The "always on" computer

At one of the early company All Hands meetings sometime during my time at Amazon (1997-2004), during employee Q&A for Jeff Bezos, someone asked him what change in the world might have the largest positive impact on Amazon's business (I don't remember the exact phrasing of the question, but it was along those lines).

I'll never forget his response, which seemed really strange to me at the time. He said the thing that would be the biggest game changer was an "always on computer." Kids these days may not remember this, but back then we all worked on laptops or desktops that booted Windows, and each time you turned a computer on it took a really long time before they were ready to use, on the order of minutes. My usual morning ritual at Amazon was to boot my computer and then go grab a drink from the break room to make use of the wait.

We were all highly attuned to any friction in the shopping process, but my mind gravitated to all the downstream pain points in ecommerce like shipping fees and delivery transit times. Bezos, as always, was already working far beyond that, thinking back upstream, to the near future.

With an always on computer, he explained, you could turn it on like a television or a light bulb and it would just be on, immediately, which might be possible if the computer was mostly running off of RAM (yes, this was the age before SSD's, which I guess he also saw coming). This would get more people online more often, growing the potential market for Amazon shoppers, who had to be online to access our store.

Of course, I think he'd even admit that he had no idea the "always on" computer would take the form of a smartphone connected to a cellular network. Not only do these computers turn on instantly, they're actually almost never off. What's more, they're not just always on but always connected.

I don't know if Amazon All-Hands meetings these days are still as interesting as they were in the old days, but I wish I had written down Jeff's response to the most interesting questions from the ones I attended. He dropped enough wisdom in those Q&A sessions to make for a succinct and brilliant business book.

Skipping the web

Why India's Flipkart abandoned its mobile website:

Now, if you tack on a gigantic population with miserable internet connection speeds, the prospect of scaling up your website operations and back end to deal with not only the overload on it, but also the abysmal experience on the consumer end, whether it is mobile or desktop, is even more bleak. An app allows a user to stay logged in while updates and other information are efficiently and constantly downloaded, ready for consumption almost instantly. It is, in fact, perfect for low-bandwidth situations.

People often write of places like India or Africa bypassing landlines or PCs to skip ahead to technologies like wireless or smartphones, but I haven't heard of countries treating the web as one of those intermediate technologies to be hopped over.

Having spent lots of time working out of China, I see the sense in it. Internet connection speeds are really slow there, and loading the web can be painful. Even with an upgraded pipe into the building, when I worked out of Hulu's Beijing office, I found myself browsing the web a lot less simply out of impatience.

Having grown up in the U.S., the web was one of the first and still longest-running touchpoint to the internet. My first was using newsgroups in college, and the web came about towards the end of my undergrad days. I can understand why so many in the U.S. are nostalgic and defensive of the web as a medium. Seeing so much content and online interaction move behind the walls of social networks seems like an epic tragedy to many, and I empathize.

Many people in India, China, and other parts of the world, where bandwidth is low and slow, and where mobile phones are their one and only computer, have no room for such sentimentality. They may never have experienced the same heyday of the web, so they feel no analogous nostalgia for it as a medium. Path dependence matters here, as it does in lots of areas of tech, and one of the best ways to detect it is to widen your geographic scope of study outside the U.S. Asia is a wonderful comparison group, especially for me because I have so many friends and relatives there and because I still interact with them online at a decent frequency.

In the U.S., many tech companies were lauded as pioneers for going mobile first when in Asia companies are already going mobile only. In some ways, Asia feels like it lives in the past as compared to the U.S., especially when one sees so many fast followers of successful U.S. technology companies, but in a surprisingly large number of ways, Asia lives in our near future.

The anti-social network

Cloak is a new mobile app that “scrapes Instagram and Foursquare to let you know where all your friends, "friends," and nonfriends are at all times so you never have to run into that special someone.”

Funny, but I suspect the people who have enough friends on those services to make this app useful at all might be the exact types of people who would love random social encounters.

I suppose if no one wants to use the app that way they could use it as an efficient stalking facilitator: a built in pivot.

AT&T text messaging rates

My iPhone is on the AT&T network. For a while, I had been paying $5 a month for 200 text messages a month. Then last year, AT&T eliminated the $5 plan, so I had to pay $10 a month for 1000 text messages a month, even though I didn't need them. I still had enough text messages a month that it was cheaper than a la carte pricing.

When Apple launched iMessages, my text message volume dropped a lot, and I suspect AT&T saw a corresponding drop in the number of people paying them for text messages. So they eliminated the $10 plan, and the only options left in place were a $20 a month plan for unlimited text messaging or a la carte pricing charged at the absurd price of $.20 a text message, whether inbound or outbound. AT&T justified this by saying customers preferred unlimited plans.

Since the FCC clearly won't protect consumers from this type of price gouging, we're largely on our own. Given how many of my heavy texting friends are on iPhones and iMessages, I looked at a few phone bills and decided to try paying a la carte for two months.

The results are in, and it looks like I'm saving about $15 a month by doing so. Not enough to change my life, but the emotional satisfaction of taking $15 a month out of AT&T's pockets makes it feel like $100.

What I'd love to see is my iPhone have the ability to take incoming text messages and reroute them to one of my free text messaging apps, or Twitter DM, and save me paying any fee for those random texts from non iMessage users, but of course by that point AT&T would have charged me already.

I have faith that someday we'll be free of this absurd rent-seeking toll, and AT&T as a whole, and in the meantime, I keep picturing Anne Hathaway dancing with an AT&T executive at a masquerade ball, whispering in his ear, "There's a storm coming. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you're all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could charge so much for text messaging and provide so little for the rest of us."