The Virtual Secret of a Firm’s Focus

There was a time when the word “virtual” had little to do with reality, except, perhaps, the relative absence of reality. My high school rarely amended its schedule to account for weather, but one day the threat of a winter storm convinced the administration to cancel afternoon classes. Observing some weak flurries out the window, I wisecracked something about a “virtual snowstorm” to the principal, who strode into his office and emerged with a dictionary exclaiming, “By golly, he’s right!” Maybe he was pleased because one of students exhibited proper use of the English language.

This morning, reports that Apple is said to have a secret virtual reality team. In reality, the secret is more virtual than actual, since on Saturday the Wall Street Journal reported Apple’s purchase of an image recognition start-up.

According to the WSJ, Apple declined to comment on the purchase, which would tend to support the firm’s work in augmented and virtual reality. Augmented reality adds digital images to the “real world;” the WSJ invoked the “yellow first down line” on TV football broadcasts as an example. Virtual reality, by contrast, refers to images that are viewed when using goggles or helmets, and which immerse the user in a virtual alternative environment.

In the past 30 days, Apple stock has fallen approximately 8.5 percent. Some observers have pegged the loss to a saturated tablet market and a softening Chinese market for phones. One analyst, however, cautioned investors to pause the urge to sell.

Although hardware sales have fallen, Apple revenues from iTunes and other services have increased. The analyst proposed that investors should eye the add-on services offered by Apple as true indicators of the firm’s performance and value.

The analysis is consistent with various schools of conventional wisdom that characterize Google as a data, rather than a search engine company (a view that seems to be earning, “Of course, what’s new?” types of responses), and Tesla as an energy storage, rather than an automotive, firm.

Several weeks ago, I heard a rural service provider explain that his firm was not the community’s telephone company; he explained that he led the community’s technology company.

Apple’s virtual reality team has reportedly grown to about 100 people. This presumably does not diminish the company’s work on devices, but does indicate the breadth with which the firm views its portfolio.

“Let’s Watch One More…”

In college, our dining hall’s official policy—as proudly proclaimed on a sign on the cafeteria wall—was “All You Care to Eat.”  Give them points for truth in advertising: there’s a distinct difference between that and “all you can eat.”  Most days, there were two choices, which we very cleverly (or so we thought) dubbed “bad” and “worse.”

Care for a second helping?

Care for a second helping?

In retrospect, perhaps it was a sloppily-imposed weight maintenance regime.  Given the spotty (at best) overall quality of the product being served, incentives to over-consume were minimal.  Putting on the proverbial “freshman 15” was certainly possible, but it required a cast iron gut.

One looking for an example of the end results of a combining a high-quality product with unlimited availability need look no further than the video streaming market of the early 21st century.  “Binge watching” is now part of the vernacular, as providers regularly release full seasons of programming all at once, allowing those so inclined to consume an entire season in one sitting.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by Time Warner Inc.  Last week, the company announced a new strategy designed to combat the success of Netflix in offering viewers “all you care to watch” programming. Time Warner is negotiating to make more full seasons of shows available on an “on demand” basis to their TV customers.  At the same time, Time Warner’s Warner Brothers studio announced it had sold a new series, “Lucifer”, to 21st Century Fox.  The entire first season of “Lucifer” will be available for binge watching by cable subscribers—the first time Warner Brothers has made a full season of a program available to a broadcast network. Read more

CES 2016-7: Wrap-Up and Impressions

CES2016 067On any given day, Las Vegas is sensory overload: the lights, the crowds, the sheer “bigness” and grandiosity of it all. Who imagined a set of canals snaking through an indoor shopping concourse? And, of course, the “Vegas factor,” which would probably make Lot hesitate and wonder whether he should just return to Sodom, instead. Add the lights, sights and sounds of CES, and the madness expands (except for the Biblical references, of course – it’s a clean show).

The reporting from CES is the easy part: take notes during the conference sessions and expo hall interactions with developers, pick the best points, summarize and post. It is this annual wrap-up, by contrast, that is a bit more difficult. It is relatively easy to identify the sectors that commanded attention, or to note the products that seemed the most innovative. It is tougher to stitch it all together and present an overview that captures the multi-faceted essence of the event and what it means to the rural communications industry. The easy answer, of course, is that the proliferation of connected devices relies upon robust networks, and that the task of keeping rural America at pace with the rest of the nation in matters such as health care, education and economic development will require connected communities. CES, however, puts some gloss (if not out-and-out flair) on that perspective. Read more

CES 2016-6: I Did Not Give Blood at CES


The Clapper: home automation, old school.

(Las Vegas) Things I did not see at CES this year: Google glass and “hoverboards.” The latter probably did not make it onto airplanes, but even on the show floor it was tough to spot one among the booths. Big this year: 360-degree cameras and drones.

