrade for Windows Phone 8.1 devices may vary by OEM, mobile operator or carrier. Devices must be connected to the internet and have Windows Update enabled. Windows 7 SP1 and Windows 8.1 Update required. Some editions are excluded: Windows 7 Enterprise, Windows 8/8.1 Enterprise, and Windows RT/RT 8.1. Active Software Assurance customers in volume licensing have the benefit to upgrade to Windows 10 enterprise offerings outside of this offer. To check for compatibility and other important installation information, visit your device manufacturer’s website and the Windows 10 Specifications page. Additional requirements may apply over time for updates. Security and features are kept automatically up-to-date which is always enabled.

Microsoft is doing its best to follow Apple’s style to use its stores for the new software rush. Events featuring the new Windows will be featured at some top Microsoft stores, along with lots of parties, doubtless paid for, at least in part, by Microsoft. Stores will have Answer Desks designed to help customers install Windows 10 on existing PCs or to set up new systems. Microsoft has also begun a series of TV ads promoting the launch.

Of course, there’s a big question left at the bottom of the issue: Will Windows 10 bring back the Microsoft-based PC, where there has been movement both from Windows to Mac and away from PCs altogether. There almost certainly has to be some real improvement. Those who have been working on Windows 7 or far worse Windows 8.1s have to be long ready for replacement.

Apple has definitely shown there is a valid business in selling Macs and the forthcoming release of El Capitan for OS X is bound to boost PC sales even though it will fit reasonably well in most existing Macs. One huge test for Microsoft will be just how good the PC makers will be at doing a better job selling Windows 10 than they, including Microsoft itself, did with Windows 8 and 8.1. Unless Windows 10 really comes through, Microsoft will just continue to lose after the growth of Macs and the movement away from PCs.

What’s Wrong with Twitter

I love Twitter. I hate Twitter. Twitter has become, for me, more important than even email, a regular report for the things going on in the world. It is also overwhelmed by junk that makes reading most difficult the iPhone.

When there is real news breaking in the world, Twitter produces the most important information. And through the day, you get news, entertainment, education, and more. But there is still a big problem — it produces a lot of valuable information but provides very little for the service to make a profit.

I’ve been a Twitter member for seven years and have watched it move from silly reports (“I just got up”) to much more useful information. Unfortunately, there is also a lot more junk every day, much of it endless advertising. And far too many posts by people using much worse style to create what they say.

The real key is Twitter on the iPhone (or, secondarily Android). It’s actually at its best on the iPad but a tablet or, even worse, a laptop, isn’t the best choice for the feed. The images are a lot better on the iPad but it is kind of hard to keep it in your pocket whenever you want it. The phone is often just too small for what is displayed.

cucumber_adI have used a number of apps, but mainly Tweetbot and Twitter’s own effort. The recent experience of Tweetbot, long my favorite, is trying so many different changes that it has become almost impossible to use. Between the ads thrown in by the app, the ads thrown in by comment posters, and ads with references to vendors, they create a flood of junk you don’t want.

For example, this is a typical Twitter display. Do I care about CucumberTony? Not really. And on Tweeter, you can expect every three or four such screens to include an ad like this. Add the number of individual posts and it gets worse.

One of the worst problems with Tweetbot posts on iPhone is inserts. The problems are actually all over the place but the worst feature is inserts that simply do not fit because they are too small to read and cannot be enlarged adequately.

Consider this one, not one of the worst from Re/code. The basic display is too small:


Click once to show the display on this example and you get the example, which is still unreadable on a phone:


And if you click a second time, you get an image that is much bigger and harder to read. You can slide across the screen but it can’t be read. And you cannot rotate the phone 90 degrees, which would make it readable.


There are many other problems. Just about all of the frequent submissions by Forbes are unreadable because of the announcement, ads, and other additions the publisher has crammed in that leave articles unreadable.

Some of the behavior of iPhone images is terrible. When you touch the screen in certain places–its similar but different on Tweetbot and Tweeter–the iPhone or other phone features block the screen until you tap again. (touch features should improve this in the upcoming iOS 9.)

So far the trend looks to get worse. I have no desire to raise money from anything I post. But that is not true for many other posts who are desperate for earnings. And the harder they try, from both posters and the app owners, the worse it gets for readers.

