Smart Homes, Foolish People: This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade sit down to talk about connected homes. We talk discuss the pros and cons of distributed networks, the fear of sharing data with giant platform companies, and ask if smart-tech is eating away at our creativity. Paul also predicts that one of Zuckerberg’s 2018 goals will clam-digging!
Paul Ford Can you imagine when Facebook can announce in audio . . . things that are happening in your wall feed?
Rich Ziade Oh boy.
PF Oh that’s gonna — Facebook Home: it’s coming. It’s coming! And it’s gonna be like I mean just the sounds of baby crying.
RZ Like my aunt telling me she just made an amazing cup of cocoa.
PF Mark Zuckerberg reading off his goals for the year.
RZ God, he’s so weird.
PF It is. He’s gonna be sorta like, “I’m gonna learn how to dig clams!” [RZ laughs] [intro music fades in and plays alone until 0:41]. You know what, Rich, we gotta talk for a minute about connected homes.
0:46 RZ See — that, I’m already [PF guffaws] pissed off.
PF I’m sorry that’s — for the audience, Rich was just like, “You know what a good subject is? connected homes!” Connect — what the hell is a connected home? [Music fades out.]
RZ It means I can push a button and talk to my neighbour.
PF Is your home connected?
RZ Well, let’s define it!
PF Who wants to talk to their neighbour?
RZ So I do have an Alexa.
RZ The device is the Echo.
PF That’s right.
RZ And I have an Echo — there’s all sorts of sizes.
PF You have a little one. You have an Echo Dot.
RZ I have an Echo Dot. It’s this little disk that sits on my shelf [uh huh] and then you say, “Echo,” I actually have it set to ‘Echo’, not ‘Alexa’ because I have a daughter named Alex which was ruining —
1:28 PF Everything.
RZ — everyone’s lives [yeah]. So we changed it to ‘Echo’. So I say, well, for everyone’s sake I’ll say ‘Alexa’. “Alexa, what’s the weather tomorrow?” [Uh huh] and then she’ll start talking.
PF Ok so among our hundred million listeners, some of them have probably seen the commercials for this product.
RZ It’s well known at this point [yeah]. It’s very widely used. So now I’ve got a couple of things going on in the house: I’ve got an alarm system [uh huh], like you can’t break into my house. There’s little sensors on the windows and the doors . . . and you have to turn it on or off otherwise it’ll go off if you leave the house, right? So you can wire it to the Alexa, to the Echo, so that you say, “Alexa, turn off the alarm.” [PF sighs] I have a thermostat.
PF Oh boy, a thermostat, you don’t say!
RZ I don’t have Nest, I will say. I have something similar by Honeywell and [PF yawns] I wired that to Alexa. And I say, “Alexa, turn the heat up to 71 degrees.”
PF Oh ok great.
RZ And then she’ll turn the heat up to 71 degrees.
PF Wow that’s really something.
RZ And — what was the last one?
PF Oh Jesus Christ.
RZ Those lights! [Uh huh] “Turn the lights off!” “Turn the lights on!”
PF Right so this is — wow, why do I care?
RZ Um . . .
PF You don’t have an answer.
RZ I’m gonna try — this stuff angers me as much as it angers you. I’m gonna try to pitch it for a second [PF sighing], can I pitch it?
PF Here’s what I wanna get to, right? Like look —
2:53 RZ Smart home! Forget connected home [crosstalk]. That was the wrong — smart home!
PF There’s a few things that happened: smart home, Bitcoin, internet a thing, and so on where these enormous spaces in conversations were created and then we as an agency, we get all these calls like, “Hey, what do you guys do with Alexa? Can you do Alexa skills?” And you’ll be like, “Sure, what are you guys doing?” And they’re like, “Ah well we got a budget.” And I’m like, “What’s your budget?” They’ll be like, “About 14, 15 dollars.” [Yeah] everyone gets really excited on this stuff —
RZ Well they read The Fortune article or whatever.
PF But they’re still — it’s just more engineering. It’s still hard to do and it’s real —
RZ Well hold on. There’s conveniences here. Ok? I mean —
RZ Can I pitch it?
PF Pitch it.
RZ Alright. When I’m on vacation I want people to think I’m home so I can put a schedule on those lights so they flip on and off at like random times . . . everyday while I’m away so nobody breaks in or steals anything.
