Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Trouble with Things

At the tail end of last month I was out in Portland at OSCON where I gave an Ignite talk on the trouble with things...

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Makers of Things

This post was first published in Make magazine
The Society isn’t like any other engineering society. It’s a community united by a passion for making things and testing ideas. Their unparalleled devotion to their craft is evidence of a universal truth that’s relevant to us all; we learn only by doing.

There’s something about Britain, it’s the land of God’s own hobbyists. But not only that, if there are more than two people in the country that are interested in a topic, they will feel almost compelled to for a club or society, and since this is Britain the club might well have been around since the early 1800′s or earlier. The bylaws will be arcane, and the committee structure labyrinth. It will inevitably serve tea and biscuits during meetings, rarely coffee. Because that’s how we do things over here.

Mike Kapp lives in a peaceful cul-desac, quietly shaping his house into a system of his invention. Cat-flaps, clocks and ghostly machines are the fruits of a lifetime of problem solving and inquiry. His experience holds a lesson for us all: curiosity is the key to craftsmanship.

The Makers of Things is a short film collection by Anne Hollowday. It documents the work and workshops of the Society for Model and Experimental Engineers, a sprawling organisation with members scattered all over the world. While today we hacker spaces, maker spaces and fab labs, back in the 1800′s they had the learned society.

In the flickering light of a cinema Mike Chrisp watched a gentle Ealing comedy that would change his life. Now the linchpin of a world-renowned group of hobbyists and tinkerers, he builds models of the machines that inspired him all those years ago.

Founded in 1898 by Percival Marshall, the Society seems to be almost a template, a model if you will, of one of these British institutions. Many were founded with royal patronage, and many still exist today. The Society has survived two world wars as well as the introduction of technologies that were not even be dreamed about when it was formed.
The world is full of of people that are making stuff in ways that were impossible a few years ago. There’s always going to be that mixture of people that think if you don’t make your own castings and machine them with files, cold chisels and hammers—you’re not doing it properly, and the other half that think the right way to do it is to use a laser—and increasingly things like three-dimensional printing, are coming along, and changing the way everybody works.
Norman Billingham’s workshop has been pulled up around him over a lifetime. Chippings, clippings and filings fill a garage used to transform lumps of wood into beautiful pens and functional furniture. Although a scientist by training, Norman is the first to admit he’s always been a maker of things.

Filmed almost entirely in the garage workshops of the members of the Society, the series of films evokes an atmosphere that’s possibly uniquely British, and it transports me back to my childhood. I can almost smell the wood shavings in the last of the four films.
If I had to live without it I could, but it’s something that’s been a part of me for a very long time. I’ve always been someone who makes things. That’s what I do, it’s always been a hobby. I’m a scientist by training—professionally—life’s work. But I’ve always been a maker of things.
As well as the film series, Anne also created a newspaper. It houses the extra stories and excerpts from the interviews that didn’t make it into the films, not because they weren’t fascinating, but because they needed a different medium to express them; as an accompaniment to the film series it acts almost like a projectionist’s commentary, or a more traditional programme you’d get at a theatre.

Interviews with Model and Experimental Engineers
…some of the longer stories that my characters shared with me about specific points of their lives, or particular machines and methods didn’t make it into the films which I was pretty sad about. These were stories about machines invented under a veil of secrecy in the Soviet Union that someone had managed to build a version of, insight into a childhood with homemade toys and the reason why someone had spent their life building a particular type of locomotive. Tiny fragments of these tales made their way into the films but not in a way that did their stories justice.
I recently talked to Anne about her series of films, the newspaper, the story she was trying to tell, and the reaction to the piece both by the Society and others.

How did you get involved with the members of the Society?

I was on a bus going past Alexandra Palace in January 2012 and saw crowds of people streaming up the hill. It was more people than I’d ever seen going to Ally Pally before and a really diverse bunch of people – old, young, families etc, so I knew I had to find out what was going on. I looked it up online that night and turned out it was the London Model Engineering Exhibition. So I knew I had to go and see what was attracting such a huge bunch of people.

The next day was the last of the three-day event and it was super busy again. We wandered round people selling tools, some trade stalls selling spare parts and sheets of copper, and saw almost every engineering society in the South East showing off their wares. I’d taken my camera along and a sound kit so I did a few interviews just capturing some of the conversations I was having with people. But then we turned a corner and met SMEE. They were all wearing blue work coats – every member of the society has one – and were standing up beside their creations proudly showing them off, answering questions and roping people in to make a pulley tool on a small lathe they had.