I can’t give up because it means too much to me. But it sure is getting worse.

The MacBook: A Top Laptop Worth Every Penny


The new MacBook is most definitely not for everyone. But I absolutely love it. If you need portability more than maximum power, if your need is for a small, excellent quality display with a great keyboard and a beautiful design, it shows the way forward.

I do not generally use a laptop for really heavy duty work; projects such as video or fancy Photoshop work will more likely be done on an iMac desktop. My OS X mobile choice has been an aging, banged up MacBook Air. The processor was slow under Yosemite and the quality of the pre-Retina Display was less than great.

Some of the major mechanical problems had been less than ideal on the Air. The big one was a marginally adequate scissors-designed keyboard that was too shallow. These are less than ideal on laptops and hurt more as units got thinner. The spacebar also frequently missed on the Air, leaving out breaks between words. The touchpad was OK but not great.

My MacBook makes all that change for me. The 12” display, while just halfway between the 11” and 13”, is a 2304×1440 fabulous screen, a view in which my aging eyes can read the text better than in the 1440×900 of the bigger Air. It’s a big gain of usability (and very good for video and photos too).

Key scissors

The keyboard is also a winner. The “butterfly” key design uses only shallow depressions—the extremely shallow design of the case leaves very little room—but much better typing than the Air. Despite a significantly smaller case than the 13” Air, the keyboard is about the same width by extending out to the very edge, with each key just a bit larger. Key tops are illuminated. It’s hard to see it gets better.

What goes with it is the much-improved touchpad, which is both larger than on the Air and considerably more capable. The Force Touch system is designed to take the same touch effect anywhere across the surface and it is designed to respond to differences in pressure. It also has haptic return to taps. It’s good now, but it is likely to get new features when the El Capitan version of OS X comes out around the end of summer.

The design of the MacBook, a bit of a quaint name for the model, is aimed at an ultimate portable that will travel around as an undersized, underweight model. The model weighs just two pounds, not a lot more than an iPad, and is just 11×7.7 inches across and under a half an inch thick at its thickest end. It’s hard to find carrying it with you a problem.

Design imposes some differences and makes the MacBook more like an iPad than a traditional laptop. The most obvious is only two external connections, a 3.5 mm audio connection and an everything connection, a tiny USB-C socket for power and anything else. It’s disappointing to go without a second USB-C or standard USB, though easy to see how hard it would be to fit one in. (A standard USB-C to USB cable that ought to be thrown is a $19 addition; a multiport cable is a staggering $79.)


The thinking is the MacBook doesn’t need connection most of the time. The interior of the case consists almost exclusively of batteries, giving an easy unplugged working time of eight hours or so. The connection to the network will of course be on Wi-Fi, providing mail, the internet, and cloud storage from an extra disk facility in your home or office or services such as Dropbox or OneDrive (yes, a Microsoft service works fine with a Mac). It seems a bit odd to those of us whose use of a laptop required cables forever, but it hasn’t been needed for a long time.

Another key design feature is the absence of a fan, keeping the unit both tiny and silent. The trick is the use of an Intel Core M processor with 1.3 GHz operation with up to 2.9 GHz at extra need. It’s not the fastest thing out there; you can get a four-quad 2.5 GHz i7 on a MacBook Pro. That’s great if you need it on a superfast mobile unit. I don’t.

One obvious drawback to the MacBook is the cost. The minimum cost is $1,299, compared to $999 for the base Mac Air laptop. I chose to go all the way, $1,599 for model with a faster processor and, more important from my point of view, 512GB of flash storage. The speed and storage are more than up the task.

Apple can charge that kind of price on a system aimed at the top-end customers looking for something special. But look for a number of the MacBook features to take their place on a number of other Mac laptops: the keyboard, the touchpad with Force Touch, the smaller case for the current size. If you are looking for a small, light, and capable laptop, you cannot beat the MacBook.


Just a note: I usually write columns on my iMac, but this was done entirely on MacBook, most of it while the unit sat on my lap for work. I also did all the photo work in Photoshop on the MacBook. I still like the desktop when it’s available, but the MacBook was more than adequate.

A Virtual Nurse to Improve Your Medicine logoMany of us have dealt with prerecorded treatment voices at medical centers. And many of us have found it frustrating, and worse if the situation seems bad, before you get to talk to a skilled human being. But the situation is getting a lot better as the virtual “professionals” take advantage of rapidly increasing action to provide both faster treatment and more efficient, lower cost.

