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Startup culture: everything old is new again

I might have additional posts inspired by the New York Times Magazine article “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”, but here’s the first. The article is a lengthy piece and not very skimmable, but you might want to take the time to read it.

Isn’t it a hoot when young people think they’re the first who ever had a thought or experience, in the entire history of humanity? I don’t want to bash author Yiren Lu, because she seems like a thoughtful and intelligent person, but similar articles could have been found in WIRED or Fast Company in the 1990s when I was her age. Back in those days, younger people worked on the whiz-bang front end applications — we called it the World Wide Web — while the older engineers focused on infrastructure, networking, and hardware at more established companies. Twenty years ago the exciting place to be was in website development. Now it’s apps. Either way, that’s where the excitement and opportunity is likely to be for younger, less experienced techies.

Side note: Couldn’t the artist have included a female figure in any of the four illustrations accompanying the piece? It’s that sort of thing that subconsciously indicates women are not part of tech culture. It’s no surprise that many of the comments assumed the author was male despite her photo appearing at the end of the article.

My first job in the Internet industry began 20 years ago this month. It was a startup. I interviewed for an administrative position, heard the partners talking about the need for a production manager, taught myself HTML that night, and went on to take the better job instead. It was a bold and stupid move but so things were in the early days of the Web. After a year and a half, I jumped to a job at Huge Internet Corporation, which later acquired the startup anyway. I’ve done contract work for other startups through the years.

Startups can be exciting, especially if they’re lavishly funded. When they’re not? Well, I remember rushing my boss’s personal check to the bank to cover payroll for the week, more than once. I remember months of fighting to get payment I was owed. At one job, I was always first to the office in the morning, which made the day our power was cut off even more exciting. Being young and at a startup is like tightrope walking without a net. There is an adrenaline rush and sometimes the risk can bring great reward, but that wasn’t my experience. In the first couple years I held three jobs simultaneously to pay my rent: a day job at a tech company, retail sales on evenings and weekends, and freelancing in between.

For me, it was much more fun to be at a young company: Huge Internet Corporation in the early days. We still had startup culture, enthusiasm galore, and a sense that we were doing something new, revolutionary, and important. Because the company had existed for a while, however, there wasn’t as much risk and there was better infrastructure. I worked ridiculous hours and there was plenty of grumbling and stress, but my first few year there were the best work period of my life so far. And yes, we had Nerf guns then too, and we shot each other as we dodged between the cubicles. We pranked each other mercilessly. We had Quake tournaments after hours. Most of us were young and single; our social lives tended to mesh with our work lives. Alcohol played a role in that culture, sometimes in the office or at informal parties in the parking lot. We had decent salaries and stock options; a good day on Wall Street could create waves of 28 year old millionaires and a bad day could bring tears.

Ms. Lu might not realize this yet, but companies age too. The culture changes as layers of management and oversight come in and as a maturing workforce changes their priorities to include on-site daycare, parental leave, and better retirement savings plans. Public companies have more paperwork; some of the blame for my burn out at Huge Internet Company can be dumped at the feet of Sarbanes-Oxley. The mandatory documentation, diversity committee review of new hires, accessibility review of every project, and on and on… it adds up, even when the intent is to change things for the better. Throw in some bad reviews from the tech press — oh how we used to fear Walt Mossberg! — and product management starts to get gun shy. Progress slows. Innovation is stifled.

Internet companies are still figuring out viable maturity curves. Some settle into their strengths and stop trying to compete with nimble startups. Some reorganize to make room for established business and creativity, as Google seems to be doing with its recent creation of parent company Alphabet, Inc. Some use size to keep their position while building side products in an attempt to future-proof the business (Amazon, Facebook). Some die. In the case of Huge Internet Corporation, management made some bad decisions, our business model shifted too slowly, and our core technology was outdated by the time it was released. The company still exists but in very different form.