Why did you decide to spend a year following them around, what made their story interesting to you?

A  short film from the interviews of that day.
On that day, a lot of other people’s creations were incredible displays of ingenuity but you weren’t allowed to touch them. SMEE didn’t really mind about all that. They encouraged everyone to pick stuff up, see how it was made and just generally be inquisitive. I knew then that this was a fascinating bunch of people that I wanted to know more about. 

I made a short film from the interviews I shot on the day–it’s not a proper documentary, more a sort of film sketch as a tool for exploring some of the conversations I had and grouping them into themes. But that definitely made me want to capture this field in more detail.

Can you see any parallels between them, and today’s hacker and maker spaces?

Definitely. In a way, SMEE are like a hackspace – they have a workshop and a headquarters building where they meet regularly. I guess the difference is that having been around over a hundred years means they have a few more traditions and are more traditionally organised than a hack space – they have a council and a Chairman for example. But the sentiment is the same. They’re a community united by a passion for making things. When I’ve been at SMEE on their workshop evenings, there’s one guy who travels over 2 hours each way just to use the workshop for an hour or two surrounded by fellow members. That fascinates me. I kept asking him why he bothered, why he didn’t use his workshop at home. And all he said was, it’s just not the same.

SMEE are really into CNC machining and are interested in 3D printing and other modern techniques too. In the Society film, Norman himself recognises that although there’ll always be people who think if you don’t make everything yourself with files and hammers you’re not doing it right, there’s another set of people who think that 3D printing is the future and CNC machines mean they can be more ambitious with their projects. And I think that’s what I love most about SMEE. They’re not preoccupied with nostalgia, they just happen to have a really rich heritage. What they do is make things.

Do you think the current films reflect the Society as a whole, or did you focus on a single thread of their story?

When I started out, I wanted to make just one film and I began filming and finding people to focus on with that in mind. But as time went on I realised that one film wouldn’t capture the essence of what makes these people who they are. One film would have skipped over little moments like the way Norman sees a ripple pattern in a piece of wood and the way Mike assembles all the little bits of his rail motor. For me, these bits are really important. It’s the power of film to show not just tell. And it reflects the texture of making things, the sounds and the look and the feel of materials. So, if anything, that was the way I approached the collection but it wasn’t really intentional, it just sort of ended up that those were the things that rose to the surface.

There are four films—an introduction to the Society, the Problem Solver, the Model Engineer and the Woodworker. Will there be more?

I did want to make sure I had a sufficient variety of approaches to craft but that wasn’t hard to find at SMEE. I think woodworking, model engineering and experimental engineering reflect a broad range of the types of craft SMEE members engage in but by no means all of them. SMEE have almost 500 members all over the world so I’d love to continue making more.

What do you think the message of the series is, what story were you trying to tell with the films?

If anything, it’s that we’re all makers of things. Sounds a bit cliched but the title The Makers of Things just came from something Norman said. He said that even when he was 14 and had a shed in his parents’ garden he made sawdust. I like the idea that whatever your discipline, your chosen material or intention, you can make stuff. 

What do the members of the Society think of your series? Have they commented?

Several of them have seen them and have told me they really liked them. I think for them they’ve never really had the chance to see a real outside perspective on what they do. So I’m very pleased they see them as a genuine reflection of their hobby and the characters involved. I’m doing a talk at their next monthly meeting and will be showing the films to the full Society then.

What other reactions to the series have you had? Have any surprised you?

I’m been really chuffed by the reaction online and from family/friends at a screening I had last weekend. Everyone has said they liked the intimacy of the films, that they actually feel they’ve been offered a glimpse into people’s lives. Making stuff is a very personal thing and usually what we see of how other people approach it is a nicely composed photo of their desk all neat and tidy which is not how real life works. People have said they like that the collection feels very real and meaningful. What the people in the film are sharing is a lifetime of making and all the detail, emotion and hard work that comes with that. I’m really pleased people have picked up on that.

Switching gears then, what equipment did you use to shot the series?

The whole series was shot on a Canon EOS 7D with a range of prime lenses, with external radio mics for interviews.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Leaving the ivory tower

I've been planning to leave academia for some time, but kept on putting it off. Unlike the U.S. where tenure is a thing pursued vigorously by the great and the good, here in the U.K. at least it has long gone to dust. But my job was as permanent as they get, and actually left me a lot of time to do a lot of other things outside it that interested me...

