Francis Dierick's Blogfr.anc.is

15 Jul 2014

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Putting back the p in PC

For the last 30 years or so, personal computing has been a misnomer of sorts. My first PC was a Commodore 64 propped up on a century-old wooden desk with a cheap grayscale CCTV monitor for a screen & a clunky dot-matrix printer connected to its many and mysterious orifices. It was hardly personal, the whole friggin' family was using it. That shared usage pattern continued for a couple of decades in most households until laptrops became cheap enough in the 2000s to lug around between home, workplace and the odd coffeeshop. But it still wasn't personal the way a mobile is when it buzzes you awake in the morning or how it enterains you on your commute. A true personal computer is with you always, everywhere. The first device to really fulfill that 70's promise of personal computing is your mobile phone. Will wearables become the second wave of devices that put back the 'personal' in PCs?

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About Me

Hi, I'm Francis, developer & serial entrepreneur. Co-creator of DidThis.co & writer of Lean Idea Flow

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Tales of Creation is a newsletter chock-full of startup tips & interviews with founders.

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I've been writing on and off about startups & technology on this blog since 2010. Here's the full archive of my writings. Also available in RSS & Atom

Some of my projects received nice press coverage.


02 Jun 2014

No iWatch? No iPhone 6? No new Macs? Who cares

NO IWATCH. NO IPHONE 6. NO NEW MACS ... FAIL ? As I was filing out of Moscone West's Presidio together with 5000-something other Apple devs I must admit to feeling a certain amount of dread because there were no new hardware announcements. The press & Wall Street sure expected new products today. But all Apple gave was a big nope.

Right now two questions are going through my head: Is Apple still relevant & cutting-edge for users? For developers?

Let's start with the consumer-side. Is Apple still leading here? All of the consumer-facing changes we saw today can be described as evolutionary, not revolutionary. iCloud drive is a reponse to Dropbox. Extensions & inter-app communication are responses to features Android's had for ages. Others address annoyances that should have been solved ages ago, e.g. Family Sharing. Even the new Messages app is just catching up to WeChat/Whatsapp with the voice responses.

So what's new? In one word: integration or what Apple calls "Continuity". Apple's idea of a multi-device world is distinctly NOT "Compile once, run everywhere". Continuity is about using the right device at the right moment. It's about being able to start something like writing an email on one device and finishing it on the other.

A big part of continuity is integration with third-party apps & services. A great example of this Spotlight. It is now front & center on your Mac's screen & offers deep integration with web services like Yelp, OpenTable, Apple's iTunes store & more. The problem with integration of third-party web services is that it's a finnicky problem to solve: lots of edge cases & failure modes. Apple has a pretty poor track record with web services so I'm taking a wait-and-see approach on this one. But it sure is ambitious.

Where I do believe Apple can absolutely shine is continuity within their own ecosystem. Lots of good signs here: Handoff, Airdrop, the iCloud drive. A few years ago when Apple removed "Computer" from its company name people assumed it was because Apple suddenly was going to be all about mobile. Today Apple is more than mobile or desktop. Apple truly is a platform ecosystem: Hardware, Software & Services. And as Apple likes to point out: only they can do this.

Raising your phone to your ear to respond to a voice message is a neat trick of hardware & software integration. But Apple's platform ecosystem is about more than these kinds of neat usability tricks: it's about trust.

Can consumers trust Microsoft to deliver apps that won't infest their computer with malware? Would you trust Facebook with your fingerprint data? What about health data? Would you trust Google to run something like HealthKit?

Apple has already built up a good reputation with their strongly curated AppStore & today Apple pointed out again and again how seriously they take security & privacy. TouchID fingerprints don't leave the chip in the device. The new smart keyboard word predictions are done on the device, not in the cloud. And since Apple is not in the advertising business there's no inherent conflict of interest the likes of Facebook and Google are suffering from. Given Apple's ambition to tackle extremely sensitive areas like health (Healthkit), home security (HomeKit) & Authentication (TouchID API) I sure hope this trust is not misplaced.

Can Apple still deliver in the consumer space? They surely paint a wonderful picture with this beautifully integrated ecosystem. Now let's see if they can actually deliver on their continuity promises. I kinda fear they're biting off more than they can chew.

So what about the developer? Is Apple still leading the way for developers? Hell yeah! A new programming language, a REPL, closures, 4000 new APIs, TestFlight integration, a better AppStore & most importantly a solid userbase of people willing to pay for your apps.

OSX Mavericks has 40 million users & more importantly over 50% of users tend to upgrade to the latest system within a year. To contrast this: less than 14% of Windows users have upgraded to Win8 years after the initial release.