RZ Real useful case.
PF But you used to be able to do that — didn’t you ever when you were younger have one of those like on/off switches that was timer — like a timer switch. There is an enormous internet of everything. First of all, don’t even talk about — Alexa’s great. Alexa’s well designed. Amazon’s behind it, they upgrade it continually. We kind of all know what that is: a giant platform company is gonna use speech as interface, you talk to it, it turns your words into text, the text gets parsed against a database, maybe some machine learning is applied or preapplied, and then it give you a response or it does something as a result [yeah], plays a song, whatever. Ok. So that fundamental interaction is probably relatively locked out for the next ten years. The thing that fascinates me is the 80 dollar Foscam camera that has a web server built in —
RZ Ah I love that thing.
PF See this is what’s actually interesting! There’s a guy, John Herman, he’s a writer. He just refers to all this as ‘shit world’. Like the ‘shit world’ phone [mm] and your ‘shit phone’ from ‘shit world’ which is just sorta the place where you can get the 70 dollar Android phone made by a place that has the words ‘Heavy Industries’ in its title. That’s what’s happening.
5:00 RZ Well . . . no! I feel like that’s an alternate universe and look I have —
PF But I think more people live in that alternate universe than live even like —
RZ Oh I don’t agree with that.
PF Really? You don’t think more people have Foscam digital cameras?
All of this stuff is so you have to do less. I used to love that sense of achievement when I had a 486 computer and when I finally got it to print in color, because I bought a color printer that took 20 minutes to print a color page and it only worked right because I got the latest drivers that were crashing before, but finally it was working right. That felt so good.
RZ All of this stuff is so you have to do less. I used to love that sense of achievement when I had a 486 computer and when I finally got it to print in color cuz I bought a color printer that took 20 minutes to print a color page [right] and it only worked right because I got the latest drivers [yup] that were crashing before when I put anything through from Photoshop but finally it was working right. That felt so good. We’re eating away at the skills needed to do some incredibly complex things.
PF True. I have a Brother printer at home. It’s wifi, you turn it on [it’s beautiful], you set it up, and then it basically kinda sits there for about three years, you know? You print once a month.
RZ We don’t — the mood of that color printer [yeah] is always strong [yeah]. It doesn’t care about the weather, it doesn’t have any sentiment of any sort, it’s just doin’ it’s thing [ok], right? The Foscam. People — most people are not gonna know what you’re talking about. We should explain it. The Foscam —
PF It’s like, it’s a cheap video monitor.
RZ A video camera that goes into your router and the thing is —
PF You can watch your kids —
RZ I once wanted to know —
PF — in their cribs.
RZ — what was going on behind the scenes of Foscam [uh huh]. First off: if you look at — if you search ‘web cam’ in Amazon you see 20 different brands: Amcrest . . .
PF They’re all one.
RZ It’s all Foscam.
PF This has always been the case. Like your DVD players only come from like three companies.
We’re eating away at the skills needed to do some incredibly complex things.
6:46 RZ Exactly. Now, what’s happened of late is they wanna make it really easy to set up cuz they want that wider audience, right? So what’s happening is you login into this thing and it’s all set up already —
PF Your Foscam comes into your house in a box, you set it up and plug it in.
RZ Yeah, you have a QR code is how you get on the wifi. They made it really, really easy [ok] and what freaked me out was — a big plus of this is you log into a server and wherever you are in the world you can look at your house [ok] which is very cool but the way they’ve solved that today is through a server outside. Your cam is pushing up to a server and you’re logging into that server.
PF Yeah cuz otherwise you can’t get through . . . it’s easy for them to make a request with the images and put them on a server but it’s very hard for you to connect to the computer in your own house.
RZ That’s right. What do I do? I have it set up through sort of this manual IP mode —
PF Ah this is the problem, right?
This is the fundamental flaw of everything though right? Which is that your home is increasingly becoming a set of distributed network processes and the way the cable companies and the routers are set up it’s very difficult to gain access to those from outside of your home.
RZ — and I go into my router and I set up port forwarding and I get a dynamic DNS from one of those free services like no-ip.org or something and without going anywhere when I log in to that camera outside the house, I’m going to my house.