Looking out over the Pacific
However recently I took a look around and discovered that everything that was getting me up in the morning had nothing to do with my day job, and everything to do with what I was doing outside it. That just isn't any way to live. So, I've just pushed the big red switch. I now have a long rope and will be using it to leave the ivory tower real soon, my last day here at the University of Exeter is later this week, Thursday the 4th of April.

I was originally planning to take a couple of months off to look around, mainly because I'm in the fortunate position that I can do that, and such opportunities shouldn't be wasted. However some Tesla-driving individuals said "Yes!" and I've now working on something that's going to swallow my life for the next couple of months.

However, I'm not complaining, it's just the sort of getting out of bed project that I'm quitting academia to do in the first place. You'll be hearing more about it shortly, just as soon as I can talk about it...

In the short to medium term I'm planning on staying freelance, and doing consulting, contracting, writing or anything else that'll pay the bills and keep the wolves from the door. Although I'm not opposed to the idea of joining a (large) company, I've just spent thirteen years working for someone else, it'll be nice to work for myself for a while. Or at least be nearer the top of the tree, as you can generally see the rest of the forest much better from there. That said, it doesn't mean I'm not open to offers; they'd just have to be interesting offers.

So, while I've got a large number of things that might come off; I'm interested in work. Preferably work of substance, but beggars can't be choosers.

I've done a number of (some quite infamous) things with iOS, and have a lot of experience on the app side of things. I have done a number of things that are now generally being lumped into the "Big Data" camp. While I'm not a Hadoop and NoSQL guy, I've done some interesting work with machine learning and agent architectures, mostly to do with distributed sensor networks. I'm a hardware guy, or at least I'm an Arduino guy, and have done a number of other things to do with that increasingly ubiquitous hardware platform.

I like playing with mobile platforms, hardware, software, sensors, 3D printers and data visualisation. Or preferably all of the above at the same time, a good example of this is the work on the Data Sensing Lab I've been doing for O'Reilly.

Basically I'm an emerging technology guy. If it's new and a lot of people know nothing about it, I probably know something or am learning about it right now. Then I generally write a book about it and move on to the next emerging technology. I like being on the cutting edge. It's interesting out here. Oh yes, I also helped discover the most distant astronomical object yet found; a gamma-ray burster at a redshift of 8.2. However I'm not so sure that's a useful skill outside of the ivory tower.

In summary then; I write, I code, I speak and am always willing to offer advice on things I know about.

Update: It has just been pointed out to me that I foresaw my own exit from academia some seven or eight years ago, back when I was still having fun in my day job, " what happens when I stop having fun? I'll probably have to sit down and make enough license plates so I don't have to worry about that stuff again."

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Distributed Network Data

My latest book, my first not talking about iOS and writing code for the iPhone and iPad, just went to press. It's called Distributed Network Data and it's hardware hacking for Data Scientists. It's the book of the +Data Sensing Lab and arrives just in time for this year's +O'Reilly Strata in Santa Clara, which starts tomorrow.

This book is intended for data scientists who want to learn how to work with external hardware. It assumes some basic computing and programming knowledge, but no real expert knowledge is assumed. From there the book walks you through build your own distributed sensor network to collect, analyse, and visualise real-time data about our environment.

If you're a data scientist, or a visualisation person, interested in getting started with hardware and collecting your own data, this is the book for you. You can use the code AUTHD to get 40% off print books, 50% on ebooks and videos when you buy the book directly from O'Reilly.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Making money faster than you can type

The 3Doodler is a 3D printer, but it's a pen. This takes 3D printing and turns it on its head...

In fact the 3Doodler rejects quite a lot of what most people would consider necessary for it to be called a 3D printer. There is no three axis control, there is in fact no software, you can't download a design and print an object, it strips 3D printing back to basics.
What there is, what it allows you to do, is make things. This is the history of printing going in reverse, it's as if Gutenberg's press was invented first, and then somebody came along afterwards and invented the fountain pen.