One of the most interesting is, a new service built on top of the code designs offered by Expect Lab’s MindMeld service. The goal is to build highly accurate, thorough voice services on top of data, language understanding, machine learning, continuous processing, and user interface over devices.

We’re ready for help. “There’s a lot of need for action,” says CEO Adam Odessy. “One problem is frequency. We need to communicate and limit the amount of direct contact. We focus on long-term process, Natural language is key to developing to virtual nurse. The overall goal is to communicate more and reduce cost. In the end, we always need a nurse or doctor, but we can eliminate a lot of cost.” is built around a virtual nurse named Molly–somehow a bit cuter than necessary and with just enough machine-generated language you are certain it isn’t a real human being on the other end. The initial plan is to set up systems for three areas of medicine–medical institutions, including hospitals and other clinic setups; insurance companies, and pharmacy companies.

They all stand to profit, although their roles are different. Medical institutions, obviously, are designed to get treatment to patients and will certainly seem more useful for consumers. Insurance companies hope to collect large amounts of information that shows them what is going on in the field, designed to distribute service–and to lower the costs. The pharmacy is interested in collecting information, often in the form of inquiries from current patients, to monitor, gather information, and distribute drug use.

The effective use is both the cleverness of the human-like robot helper at the clinic with increased ability to collect the most useful information, especially when it can be collected using mobile devices to provide information about patients. A goal is to make it possible for the service to constantly remember data, especially useful with the ill and aging patients.

Three services demonstrate some plans that combine information provided by devices and discussions with Molly:

Congestive heart failure solution: The practice is designed to collect critical information and deliver close CHF information to the caregivers based on devices and conversations. Data tests include daily blood sugar and blood pressure, diet monitoring, and weight tracking.

Diabetes solution: The most effective way to treat diabetes is to collect daily information to keep close track of glucose levels, designed to both improve diabetes itself and lower the risk of heart conditions. The roles of patients and devices include daily glucose measurement, blood pressure, ocular examination, and podiatrist health.

Behavior health solution. This gets a little out of the normal treatment field. The goal is end-to-end behavioral treatment for patients, including automatic assessments defined by clinicians. Steps include reports of daily symptoms, daily photos of patients, compliance monitoring, and regular guidance manuals.

The goal is to use as many technologies as possible, working through phones, tablets, and PCs. The hope is in making Molly’s avatar role as human as possible, with  speech-recognition conversation as normal as possible. Using data collected by patients and by wired or wireless devices is critical. And video and augmented reality sent to patients can help in treatment.

A number of large players are involved in already including the UK National Health Service, University of California San Francisco, Kaiser Permanente, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico,  Novartis, Allscripts, Panasonic, and Microsoft.

And, of course, the efforts must comply closely with the rules imposed by the government. Everything is built around Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act requirements and has been working the HIPAA requirements for the past year and a half of development to qualify.

A step is likely to assist the development of programs built on MindMeld and, as well as competitors in the works, is likely to take continuing service from ever more capable devices, phones and watches as well as specialized equipment for IoT services.

Apple is not a part of the project but the company is using the new HealthKit software to help bring in roles for iPhones and Apple Watches. “HealthKit is combining integration,” says’s Odessky. “It provides additional vital signs and better data. We look forward to everything from everything from cameras to observer stuff like FitBit to get more precise information.”

The use of health services from IoT based data studies to devices with ever more accurate information of patients’ medical services is a big deal and it is one of the best ideas for remote devices. Better and more efficient could be a real winner for everyone.

We Need Ways to Make Video Better

Lyve display

I’ve been messing around with internet video creation going back to the days of cameras recording on digital tape. It was hard and slow.

Today, changes have made it more straightforward for almost anyone. Smartphones have all but replaced traditional amateur cameras (or if you want to take pictures in the strangest places possible, a GoPro). There are lots of ways to send off little video snippets, from private email to Facebook, to live Meerkat and Periscope, and others. Many developers, such as established players like RealNetwork’s RealTimes to Artkick create easy ways to get videos on a variety of devices from phones to the TV sets.