PF This is the fundamental flaw of everything though right? Which is that your home is increasingly becoming a set of distributed network processes and the way the cable companies and the routers are set up it’s very difficult to gain access to those from outside of your home.
RZ It’s actually hard [yeah]. It’s always in the advanced tab in the router [yeah] — UI and even then it’s a real pain.
PF Well sometimes you have to call the cable company and say, “Can you open up a port for me?”
RZ Which is ridiculous, right?
RZ And it feels really good to do it. I felt like I did a little bit of work [music fading in] and I achieved a thing, even though it’s this pathetic 15 minutes. It just felt good. I feel like I installed something. It’s like the satisfaction you get when you put something together. And that’s all dead [music ramps up].
8:47 PF [Music ramps down] Rich, Postlight builds platforms. People need to know what a platform is. What is a platform?
RZ A platform is sort of the [clears throat] — what’s under the hood.
PF That’s right.
RZ The stuff that’s kinda lower that powers the whole thing.
PF Instagram’s a great example. You open up Instagram it’s got a lot of pictures [yes]. That’s great, that’s nice. Where do those pictures come from?
RZ The platform.
PF That’s right, it says, “Hey, give me all the pictures from all the people that I follow on Instagram, tell me where they are, and then go get those pictures themselves.”
RZ Complicated, sophisticated, scale is a problem — challenge.
PF Big engines. Big racks and racks of computers sitting there serving all that stuff up.
RZ We do that.
PF We love it. It’s our job and we’re pretty good at it. So get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s get back to the show [music ramps back up].
RZ So [music fades out] I think what we’re getting at — look: it’s good stuff. The Google stuff is incredible.
PF Oh yeah.
RZ It’s — you think Alexa’s good . . .
PF I have uh — I’ve been talking to Google more recently.
RZ It’s kinda incredible.
PF Well, honestly, you know what they did? They nailed the . . . the rough edges, they don’t really even try to hide them anymore.
9:56 RZ They got to answers [yeah] is what they did. It’s not list of search results, they got to if you ask that thing, “Tell me the side effects of Flonase,” it will speak them out to you.
PF I mean they did all the work — let’s try it! Ok Google, tell me the side effects of Flonase.
Google Assistant Here’s a summary from Webmd: uses, side effects, nasal dryness, irritation, nausea, or vomiting may occur —
RZ That is . . .
GA And interactions.
RZ That’s insane [yeah]. Like if you do that with Alexa, she —
PF No, she’ll be like: “35, 7 — ”
RZ No — there’s this canned and it pisses me off, it’s like, “I can’t help you with that right now.” It’s like, “Go to hell. That’s what you have for me?” [Yeah] you could say, “I really don’t know.” You don’t have to dodge the question. Siri’s a jerk.
PF Siri feels —
RZ You talk to Siri —
PF Siri feels weirdly like an [?] like it’s — and Cortana: who even knows?
RZ Cortana is . . .
PF That’s Microsoft.
RZ . . . taking heroine under a bridge in Austin.
PF Yeah, that’s what Cortana is [RZ chuckles]. Can you imagine when Facebook can announce in audio things that are happening in your wall feed?
RZ Oh boy.
PF Oh that’s gonna — Facebook Home, it’s coming. It’s coming! And it’s gonna be like — I mean just the sounds of baby crying.
RZ Oh yeah. Like my aunt telling me she just made an amazing cup of cocoa.
PF Mark Zuckerberg reading off his goals for the year.
11:22 RZ God, he’s so weird.
PF It is. He’s gonna be sorta like, “I’m gonna learn how to dig clam!” [RZ laughs] this whole space — much like our conversation about it, is a giant mess. It’s impossible to get information out from the products that you own and control out of your house and to control them back because the service providers and the router providers make it hard. So what’s happening is you’re seeing the same thing that always happens which is that enormous consolidated players are starting to get their platforms together. They’ll get into a partnership. Like Amazon, I’m sure, is talking to Netgear right now [yeah] about good ways to work together with the router platforms [sure] and with Optimum Online and Time Warner Cable or Spectrum or whatever —
RZ Do you know Toto Toilets?
PF Uh yes.