While it looks simple they've obviously overcome some serious technological difficulties to get it working. One of the things that's hard to do on 3D printers, at least hard to do well, is unsupported structures.
As anyone that owns a 3D printer will tell you, the cooling time for the plastic as it leaves the print head is crucial to allow you to print unsupported structures. Too hot and it doesn't work, the structure sags and runs, too cold and it just plain doesn't work at all. From their videos they seem to have cracked the problem, building a free standing structure seems to be easy and well within the capabilities of the pen.
It also takes 3mm ABS and PLA as its “ink,” the same stuff used by most hobbyist 3D printers. I've got spools of this stuff hanging around my house which I use in my own printer. But unlike my printer, which cost just under a thousand dollars, the 3Doodler costs just $75.
It doesn't have the same capabilities, but that's the difference between a printing press and a pen. It has different capabilities, ones a "normal" 3D printer doesn't have. It's not a cheap alternative, it's a different thing entirely.
I'm currently watching the 3Doodler climb towards their first million dollars on Kickstarter, and I when I say their first million I mean that, they have over 30 days to go on their campaign which has today has gone viral and made them the best part of that million. This is the next Pebble. The next Kickstarter success story.
They've tapped into a previously untappable market; people that wanted a 3D printer but couldn't afford one, and people that see the obvious potential of a fountain pen over a printing press, for both art and engineering.
The guys behind the 3Doodler made $60,000 dollars while I wrote this post, my hat is off to them. Because it's not often someone comes up with an idea this good.
I'm going to be writing a series of posts on hardware startups for the Radar over the course of the next few months, and rest assured I'll come back to the 3Doodler. But not until  they can type faster than they can make money.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The black rectangle won't last as long as the beige box

It looks like putting #Linux on #Microsoft's new #Surface  is going to be an up hill struggle. I was actually expecting that...

The era of the commodity beige box is coming to an end, and the days of the general purpose computer are almost over. Most people never needed or wanted a general purpose computer, and they're going to be happy with more limited devices optimised for a single, or a few, purposes. So long as those devices just work.

As a scientist I've benefited from being able to take mass produced PCs and be able to put them on desks very cheaply. The amount of compute power we've had access to as a result meant that money that would otherwise have been spent on expensive high end workstations could be spent elsewhere.

Those of us that need general purpose computing; designers, developers, scientists, are going to have to go out and buy increasingly expensive niche machines, effectively old-fashioned workstations. High end computing platforms that the general population just don't need on their desk or in their pocket.

The fact you can't install #Linux  on the new #Surface  is just the start of what is going to be an increasingly obvious trend. It's just a symptom. The things that are open and the things that are closed are changing. Time to wake up and realise that. Being able to install #Linux  on your PC isn't important any more.

I think a lot of the web and mobile people are making the same mistake today that Nokia made five years ago, Nokia was all about the hardware and wasn't watching the software hard enough...

Today people are all about the software and aren't watching the hardware hard enough. Today's mobile phone, the black rectangle with, at most, a single button is a transition device. Don't get too comfortable with it, and don't stop thinking about innovation. Because the black rectangle won't last as long as the beige box.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Predicting a Singularity

I think a lot about the future, and because of that I've gained somewhat of a reputation for making good predictions. This is a characteristic I share with prophets, messiahs and other ne'er-do-wells. I'm not entirely sure what to think about that.

However one of the problems with making predictions about the future, the main problem, is that it's actually not that hard to predict what'll happen next year. Although for some reason this doesn't really seem to help many of the major analysts whose job it is to make such forecasts. Conversely it's also not that hard to make a prediction for the far future, as "…any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."1 Why is this a problem? Well if it's easy to make those predictions, making predictions in the sweet spot, both far enough ahead to be ahead to get you ahead of your competition, and close enough that you'll still be around to do something about it is actually almost impossible.

But how far in the future is the sweet spot? The strange thing is that this actually changes, a century ago it was twenty years, or even thirty, but twenty or thirty years ago it was just ten years. Today it's probably five, or less. The rate of technological progress is accelerating, and with it the amount of change we'll experience during our lives is also changing. The time it takes for new technologies to emerge, become mainstream, become dated and then obsolete is falling almost exponentially.

For someone like me, whose career more or less relies on being on, and being seen to be on, the bleeding edge, this is painfully evident. If I'm asked "Have you heard about…?" and I have to answer "No?" you'll generally see a look of pain cross my face, something sort of like constipation, don't worry, it's just my career flashing before my eyes...

At this point having angered both business analysts and science fiction writers I'm going to make a small admission, both professions have the right of it because "...the future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed."2

While the pace of change has accelerated, it's hard to see how that can be sustained as the size of the install base of existing legacy technology widens. So far we seem to have sustained that pace of change by trickle down economics, the older technology spreads out, and newer technology is dropped in, eagerly seized by early adopters like myself willing to pay the premium, and experience the inevitable problems that come with all new technology, at least until the bugs are shaken out.

Despite that I'm forced to point out that if you extrapolate the current rate of technological progress the view that some sort of technological singularity must almost be inevitable is hard to argue against. Unless of course there is some sort of major catastrophe, something to set us back.