A couple of odd notes. One, I did not give blood on the show floor. I was asked to donate a teaspoonful to aid stem cell research, but the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center (despite the visible boxes of latex gloves nearby) did not seem the safest place to accept a needle. Two, I will not win the lottery. I effectively spent my “one in a million” moment, or at least my “one in nearly a half a million” moment (based on attendance estimates of CES) when I bumped into a PR rep I met about 18 months ago at telemedicine conference in Baltimore; she estimated the odds of that happening at about finding a needle in four haystacks. Read more

CES 2016-5: The Smell of the Greasepaint, the Roar of the Crowd

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CES has a soundtrack. The contest winner’s music is featured as the “music bed” for the keynote video and also receives $5,000. This year’s winner performs prior to the keynote address.

(Las Vegas) I forget each year how long it can take to get from Point A to Point B in Las Vegas. And, each succeeding year, I fail to learn my lessons. The monorail is fast, fair and efficient (drinks on me to whoever identifies the source of that phrase!), but the stations are accessible only by walking through the casinos; Uber (along with Lyft) is available for the first time in Las Vegas this year (Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of CTA claimed partial responsibility for that), but with approximately 140,000 attendees here (not including exhibitors and staff), surge pricing is the norm; and, the CES shuttles between venues make multiple stops along their respective routes. If nothing else, I have an opportunity to observe and interact with other participants while riding the monorail, bus or waiting for a car.

The title of this article refers to the adrenaline rush that actors experience before taking the stage (I am familiar with it only because my college theater group performed a play whose title is a riff on the phrase, “The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd;” like Frank Horrigan (see, CES 2016-4), I had to look it up). The phrase may well describe, even if only partially, the atmosphere at CES. Read more

CES 2016-4: A Break in the Telemedicine Wave

(Las Vegas) In the 1993 film “In the Line of Fire,” Clint Eastwood enjoys a memorable exchange with co-star Rene Russo:

Frank Horrigan: “Oh, he’ll call back. He’s got panache” (pronounced incorrectly).
Lilly Raines: “Panache?”
Frank: “Yeah, it means flamboyance.”
Lilly: “I know what it means.”
Frank: “Really? I had to look it up.”

Similarly, I had to look up the definition of a “break in a wave.” I sensed from the context of today’s panel on telehealth that it had a positive connotation (as in an observation by Jill Thorpe of Manatt, Phelps and Phillips that “in 2015, there was a break in the telemedicine wave”). So, here it is, according to Wikipedia:

In fluid dynamics, a breaking wave is a wave whose amplitude reaches a critical level at which some process can suddenly start to occur that causes large amounts of wave energy to be transformed into turbulentkinetic energy.

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A map of states (blue) that have adopted a model telemedicine compact. Legislatures in the orange states are considering the issue actively.

What was that break, specifically? In the first half of 2015, the number of telemedicine interactions exceeded the cumulative amount of all that had preceded that point. One might argue about the data sources, but even anecdotal data and action last year by many state legislatures indicates that telemedicine is taking off. The drivers that will determine the ultimate impact include consumer expectations, health care reform, health workforce shortages, aging and connectivity. For better or for worse, chronic diseases will also play a role.

A Nielsen survey probed doctors’ opinions on telemedicine. The news is positive. While 19 percent of those polled worried that telemedicine would not be good for their practice revenue, and 21 percent worried it would not be good their personal income, 22 percent saw telemedicine as an important step toward reducing the costs of care, and 39 percent surmised it is good for patients. And impressive 42 percent see telemedicine as “an important evolution in the practice of medicine,” which is heartening since 31 percent shrugged that is “not worth the hype.” But, since “hype” is qualitative (maybe those respondents see it as worth some hype, but not a lot of hype), I’ll place my bets with those who view it as part of the future. Read more

CES 2016-3: The Mists of Analogue Antiquity

RC 206 (Las Vegas) CES kicked off in earnest yesterday with back-to-back presentations by Shawn DuBravac, chief economist of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) (the new moniker of the Consumer Electronics Association, which hosts CES) and Steve Koenig, CTA’s senior director. The two explored, respectively, tech trends to watch in 2016 and the global CE industry. The presentations helped form, or at least confirm, the context in which I am trolling the show. Less compelling was the Apple vs. Microsoft debate two people behind me were having. When they asked me my opinion, I pointed to my Blackberry and shrugged.

As I have mentioned previously, CES features all manner of consumer electronics, so if one ventures far enough off the beaten track to the edges of the hall, one can see rice steamers and toaster ovens. At a reception last night, one vendor was showing off a juicer that features a scale which alerts the user to stop adding milk. Or honey. Or fruit. Of course, a line on the side of the measuring-cup accomplishes the same task, but the gleaming silver base with blue lights was far more attractive.

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CTA’s Steve Koenig prepares to speak as a standing-room only crowd of press and industry analysts primes itself with a series of industry overviews before the show opens.

The dichotomy between measuring-cup lines and the electronics in the juicer was representative of a trend noted by DuBravac in his address: though we are surrounded by digital devices, we continue to live in an analogue world.

DuBravac’s observation was woven from statistics and an overview of the past half-century of the consumer electronics industry. It seems that every year, major TV network evening news reports cover CES, often including in their stories information about the latest, largest, sharpest TV. And, I am not saying that a 60” curved screen with frighteningly clear resolution is not meaningful, but as DuBravac noted, the difference between the past 10 or 15 years and today is that we are no longer focused on what is technically possible – instead, we are thinking about what is technically meaningful. Read more

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