RZ They’re like really sophisticated toilets [yeah they’re great]. They’re like thousands of dollars, they’re really nice [sure]. Um Amazon is talking to them too [right] and it monitors what’s going on [sure!] and you start seeing like laxative ads [oh yeah] as you’re surfing or on Facebook —
PF That’s what you’re proposing or this is happening?
RZ This is happening.
PF I mean it makes sense, eventually you won’t even flush the toilet, you’ll just hit an Amazon Dash Button.
RZ Well that would be cool and then like the lights turn yellow a little bit.
PF Oh boy.
RZ [Chuckles] alright. Is this good?
PF It’s not good or bad. What I think it is is that —
RZ Are we old? “I remember way back when . . .”
PF No, here’s what’s going on: there is an exciting new set of dynamic things happening around connecting different things in your home to the internet and to each other [ok]. But because it is a chaotic space and because it is not easy for consumers and because there are relatively few easy to understand hackable standards, you end up with this very like cool new nerd world where Raspberry Pis and BeagleBoards can be accessed and you can adjust LED lights [yeah]. And then the giant platform world where they’re going to get things into your house that talk to enormous companies, like Amazon or Google, and they will enjoy transactional relationship with that user and try to provide more and more convenience to that platform over a period of years then decades. And what we’ve seen in the past is this always happens in the big platforms because of their ability to form relationships with other big platforms always tend to win. And in a way I think that’s too bad because you can’t — you’re gonna just eventually get your video stream from Google out of your house going straight into Google Photos. And that part of the creativity where people are like, “Oh my god, I have a video stream, what can I do with that?” And that one person is like, “I can add crazy filters to it and blah blah blah.” It — that is going and in fact we’ve almost gone meta. Like now they’ll be — you know so it’s Connected Home and now it’s Connected Home by Google and there’s really not that long a stretch, then Samsung will show up and do it’s crappy, weird versions of Connected Home. And it’ll end up as a war between Amazon and Google. Microsoft will try to get in there as well but really it’s mostly enterprise now and then we’ll just —
14:17 RZ It’s territory!
The big platforms, because of their ability to form relationships with other big platforms, always tend to win.
PF — ten, 15 years from now. Yeah, we’re the territory, the home is the territory.
RZ I mean [inaudible] —
PF Ten, 15 years from now it’ll be built in like HVAC.
RZ I think that’s right. I think it was so amazing when they put like network cable, like RJ45 in the walls.
PF Ah remember that?! Something about like the internet is real, right?
RZ Thought it was magic, yeah.
PF Like the internet was really in your house.
In ten, 15 years from now this will be built in like HVAC.
RZ Yeah. Well, if you — if you charted it and do one of those big goofy Gartner charts, you’ve got computers that really started really kludgy and business focused and then home computers and then phones and smart phones and then smartphones changed it all, right? Like, they took — they busted it out of the desk and then now you’re seeing it seep even further into like just about anything that has electricity in it.
PF Here’s where I’ll be an old man for a minute: what I miss and what was fun is along the way towards giant platform consolidation it wasn’t just the goal onto itself, you had moments like remember Prince of Persia?
RZ Beautiful game.
15:19 PF Amazing game! You’re computer could do that all of a sudden [yeah]. Like that moment of magic and inspiration has been replaced by get Doritos when you touch it [yeah] and —
RZ Dash Buttons.
PF Yeah, that’s fine. That’s capitalism. It’s the system we live under, there’s lots of great bonuses but god I do miss the creative weirdness part too.
RZ Without a doubt. By the way —
PF Like Amazon Echo is not a platform for fun and frolic. Not really. They keep trying to make it so.
RZ Well, no, cuz they won’t let you do it. Right? [Yeah] like there’s [crosstalk] —
PF They’ll let you do a little game where you talk to it and guess numbers or do interactive fiction or whatever but it’s not yours.
RZ You know what this comes down to? Vetting and editorial.
RZ App stores. I can’t put a thing out.
PF No, god.
RZ I can’t put a skill out that wires Pornhub to the Alexa [that’s right]. I can’t push an app that tells me filthy jokes in the app store. It’s all been fenced in. It’s not only the platforms and the . . . syntax that’s needed to build stuff but also the policing of what can come out.
