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March 01 2011

The return of the Personal Area Network

The recent uprisings in Egypt and across the Middle East have caused some interesting echos amongst the great and the good back in Silicon Valley. Despite the overly dramatic language, I find Shervin Pishevar's ideas surrounding ad-hoc wireless mesh networks, embodied in the crowd-sourced OpenMesh Project, intriguing.

Back in the mid-years of the last decade I spent a lot of time attempting to predict the future. At the time I was convinced that personal area networks (PAN) were going to become fairly important. I got a few things right: that things were going to be all about ubiquity and geo-location, and that mobile data was the killer application for the then fairly new 3G cell networks. But I was off the mark to think that the convergence device, as we were calling them back then, was a dead end. Technology moved on and the convergence devices got better, thinner, lighter. Batteries lasted longer. Today we have iOS- and Android-based mobile handsets, and both platforms pretty much do everything my theorised PAN was supposed to do, and in a smaller box than the handset I was using in the mid-naughties.

It's debatable whether the OpenMesh Project is exactly the right solution to create secondary wireless networks to provide communications for protestors under repressive regimes. The off-the-shelf wireless networks Pishevar talks about extending operate on a known number of easily jammable frequencies. Worse yet, there has been little discussion, at least so far, about anonymity, identity, encryption and other security issues surrounding the plan. The potential for the same repressive regimes the protestors are trying to avoid being privy to their communications by the very nature of the ad-hoc network is a very real threat.

Where 2.0: 2011, being held April 19-21 in Santa Clara, Calif., will explore the intersection of location technologies and trends in software development, business strategies, and marketing.

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For these reasons I'm not absolutely convinced that mesh networking is the right technical approach to this very political, and human, problem. Perhaps he should be looking at previous work on delay-tolerant networking rather than a real-time mesh protocol.

However, Pishevar's suggested architecture does seem robust enough to cope with disaster response scenarios, where security concerns are less important, or if widely deployed to provide an alternative to more traditional data carriers. Pishevar isn't of course alone in thinking about these issues: the Serval Project uses cell phone swarms to enable mobile phones to make and receive calls without the conventional cell towers or satellites.

The Bluetooth standard proved too complicated, and at times too unreliable, a base upon which to build wireless PAN architectures. The new generation of ZigBee mesh devices is more transparent, at least at the user level, possibly offering a more robust mesh backbone for a heterogenous network of Wi-Fi, cell and other data connections.

With the web of things and the physical web now starting to emerge, and with wearables now staring to become less intrusive and slightly more mainstream, the idea of the personal area network might yet re-emerge, at least in a slightly different form. The resulting data clouds could very easily form the basis for a more ubiquitous mesh network.

I'd argue that I was only a bit early with my prediction. The technology wasn't quite there yet, but It doesn't mean it isn't coming. The 2000s proved, despite my confident predictions at the time, not to be the decade of the wireless-PAN. Perhaps its time is yet to come?

October 21 2010

Welcome Laurel Ruma to Where 2.0

laurel rumaWhere 2.0, now entering its seventh year, will explore the mobile, location, social and mapping space at the Santa Clara Convention Center from April 19-21, 2011. The CFP for Where 2.0 2011 is open until Monday 10/25.

This year I'm welcoming a co-chair to the stage. Laurel Ruma, out of our Cambridge, Mass. office, is going to be working on the program and she'll be on-site with me. She's most recently been working in the Gov 2.0 area. In that role Laurel works with various groups, including Code for America, the Boston Urban Mechanics Office, and the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, to brainstorm, provide updates of the Gov 2.0 ecosystem, and create a bridge between the technologist/developer and government communities. Laurel was also the co-editor of our book "Open Government."

A lot of the innovation in location has been on the back of government support (GPS and TIGER data are examples). Laurel will bring her contacts and support to the Where program, and she'll also be available to meet with companies on the east coast.

October 07 2010

Health Care 2.0 Challenge announces winners: focus on access to Practice Fusion

In the set of programming
announced by Health 2.0 a little over two months ago,
Practice Fusion unveiled plans for the first open test of their API.
In fact, according to Matthew Douglass, VP of Engineering of Practice
Fusion, the Practice Fusion API challenge was one of the top
challenges in the series, with over 30 participating teams. The Health
2.0 challenge was partly sponsored by O'Reilly Media and I covered it
in href="">blog
last July.

Practice Fusion is one of a growing number of software companies who
attack the appalling lack of electronic medical systems in medicine by
letting doctors log into an EMR online. In other words, this is EMR in
the form of Software as a Service. One key enhancement that
distinguishes Practice Fusion from its competition is an API they
started to offer last summer. One could easily see why this would
interest health care geeks and potential value-added resellers, but
why would this be a competitive selling point to doctors? We will see
in the course of this blog.

The challenge and the response

As I reported in my blog on the Health 2.0 challenge, Practice Fusion
challenged developers not to code up a routine data exchange
application, but to find a way to draw the patient into his own
care--a beacon for progressive health care practitioners, who believe
that patients hold the keys to their own health and need to be won
over to treat themselves. Furthermore, Practice Fusion called for
real-time data entry, which raises the reliability of what patients
report and allow instant gratification.

Developers responded with a plethora of applications with clear uses:

  • An application that lets a user type in his current blood pressure,
    valuable for anyone with heart problems or other risks related to
    blood pressure

  • A mood tracker mobile application that presents a list of possible
    words to describe a patient's mood, useful for people with affective

  • An app that lets a patient signal the doctor's office each time he or
    she takes a medication, useful to track compliance and prompt people
    who are disoriented or forgetful (especially useful because a side
    effect of many meds is to make you disoriented or forgetful)

  • An app that hooks into a scale that can instantly transmit the weight
    registered, and sends the weight back to the doctor's office, which
    may well be useful for most of us living in America

And the winner is...

Health 2.0 can't be faulted for lacking a sense of fun, because one of
the six winning applications was a hack in the style of href="">MAKE Magazine. Well, being fair, the
submission consisted of two parts, one of which upheld the lofty and
arcane software quest of interconnecting systems, while the other was
a hack in the style of MAKE Magazine.

