Alternatives To Amazon Go That Already Work

Amazon recently announced Amazon Go located in Seattle, which is currently in beta phase and which is planned to open to the public in early 2017. It is chock-full of image recognition and AI, suggesting that only the US tech giants investing tons of money in software can implement similar solutions.

Well guess what. Similar stuff is already being worked on in Japan. Announced yesterday, Panasonic and Lawson have announced an automated checkout system that puts the barcode scanners into the shopping baskets so that customers can scan while shopping, instead of waiting to scan at self-checkout registers. They have also announced that they will attach RFID electronic tags to each piece of merchandise starting February 2017, thereby eliminating the need for even the barcode scanning (you just put the items in the basket).

Although the current system still requires you to checkout at a register (which puts your groceries into plastic bags for you while you pay), the time required will be significantly reduced and hence the queues will be shorter.

More significantly, this system does not need large numbers of cameras scanning your every movement and is not creepy. You don’t need a smartphone and you don’t even need to give the shop your identity.

Going forward, it is clear that RFIDs are better suited than barcodes and could provide similar experiences to Amazon Go by having an RFID scanner located at the shop exit. RFIDs are still a bit expensive (I hear they cost about 10 cents), but if their usage scales, then we can expect this to come down significantly.

I hope this clearly demonstrates that AI is not the only solution to the issues we have in life, and there are often other less creepy but equally effective ideas out there. Notice that RFID is not new and that it is already a 10 billion USD market.


Note that for example, the convenience store retail chain 7-Eleven is reported to have beaten Google and Amazon to the first regular commercial drone delivery service. Although I am sure that Google and Amazon are working on a more technically complex and advanced solution, this clearly illustrates that you do not have to be a tech giant to make these things work.

Imagining An Attack That Could Wipe Out Trust In The Cloud

In a previous post, I described how the public confidence in services that collect your private information is getting closer to crossing the creepy line, and that any security breaches that actually harm customers would likely be the final straw that break the camel’s back. I also mentioned that instead of Google, Facebook and others, I predict that the final straw will actually come from hackers intruding into our devices and accounts.

Here, I want to elaborate on the example that I have in mind. Before this however, I want to update the reader on a relatively new form of malware called Ransomware. Ransomware is holds your data hostage and importantly, instead of just causing you trouble, it blackmails you to send money. Also of great significance is that Ransomware creation can now be outsourced.

Ransomware works because victims are willing to pay money to get back their files. However, now that we often have more valuable data on our smartphones or in the Cloud than on our PCs, it is reasonable to assume that hackers are right now thinking of new ways to hold your private photos, your location data, or messages that you might want to keep secret as hostages.

For example, a recent Apple Ransom scam  asked for a $30-$50 ransom or otherwise they would do a factory reset. The author advises that you simply ignore this because you can easily recover with a backup. However, what if the scammer had threatened to publish all your photos, your emails, your location data, etc. on the web for all to see. Would you still ignore the scammer? Unlike the iCloud celebrity photo leak, this is something that could happen to any normal person, and this is what makes it so scary.

This is not about Apple vs. Google/Facebook or about any single company’s approach to privacy. If such attacks became widespread, it could cause people to be scared of storing anything in the cloud, despite whatever security measures each individual company took. Of course two-factor authentication will help, but not enough people use it yet.

Advanced two-factor authentication systems may mitigate the worries in the future. However, if such attacks strike now, I fear that the companies that depend on the cloud will have a hard time getting people to trust them once again. Given the potentially widespread consequences, I think this is definitely something to give due thought to.

Smartphone Sales Down In Japan, But Android Hurting Most

MMRI released their report for mobile phone sales in Japan for he first half of 2016, and the results were not good. 