But one of the things you should want to do with videos is tell stories but it’s really hard. Although it’s possible to make a real video on a phone, or somewhat better on a tablet, it’s still a process that works best on a PC with a big screen. That means getting video recordings accessible among devices with a minimum effort and an easy way to handle files. There is plenty of software available. Some, such as iMovie (for Mac or iOS) are fairly simple. The more complex offerings, from Final Cut Pro to Adobe Premiere Pro to Pinnacle, offer much more capability all the way up to professional production but require lots of learning. [pullquote]What we really need is a simple, clever approach to make it possible [to] create a really good story easily distributed.[/pullquote]

What we really need is a simple, clever approach to make it possible for people who want a way to take the video shot, most likely on a phone, edit it, mix in photos, sound, music, etc., and create a really good story can easily distributed. It’s starting to happen, but it still has a long way to go.

Three factors. There are basically three factors to the movie business. The first and third pieces are already good and starting to get a lot better. First, you need to collect the shooting, sharing, and storage of the video, a task complicated by how quickly the recordings get big. Cloud storage is growing fast, as is device sharing. The third step is distributing when you finish. Many apps make it possible to supply videos in the proper form to public and private sources, though there can be confusing choices over just what can be sent where.

Lyve is an increasing rich approach focusing on the first step. It pulls all of the potential sources together in the cloud and makes them available for use through iPhones, iPads, Android devices, Windows, and Macs, with ready switching between them. Lyve is adding a personal, home-based cloud to make the storage of content easier. The Lyve Studio is a 1 TB storage system designed to hold all of the content on your local network for $199; the Lyve Home is a $299 version that includes a display. (You can also set up home cloud storage on a Seagate local drive.)

The company is also developing a new camera that is useful for the home. It’s a cylinder-shaped unit that can sit on a desk or table to do a much better job than holding or trying to prop up a phone and it sends the content directly into the Lyve cloud.

Challenge needed. The challenge is in what you do next. Lyve gives you some tools that provide photo and video tools for issues such as focus, keeping images horizontal, or improving lighting. But it stops well short of even a program like iMovie. If you want to splice pieces of video or add photos, forget about it. You keep the audio that’s on the video, but that’s it. You can, of course, transfer the video bits you have created into more capable software, but then we are sort of back where we started.

Magisto understands the need to make assembling clips into something good, but it is wrapped in some true weirdness. Software is available for iOS, Android, and Windows (not Mac) and it will take the videos and photos and wrap them together in one of a variety of themes, cover them in music, and have them ready to send out. The themes, however, rarely struck me as anything you’ll want to watch. Even stranger, it slaps on the music —from your library or a decent offering of choices — and totally eliminates any video sound. There must be a point of this to someone, but I can’t figure it out. It seems they are using some very interesting video production to yield some very poor programming.

I hope this area will move along soon. The apps for building video that could greatly ease the requirements on consumers is needed. The technology is developing, but it will likely take some time to reach the consumer. We could use it and it would really improve the way to show videos to produce much better stories.

The IoT and the Needs of Business

IoT image

In a recent column, Bob O’Donnell took a look at the rapid growth of the Internet of Things. The IoT is a large variable collection, from heartbeat monitors on your wrist to a camera watching your garage. It can work with apps, send info to friends or web sites, and control events in your house. It is important, but the discussion of IoT for consumers is only part of the story.

For corporations where the IoT effort has been going on longer, it is already making a major difference. Certain critical industries, like oil and gas production, electrical utilities, etc., have a critical need for tracking events and being warned of goings on at work sites. Sensitive detectors in the systems have been part of IoT for a long time. But the traditional method of communication and control has been SCADA, designed specifically for running large operations. The system worked by getting information into a central controller and, in many cases, security depended mainly on pure complexity.

IoT was a natural approach that is catching on. Like consumer IoT systems, items in the field are equipped with lots of abilities. The devices have a set of communications capabilities and they are set up to exchange information with both mobile devices and other communications on the network.

In business systems, devices can send key messages directly to sites and provide better and simpler communications while also sending information along to headquarters for analytics. The internet can provide both lower cost and improved communications better than the old POTS lines did. And well delivered techniques can be added to provide acceptable levels of security.