Similarly reassuring words on the IOS side: 75 Billion apps, that's about 10 apps per human on this planet. 130 Million users & some users are coming back to Apple from Android: in China 50% of users are switching to IOS after being first exposed to Android.

Tim Cook's keynote quip "I do read your emails" pretty much sums up this year's announcements for devs. A lot of "finally" reactions in the audience as they roll out long-needed updates (Testflight, a better AppStore, iCloud Drive, 3rd-party keyboards). Sometimes it takes a while but eventually our suggestions do make it into the products.

The new Swift language brings long-needed modern programming language mechanisms found in "scripting" languages like JS, Ruby or Python to apps for iPad, iPhone & OSX. By taking out the Objective-C requirement Apple just opened up development to a lot more people. No more brackets.

So what about them APIs? Apple is clearly betting on the ecosystem strategy, so lots of annoucements here. HomeKit, CloudKit, HealthKit, the TouchID API : they're all about integration. Lots of Sherlocking here: I'm sure anyone providing development services in the PaaS, app analytics & single-sign-on space will have some sleepless nights. These are some of the services I use for app development that I probably won't be using anymore pretty soon: App Distribution (TestFlight, HockeyApp), Analytics (Flurry), Debugging (Crashlytics), PaaS (Parse.com).

It has never been easier to develop apps for Apple's ecosystem: Apple takes care of everything from account management to backend services. But there's a catch: you're tying yourself to the Apple ecosystem. Obviously no talk about making services like iCloud compatible with Android.

Apple announced a lot of juicy news for developers today, reflected by the fact that they split up the keynote in three main topics: OSX, IOS & DEV. If they wanted to convince developers that being part of the Apple ecosystem is a good idea then they sure succeeded. No iWatch? No iPhone 6? No new Macs? Who cares, we have plenty of interesting things in the ecosystem we can target right now.

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18 May 2014

What if the iWatch really is an iKey?

Early June I'll be at WWDC & one of the biggest announcements I'm looking forward to is the launch of the iWatch. So far I've been pretty disappointed with the products currently on the market (Pebble, the Samsung thing) & hope Apple will do a lot better. I just didn't see the use case for an iWatch. Until now: what if the iWatch is less of a watch & more of a device that authenticates you to all kinds of services. An iKey instead of an iWatch, if you will. Here's why I think that is an exciting idea.

TL;DR : I hope Apple creates an iKey that uses biometrics to authenticate against devices & services. Because then people will have a reason to really wear an iWatch and can get the benefits of the sensors embedded in it without having to wear a stupid dedicated band like the Fitbit.

Last summer I got myself a Jawbone UP step counter to experience first-hand what consumer-grade self-tracking wearables can do. For a while life was good: I liked the software, the band was easy to use & pretty comfortable to wear. I was learning about my health habits & making incremental adjustments to my lifestyle. The band really DID have an impact on my health: I now walk far more, I work from a standing desk & stick to a moderate daily workout scheme.

But then the trouble started. I'm not talking about the device even though the Jawbone is a piece of junk at the hardware level. (I broke 3 bands in a couple of months & I hear other products in this category like Fitbit's flex aren't much better.) There's something far more troubling about this class of devices.

If a health tracker works well, you'll use it less and less. It's a fundamentally flawed product: user engagement goes DOWN when it works well.

What I found out is that after a few months of use the device had served it's purpose: I roughly knew what I needed to do to live a healthier lifestyle. No need to wear the silly band to remind me anymore. These bands are great to discover what's wrong with your lifestyle & correct course but the benefits of continued use are very limited.

I learned in my startup the painful way that mass-market self-tracking will not take off until the actual tracking completely fades into the background. People are just too lazy to track. At first I thought it was just a matter of time until wearables became good enough.

But it's not. One could easily argue current wearable trackers are technically actually quite good. But they still make me think. Is the battery charged? Did I sync it? And most of all: why am I wearing this again? Am I still learning about myself?

Data collection needs to completely fade into the background to the point that if I want to I can go months without thinking about it & still get some of the benefits of self-tracking. Tracking needs to become a by-product of existing behaviour.

Apple's M7 chip is a step in the right direction: even though I'm not using any apps using the chip's data I can be confident that when one day I WILL need it the data will be there.

Apple married existing behaviour (carrying your phone) to background tracking. But the quality of the data is pretty poor. If we want better data we'll have to convince people to actually wear & not just carry the device.

Enter the iWatch. But the normal mode of behaviour of an iWatch (checking the time) is obsolete. People stopped wearing watches a decade ago. At this point it's just a fashion statement. And most of the other things an iWatch supposedly is good for are actually handled pretty well by a bog-standard smartphone.