However, when I look though my LinkedIn contacts to see where my former HIC colleagues are working today, I see quite an assortment, not only the “old guard” trying to trudge through the last decades of their careers at stable, long-lived companies. Those I was closest to are between the ages of 40 and 55 now. Many of them have C-level or Vice President titles at startups or smaller companies, or they are VPs or Directors at larger ones. A few started their own companies or became consultants. Others bailed out of the industry altogether to pursue new passions, from nursing to documentary film making to landscape architecture. They scattered across the country and a surprising cluster of them ended up in London. Generalizing about the whole group, just as generalizing about the younger wave of tech workers, misses all the interesting paths that don’t fit the desired narrative.

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A short personal note. Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while know about my dear friend Jakob and I wanted to pass along an update. He and I haven’t been spending much time together since I broke my leg — neither of us has much to say, as we’re both housebound and unwell — but we still have a short online visit every day. Lately he’s been active and optimistic, cleaning his house and planning an October trip with his sister.

Unfortunately, he’s now back in the hospital. He had chemotherapy (he has stage IV stomach cancer) last Thursday and was groggy in the days that followed. By Sunday he wasn’t online. Yesterday his sister gave me the news that he was admitted to the hospital with a blood sugar level of 1300. Jakob is an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic and when he is weak and confused from chemo, he forgets to do blood sugar checks. Since high or low blood sugar make him even more confused, that begins a spiral that he can’t control. I saw this a couple times when we took a vacation together in May. I’m translating from messages his sister sends me in German from her smartphone, but from what I can patch together, he’s reliant on machines right now. He didn’t recognize her and she says his eyes didn’t focus. Meanwhile, she says that his cancer is still spreading. The doctors are not offering her much hope at this point.

It drives me crazy that Jakob doesn’t understand the situation with his illness, and because of the language gap it is still unclear whether his doctors are actively withholding the information or if he’s refusing to hear it. He assures me that his cancer is gone and that the chemo will keep it that way. Of course that’s not true; I knew in May that another tumor had been found in his brain and that the therapy is destroying his liver and other organs. He’s made amazing recoveries before though, so I’m not rushing to say the end is near this time. We shall see.

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Posted by on August 14, 2015 in Culture, Relationships

 

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Roadmap for personal robotic development

We’re on the cusp of robotic assistants appearing in home and office use; not just silent machines vacuuming our floors (or in my experience with the Roomba, getting stuck under our furniture) or in industrial applications, but interacting with us for daily tasks and presenting themselves in anthropomorphic ways. This is on my mind a lot, but last week’s MIT Technology Review article “Personal Robots: Artificial Friends with Limited Benefits” kept gnawing at me. I’ve got some questions:

  • Why are the first wave of personal robotic assistants so cute and kid-friendly?
  • Is it necessary to train potential buyers with entertaining ‘bots before they will use serious applications?
  • Do cute robots trivialize the potential of these machines?
  • What have we learned from other sources about what adults might want, need, and — most importantly in the long run — actually use?
  • What does the product roadmap look like between Roomba and Rosie, and beyond?

In my previous work life as a project and product manager at Internet companies, it was important to consider not only the current product my team was building, but the competitive landscape, latest research, and how we hoped to iterate the product in the future.  The product roadmap got more speculative the further forward it stretched, and in Internet time, that could mean it was blurry a mere 12 months ahead, but I had some idea where we planned to go. Combined with research, reporting, and user testing, that roadmap would drive the requirements for the next version.

With a number of companies heading in simultaneous, differing development directions, I wonder what the roadmap looks like to people on the inside. Does Cynthia Breazeal want JIBO to become the Furby of 2016, just as irrelevant years later? Is she counting on more adult applications to come from third-party developers, or does she have a track in mind that goes beyond the lovechild of WALL-E and Siri? I look at the “Future Life with Pepper” video from Aldebaran Robotics (below, in Japanese but very easy to understand) and I find it unimaginative and silly.

Some of my irritation with how Pepper is shown could be cultural; I like kawaii things, but I don’t want an infantilized assistant with a high voice. That might say “non-threatening and friendly” to others, but it says “annoying and dumbed down” to me. I would love to have a moving robot with hands right now, if it could fetch or carry things for me while I’m steering my wheelchair or gripping crutches. Stir onions on the stove while they carmelize. Let the dog out. Pick up the ball of yarn I dropped that rolled across the room. Don’t play peek a boo with me when I’m crying, ffs. How useless!