PanasonicOf course, the users of IoT systems have very different needs. Retailing, for example, wants faster information from the stores, Panasonic’s Powershelf (pictured) being an example of such a system. Printed product labels on shelves are starting to be replaced by electronic devices. Of course, they use an LED display to repeat the label information. But their communication capability is used to send reports of the purchases to warehouses so they can maintain stock and to headquarters so they can get on-time information on sales in all the stores. And, of course, electronically updated prices can be sent to both the electronic label and the point of sale. You could even use the information of IoT exchanges to change prices regularly in the course of a day. With IoT, retailers get tricks that once worked only on the internet.

The development of IoT is changing the nature of how corporations use data. Databases have frequently been used to analyze corporate information, but in the traditional way of collection; that is, feeding in the data and getting back reports. But now the data is often a lot greater and flows a lot faster. One more has been to move from traditional databases to new ways of moving through methods such as Hadoop.

Another is a change enterprise is learning from competitors. Oddly enough, modern web systems designed by startup companies are now being copied by large corporations for their own IoT. Traditional old-fashioned monolithic computing setups are being replaced by microservice systems, in which only a single computer (more likely than not, a virtual machine) holds a single piece of software. Each of these computer “containers” talks to each other with standard language to share their capability. The next step is to get this company system onto a cloud, whether the company’s own private setup or a commercial cloud. Amazon Web Service is by far the leader but the move of traditional companies is causing the old types such as IBM to push the business hard.

As has been the case in consumer computing, IoT is not the right approach for everything for companies. Many systems, such as the standard databases and the maintaining of taxes and payroll, are going to continue. But IoT is bringing a lot of the access to other sorts of information.

In many cases, bolder use of IoT by customers is generally feeding into to the corporate level. The same systems, from airlines to grocery stores, is a way to provide IoT to customers. Over time, a growing increase in information flows into the company. It is a lot of trouble for airlines to keep track of their flight, staff, pricing, and other phenomena to keep the systems working—and IoT can bring dramatic change.

AOL RIP: Where The Net Was Born for Many

AOL logoA RIP announcement often gives us word of a celebrity who has passed away after they have left the public mind. The death of AOL, with its purchase by Verizon for $4.4 billion, is certainly the end of a company that is no longer what it once was. But AOL was a very big story and one worth recovery.

The fact is America Online, as it was known in the early days, was responsible for the birth of consumer communications. It was born in 1989 out of some even earlier services as a dial up–in those days, the only way to think about it–information service. Back then, the internet was government controlled and mostly limited to academics. Other services, such as CompuServe and MCI Mail, were interested mainly in businesses.

Steve Case had a very different idea. This was to be a service for millions of consumers. In its early years, it added dozens of sources of information and invited members to discussion groups. (Back then it was only text; neither audio nor video existed on dial up networks and even pictures were a challenge.) AOL lined up members by flooding the U.S. with sign up software on floppy disks, often thrown in with magazines and newspapers.

AOL was clearly a success. It did in competitors, such as Prodigy, a company created by CBS, IBM, and Sears. It invented all sorts of online conversations. Years before Reddit came up with Ask Me Anything sessions on the internet, magazines put their stories online and journalists on AOL to discuss content (I did it fairly regularly for BusinessWeek).

AOL MailEmail, which had been a service in academia and some businesses, became popular for the public as “You’ve got Mail” let you know about an incoming announcement. (And a movie in 1998, a remake of the better film The Shop Around the Corner.)

AOL made itself a leader in the internet business. It bought Netscape, the leading web browser and the builder of a considerable net service. Interestingly, the purchase of Netscape was $4.4 billion, just a bit (without adjustment for inflation) more than the Verizon-AOL deal.

But AOL’s secret was the company’s business still stood on dial-in calls to the service. As 2000 approached, services such as DSL and TV cable began replacing dial up. AOL remained a sign up opportunity for customers who had other connections, but there were also lots of other services, like Microsoft’s MSN and others. AOL could go on sending out sign ups, now on CDs, but the field was getting less popular.

AOL MessageServices were also being attacked. Once upon a time, AOL messages were for content and conversation. We even used them for quick and easy chats at work. But they were eventually overcome by SMS, not to mention services from Apple iMessage to WhatsApp.

People managed not to notice the internet group that was squeezing AOL. Case and Gerald Levin announced the merger of AOL and Time Warner, creating a massive combination of movies, television, books, magazines, and the internet.