I know which one you want to hear about, but I'll start with the
interconnection project. Practice Fusion has a patient center called
Patient Fusion to which
patients can get accounts if their doctors use Practice Fusion. But
many people prefer another site such as href="">Microsoft HealthVault or href="">Google Health.

Pete Gordon and his staff at Critical
wrote a .NET web application to sync data between
Microsoft HealthVault and Patient Fusion. Anyone with accounts on
those two systems will be able to login and synchronize data between
the two PHRs at the application
. Authentication is through OAuth for Patient Fusion and
OpenID can be used for HealthVault.

Pete, and the Critical Systems team, will register the application as
a full HealthVault production application by the end of the year; it
is now using HealthVault test servers. But for those so inclined and
unable to wait, they can download the source code and web application
from the project's development
web site on CodePlex
and install the application on their own web

Partly to test the connection and partly just to satisfy an itch Pete
had ever since he started using HealthVault, they then went on to the
hack: hooking up a low-budget body scale to a device that could
transmit the patient's weight to a computer and on to HealthVault. Of
course, sending your weight to the Internet is already possible with
high-end scales, including BodyTrace eScale (another of the Health 2.0
challenge finalists) and Withings. But Pete liked the idea of
providing this capability to people who don't want to purchase the
premium scales.

It's worth mentioning a bit about the winner's background here. Pete
got his degree from Ohio State University in 1997 and was a Java and
.NET developer for many years before happening upon a health care
company in 2007. Deciding that more and more software jobs would
require specialized domain knowledge, he decided to specialize in
health care IT and started a new company two years ago in that field.

Regardless of the motivation for his Escali monitor, the result is not
something most heart patients will wire up on a weekend. Pete chose an
Escali scale he bought for $45, which contains just barely enough
electronics to pick up the information he wanted on a microprocessor.
You can see the results in a video on the href="">project's web site.

Unable to get the weight directly from the scale's processor, Pete and
his team reverse engineered the scale to figure out the format in
which the processor sent information for display on the custom LCD,
and to detect when the LCD was turned on. A serial port connection
connects their processor to a PC.

With this hack, Pete attracted the attention not only of the Health
2.0 team but of the Escali company, which is considering an upgrade
that will incorporate the functionality into their scales through a
more conventional combination of a Zigbee device and a low-power
802.15 wireless connection.

In the set of programming
announced by Health 2.0 a little over two months ago,
Practice Fusion unveiled plans for the first open test of their API.
In fact, according to Matthew Douglass, VP of Engineering of Practice
Fusion, their API challenge was one of the top challenges in the
series, with over 30 teams working on submissions.

Another finalist of note

Practice Fusion's Patient Fusion API was also the platform for href="">BodyTrace, another of the Health
2.0 finalists. I talked to Gyula Borbely of BodyTrace about their app
to feed user's weight into the system.

BodyTrace created the world's first GSM-enabled bathroom scale. When
the user steps on the scale, it sends out information instantly over
T-Mobile's network to the BodyTrace web site. No Wi-Fi or Internet
connection is needed, and therefore no technical knowledge or

Users can view the course of their weight gain or loss through charts
on the BodyTrace site, or sign up with their account information to
have BodyTrace immediately forward the information to another service.
BodyTrace already has data exchange set up with about ten other
patient record sites, so adding Patient Fusion was fairly easy. Google
Health and Microsoft HealthVault connections are underway.

In addition to giving individuals the encouraging or cautionary data
about their weight over time, BodyTrace is used by health care
professionals, who prescribe the use of the eScale so they can see for
themselves how well their treatment is working. One interesting red
flag that the eScale can help with is a phenomenon that medical
researchers have noticed: people with heart problems tend to suddenly
gain weight in a way unrelated to their eating habits a few days
before a heart attack. BodyTrace is trying to work out a research
study with a major hospital to follow this lead and see what can be
done to intervene with the patient before catastrophe strikes.

It's interesting to note that BodyTrace talked to Practice Fusion for
some time before a partnership before Practice Fusion release its API.
At the beginning, it wasn't clear how they could work together. The
release of the API made the relationship almost obvious. It provided
all the technical answers to questions about merging their products.
And as the next section shows, the API creates a business model for
working together as well.

Distribution and payment

Getting an app out to users requires more than a nifty API; a search
and download function has to be built into the service to actually
distribute the apps. So Practice Fusion has added a function like the
Facebook or Apple iPhone store, allowing doctors to download apps and
then, in turn, prescribe them to patients. The doctor may say, for
instance, "You've been acting a little more manic lately, so I want
you to install this mood tracker and report your mood every day."

The contract Practice Fusion signs with the people offering apps
contains requirements for auditing to make sure the developer respects
patient privacy and tests the app for quality. In addition, a rating
service lets doctors indicate which apps they've found helpful. Apps
have access only to data that they put into the system for that
particular patient.

Practice Fusion is a free service, supported by advertising. Although
developers can charge for apps, Practice Fusion is encouraging them to
offer the apps cost-free. One way to pay for development is to serve
ads on the app, as iPhone developers now can do. So long as patient
privacy is strictly respected, advertising may be a rich revenue
source because the patient indicates the presence of something within
a range of medical conditions merely by downloading the app.

Other potential sources of payment include the sale of accompanying
devices (such as a scale that transmits the patient's weight) and
insurance companies who might see the real-time data feeds as a way to
avoid more expensive interventions down the line.

Real-time data from data living that can stave off crises and lower
costs--that's a pretty good selling point or an API. So while creating
an after-market for their service, Practice Fusion is harnessing
creativity from the field to provide many more features than they
could ever code up themselves, as well as interfaces to devices from
other companies.

Other challenge winners

Six development teams won awards during the Health 2.0 challenge.

Team Videntity won the award for href="">Accelerating
Wireless Health Adoption through a Standardized Social Network
Platform, sponsored by West Wireless Health Institute. Team
Videntity created a blood pressure meter meeting the challenge to
integrate sensor-derived data with social networks to construct a
personalized wireless health ecosystem.

Team Pain Care @Ringful Health won the href="">Project
HealthDesign Developer Challenge, sponsored by Robert Wood Johnson
Foundation Pioneer Portfolio and California HealthCare Foundation. The
team developed a mobile app that allows people with chronic diseases
such as diabetes href="">report
and manage their conditions by sharing data with doctors and
getting real-time advice.