Does the roadmap for personal robotics have to pass through Candyland? Though I find it frustrating for myself as an early adopter, I can see how it could be a viable path. It’s a non-threatening way to get robots into a family home. Children might engage with a cute bot more frequently and naturally than adults with a more serious one, and I suspect that like a digital assistant or a DVR, robots will have more perceived value when used regularly, while that value might be hard to explain to a non-user. Teaching children to comfortably interact with robots could be important to the roadmap in a Wayward Pines First Generation sort of way: they are the future, and when robotic technology has advanced so there are more home and office uses, they will be the programmers, designers, buyers, and users.

Do we have data that could point to what older users want from personal robots in the near future? I’d suggest looking at tablet/phone apps, gadget purchases, and use of digital assistants now. Mail, chat, videos, photography, weather, maps, social media, music, games, search, stock updates, fitness tracking, and news. Communication with other devices on the same network. Notifications delivered in a personalized, prioritized way. Immediate answers to relatively simple questions. Reminders and a calendar.  These are all things that are perfectly suited to a stationary, voice-controlled robot with a display screen. If I were designing a bot of that sort for my personal needs I’d add in: can take dictation and save longer notes, can read a piece of text and answer basic questions about it (“How many cups of flour do I need?” when reading a recipe), can send voice/photo/video messages to other bots of the same/similar type, can act as a receptionist for my mobile phone when I’m home, can interact with my accounts on video sites and the Chromecast/future device attached to my TV (“Play season 2 of Archer on the family room television”), and more.

I think that even at that point in the roadmap, a stationary robot with personality, like JIBO rather than the not-very-clever, screenless Amazon Echo, could be exceedingly useful for remote relationships of various types. My family is spread across the country and my friends are around the world, and just from my own life I can think of many use cases. I can also imagine such a bot as an assistant at work. In a few years, with better communication between devices and programs instead of maintaining silos of information, even this level of robot could be a daily helpmate to many people.

When we start to consider a robot with mobility and limbs, however, we need to think in 3D. The Pepper video fails greatly in that regard. The only shown use of mobility is that Pepper can move toward people and its hands are used for games or expressions. I doubt that’s all we want, but the development path between that and a fully mobile bot with useful appendages that could do housework, for example, is unclear. Our homes have different floor types, thresholds, stairs, and obstacles that must be overcome before we start to consider the fine motor control and grip needed for simple tasks. Still, I can imagine a robot not too far off that could operate on one floor of a home or office and handle small manual jobs as well as providing entertainment. At times, most of us could simply use an extra set of hands to hold, stir, open, carry, or balance something. Is that enough to justify the work necessary to make a mobile robot?  Probably not. I can see the first viable generation of mobile home robots being developed and marketed for the elderly or disabled, with uses customized to those populations as well as the functionality of the stationary bots. When might that be? 10-15 years from now?

It seems that the next step after that is currently undefined. The technological gap that remains before we reach the dream of a robot butler or housekeeper, able to do physical work in any setting, is huge. Maybe we need to give some thought to the roadmap and where we really want personal robotics to be in 20-30 years. Are charismatic androids the best robotic supplement we can imagine?  Maybe there is a fork in the path, where we separate companion bots from more utilitarian bots. Maybe the development curve of smart home/office technology will intercept the robotic curve at a point where the robot can be the control interface, but not need so many skills built in.

Along those lines, I’ve embedded a video below about the characters in the AMC series HUMANS. It’s interesting if you’re watching the series, but even if you’re not, it introduces the androids (“synthetics” or “synths”) as they’re imagined in that parallel present and the interactions that humans have with them. I think that full-service androids like synths are often seen as the endpoint of the personal robotic roadmap. Should they be?

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2015 in Digital Devices, Our Robot Overlords

 

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Personal technology and temporary disability

Silver lining: while my broken leg heals, I’m in a good position to reflect on how personal technology can play a role in surgical recovery (or temporary/permanent disability, or quality of life for the elderly). Now that I have the energy to sit at my computer for a while, I’ll reflect on how that technology has changed in the past few years and the near-future opportunities, as well. I’m still taking narcotic painkillers now and then, so I won’t promise to be coherent.