So ask yourself: what are some other behaviours we do all day, every day, that make it worth carrying a device on your wrist again? At the top of my list of utterly broken daily behaviours is the login. Our current authenticatin methods are frustrating billions of people every single day. And don't even get me started on 2-factor auth.

As far as I'm concerned Apple's Touch-ID is the most underrated tech innovation of this year. Ignoring the privacy consequences it's a good candidate for solving the login problem IF it gets more widespread acceptance. It works, is beautifully implemented & easy to use.

But we can do better: what if Apple's "iWatch" is really an "iKey" device: a little bracelet that continuously analyzes your unique heart rhytm & uses this to authenticate you to (Apple) devices & services. Now THAT is a platform we can attach a bunch of sensors to to make our quantified self dreams reality. Here's to hoping that the iKey turns out to be the trojan horse that will bring sensors to the masses.

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08 Oct 2013

Lean Idea Flow

If you've been following what I've been up to this year you know I've been working on a book about customer development. It started out with a little project called "Lean Idea Book": a paper notebook for entrepreneurs who want to practice customer development. This lead to writing a book called "Talk More Do Less". I was never happy with either the title or the content. The book felt half-finished.

So I spent some more time to turn "Talk More Do Less" into a complete book that covers the following: how to collect ideas, how to organise them in a business model canvas, how to validate your ideas with customer interviews, how to build an MVP, how to measure the results of your MVP and finally how to pitch your product. It covers the whole flow from idea to pitch, hence the name Lean Idea Flow

What I felt was missing was a book that touches upon everything you need to know when developing new products, without going into excruciating detail. This very much is a book for novices to customer development & copiously refers to the existing literature. Think about it as a "Customer Development Crash Course".

The book is available as a free pdf download.

But there's more! Customer Development is all about getting out of the building & talking to customers. Whenever I do customer interviews I like to take plenty of notes in a good old-fashioned paper notebook. That's why I created the Lean Diary: a practical paper notebook with plenty of space for your interview notes & your business model canvases. That too, is available as a free pdf download!

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07 Oct 2013

Habit Change: Work on your activation energy, not your motivation

Late yesterday afternoon I was sitting on the beach, waiting to get in the water & take a swim. Waiting for ... well, what exactly? The weather was splendid. A beautiful autumn day with plenty of sunshine & a mild breeze. I'd just spent most of my Sunday working & certainly deserved a break. So what was stopping me?

A tiny ridiculous nagging feeling that the water'd be a wee bit cold. Because, you know, on this early October day I seemed to be the only one on the beach with the intention of taking a swim. Which, in light of earlier swimming escapades is a ridiculous thing to think about. I love swimming & cold doesn't normally stop me.

What's more: I rationally knew that the water in early October still tends to be plenty warm. Large bodies of water take months to warm up & cool down: water temperatures actually peak in late summer / early autumn. But there I was, lying in the sunshine, waiting to muster the motivation to get in the water.

I'm thinking about entering the self-tracking space again with DidThis so in the last few weeks I've been doing research about people's attitudes towards self-tracking & motivation in particular. I interviewed dozens of people & one thing struck me about why they use tracking devices like the Jawbone UP or Fitbit Flex. The surfaces reasons to track tend to be along the lines of "improving my health" & "losing weight". But when you dig a little deeper there's often a big, ambitious, far-off goal hidden below the surface: "becoming a triathlete", "looking like I did when I was in my 20s".

People who pick big far-off goals tend to have something in common: they repeatedly set themselves up for failure. Evidence? Just ask about nearly anyone's New Year's resolutions come February. So why do we keep picking these kinds of goals when all evidence suggests that the key to reaching your goals is to split them up in small-enough milestones.

Don't mix up your goals & dreams. It's good to have far-off dreams, but it's more important to have simple short-term milestones that are actually reachable. That's why I'm running an experiment in habit change this weekend: I'm picking ridiculously easy daily habits that I hope will stick. The long-term goal for me? Build up a solid core for climbing. The short-term habit change: every time I get distracted & e.g. want to browse HN, I will drop down & do a single push-up.

When you're trying to develop new habits it pays off to start with habits that don't require hardcore motivation. It pays off to keep it simple. I like to think of it in terms of activation energy E.g. a single pushup. Try to develop habits that require low activation energy.

And just how easy your habits should be can be quite deceiving: apparently the activation energy needed to get in the water was still fairly high yesterday. But it was simple & easy enough that when I eventually did get in the water I had a good solid swim. Because that's what simple habits tend to do: once you start you don't stop. For this week, I'm betting on that simple pushup habit to cascade into a more solid core workout later on. But I'm starting simple. With a single pushup.

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Here's the full archive of my writings.

Francis Dierick's Blogfr.anc.is