Team Acsys Healthcare won the award for href="">Health
Factor--Using the County Health Rankings to Make Smart Decisions,
sponsored by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of
Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The team built an augmented
reality mobile application that displays Health Rankings information
for the user's county based on a GPS reading.

Team Happy Feet from Stanford University won the href="">Move
Your App! Developer Challenge, sponsored by Catch and HopeLabs.
The team created an app that encouraged people to walk, jog, run,
cycle, or even ski, by providing inspiration through activity
tracking, sharing statistics with friends, and earning achievement

The winner of the href="">Blue
Button Challenge, sponsored by Markle Foundation and the Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation, will be announced on stage at the Health 2.0
Conference. The challenge asked teams to develop a web-based tool
that uses sample data from Centers for Medicare & Medicaid
Services (CMS) or the VA to help patients stay healthy and manage
their care.

May 26 2010

Crisis Commons releases open source oil spill reporting

oil-reporter.11-174x300.pngCrisis Commons has released a new open data initiative to enable response organizations to report from the oil spill. Oil Reporter allows response workers to capture and share data with the public as they respond to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

"The cool thing about the app is that the photos and information will be open to anyone to use," said Heather Blanchard, co-founder of Crisis Commons. "We want response organizations to use it. They can localize the app with their own logo and add data elements, thus expanding the API. They can be assigned a code so they can compare their data with the public. We believe the data with codes would be more of a verified set, as they would be response organizations and their volunteers using those codes."

These smartphone apps allow response workers to take geotagged photographs, record video, and enter text and basic data elements, like instances of oil and affected wildlife. The Oil Reporter app provides official phone numbers to report oiled beaches, wildlife and volunteer information links.

Oil Reporter uses an open API for greater information sharing. Response organizations wishing to expand data elements of the API can do so by requesting customization through the match program. All data provided by the response organizations and those using Oil Reporter is public data.

Data collected utilizing the Oil Reporter mobile applications will be managed by San Diego State University’s Visualization Center. Dr. Eric Frost will lead a team to provide visualization tools and products based on the Oil Reporter data. Response organizations requiring assistance will be able to submit a request via for volunteer visualization and analytics support.

Organizations can adopt and customize the code for Oil Reporter as needed, including adding data collection elements. Oil Reporter mobile application source code is publicly available on GitHub for reuse and customization. Response organizations that want to create an Oil Reporter app can make a request for help from volunteer mobile developers.

More details about the development of the app and the many people who worked on it over the past weeks can be found at the Crisis Commons blog post on Oil Reporter.

You can follow @OilReporter on Twitter or Facebook. As pictures and videos are added, watch the Oil Reporter Flickr group and Oil Reporter YouTube channel.

May 19 2010

What I like about the health care technology track at the Open Source convention

OSCON Conference 2010The href="">list
of sessions at the Open Source convention's health care track was
published this week. We found it wonderfully gratifying to get so many
excellent submissions in the brief three weeks that the Request for
Proposals was up. Although the credentials of the presenters cover a
lot of impressive accomplishments, my own evaluation focused on how
the topics fit into four overarching areas we're following at

  • Patient-centered records, education, and activity

  • Mobile devices to collect and distribute health care information

  • Administrative efficiencies, which could range from automating a
    manual step in a process to revising an entire workflow to eliminate
    wasteful activities

  • The collection, processing, and display of statistics to improve
    health care

Our OSCon track has something to say in all these areas, and lots
more. Here's what I like about each of the proposals we chose.

  • Nobody sees just one doctor or stays in just one hospital. So one of
    the pressing needs in health care is to remove the barriers to
    exchanging patient records, while ensuring they go only to authorized
    recipients. A project called the Nationwide Health Information Network
    (NHIN), currently run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human
    Services, acts as a broker for the authorizations and data exchanges
    between health care providers.

    NHIN has taken on a new excitement over the past couple years for two
    reasons involving the two great motivators in policy work: people and
    money. The people-based motivator came when HHS opened up key parts of
    the NHIN software and actively built a nationwide community to make it
    more usable. The money-based motivator came from the federal stimulus
    bill, which allocated billions to promote electronic records and data

    HHS's Office of the National Coordinator handles implementation of the
    stimulus bill. Their schedule for payments (and penalties too, in the
    case of providers accepting Medicare and Medicaid) is aggressively
    short, making progress urgent. NHIN work includes two major
    initiatives taking on the challenge of data exchange.

    The first initiative is NHIN CONNECT, a platform for interconnecting
    the patient health data systems of hospitals, health care providers,
    and federal health agencies. David Riley and Brian Behlendorf,
    contractors to HHS on this project, href="">will
    recount the steps in creating a robust community around
    CONNECT. Will Ross will give us the view from the ground, as a href="">regional
    Health Information Exchange sets up and carries out data transfers
    among clinics in a rural area. Nagesh Bashyam will give more href="">insight
    into the CONNECT development process.

    The second initiative is a new project called href="">NHIN Direct, which is focused on a
    more "push"-oriented approach to secure messaging in the healthcare
    industry. Its core principles include "rough consensus and running
    code", and is on a breakneck pace to get from user stories to
    production implementation by the end of the year. Arien Malec, a
    health IT industry entrepreneur who leads the NHIN Direct effort as a
    contractor to HHS, will describe href="">the
    history and mission of the project.

  • The Veterans Administration went over a ten- or fifteen-year period
    from being one of the least satisfactory health care providers in the
    US to one of the most highly praised. Its classic electronic medical
    system, VistA, is a key component of that success, and VistA has been
    open source for several years. None of the leading-edge initiatives
    mentioned earlier in this blog can be accomplished without an
    electronic medical system, and proprietary ones have the disadvantages
    not only of high cost but of being silo'd. Open source systems
    facilitate both innovative enhancements and data exchange.

    Ben Mehling href="">will
    introduce VistA, its open source distributions, and how community
    contributors are adapting it to civilian use. Joseph Dal Molin
    will show href="">how
    it improves patient care and the health care delivery
    process. David Uhlman will continue the discussion with href="">lessons
    from working with VistA code.

