How does Amazon think about devices?

A bad dialog box made me wonder today about the limits of Amazon’s business model. The dialog box was on the Kindle Paperwhite, my preferred ebook reader:

I’m dog-sitting this weekend at my daughter’s house, and hadn’t yet connected my Kindle to the home Wi-Fi network. The Kindle’s home screen suggests books you might want to read, and when I tapped on one of them, that was the dialog box I saw.

I think there are three important things wrong with it. Can you spot all of them?

1. Lack of clarity. The first problem is that your choices are ambiguous. What does the Yes button mean?

  • -Yes, I want to cancel
  • -Yes, I want to connect to Wi-Fi
  • -Yes, I understand that I need to either cancel or connect to Wi-Fi

I guess that pressing Yes will probably try to connect to Wi-Fi, but I’m not at all sure. Mostly I am peeved at the device for confusing me.

A better way to structure the dialog would be to ask the question in a yes/no format: “To view this book in the store, you need to connect to Wi-Fi. Do you want to do that now?” Or you could label the buttons differently. The left one could be “Cancel,” and the right one could be “Connect to Wi-Fi.”  Some companies have guidelines that you should put only one or two words in a button, but I am a fan of clarity over brevity. There’s enough room to make the buttons bigger.

Okay, that’s the first problem. Can you spot the second one?

2. Mixed usage paradigms. Why is the Yes button black and the No button white?

On a computer, one button is usually highlighted to show you what will happen if you press the Enter key on the keyboard. My Kindle doesn’t have a keyboard; all I can do is tap or swipe (or turn it off). So the highlighting is meaningless. Why is it there? I think either:

  • -The software was designed to be used with or without a keyboard, and they did not bother to insert cases for different device types, or 
  • -The design tool used to build the software insisted on highlighting one of the buttons, or 
  • -We’re dealing with a designer who was having an off day.

This problem doesn’t necessarily confuse the user, but it’s sloppy design. There are many other examples of this in Kindle. For example, if I press Yes in the dialog box above, here’s what I see next:

At least neither of the buttons are highlighted, but what does pressing WPS do? And why is it in the right-hand position, the place where Yes was in the previous dialog box? Does that mean WPS is the preferred choice? Why don’t the buttons have boxes around them the way they did in the previous dialog? Why can this one be dismissed by tapping an X, but the other one could not?

(I know, technically they are two different types of dialog boxes, but why change the basic interface elements common to both of them?)

Oh, and here’s what happens after you enter the password and hit Connect:

Does the Kindle remember that I wanted to know about a particular book? No, it just dumps me back to the Home screen. I have to tap the book again to see a short description of it. I’m not sure yet if I want to buy it, so I’ll cancel that and go back to home, and…

Hey presto, the recommendations have updated and the book I was looking at disappeared. How do I get back to it now?


This brings me to what I think is the third problem:

3. Lack of systems thinking. Too often, the Kindle interface acts like a piece of software, rather than a seamless part of an integrated hardware-software experience. For example, since the device is designed to push new books at me on the home screen, and since we know that an ebook reader will often be used in places where there’s poor or no wireless coverage (a beach, an airplane, etc), why aren’t the descriptions of the promoted books cached on the device ahead of time? Why can’t I decide to buy one now, and then have it downloaded later when I connect? (I know, that could create a different user satisfaction problem, but at least give me an option to put the book in the shopping cart to buy later, just like…oh, wait, just like the Amazon store normally works).

Individually, these are all small problems, but there are many more of them, and they’re irritating. I get the feeling that Amazon is just kind of mailing it in when it comes to Kindle. Maybe that’s because Amazon famously operates in small, lean development teams that work like startups. That’s a great way to move fast and learn in software, but when you’re creating hardware-software systems it can lead to devices that are extremely adequate rather than wonderful.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a deep admirer of Amazon and I know the people there are super smart. But I wonder if their well-documented struggles in hardware might be partly a result of thinking of devices as a way to sell stuff rather than a way to delight customers.

What do you think?

PS: Probably one of Amazon’s design challenges with Kindle is that it’s awkward to do user tests with a device when you can’t directly record its screen. If you can’t test something, it’s hard to optimize it. Here’s a hint: Have testers use their smartphones to video themselves using your device. This is easy to set up with a testing system like UserTesting; you don’t even need help from our pro services team. Ping me if you want the details.

PPS: I’m curious to see which method of publishing gets more eyeballs, LinkedIn or my blog, so I posted this in both places. Let me know if that’s irritating.

We’re not as divided as we think we are

The United States is not as polarized and angry as you think it is. The shrill voices that dominate discussions online and in the press are actually a very small percent of the US population. Unfortunately, social media and the press accidentally amplify the voices of the angriest people, giving us a twisted view of society. It’s like we’re all trapped in a funhouse, staring at the mirrors 24/7, believing they’re real.

The way out of the funhouse is to spend more time listening to average people, the ones who aren’t trending on Twitter. If you do, you’ll find that most of your neighbors are far more reasonable and willing to compromise than you expected. We don’t all agree on everything, but there’s a lot we can do to work through our differences. To help make that happen, some of my coworkers and I are setting up a new website, called the Human Empathy Project (link). We’ll bring you video of regular people talking about the country’s problems. The stories you hear may surprise you, and give you some cause for hope.