  1. Total handset sales decreased by 10.9% YoY. 
  2. Smartphones decreased 8.4% YoY. 
  3. However, looking at iPhone sales, this decreased only 3.1%, resulting in an increased market share of 40.7% (including feature phones).
  4. Importantly, Sony which is 2nd in market share saw a 28.5% drop in sales, while Sharp which is 3rd in smartphone share fell off a cliff with a 46.4% drop. 
  5. The sharp decline has been attributed to the government decision to restrict what they consider excessive discounting of devices. The government thinks that by restricting discounting (some smartphones are sold for free by carriers if the purchaser agrees to a 24 month contract), carriers will eventually reduce the prices of their data plans. However, data plan prices have yet to come down, and are actually increasing depending on your usage pattern. 

What this suggests is that when customers are more exposed to the real price of smartphones, it is the Android users who either decide to buy cheaper devices, or hold on to their devices longer. The iPhone users seem to be less sensitive to price increases. 

In a nutshell, the Android market has a high level of price elasticity whereas the iPhone market does not. 

I believe that the iPhone markets and the Android markets are actually different despite both being smartphones. Customers buy each for different needs, and they are not interchangeable. This is similar to how Mercedes and BMWs do not share the same market as cheap cars; the role of luxury cars is not just transportation. 

Twitter Grows 13% in Japan

Twitter Japan announced on the 2nd November that user growth had been 13% (+5 million) for the past 9 months, bringing the Japanese monthly active user count (MAU) to 40 million in September. This compares to Twitters MAU growth in the rest of the world, which is essentially flat.

In December 2015, Twitter Japan announced that 10% of MAUs were from Japan.

I have written on this topic several times on this blog. What I think is most important is that the features and characteristics of social media platforms are not dictated by what features they have and do not have, but instead are determined by the users themselves. Therefore, all the pundits that say Twitter should do this or Twitter should do that are essentially clueless because they only know how they or their close circles use Twitter, but are mostly blind to how other are using it. Analysing what features are available does not capture what people use a social service for, nor does it give you any idea of how people would use a new feature when available.

Social media needs social analysis. Furthermore, you need to analyse many societies and not one society.







Multiple Windows in Windows Universal Apps

Although I was very relieved to find Windows Store Apps (previously Metro Apps and soon to be Universal apps) to be much nicer on Windows 10 compared to Windows 8, simply because they opened up in a separate windows instead of taking up the whole screen, there is one, very common GUI paradigm that I missed. That was, the concept of multiple windows per application.

Looking at the Store Apps that Microsoft itself has provided, multiple windows have been very much deemphasised. For example, in the Mail application, I have been unable to find a way to open up individual messages in a separate window. In Word Mobile, the application even explicitly saves and closes the current document when you choose a new one from the “open” menu.

Microsoft actually has developer guidelines regarding applications with multiple windows. Although they clearly mention that it is possible to create an application with multiple windows, and give you directions on how you should implement it, they also make it clear that you should be careful and deliberate about it.

  • Design new windows that allow users to accomplish tasks entirely within the window.
  • Don’t automatically open a new window when a user navigates to a different part of the app. The user should always initiate the opening of a new window.
  • Don’t require the user to open a new window to complete the main purpose of the app.

You can see an example of multiple windows in the Windows 10 calendar app when you view the details of an appointment. Note that opening an appointment in a separate window is a two-step process. You first have to view the details in the same window, and from there, you click the button on the upper right to open a new window.


Because multiple windows has become such a common GUI concept on PCs, I expect many users to be confused or at the least irritated at this change. On the other hand, from a developer point of view, it is totally understandable that this makes it easier to create a single application spanning mobile and PCs.

Hopefully, Microsoft will think up new ways to bring the benefits of multiple windows to Windows Store apps, because simply, I think this UI policy is too restricting and unfamiliar except for anything but the simplest of apps. The hope is that Microsoft is seriously contemplating converting the current MS-Office apps to Windows Store apps, instead of providing separate versions (currently Word, Excel, PowerPoint Mobile for Windows Store, and Word, Excel, PowerPoint 2013 for traditional desktops). That would be something.

How Useful Will Google Now Be?