  • OpenEMR is one of the most
    ambitious projects started by an open source community in health care.
    Like VistA, OpenEMR is being prepared for certification along the
    "meaningful use" criteria defined by HHS, so doctors can get federal
    funds for using it. Tony McCormick and Samuel Bowen href="">will
    talk about advances in OpenEMR.

  • In an age where people are talking back to the experts and striving to
    gain more control as consumers, citizens, and patients, we can no
    longer treat health care as a one-way delivery system administered by
    omniscient, benevolent providers. Sam Faus will describe a href="">open
    source system for maintaining and delivering data to
    patients. Teddy Bachour will cover href="">APIs
    and open source toolkits from Microsoft for clinical documentation and
    sharing of patient records
    , and Roni Zeiger will cover href="">how
    Google Health's API facilitates interactions with mobile devices,
    thus supporting one of the key trends in health care mentioned earlier
    in this blog.

  • Scientific research can deliver almost futuristic advances in health
    care, although the gap between promising lab results and effective
    treatments is always frustrating and difficult to bridge. In addition,
    statistics are critical for clinical decision support, now popularized
    under the term "evidence-based medicine."

    Melanie Swan shows how to href="">bring
    ordinary people into the research process in genetics. Chris
    Mattmann, David Kale, and Heather Kincaid will describe a href="">partnership
    between NASA and Children's Hospital Los Angeles to master and
    harness the recalcitrant mass of clinical data and data formats.
    Thomas Jones will talk about an href="">open
    source system to link patient information with research to improve

  • Medicine is moving from coarse-grained, invasive treatments such as
    surgery and drugs to subtler, data-driven interventions using a
    variety of devices. Karen Sandler will describe a href="">personal
    experience that led her to a campaign for open source medical

  • Privacy is one of the touchiest subjects in health care. Few of us
    risk real harm--such as losing our jobs or having our names splayed
    across tabloid headlines--from privacy breaches, but there have been
    instances of snooping and embarrassing breaches that make us skittish.

    Thomas Jones will describe
    efforts to secure patient records in the Netherlands
    and how they
    can apply to US needs. The talk shows the potential that comes from
    giving patients access to their records, as well as the the advanced
    state of some foreign initiatives in health care are.

  • While we argue over access and costs in the US, most of the world has
    trouble seeing a doctor at all. Dykki Settle and Carl Leitner will
    describe href="">tools
    that can help underserved areas recruit and manage critical health
    care staff. The talk will be a sobering reminder of the state of
    health care across continents, and a ray of hope that technology
    offers even in situations of great deprivation. The talk is also an
    illustration of the use of technology to improve an administrative

  • Fred Trotter, a long-time leader in open source health care, and open
    source advocate Deborah Bryant will provide overviews of href="">open
    source health care IT. David Uhlman summarizes href="">open
    source technologies for interpreting health care data.

The health care track takes a proud place as part of a href="">huge,
diverse conference program at this year's Open Source
convention. I'm sure discussions at the sessions and BOFs will
reveal connecting threads between health care IT and the other classic
open source topics at the conference.

May 17 2010

Mobile operating systems and browsers are headed in opposite directions

During a panel at Web 2.0 Expo, someone asked if the panelists saw any signs that suggest mobile operating system fragmentation might decrease.

One of the panelists had a blunt answer: "No. There will be more fragmentation."

It is striking to see the different trajectories mobile operating systems are on when compared to the mobile web.

In 2006, two smartphone operating systems accounted for 81 percent of the market. There were really only four platforms to worry about: Symbian, Windows Mobile, RIM, and Palm OS. These represented 93 percent of the market.

Smartphone Operating System Market Share Percentage 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010
Sources: Canalys, 2006. Gartner: 2007, 2008, 2009.
Symbian 67 63.5 52.4 46.9 ? RIM 7 9.6 16.6 19.9 ? Windows Mobile 14 12.0 11.8 8.7 ? iPhone 0 2.7 8.2 14.4 ? Linux 6 9.6 7.6 4.7 ? Palm OS 5 1.4 1.8 Android 0.5 3.9 ? WebOS 0.7 ? Windows Phone 7 ? Bada OS ? MeeGo ? Other OSs 1 1.1 2.9 0.6 ?

Fast-forward to the present and the picture is different. No single operating system has more than 50 percent marketshare. There are seven operating systems being tracked and even within operating systems there are fragmentation concerns.

The future promises more operating system fragmentation, not less:

This list doesn't include differences within each particular operating system. Much has been made of Android fragmentation due to different user experiences like MotoBlur and HTC's Sense UI. And some argue that even the homogenous iPhone platform is starting to fragment.

There are more mobile operating systems coming and no signs of the mobile OS market narrowing any time soon.

The mobile web is converging

By contrast, the mobile web is converging on HTML5 and WebKit.

Unlike mobile operating systems, mobile browsers were fragmented a few years ago. The list of early mobile browsers include a series of proprietary browser engines:

  • jB5 Browser
  • Polaris Browser
  • Blazer
  • Internet Explorer Mobile
  • Openwave
  • NetFront
  • Obigo
  • Blackberry Browser

That's a fraction of the browser options that were available to mobile phone users. And while there is still work to be done to make mobile browsers more consistent, it is nothing compared to the inconsistencies between early mobile browsers.

Today, every mobile browser is moving toward HTML5 support, if it isn't there already:

Modern Mobile Browsers Engine HTML5 Mobile Safari Webkit Yes Android Webkit Yes Blackberry 6 Browser Webkit Yes Symbian^3 Webkit Yes MeeGo Webkit (Chromium) Yes Internet Explorer Internet Explorer 7 No WebOS Browser Webkit Yes Bada OS Browser Webkit Yes? Opera Mobile Opera Presto 2.2 Yes Opera Mini Opera Presto 2.2 Yes Fennec Firefox Yes Myriad (former Openwave) Webkit No BOLT browser Webkit ?

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about this list:

  1. The only major browser that definitely will not support HTML5 is Internet Explorer, but Internet Explorer 9 for desktop is going to support HTML5. Eventually the mobile browser will as well.
  2. Saying a browser supports HTML5 does not mean it supports the full HTML5 spec right now. It simply means that it supports a portion of the spec and is on track to support it fully.