It seemed like a great company, but it somehow never worked. Time Warner, already dealing with the problems of publishing and Hollywood movie-making, never joined with AOL effectively. Case, who had served as chairman, lost interest in less than five years and went off to focus on investments in the health business. AOL, which moved from its merged corporate headquarters in Manhattan to its old home near Virginia’s Dulles Airport, faded away. An acquisition has been expected for a long time.

One question about the Verizon purchase is the future of some AOL properties that really do not seem to fit, especially with an ongoing fight over net neutrality. Huffington Post, a major news publisher with a generally liberal tilt, and two leading tech sites, Engadget and TechCrunch, do not seem to fit well with Verizon. Re/code’s Kara Swisher reported talks were already in progress to sell HuffPo to various buyers, with the leader being Germany’s Axel Springer.

Whatever happens in the end, there appears to be not much left of AOL except ads and some members. The end of AOL is not much of a surprise.

Why Phones and Pads Cannot Replace PCs

iPad screenThe other day, I wanted to take a photo that had been sent to me attached to an email and make it a feature in a Facebook post. Now, if I had been working on a PC–Mac, Windows, or even Linux—all I would have to do is select, copy, and paste or just select it and drag.

But I was working on an iPad. You have several ways to do it that will transfer the picture. They’ll work better than they used to with earlier apps and iOS versions, but they are still unpredictable and considerably more painful than on a PC.

This difference is found in a numbers of ways, many of them much less graceful, for linking between different apps on phones or tablets. (While the particulars are different, iOS and Android offer similar issues. I’m sticking to the Apple experience because I have more experience.) That is why I spend a lot of my time on a phone or an iPad to follow events. I will generally switch to a PC when I face an option for working with text, images, or numbers. While you can do almost all of the same tricks, especially on an iPad with a keyboard, they are a lot easier on a PC.[1]

The reason is not that Mac and Windows designs are smart while tablets and phones are dumb. The fact is both approaches are very smart at what they do. The important difference are what they do and how.

The basic operating systems in use today are based on developments of the 1990s. A critical feature is the operating systems are built around a big file system. A file system app, File Explorer in Windows and the Finder on a Mac, lets you find any file stored on the system. Use Notepad or Text Editor and you can open many files that make no sense to a human. If you foolishly mess around with a critical XML file that is part of an application, it may really damage the code (most apps these days, like Word for either Windows or Mac, will stop you from loading files that make no sense). The important fact is every program can see whatever is stored on the machines and use what it needs.

The code of phones and tablets is very different. Android and iPhone have file structures, of course, but their software keeps users away from their discovery. On Android, you can add an app that gives some access to file listing; on an iOS devices you cannot do that with any third party app you can get through the App Store. As Apple says it in the File System Development Code, “The iOS file system is geared toward apps running on their own. To keep the system simple, users of iOS devices do not have direct access to the file system and apps are expected to follow this convention.” [pullquote]Android and iPhone have file structures, of course, but their software keeps users away from the discovery. On Android, you can add an app that gives some access to file listing; on an iOS devices you cannot do that with any third party app you can get through the App Store.[/pullquote]

Over time and with some improvement in phone software, ways have been added to move content among some apps. For example, a finger point in an image, or using an icon of a square with an arrow pointing up will let you move a copy of the picture to a number of specific alternative apps, including Message, Mail, Facebook, Twitter, and Flicker. But if you want to move a photo to a Word document, you will just end up with the file name inserted into your document instead of the image. If you really want the picture, you have to get it into Photos and then select it from Photos within Word. Given the complexities, if you’re lucky you’ll manage to memorize transfer rules that work for a few apps. And editing or resizing the pictures turns out to be more trouble than it is worth.

That’s why I find it hard being away from a PC for long. Say I’m writing a column for Tech.pinions on a PC. I’ll write my text in the WordPress HTML editing setup, sometimes I’ll write in another editor. If I do that, it’s easy to move what I have written, usually through a straight copy-and-paste. I’ll select an image from a variety of sources and often move to Photoshop, more likely than not just to alter the shape and size. Finding web references and adding to the piece is far easier on a PC than an iPad or phone, partly because it is easy to move the HTML address but even more because it is easy to have more than a single window open on the screen.