PF It’s not really that we’d even want to do that, right? It’s just that there’s this sense of exhaustion pre-built where you don’t know — I’ve looked at the Amazon docs, I’ve looked at the API calls. They’re fine. It’s good. You can do some really good work. You can connect it to anything. Hell, you can connect it to an enterprise legacy banking system. Wouldn’t that be great? I could ask Alexa for my bank account information anytime I want. That’s where we’re at, right?
RZ I think your sentiment which is — there’s just not a lot of room left to —
PF Yeah, that’s what sucks. It came pre-built and then when Facebook does theirs it’s gonna be, you know, this plus social and then it —
17:05 RZ Creativity.
PF That’s right. And really what’s happening there — what’s funny about this, right? We’re bitching about it. Ten years from now, I don’t know if they’ll be an America, but let’s say there is. People will listen to this . . . and I don’t think they’ll do that either but, regardless, if you pick this up ten, 15 years from now I think what people will say is, “Wow! They couldn’t see how much those companies were backing themselves into a corner by locking down their systems and then when the gum stick sized drone-a-copters showed up and everyone could talk to them and they were mesh networked and you could still get a soda delivered but it was from a food truck that really changed everything.” Like [right], there’ll be some bizarre ass thing because, really, if you look at it, by owning everything these companies back themselves into an incredibly rigid corner. Eventually the matrix calcifies [yeah] and they’re very smart. I mean they’ve avoided it so far, they’ll avoid it for awhile longer.
RZ Well the paths to manifest individual expression and weirdness are choked.
PF They’re choked. And it’s not because they’re against it. It’s because it’s the — the scale’s off, right?
RZ Well the scale’s off but there’s also risk and liability and Amazon doesn’t wanna be associated with pornography.
PF No, Amazon never wants to do like another Geocities.
RZ No, no —
PF Right? Like it’s a pain in the ass.
RZ They want control and they want quality.
PF They want you to review products.
RZ That’s right.
PF And . . . so that — yeah, everything’s risk to them at that scale.
RZ Can we summarize this with an example? You mentioned Prince of Persia.
PF Yeah. Beautiful game!
RZ Beautiful game. This game um came out many years ago.
18:46 PF And it came out for the IBM or for the PC in a moment when beauty was not part of the PC experience.
RZ Correct. And . . . it was beautiful because — just for those that don’t know about it: the guy you dro — it’s a game. It’s a video game and the guy that ran around ran around in this unusually realistic way.
PF That’s right. Rotoscoped . . . is the word.
RZ Yeah and Jordan Mechner, who created the game, had his brother video tape him running and climbing in a parking lot [right] and he took that video tape and took stills of all those motions and drew pixels over them [mm hmm] . . . and that’s how created — and the video, which we’ll add the link to is on YouTube. It’s a 20 second video.
PF Oh of him running around in the parking lot?
RZ Yeah it’s a video of him running around in the parking lot and climbing. It’s so cool. And this —
PF Oh wow, Rich, I just looked and it is Prince of Persia.
RZ It is literally him climbing and getting up. And it’s that kind of hacking and creativity is what’s dead.
PF It frankly is. And that’s not just us being old dudes. It’s not dead in the weird hardware hacker, the hacker space, the maker mentality —
PF There are spaces where people are thinking but um and really playing and fooling around but there is no relationship between the big distributors and that kind of creativity. Instead what you see is Amazon going, “We need to make another — ”
RZ Tide Button.
PF Or, “We need to uh — we’re worried about Netflix. So we need to really ramp up Prime’s video offerings and we’re gonna put a couple of billion dollars into production this year.”
PF Right? That’s scale.
RZ It’s just the sucking of a lot of the oxygen is really what it is.
PF That’s right and so —
20:31 RZ I think we’re still sounding old but I think our perspective —
PF This always gets rigid, it starts to crack.
PF It does get rigid.
RZ I hope so. I don’t know if it will.
PF There’s enough — I mean it’s not like in the old days when it used to be like the Bell System and IBM. Like there are a lot of very large companies.
RZ Dude, even the founders look like their products.
RZ Well, congrats. They bring a lot of amazing quality [laughing] services to all of us.
PF Increasingly I look like an Echo Dot.
RZ [Laughs] can I tell you, Paul?
PF Go ahead.
RZ I have to uh beautiful, beautiful children.