The support isn't perfect, but it is clear that all of the mobile browsers are moving toward supporting full HTML, Javascript and CSS in a way that is already decreasing the difference between browsers.

WebKit: The dominant mobile platform

The WebKit browser engine now has a dominant position in mobile browsers. When BlackBerry ships its new browser based on WebKit, 85 percent of smartphones will ship with a WebKit-based browser.

Just because a device uses WebKit does not mean it has the latest version of WebKit and can use HTML5 fully. PPK has documented the many inconsistencies between WebKit implementations. Alex Russell makes a compelling counterpoint that the inconsistencies aren't that bad if you factor in when the browsers shipped.

WebKit is also used by numerous feature phones. Vision Mobile estimates that at the end of 2009, WebKit had been embedded in more than 250 million devices.

Advancing the mobile browser

In many ways, HTML5 is just the baseline of where mobile browsers are headed. Many companies, from carriers to handset manufacturers, are looking to mobile browser innovation as a key to their mobile strategies.

  • WebOS extends Javascript to provide access to device characteristics like the address book, camera, and accelerometer.
  • Sony Ericsson worked with the PhoneGap community to create its WebSDK.
  • Symbian is wooing developers with access to the dialer, calendar, camera, contacts and other tools using web technology.
  • Forty carriers and handset manufacturers have formed the Wholesale Application Community to build an open platform that will work on all devices. They seek to combine JIL and BONDI. JIL and BONDI provide access to device APIs via web technology.

There are two common threads in each of these stories.

First, companies throughout the ecosystem are extending mobile browsers to provide more functionality and attract developers to their platforms. Second, they are all approaching it in similar ways built on HTML widget technology.

Much like WebKit, there will be inconsistencies between these efforts in the near term, but all of these efforts are headed in the same direction.

Mobile Competitive Landscape

In December, Morgan Stanley released its Mobile Internet Report. Buried among the more than 1,000 pages in that report was a slide showing probability-weighted scenarios for mobile operating systems:

Mobile internet operating system competitive landscape

In the most probable scenario, "products with the best HTML5 browsers gain share." It is no wonder then that so many mobile companies are lining up behind HTML5 and pushing mobile browser technology.

Two to many, many to one

In 2006, two mobile operating systems controlled 81 percent of the market. This year there are 10 different smartphone operating systems.

Over that same period of time, mobile browsers have gone from many different proprietary rendering engines to the point where WebKit alone will power browsers in more than 85 percent of the smartphones sold.

From two operating systems to many. From many browsers to one. We have two core mobile technologies headed in opposite directions.


March 01 2010

Foursquare wants to be the mayor of location apps

Dennis CrowleyFoursquare is an on-the-rise application that blends mobile, location awareness and a clever points system that's an evolutionary leap for loyalty programs. Think coupons, but with rich data and gaming thrown in.

Dennis Crowley, co-founder of Foursquare and a speaker at the upcoming Where 2.0 conference, cut his teeth on location services at Dodgeball, a mobile/social company that was a bit ahead of its time. Google acquired Dodgeball in 2005 but shuttered it in 2009. Crowley used that early experience -- the good and the bad -- to shape Foursquare.

In the following interview, he digs into those Dodgeball lessons while also revealing Foursquare's revenue plans and the "secret sauce" that drives the service.

Unlocking growth with local offers

Mac Slocum: Did Foursquare have a slow adoption pattern at the beginning and then hit a point where growth exploded?

Dennis Crowley: It was super slow. We launched in March [2009] at South by Southwest and maybe picked up 2,500 users. It didn't take off the way we wanted it to when people got back from South by Southwest, and I think a lot of it was because the product was half-baked.

Things improved in July when we got the iPhone version fixed a little bit and we started experimenting with the specials we're doing with local businesses. Things like, if you're the mayor, you get a free cup of coffee or a free slice of pizza. Once we started that, it helped tell our story better. December is when it really started to pick up. The growth curve is absurd right now.

MS: Who is the typical Foursquare user?

DC: We don't have that in terms of metrics because we don't collect age or income information. But I can make some generalizations about it, and I think people in the 24-35 age range represent the active user base. It's younger and social and probably a little bit more urban. But it definitely extends into the suburbs. We see parents with kids using it to connect with other parents at playgrounds. We see high school students using it. We see college kids using it.

Allowing for adaptation

O'Reilly Where 2010 ConferenceMS: How has Foursquare adapted since launch?

DC: Foursquare was launched almost as a response to Google turning off Dodgeball. Naveen [Selvadurai] and I wanted to build something to replace Dodgeball because there's nothing else that really works like that. So the initial functionality was built around check-in: you know where people are, and we'll be able to serve up recommendations.

But then we started thinking about the things you'd want to build on top of that platform. How about little bits of information? Tips about the place that I'm at? Or, let's use game mechanics to push people to do things they normally wouldn't do and encourage people to have more interesting experiences.

The game mechanics are the secret sauce. They keep people engaged long enough to see the interesting things that happen when they participate frequently. It's kind of like with Twitter. If you drop someone in Twitter and don't give them a reason to participate, they get bored of it really quickly. But, if you spend 10 days with Twitter, you fall in love with it. Foursquare is similar. Spend an afternoon with it, you'll say: "This is awful. I get nothing out of it." But as you start to get friends on it and as you check-in at different places, you realize complexities emerge. You see how people are using it and the content they've added. The game mechanics hold peoples' hands through the first 10 to 20 days of the service.

Foursquare's game mechanics

MS: Can you expand on the game mechanics? What aspects of Foursquare fall into that category?

DC: It's anything that happens after the check-in. So many of these location services are just about the check-in. That's the end of the story. But the candy in Foursquare is every time you check-in, you get a couple points for doing something. You can become the mayor of a place if you've been there more than anyone else. Or in an even rarer situation, you unlock a badge because you've hit certain things in a certain order, or you've unlocked a certain pattern of usage: I've been to five food trucks. I've been to five karaoke places. I'm out really late on a Wednesday night. Weird things like that.