The point isn’t that you can’t pull it off on an iPad or a phone; it is that the project ends up being a lot more work than shifting to a PC. In some cases, the difference is even more extreme. I don’t like looking at spreadsheets on a 12” or 13” laptop, let alone a tablet or a phone. You can do a quick, simple video on a phone, but editing a video of any length and quality requires a PC.

Don’t get me wrong, I love both a smartphone and an iPhone (I haven’t been convinced that other tablets really are desirable tools). I find I use a PC a lot less than I used to. But there remains a lot of tasks best done on a PC. It is why, though the PCs share of the market has declined, it’s not going away.

[1] I am not including the Microsoft Surface and other Windows tablet-like systems. They can be tablet-like hardware, but the software is Windows and, for good or bad, they function like PCs.


Getting Apple Watch Apps Right Will Take a While

The good news: Beyond the first apps, the Apple Watch’s software will certainly come along. Consider heart rate sensors and other features that will turn the watch into a useful tool that can contribute to medical uses and ResearchKit studies. The bad news: There will be no fart apps.

Fart app adSeriously, with years of iPhone app experience, Apple has created the rules for software to make the additions relatively useful. Apple has a long, 26-item list of things in the Functionality section of the Guidelines that declare: “2.11 Apps that duplicate Apps already in the App Store may be rejected, particularly if there are many of them, such as fart, burp, flashlight, and Kama Sutra Apps.” The hard part is coming up with a new class of apps that take the best advantage of the Watch.

The apps launched for the original iPhone were designed by Apple itself (and we have forgotten that even such a key app as Google Map for the iPhone was by Apple). It wasn’t until the introduction of the iPhone 3G in 2008 the device was open to third party apps, giving developers plenty of time to think of solutions. The iPhone 3G came out with 15,000 apps, but its telling that Smule’s $1 Ocarina was one of the most popular choices.

Subway appOf course, the availability of the iPhone produced a flood of products in the App Store. Many of them are simply a small-screen extension of popular iPhone apps. Only a relatively few really help, for example American Airlines offering that gives key flight information on your wrist as you dash through the terminal, providing service that is easier to get to than a similar report on a phone. Sneaking a glimpse at the score of a sports event, checking the coming of a subway train, or entering a payment into a parking meter could be very helpful. And, as my partner Ben Bajarin has pointed out, the Watch will be most useful when it is kept hands free.

On the other hand, a number of the Watch apps are silly. Green Kitchen offers recipes on your wrist. I am a big fan of the iPad for recipes but a watch display is way too small for the job. And the two hands generally involved are going to be a problem during work that nearly always requires at least one hand in use. Getting your account information from Citibank, your financial data from Mint, and bidding on purchases through eBay are mainly silly and add, at best, very little to an iPhone.

Watch caluclatorCalculators may be the worst idea of the Watch. Of course, calculators have been available on electronic watches for a long time—Casio offered them on cheap watches 20 years ago. Meanwhile, today you can pay up to $1,200 for a 1970s Swiss Pulsar LED watch. Those watch calculators failed to work the same way the Apple Watch’s version will fail: the touchable buttons, now on screen rather than physical, are just too small.

Basically, most of the initial Watch apps are shrunken-down iPhone apps, just as the early iPhone apps imitated applications on the PC desktop or a web service. It takes a while to do two incredible things. One is to redo how the design of the software has to be done to fit a smaller display and the different controls. This is mostly a reasonable start—the Watch apps don’t expect to use an on-screen keyboard. The harder part is to find apps on the watch that aren’t quite similar on a phone, a tablet, or a PC. That will take longer.

Nike appI think health care, both do-it-your-self health and physical techniques and more professional medical apps, will probably be very important. Apple sees its software launch of HealthKit as a success and CEO Tim Cook called the response to ResearchKit, a tool that allows medical researchers to easily collect data from participants, “simply amazing.” The Watch, for example, can be improved in these functions not only because it has better sensors than a phone but it can be more thorough in the collection of data because it remains on the body more reliably than phones do.

As the apps get better, they should continue to drive increasing watch sales. Initial Watch sales are going to fans who have been waiting for the product, but the volume will likely drop when these orders are filled. Eventually, it is the improved apps that will drive the sale, even as the iPhone soared once customers realized it was delivering services that weren’t practical in  some other way.