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Non-digital assistant: my dog is in full nurse mode

Social contact

Having a smartphone with various messaging options and friends/family who use 21st century communication protocols makes such a difference. I’ll contrast my experience with that of my hospital roommate. She was in her early 60s and had a cell phone of some sort, but she only used it for voice calls. That’s better than only having the hospital landline, but still not the best solution. Why not?

  • Annoying in close quarters: I heard every detail of every conversation she had, day or night. While this sometimes provided entertainment — I got to hear her embellish the story of her surgery with each call and gossip maliciously about people she had just spoken with — it was infuriating when I was tired and in pain. The other side of that coin is that she had no privacy. With text messaging, I was able to converse silently at any time.
  • Phone tag vs message threads: One afternoon my roommate was bored and I think she called half the people in her contact list without getting an answer. She left some messages, sighed a lot, and then flipped on the TV. I had conversations underway with my husband, local friends, and distant friends from Oz to the Orkneys, and if there was a pause of minutes or hours while someone slept/worked/ate/did something else, it was no big deal. Asynchronous communication means you don’t always have to stop and start a conversation, but can pop back into a thread as time allows.
  • Presence indicator: In a related vein, when I was having a bored mopey afternoon like she had, I could see who was active online rather than fishing through my address book.

Part of the isolation of being housebound or in the hospital is that the ability to participate in the lives of others is reduced. It’s impossible to attend parties or go to events. Social media allows me to still have a presence in those activities. I won’t argue that watching a concert video my friend posted is the same as going along, but Liking and commenting on it shows I’m aware of and interested in her life; it helps refresh our connection. I can read and watch news to stay connected to the larger outside world, but social media keeps me connected to the more personal spheres.

There are options available that I didn’t use: Skype or FaceTime video chats, for example, or keeping up with other social media platforms, or trying to use Second Life on my phone. Now that I’m home, I can return to virtual world socializing. I don’t have much of an attention span for it yet, but I know I’ll appreciate being able to travel, dance, drive, and simply move through a three dimensional world.

Personal entertainment

I can clearly remember the first time I played an arcade game: Centipede, in Buffalo Children’s Hospital, early 1982. 33 years later I sprawled in my hospital bed and played far more advanced games on my phone. I also had access to a couple hundred CDs from my collection and limitless music streaming on various platforms. I could choose from thousands of streaming movies and TV shows.

My hospital provides each patient a television with a decent selection of basic cable channels. It’s quite nice, but at night when there was less demand on the WiFi network, I propped up my smartphone and streamed Orange is the New Black on Netflix. Being able to choose something for myself when I was dependent on others for my basic needs was invaluable. In a little way, it helped me remain me and feel less lost in the pain and humiliation.

Even now that I’m home, when I can’t sleep I flip open TuneIn Radio Pro and listen to a podcast or play a silly matching game until my eyelids are heavy. Those are much better options than staring at the ceiling and obsessing over the ache in my leg.

Home automation

My Internet of Things automation options are few right now: an Amazon Echo, two WeMo switches, and Nest thermostats. None of these were options for me a mere five years ago, however, so it’s interesting to consider whether they make a significant difference. For me, I think the answer is a firm, “Yes, but….” Yes, these devices make several things much easier and enable more independence, but there is so much potential just over the horizon.

While I can’t climb stairs easily, my bed is in our first floor dining room. The Echo and my Android smartphone give me the ability to turn lights on and off, adjust the temperature, and run the fan if I’m a bit overheated. The Echo recognizes the WeMo switches but not the Nests, which is annoying.  I can say, “Alexa, turn on family room,” to have her activate that WeMo switch, but the IF recipes that can pair Echo with Nest are clumsy hacks, things like “if I add any item to my Echo To Do list, set the Nest to 72 degrees.” There’s significant room for improvement.

—–

I’m lucky. My stupid body might injure easily, but it also heals like a champ. I expect to be walking again by Fall and my gadgets can go back to being toys more than tools.  For now, though, I’m glad I have more options than I did just a few years ago.