I'm very inspired and motivated by Nike Plus. It's not a game, but there's game mechanics that make you run more. And I think Foursquare is going after the same thing. It's not a game, but the mechanics encourage you to experience things you normally wouldn't experience. I think we're just starting to scratch the surface of that space.

MS: How have users changed Foursquare's functionality?

We think of check-ins as you check-in at Yankee Stadium or you check-in at dinner. But then people use it to check-in to traffic, to check-in to the back of a cab. The playground is a good example. It's not a use case we anticipated. Parents uses it to meet up with other parents with kids. I think that's perfect. Use it whatever way you want.

MS: Are user expectations growing beyond the boundaries of what you think is manageable?

DC: I'm not so worried about the expectations because we have a really good idea of what we want to build. The thing is, we're still a relatively small team. We're dealing with scaling issues before we thought we'd have to. So, it's fine. We have to tackle those issues at some point, but we're really anxious to build because we have this great user base now. We want to push out all of these features, but first and foremost we have to make sure we keep the service up and running.

MS: Is interoperability a key to services like Foursquare? Do they have to work on as many networks as possible?

DC: We thought in silos for a while, but now the tools to share content across networks are out there. So with Facebook allowing us to easily push content into Facebook -- and Twitter doing the same thing -- it just really helps spread the service.

Fans create Foursquare mobile apps

MS: You relied on external developers to build a lot of your mobile apps. How did those relationships come about?

DC: We built the iPhone one and then we rolled the dice a bit and built an API before anything else. That turned out to be a good bet because that's how we got the Android app.

It started at South by Southwest where we met some kids who wanted to make an Android app for us. It took four months. There were three or four of them doing it in their spare time, which was great. And in a lot of ways, I think the Android app is better than the iPhone app that we built ourselves.

But we built the API first and then we did a prototype of the Android app and then we tightened everything up from both sides. And now, because there's so much interest around our Android app, we brought an Android developer in-house to help manage the open source developers.

MS: I'm really intrigued by businesses that have intentionally undefined boundaries. You nurture relationships with enthusiastic users who want to create something and then you make decisions off of that enthusiasm.

DC: Yeah, and I guess in hindsight it seems like a really brilliant strategy. But it was all accidental. We barely got that iPhone app out for South by Southwest. I think we just got really lucky that we built something people wanted to use so badly that they wanted to build apps for it.

MS: Who are your competitors?

DC: People will say we're the next Twitter. Which I don't agree with. I think we're complementary to Twitter. Or, we're the next Facebook. But we're more of a feature set to Facebook. Or, we compete with Google Latitude. Well, kind of. But Foursquare's not just about the maps. It's about what happens nearby. And then people will say Yelp is a competitor because of the interest in local businesses and the ability to leave mini-reviews behind. I feel we're right in the middle of all of these folks.

Foursquare's potential revenue streams

MS: What are you revenue plans?

DC: Well, location-based advertising just doesn't feel right. The ads aren't relevant a lot of the time. I think that's going to work eventually, but there needs to be a better short-to-medium-term solution. Our answer has been scrappy promotions that local merchants can set up with us directly. And those are tied to the metrics of check-ins. So if you've been to a place five times, or if you're the mayor of this place, we take some of the data and turn it into a reward. Things like, because you're deemed a regular, you get a free slice of pizza or a free cup of coffee. This stuff isn't changing the world, but we're finding that venues like giving these rewards out and users love getting them.

Now, is there an opportunity to monetize that little ecosystem we've created? Probably. I think it's going to take time to figure it out. We're not racing into that because we're encouraging venues to experiment with the basic tools we've created. We're seeing really interesting things come out of that. At the very beginning, it was come in and you get a free ticket to a band. Then it turned into a free cup of coffee. Then it turned into a free slice of pizza. And at this point, there's a hotel in Amsterdam that gives away a free hotel stay. There's a place in Texas that gives a free steak dinner. There's a place in New York that gives you a free bottle of wine. So we're getting to real, legitimate, interesting promotions. And it seems like it's maturing on its own.

MS: But you guys aren't getting any percentage from those transactions, right?

DC: We're not taking a cut of that yet. That's one of the things that comes up in conversation. People say we're going to kill it in the local coupon space. But I don't want to ruin it by nickel and diming local merchants.

MS: That sounds like the Twitter approach. Don't hinder growth by pre-defining revenue streams.

DC: It's a little bit. We look up to what Twitter has done. One thing that's different is we're doing experiments with brands and media companies earlier. What we don't want to do is go two years without any experiments in monetization and then, all of the sudden, have to flip a switch on. I think it's nice to have it built in from the very beginning, even if we're not generating revenue off of it.

We're in a really fortunate position. We've had calls from large media companies, from newspapers, from TV stations, and TV shows and really, everything across the board. For example, Bravo TV is now on Foursquare. They wanted to do something where people go to places featured in their shows and unlock badges that are tied back to the shows. They're going to promote Foursquare on-air. So as you're watching it at home, it's like, "next time you're out in Atlanta or New York, check-in at these places to interact with Bravo in a different way." I thought that was an awesome idea.

Different expectations for location data

MS: How does location data differ from status updates, pictures, links and other forms of shared information?

DC: I guess it's pretty clear that we're all sharing more data than we thought of sharing before. But we've heard from the very beginning at Dodgeball that sharing location gets you in trouble sometimes. Things like, "I saw you were out with such and such when you actually said you were doing this." Or, your ex-girlfriend sends you a friend request and you have to approve it because you don't want to hurt her feelings, and then she knows where you are all the time. It creates awkward interactions. There's just something different about sharing location than sharing everything else because the whole point of location sharing is to enable real world meet ups. And if something goes wrong with location share, it enables the wrong types of real world meet ups.

I think as more people start using these location services, they're going to be aware that maybe this is the one network that should just be about sharing with your real friends. The friends you would call to pick you up at the airport.

Disclosure: O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Foursquare.

Note: This interview was condensed and edited.

January 07 2010

Pew Research asks questions about the Internet in 2020

Pew Research, which seems to be interested in just about everything,
conducts a "future of the Internet" survey every few years in which
they throw outrageously open-ended and provocative questions at a
chosen collection of observers in the areas of technology and
society. Pew makes participation fun by finding questions so pointed
that they make you choke a bit. You start by wondering, "Could I
actually answer that?" and then think, "Hey, the whole concept is so
absurd that I could say anything without repercussions!" So I
participated in their href=""
2006 survey and did it again this week. The Pew report will
aggregate the yes/no responses from the people they asked to
participate, but I took the exercise as a chance to hammer home my own
choices of issues.