Major catastrophes that could knock us back aren't hard to spot: a global pandemic, climate change, ecological disaster, super volcanoes, mega-tsunami, overpopulation, asteroid impact, a nearby supernovae and of course worldwide thermonuclear war are all favourites. The threat of some of these seems to be fading, but some seem more likely today than ever. There are others, many others, too numerous and depressing to list here.

They're also wildcards, because sometimes the things that should set us back push us forward. It's certainly arguable that two major world wars, so close together, were a major causal factor in the acceleration of the pace of change that is part of our lives today.

Depending on the current news cycle I can swing violently; between a horribly over optimistic view of the future and the inevitability of the rise of trans-humanism, and a view bleak in pessimism, in the inevitability of the abandonment of technology and a slow slide towards narrowing horizons and the eventual extinction of the human race. Doomed as a species that turned its back on space and by having its world view limited to just that, a single world with all the disasters and catastrophes that can result.

Despite this, I'll continue to try and make predictions in the sweet spot, it's fun to be proved right, and sometimes even more fun to be proved wrong.

1 Arthur C. Clarke
2 William Gibson

Saturday, February 02, 2013

You don't have to be awesome all the time...

In her post talking about the public-ness of mourning after the death of Aaron Swartz, Danah Boyd writes "...we’ve created communities connected around ideas and actions, relishing individualistic productivity for collective good. But we haven’t created openings for people to be weak and voice their struggles and demons."

Geek culture is, at least in theory, a meritocracy, and you are measured by your accomplishments. But that means the best of us, those whose work is held up as shining examples, suffer from Impostor Syndrome. Sometimes cripplingly so, even when they are accomplishing awesome things. Because awesome things sometimes look a lot less awesome from the inside, when you know the limitations, flaws and problems with what you've built and shared with the community.

But worse than that, it means when you have your moment of weakness (and we all do), and for a while cannot contribute, cannot accomplish the day-to-day awesomeness that qualifies you as a member of good standing of the community, things can look very bleak. Because we expect the most from those of us that deliver the most, and even the great and the good can fall sometimes, and need support.

We've built a culture where it's hard to acknowledge that you don't know something, because knowing things is intricately linked with the doing of awesome things  which in turn is linked to our stature with our peers.

For someone like me, whose career more or less relies on being on, and being seen to be on, the bleeding edge, this is painfully evident. If I'm asked "Have you heard about…?" and I have to answer "No?" you'll generally see a look of pain cross my face, something sort of like constipation, don't worry, it's just my career flashing before my eyes…

I have no solutions to offer, only the sure and certain knowledge, which I give freely to other geeks, that you are not alone. That the great and the good amongst us suffer as well. That it's okay to be weak and not know the answer to a question. That it's okay to rest and take from others for a while. We'll still be here when you get back, and we'll still remember how awesome you are. You don't have to live your life on Internet time.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Goodbye Aaron

I heard this morning that Aaron Swartz has committed suicide. He was just twenty six. That's far too young by anyone's measure.

It's unclear how much the pressures of the unreasonably harsh federal prosecution for the JSTOR incident might have weighed on him, because it's been clear that he was depressed for some years. Like many of us that suffer from bouts of depression he had good weeks, and bad weeks. But the legal mess he was in can hardly have been a light weight to bear.

We've had several well known people in the community commit suicide over the last couple of years, and it's jarring. From the outside they look like the best of us, the brightest, sometimes with the most to lose. From the inside it can look much bleaker.

People in our community grew up geeks, many grew up friendless and carry that burden into adulthood. They have real trouble reaching out when they need help; to the friends they're not sure they really have, to the family they often regard as having not been there for them when they were at school. As a result the community is littered with people that suffer depression, that struggle every day with it, and with Impostor Syndrome. No matter how accomplished people look on the outside, and despite past records that should make those accomplishments as evident to them as it is to the rest of us, they suffer. Often in silence. 

I didn't know Aaron well, we had exchanged a few words on a couple of occasions, but I should have had a chance to fix that. He was twenty six and he was at the start of things, not the end.

If you feel like you can't go on, if you feel like it's too much to bear the weight of your life alone. Please, don't do this, please reach out to your friends, your family, to strangers if you must. If you can't face your friends with the news that you hate your life. Because there is always someone that's going to miss you. Always.

Goodbye Aaron.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The inevitability of smart dust

This post was first published on the O'Reilly Radar.