 

 

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Balancing the natural and digital worlds

I’m still adjusting to technology after a month of being away from everything but my smartphone. It’s amazing how much my mouse hand and forearm hurt; I think it’s time to trade in my beloved but clearly harmful thumb-ball mice. I started using them long ago to ease carpal tunnel syndrome, but now they’re a shortcut to tendonitis.

Logitech trackman mouse image

As much as I love the digital world, it’s not so easy to transition back. Facebook is tedious, most of Twitter is petty or repetitive. I craved media when I couldn’t have it, but now I skim the sites I used to read and everything looks boring. I can’t get excited about video games or virtual worlds. It’s all so much meh right now. It’s not that I’m less interested in current events, technology, gaming, anthropology, and thought-provoking issues, but the bar for my attention is higher.

So, as I find my balance again, this might be a good time to write about another occasion where I lost it. I don’t agree with the people who fret about screen time, saying that technology is making us incompetent and antisocial. However, I think that technology can exaggerate some parts of a personality while diminishing others, and we need to be responsible and self-aware of how it’s changing us.

I grew up in the country, swimming in the local creek, building tree forts, biking to nearby stables to ride horses. I was in Girl Scouts and 4-H.  It didn’t distress me to find a gutted deer hanging in our garage and I would help my mom wrap packages of fresh meat for the freezer. Yet, a little over a decade ago, I was in a very different place. The change had taken place gradually, but I isolated myself from the natural world more and more. I lived in a third-floor suburban apartment, working 10+ hours a day at a tech company and spending most of my free time online. “Cooking” was microwaving, though I ate one or two meals at the company cafeteria on weekdays. I became squeamish easily, even something like raw chicken would make me gag. I hated being sweaty or dirty. My lifelong arachnophobia had increased to the point where I would shake and burst into tears at a tiny spider across the room. I wasn’t a shut-in — I traveled and dated — but I had become very… delicate.

I was also burnt out. After a few months of introspection, I begged my way into the next round of corporate lay-offs, sold or stored my things, bought an RV, and took off for some solo travels in the US and Canada. My RV wasn’t expensive but I was in no way roughing it — I had a queen-sized bed, nice little kitchen, TV, and satellite Internet. Still, it’s impossible to have that lifestyle without getting dirty. You can’t be delicate when you’re dealing with your own sewage. After facing some hand-sized spiders in Florida and living with a changing array of bugs, my arachnophobia began to fade (it’s completely gone now). When I decided to stop roaming, found a job at another tech company and another apartment, I felt like I had a balance between the natural and digital worlds again.

I’ve managed to keep that balance. It’s not always the same — the proportions of time spent digitally/physically vary over a range that shifts with obligations, weather, passing interests, relationships, and health — but if I swing too far in one direction, I’m confident that I’ll find equilibrium again soon. I’m aware of it.

If you happen to find yourself in the same position I was, I don’t think you need to up-end your whole life the way I did. Pick up a hobby that takes your hands off the keyboard for a while. Get dirty in nature, even if that just means sitting on the grass — not a blanket — in the park. Push back at things that make you uncomfortable. Find a balance that works.

For me, now that I’ve finished writing this post, it’s time to step away from the computer for a while. See you soon.

 

 
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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Health - Mental & Physical

 

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Wednesday films: Chef, phlebotomist, and dubstep robots

Three short videos for your Wednesday enjoyment! The first is a cute musical film (wait for the drop).

 

Dubstep Dispute from Fluxel Media on Vimeo.

The next two are recently released robotic news videos. One is for a robot chef, or at least, an automated kitchen system that uses robotic arms. I don’t see it being practical, but the suspended robot arms are similar to something in a story I’m writing. The last video is for a robotic phlebotomist. I saw an article suggesting that this would be good for people with fear of needles. No, it would not be!  Dear heavens. I have a fainting response to needles and the slow process of holding my arm in place and then the machine putting in the line would be awful.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2015 in In the News, Our Robot Overlords

 

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Should we all limit screen time?