PF They are beautiful. They’re great kids.
RZ They’re great kids. I have a five-year-old boy and a three-year-old girl. And they’re both lovely and I, and many other parents out there, go to children’s birthday parties.
PF Oh it’s part of the job.
RZ You have to go. Sometimes we both have to go cuz my wife’s like, “You have to go. I’m not going alone.”
RZ Other times it’s, “You have to go. You know a lot of these people, I know a lot — you just have to go.” So we go. And then there’s — here’s the best way I can describe it: there is . . . 25 thousand feet altitude and five thousand feet altitude. At the five thousand feet altitude are the children and they’re having a blast: they’re running around —
PF Eating pizza.
RZ Eating pizza. There might be a balloon person there. If it’s at a place, like a Kid Ville or something, there’s like activities. There’s just this — you look down and there’s this sort of sea of fun happening.
22:15 PF They’re having a great time.
RZ They’re having a great time. Now: you go up to 25 thousand feet, and that’s the adults. Ok? If I told you, “Paul, I need you to go to a party where you don’t know anyone and I need you to be there for about two hours and leave.”
PF “You can’t drink.”
RZ “And you can’t drink.”
PF “Cuz it’s 11 on Saturday.”
RZ “Cuz it’s 11 on [laughing] on Saturday.”
PF “And yet it’s really loud.”
RZ “And yet it’s really loud. Gimme a call when you’re done.” [Laughs] and that’s the ask. So —
PF So what are you gonna talk about? You’re gonna talk about real estate.
RZ What do you do? Real estate, allergies [yeah] is a big one, sports but I’m finding less and less people to talk about sports with. Nobody does sports.
PF As your area of Brooklyn has become more professionalized.
RZ They don’t talk about sports. They talk about injustice.
PF Or startups.
RZ Startups and injustice. And if it’s interesting: the phone. I don’t care about that person’s phone. It’s like an HTC Something.
PF But they’ll talk about that phone.
RZ No, it’s so — I can go to it, I can be like, “Oh you got that phone. Do you like it?”
PF Oh ok yeah.
RZ And I let ’em talk about his phone for like — I can get only two minutes out of that. So what are the moves you can do here? Ok? One is all of a sudden you love children. You descend down into five thousand feet —
23:44 PF “Hey guys!!”
RZ — [laughing] and you just leave the higher altitude —
PF “Who’s your friend?” “Is that good pizza? Oh my god! It looks great!”
RZ All of a sudden I’m like Mr. Rogers all of a sudden.
PF “You are the coolest kids I have ever met!”
RZ [Laughing] have a roll around with them.
PF Oh yeah. Yeah. “Let me see that ball!”
RZ Here’s another one: stomach problems. I go to that bathroom [laughing] I’m in there for like eight minutes.
PF Oh yeah. That’s a rough one.
RZ [Laughs] I’m sounding really antisocial here and sometimes you click, you do find someone that’s really cool.
PF The problem is it’s 11 on a Saturday and there’s no activities or context.
RZ That’s the thing.
PF So you’re just like — you can’t —
RZ And it’s mutual, man. You look across [oh yeah] and he’s like, “What the hell are you lookin’ at?” And I’m like, “What the hell are you looking at?” Nobody wants to deal. But this is life. This is parenthood and that’s how it works.
PF Oh the kids are having a good time.
24:38 RZ Kids are having a goo — and you do it. You just do it. I’ve gone to maybe 70 or 80 in the last year [music starts fading in] and that —
PF Yeah, kids birthday parties are really like: they’re happy. But it’s emphatically [it’s hard] not for you.
RZ It’s not.
PF Well this has been Can I Tell You.
RZ [In a deep voice] with Paul and Rich.
PF If you need us: email@example.com. I’m Paul Ford.
RZ I’m Rich Ziade!
PF And you’re the audience . . . and we love you and we want you to succeed and do great work. So if we can ever help you: firstname.lastname@example.org. But if you don’t need us right now just know that we got your back or we’re giving you a big thumbs up. Get out there and get it done.
RZ We still love you.
PF We do.
RZ Even if you don’t email email@example.com.
PF Even if you don’t get it done. We get that too.
RZ Yeah, things happen.
PF See ya later [music ramps up and plays to end].