With Google announcing Google Now on Tap at Google I/O 2015 and Apple announcing Proactive at WWDC 2015, there is now a lot of discussion on how useful these predictive personal assistants will be. In particular, there is a lot of discussion on how much data these personal assistants will need to collect about you, and whether these assistants need to send this data to be analysed in the cloud.

The problem I have with these arguments is that they do not go into specifics. Instead of say “everything is going to be cool”, we should be having a detailed discussion of how each predictive recommendation is actually made, and whether each recommendation could be performed easily on your local device, or whether it needs to be done in the cloud.

Here, I would like to dig into a pretty good article comparing Apple’s approach and Google’s approach, and look at the examples given there.

Exhibit 1

For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user.

It’s hard for me to think that Tesla would not have your email address or that they wouldn’t be able to contact you through their dealer network. In fact, in many cases, I imagine that instead of contacting you directly, the recall information would preferably be sent through dealerships due to the complex relationships that they may have. In this case, the benefit gained in exchange for giving up your privacy is extremely trivial.

Exhibit 2

If you’re texting a friend about dinner, Google will give you restaurant reviews and directions automatically. In the future, it might make a reservation and call a driverless car.

The first step here is for the AI to understand that you are texting about dinner. The algorithm could look at keywords (like “dinner” or “eat”), the time, and maybe some other things. It should be pretty simple for the AI to understand that you are thinking about dinner. Next, it needs to give you some reviews which can easily be done through an anonymous connection to Yelp’s services. Reserving a car can also be done through an Uber app installed on your local device, without telling anything on the cloud that you are going to have dinner with a certain person. What I’m saying here is that in this example, there is no need to give each service any more information than is absolutely necessary. Nobody except your device needs to have a comprehensive understanding of who you are texting, when you are going to have dinner and where you are. Each cloud service just needs to know a small portion of this information.

The only place in this article where they detail what Apple can and cannot do is here.

Apple is giving you recommendations based on the phone in your pocket; Google is giving you recommendations based on everything you’ve done that it has recorded.

The assumption is that your phone will no know what you did on your Mac and that will degrade the service that Apple can provide. Well first, there is Bluetooth and WiFi. Apple could use Bluetooth/WiFi to sync your personal information on your Mac with your iPhone. It is easy for Apple to have your devices in sync without ever storing information in the cloud. Also Apple could even sync your information to the cloud in a encrypted format that would be very difficult to decipher. Therefore, the fact that Apple respects privacy does not mean that your information cannot be shared between your devices. This can easily be done.
Second, there is the question of whether any information that stays only on your PC is important at all. Your email, your calendar, your reminders are already synced between your Mac and your iPhone. There is very little relevant information that only stays on your PC.

Although I certainly need to dig into this in a bit more detail, I am skeptical that invading your privacy is essential for providing a better personal assistant service. I would welcome any examples where the personal assistant must absolutely send all knowledge of everything about you to servers in the cloud to be analysed.

WhatsApp Disrupting SMS

The Economist made the following tweet suggesting that WhatsApp was disrupting SMS. 

This is totally the wrong way to look at things. 

The better way is to consider messaging apps disrupting social networks and collaboration tools. That’s actually what’s discussed in the article

In fact, what’s notable about messenging apps is not how the displaced SMS, but instead how slow Internet giants like Google and Facebook were to come up with their own versions. 

As for SMS, well that was a consequence of carriers owning the network stack and the application stack. As soon as phones could access Internet protocols directly and build apps on that, hence uncoupling the network and the app layers, it’s days were numbered.  SMS was disrupted by the mobile Internet. Similar things have happened with voice over IP, even from the Skype days. 



Wrist Computers, not Smartwatches

The words that we use to describe things and events profoundly affect how we think about them. We must be very careful of this when discussing any new category of product. 

In particular, we have to keep this in mind when discussing smartwatches.

Just think. Should we call them smartwatches or should we call them wrist computers?

If we call them smartwatches, we are lured to thinking that they will disrupt watches. 

On the other hand, if you call them wrist computers or wrist communicators, then you may think that they will disrupt smartphones, and eventually PCs. 

It is super important to be careful.