My immediate response to that is, of course, no. I am inclined to see fear mongering and hand wringing about the Internet/smart phones/gaming as rants by modern Luddites who see all the world’s ills in a texting teenager.  But maybe I’m missing something. The Daily Dot writes about a strange new law in Taiwan that holds parents liable if their children use electronics constantly “for a period of time that is not reasonable”.  A new book proposes that we’re losing internal depth and introspection in an increasingly digital world (h/t Botgirl Questi). I’ve seen a couple more videos along the lines of “Look Up” recently.

screentime

The Internet didn’t exist when I was a kid. Though there was more violent crime in the US then than now, parents were less protective and my childhood sounds like The Andy Griffith Show. It was really just the outer suburbs in the 1970s-80s. I was allowed to walk over a mile to the library by myself when I was 5 years old. My friends and I would be away from parental supervision from breakfast until dinner, tromping through a creek, building tree forts in a nearby woods, listening to records in someone’s basement, or playing freeze tag across the lawns. I loved my bike and would take long rides through the countryside with no itinerary. I’d be gone for 5-6 hours with no way for my parents to reach me, no GPS tracker, no chaperone, and nobody cared. My family never had much money, so I learned skills like sewing and gardening and canning vegetables.  We got an Intellivision gaming system, but we never had a computer in the house or even cable TV. The big tech achievement of my teens was building a tree-like antenna of wire hangers up my bedroom wall so I could tune in a radio station from Toronto.

I have to consider that screen time for me is very different than for someone who was raised with ever-present computing. I spend many hours online every day but I’m proud of my offline competencies, too. Would those have developed if I had a smartphone or tablet from my earliest childhood?  There are millions of sites that are useful counterparts to offline skills, teaching how to do auto repair or maintain a house or knit or build clever Arduino devices, but does one have to have an existing base of knowledge to use them?

Personally, I think it’s important to keep learning and challenging ourselves in new directions, whether we are adults or children. Screen-based skills are very important now and time spent online isn’t the same as time wasted. I think we’re better off if we make time for physical world hobbies and experiences too.  But, should we assume that someone who rejects a digital life is superior in some way to a person who spends a preponderance of time online?  Intellectually, morally, socially, or even physically? I’m not convinced.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Culture

 

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Tech trends for 2015

Interested in what’s next or simply trying to keep up with impressive-sounding jargon? I’ve compiled a few lists of tech trends that are expected to be hot this year. I agree with some of them, for better or worse, and others are giving me food for thought as I consider the human implications. Click the links for more details.

Webbmedia Group (the presentation below is worth watching at full-screen, but a summary list of the key points from by Amy Webb in the Harvard Business Review  includes deep learning, smart virtual personal assistants, “It’s like Uber for ____”, oversight for algorithms, data privacy, and block chain technology):

 

10 Strategic Technology Trends from Gartner:

  1. Computing everywhere
  2. The Internet of Things (IoT)
  3. 3D printing
  4. Advanced, pervasive, invisible analytics
  5. Context-rich systems
  6. Smart machines
  7. Cloud/client architecture
  8. Software-defined infrastructure and applications
  9. Web-scale IT
  10. Risk-based security and self-protection

Tech Trends for 2015 from frog design:

  • Move over “step counters”
  • Ambient intelligence knows what’s up
  • Nano particles diagnose from the inside out
  • The emergence of the casual programmer
  • Eat your technologies
  • The Internet of food goes online
  • Mobilizing the next 4 billion
  • Personal darknets in the spotlight
  • 4D printing assembles itself
  • Digital currency replaces legal tender
  • The rise of cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Textiles get techy
  • Adaptive education personalizes learning
  • Achievement unlocked: you’re hired!
  • Micro-farming networks go mainstream

 The Tech That Will Dominate 2015, from Tim Bajarin at PC Magazine:

  • Apple enhances product resolution and invades enterprise market
  • Increased vigilance against security breaches
  • Tablets as personal TVs
  • Streaming media everywhere
  • Better battery life
  • New MacBook Air
  • Domestic robots
  • Low-end tablets replacing other gadgets
  • Apple Watch more successful that expected
  • Easier ways to design/create 3D products
 
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Posted by on January 7, 2015 in Digital Devices, In the News, Research

 

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