(If you'd like to take the survey, you can currently visit;

and enter PIN 2000.)

Will Google make us stupid?

This first question is not about a technical or policy issue on the
Internet or even how people use the Internet, but a purported risk to
human intelligence and methods of inquiry. Usually, questions about
how technology affect our learning or practice really concern our
values and how we choose technologies, not the technology itself. And
that's the basis on which I address such questions. I am not saying
technology is neutral, but that it is created, adopted, and developed
over time in a dialog with people's desires.

I respect the questions posed by Nicholas Carr in his Atlantic
article--although it's hard to take such worries seriously when he
suggests that even the typewriter could impoverish writing--and would
like to allay his concerns. The question is all about people's
choices. If we value introspection as a road to insight, if we
believe that long experience with issues contributes to good judgment
on those issues, if we (in short) want knowledge that search engines
don't give us, we'll maintain our depth of thinking and Google will
only enhance it.

There is a trend, of course, toward instant analysis and knee-jerk
responses to events that degrades a lot of writing and discussion. We
can't blame search engines for that. The urge to scoop our contacts
intersects with the starvation of funds for investigative journalism
to reduce the value of the reports we receive about things that are
important for us. Google is not responsible for that either (unless
you blame it for draining advertising revenue from newspapers and
magazines, which I don't). In any case, social and business trends
like these are the immediate influences on our ability to process
information, and searching has nothing to do with them.

What search engines do is provide more information, which we can use
either to become dilettantes (Carr's worry) or to bolster our
knowledge around the edges and do fact-checking while we rely mostly
on information we've gained in more robust ways for our core analyses.
Google frees the time we used to spend pulling together the last 10%
of facts we need to complete our research. I read Carr's article when
The Atlantic first published it, but I used a web search to pull it
back up and review it before writing this response. Google is my

Will we live in the cloud or the desktop?

Our computer usage will certainly move more and more to an environment
of small devices (probably in our hands rather than on our desks)
communicating with large data sets and applications in the cloud.
This dual trend, bifurcating our computer resources between the tiny
and the truly gargantuan, have many consequences that other people
have explored in depth: privacy concerns, the risk that application
providers will gather enough data to preclude competition, the
consequent slowdown in innovation that could result, questions about
data quality, worries about services becoming unavailable (like
Twitter's fail whale, which I saw as recently as this morning), and

One worry I have is that netbooks, tablets, and cell phones will
become so dominant that meaty desktop systems will rise in the cost
till they are within the reach only of institutions and professionals.
That will discourage innovation by the wider populace and reduce us to
software consumers. Innovation has benefited a great deal from the
ability of ordinary computer users to bulk up their computers with a
lot of software and interact with it at high speeds using high quality
keyboards and large monitors. That kind of grassroots innovation may
go away along with the systems that provide those generous resources.

So I suggest that cloud application providers recognize the value of
grassroots innovation--following Eric von Hippel's findings--and
solicit changes in their services from their visitors. Make their code
open source--but even more than that, set up test environments where
visitors can hack on the code without having to download much
software. Then anyone with a comfortable keyboard can become part of
the development team.

We'll know that software services are on a firm foundation for future
success when each one offers a "Develop and share your plugin here"

Will social relations get better?

Like the question about Google, this one is more about our choices
than our technology. I don't worry about people losing touch with
friends and family. I think we'll continue to honor the human needs
that have been hard-wired into us over the millions of years of
evolution. I do think technologies ranging from email to social
networks can help us make new friends and collaborate over long

I do worry, though, that social norms aren't keeping up with
technology. For instance, it's hard to turn down a "friend" request
on a social network, particularly from someone you know, and even
harder to "unfriend" someone. We've got to learn that these things are
OK to do. And we have to be able to partition our groups of contacts
as we do in real life (work, church, etc.). More sophisticated social
networks will probably evolve to reflect our real relationships more
closely, but people have to take the lead and refuse to let technical
options determine how they conduct their relationships.

Will the state of reading and writing be improved?

Our idea of writing changes over time. The Middle Ages left us lots of
horribly written documents. The few people who learned to read and
write often learned their Latin (or other language for writing) rather
minimally. It took a long time for academies to impose canonical
rules for rhetoric on the population. I doubt that a cover letter and
resume from Shakespeare would meet the writing standards of a human
resources department; he lived in an age before standardization and
followed his ear more than rules.

So I can't talk about "improving" reading and writing without
addressing the question of norms. I'll write a bit about formalities
and then about the more important question of whether we'll be able to
communicate with each other (and enjoy what we read).

In many cultures, writing and speech have diverged so greatly that
they're almost separate languages. And English in Jamaica is very
different from English in the US, although I imagine Jamaicans try
hard to speak and write in US style when they're communicating with
us. In other words, people do recognize norms, but usage depends on
the context.

Increasingly, nowadays, the context for writing is a very short form
utterance, with constant interaction. I worry that people will lose
the ability to state a thesis in unambiguous terms and a clear logical
progression. But because they'll be in instantaneous contact with
their audience, they can restate their ideas as needed until
ambiguities are cleared up and their reasoning is unveiled. And
they'll be learning from others along with way. Making an elegant and
persuasive initial statement won't be so important because that
statement will be only the first step of many.

Let's admit that dialog is emerging as our generation's way to develop
and share knowledge. The notion driving Ibsen's Hedda Gabler--that an
independent philosopher such as Ejlert Løvborg could write a
masterpiece that would in itself change the world--is passé. A
modern Løvborg would release his insights in a series of blogs
to which others would make thoughtful replies. If this eviscerated
Løvborg's originality and prevented him from reaching the
heights of inspiration--well, that would be Løvborg's fault for
giving in to pressure from more conventional thinkers.