I've put forward my opinion that desktop computing is dead on more than one occasion, and been soundly put in my place as a result almost every time. "Of course desktop computing isn't dead — look at the analogy you're drawing between the so called death of the mainframe and the death of the desktop. Mainframes aren't dead, there are still plenty of them around!"
Well, yes, that's arguable. But most people, everyday people, don't know that. It doesn't matter if the paradigm survives if it's not culturally acknowledged. Mainframe computing lives on, buried behind the scenes, backstage. As a platform it performs well, in its own niche. No doubt desktop computing is destined to live on, but similarly behind the scenes, and it's already fading into the background.
The desktop will increasingly belong to niche users. Developers need them, at least for now and for the foreseeable future. But despite the prevalent view in Silicon Valley, the world does not consist of developers. Designers need screen real estate, but buttons and the entire desktop paradigm are a hack; I can foresee the day when the computing designers use will not even vaguely resemble today's desktop machines.
For the rest of the world? Computing will almost inevitably diffuse out into our environment. Today's mobile devices are transition devices, artifacts of our stage of technology progress. They too will eventually fade into their own niche. Replacement technologies, or rather user interfaces, like Google's Project Glass are already on the horizon, and that's just the beginning.
People never wanted computers; they wanted what computers could do for them. Almost inevitably the amount computers can do for us on their own, behind our backs, is increasing. But to do that, they need data, and to get data they need sensors. So the diffusion of general purpose computing out into our environment is inevitable.
Everyday objects are already becoming smarter. But in 10 years' time, every piece of clothing you own, every piece of jewelry, and every thing you carry with you will be measuring, weighing and calculating. In 10 years, the world — your world — will be full of sensors.

The sensors you carry with you may well generate more data every second, both for you and about you, than previous generations did about themselves during the course of their entire lives. We will be surrounded by a cloud of data. While the phrase "data exhaust" has already entered the lexicon, we're still essentially at the banging-the-rocks-together stage. You haven't seen anything yet ...

The end point of this evolution is already clear: it's called smart dust. General purpose computing, sensors, and wireless networking, all bundled up in millimeter-scale sensor motes drifting in the air currents, flecks of computing power, settling on your skin, ingested, will be monitoring you inside and out, sensing and reporting — both for you and about you.

Almost inevitably the amount of data that this sort of technology will generate will vastly exceed anything that can be filtered, and distilled, into a remote database. The phrase "data exhaust" will no longer be a figure of speech; it'll be a literal statement. Your data will exist in a cloud, a halo of devices, tasked to provide you with sensor and computing support as you walk along, calculating constantly, consulting with each other, predicting, anticipating your needs. You'll be surrounded by a web of distributed sensors and computing.
Makes desktop computing look sort of dull, doesn't it?

Sunday, January 06, 2013

The fifth horseman never gets invited to the good parties

This article was originally posted on Google+.

Yesterday +MG Siegler argued on +TechCrunch that Samsung is the fifth horseman of technology, filling in for the ailing Microsoft, when the four horsemen: Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google go riding.

I have to disagree with the underlying assumptions. We're at yet another tipping point in technology. A few years ago we moved from the beige box to the black rectangle, but the black rectangle won't be with us for as long as the beige box.

That black rectangle, the ubiquitous form factor of today's smart phone, is a transition device and it's going to disappear quickly as the speed of technological change is accelerating rapidly. Of the four horsemen only Google seems to be working on alternatives with +Project Glass. It's possible the others, including Samsung, have working hardware, but the successor to today's smart phone is going to be all about context and user interaction.

I've stood up in front of audiences before and argued that our smart phones have our lives on them, the next generation of mobile technology is going to stand between us and our lives and add context. It's hard to do that without a lot of information about the user.

It's also going to be a big leap for the horsemen to make. Despite getting into hardware recently Amazon is about selling content, Facebook has never done hardware and I don't think have this sort of paradigm shift in their corporate bones, Apple has, but without Steve Jobs I don't think they'll have the guts to kill the iPhone and innovate. Samsung, the fifth horsemen that never gets invited to the good parties, is a box shifter. They know hardware, but they don't know design, and they don't know anything about their end users. Their customers are other companies, like Amazon, not you and me, the eventual consumers.

So out of all of them Google  seems to be the only one positioned to move forward, and it'll be a big leap for them even so. The developer release of +Project Glass later this year is going to be crucial. If I had the money to lose making a wager, I'd wager that it'll be some startup you or I haven't heard of yet that makes the leap to the next ubiquitous form factor.

Either way, it's going to be an interesting year...