If the Romantic ideal of the solitary genius is fading, what model for
information exchange do we have? Check Plato's Symposium. Thinkers
were expected to engage with each other (and to have fun while doing
so). Socrates denigrated reading, because one could not interrogate
the author. To him, dialog was more fertile and more conducive to

The ancient Jewish scholars also preferred debate to reading. They
certainly had some received texts, but the vast majority of their
teachings were generated through conversation and were not written
down at all until the scholars realized they had to in order to avoid
losing them.

So as far as formal writing goes, I do believe we'll lose the subtle
inflections and wordplay that come from a widespread knowledge of
formal rules. I don't know how many people nowadays can appreciate all
the ways Dickens sculpted language, for instance, but I think there
will be fewer in the future than there were when Dickens rolled out
his novels.

But let's not get stuck on the aesthetics of any one period. Dickens
drew on a writing style that was popular in his day. In the next
century, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote in a
much less formal manner, but each is considered a beautiful stylist in
his or her own way. Human inventiveness is infinite and language is a
core skill in which we we all take pleasure, so we'll find new ways to
play with language that are appropriate to our age.

I believe there will always remain standards for grammar and
expression that will prove valuable in certain contexts, and people
who take the trouble to learn and practice those standards. As an
editor, I encounter lots of authors with wonderful insights and
delightful turns of phrase, but with deficits in vocabulary, grammar,
and other skills and resources that would enable them to write better.
I work with these authors to bring them up to industry-recognized

Will those in GenY share as much information about themselves as they age?

I really can't offer anything but baseless speculation in answer to
this question, but my guess is that people will continue to share as
much as they do now. After all, once they've put so much about
themselves up on their sites, what good would it do to stop? In for a
penny, in for a pound.

Social norms will evolve to accept more candor. After all, Ronald
Reagan got elected President despite having gone through a divorce,
and Bill Clinton got elected despite having smoked marijuana.
Society's expectations evolve.

Will our relationship to key institutions change?

I'm sure the survey designers picked this question knowing that its
breadth makes it hard to answer, but in consequence it's something of
a joy to explore.

The widespread sharing of information and ideas will definitely change
the relative power relationships of institutions and the masses, but
they could move in two very different directions.

In one scenario offered by many commentators, the ease of
whistleblowing and of promulgating news about institutions will
combine with the ability of individuals to associate over social
networking to create movements for change that hold institutions more
accountable and make them more responsive to the public.

In the other scenario, large institutions exploit high-speed
communications and large data stores to enforce even greater
centralized control, and use surveillance to crush opposition.

I don't know which way things will go. Experts continually urge
governments and businesses to open up and accept public input, and
those institutions resist doing so despite all the benefits. So I have
to admit that in this area I tend toward pessimism.

Will online anonymity still be prevalent?

Yes, I believe people have many reasons to participate in groups and
look for information without revealing who they are. Luckily, most new
systems (such as U.S. government forums) are evolving in ways that
build in privacy and anonymity. Businesses are more eager to attach
our online behavior to our identities for marketing purposes, but
perhaps we can find a compromise where someone can maintain a
pseudonym associated with marketing information but not have it
attached to his or her person.

Unfortunately, most people don't appreciate the dangers of being
identified. But those who do can take steps to be anonymous or
pseudonymous. As for state repression, there is something of an
escalating war between individuals doing illegal things and
institutions who want to uncover those individuals. So far, anonymity
seems to be holding on, thanks to a lot of effort by those who care.

Will the Semantic Web have an impact?

As organizations and news sites put more and more information online,
they're learning the value of organizing and cross-linking
information. I think the Semantic Web is taking off in a small way on
site after site: a better breakdown of terms on one medical site, a
taxonomy on a Drupal-powered blog, etc.

But Berners-Lee had a much grander vision of the Semantic Web than
better information retrieval on individual sites. He's gunning for
content providers and Web designers the world around to pull together
and provide easy navigation from one site to another, despite wide
differences in their contributors, topics, styles, and viewpoints.

This may happen someday, just as artificial intelligence is looking
more feasible than it was ten years ago, but the chasm between the
present and the future is enormous. To make the big vision work, we'll
all have to use the same (or overlapping) ontologies, with standards
for extending and varying the ontologies. We'll need to disambiguate
things like webbed feet from the World Wide Web. I'm sure tools to
help us do this will get smarter, but they need to get a whole lot

Even with tools and protocols in place, it will be hard to get
billions of web sites to join the project. Here the cloud may be of
help. If Google can perform the statistical analysis and create the
relevant links, I don't have to do it on my own site. But I bet
results would be much better if I had input.

Are the next takeoff technologies evident now?

Yes, I don't believe there's much doubt about the technologies that
companies will commercialize and make widespread over the next five
years. Many people have listed these technologies: more powerful
mobile devices, ever-cheaper netbooks, virtualization and cloud
computing, reputation systems for social networking and group
collaboration, sensors and other small systems reporting limited
amounts of information, do-it-yourself embedded systems, robots,
sophisticated algorithms for slurping up data and performing
statistical analysis, visualization tools to report the results of
that analysis, affective technologies, personalized and location-aware
services, excellent facial and voice recognition, electronic paper,
anomaly-based security monitoring, self-healing systems--that's a
reasonable list to get started with.

Beyond five years, everything is wide open. One thing I'd like to see
is a really good visual programming language, or something along those
lines that is more closely matched to human strengths than our current
languages. An easy high-level programming language would immensely
increase productivity, reduce errors (and security flaws), and bring
in more people to create a better Internet.

Will the internet still be dominated by the end-to-end principle?

I'll pick up here on the paragraph in my answer about takeoff
technologies. The end-to-end principle is central to the Internet I
think everybody would like to change some things about the current
essential Internet protocols, but they don't agree what those things
should be. So I have no expectation of a top-to-bottom redesign of the
Internet at any point in our viewfinder. Furthermore, the inertia
created by millions of systems running current protocols would be hard
to overcome. So the end-to-end principle is enshrined for the
foreseeable future.

Mobile firms and ISPs may put up barriers, but anyone in an area of
modern technology who tries to shut the spiget on outside
contributions eventually becomes last year's big splash. So unless
there's a coordinated assault by central institutions like
governments, the inertia of current systems will combine with the
momentum of innovation and public demand for new services to keep
chokepoints from being serious problems.

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