Here are the details on what we’re doing, and why…

My employer, UserTesting, helps companies get super-fast public feedback on just about anything: websites, apps, marketing messages, etc (link). You specify what you want to test, and within a few hours you get video of your customers reacting to it. UserTesting processes more than 130,000 of these feedback videos every month.

This year we’ve experimented with using that system to get feedback from average people on hot-button national issues, starting with the pandemic and branching out to include the election and racial justice.

We learned two important things:

•  First, it turns out regular people are very willing to speak candidly in a video test. Most of them welcome the opportunity to be heard.

•  Second, the stories we heard from regular people were strikingly different from the narrative we all see on social media and in the press. The people we heard from were far less polarized, more thoughtful, and more willing to compromise than the voices that dominate the national debate. It was like we’d slipped into a parallel universe in which Americans were still willing to listen to one another and work together to help the country. (That doesn’t apply to everyone, of course, but the really polarized people are a small percentage, at most about one person in ten.)

This was a puzzle. The UserTesting platform is designed to gather feedback from average people chosen randomly, so we couldn’t understand why we were getting results so different from the things we see online. We investigated further, and it turns out there was nothing wrong with our methodology — we were hearing from the true mainstream of the country, one that is vastly under-represented online and in the press.

We also found that we’re not the first people to notice this disconnect. For example, a nonpartisan research organization called More in Common did a very extensive survey of Americans in 2019 and concluded:

“Today, millions of Americans are going about their lives with absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other. Partisan media consistently elevates the most extreme representations of ‘them’…. This creates a false impression that outliers are somehow representative of the majority….Despite America’s profound polarization, the middle is far larger than conventional wisdom suggests, and the strident wings of progressivism and conservatism are far smaller…. Yet both sides have absorbed a caricature of the other.”

--Hidden Tribes report by More in Common, 2019 (link).

How did we get so out of touch with each other?

There’s a toxic feedback loop between social media and the news media. It works like this:

Behavior in online forums is driven by something called the 1% rule: The vast majority of the content posted to a forum is created by about 1% of its users (link). That’s just a basic fact of human behavior, and everyone who runs an online forum knows about it.

What many people don’t understand is that those 1% are not a representative sample of the rest of the forum’s membership. Something unusual has made them far more motivated than the average visitor. It may be that they’re more interested in the subject, or they may be trying to become influencers, or they may be working through other issues that make them want to talk. Whatever the cause, they’re not average.

In most online forums, this self-selection bias doesn’t have a big negative effect. It means the reviews on a travel or restaurant review site will be written by people who are especially enthusiastic about traveling or eating out, but usually that’s OK. However, in a mass social network like Twitter or Facebook, it has a profound effect on discussions about social issues and politics. The people who post heavily on those subjects tend to be extremists, the angriest and most polarized members of society.

For example, just 2% of the US population writes 97% of the Twitter posts on national politics, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center (link). Those 2% “political tweeters” are not representative of the country as a whole. Pew found they’re more extreme in their politics and are more likely to be hostile toward members of the opposing party.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I’m not saying 2% of the population got together and decided to hijack the country. It’s just the way people behave on online. Similar biases happen in every social media platform. Add them together, and the voices we hear on social media are systematically far more polarized, shrill, and confrontational than the population as a whole.

But I don’t think social media alone could create the divisions we see in society. Huge chunks of the population don’t pay attention to social media. About 78% of Americans don’t have Twitter accounts, and only 4% of Americans say social media is their main source of political news (link)

This larger problem is that the mainstream press, which far more people do rely on for news, too often treats social media as an opinion poll and source of stories. The things that reporters see online often shape news stories and drive the selection of what gets covered. We’re bombarded with reports about issues that are trending on social media, or quotes from someone who posted something offensive online. Let me give you a couple of examples of how pervasive this problem is…

Here’s a screen capture of the top story on the Fox News website on the day after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died:

If you read the story, it tells you that several people online threatened to protest violently, and a Canadian lawyer and a Fox news host both said that’s a bad thing. I agree, it is a bad thing, but how did it become the top national news story? Given who writes most posts, the real news would have been if no one said anything offensive online (link).

Lest you think I’m picking on the right wing, check out the New York Times’s coverage of the Pence-Harris vice presidential debate. On the home page, above the fold, there was an article describing online comments about the debate. Before quoting from a bunch of Twitter posts, the reporter described the Internet as “that insular, blue-check-verified version of the proverbial diner in a steel town” (link).

The trouble with that sentence is that the Internet actually is nothing like a diner in a steel town. If you went to a diner in a steel town you’d get a random sample of working class people in middle America. When you go to Twitter you get a self-promoted sample of angry people and celebrities, all looking to get noticed by saying something snarky. It’s not a survey, it’s performance art. 

I’m not saying the press is evil. Most reporters are trying to be professional and are under huge stress from the changing economics of the news. But social media is seductively convenient to a reporter. You feel like you’re in touch with the mainstream of society when actually you’re soaking in a hot tub with a bunch of fanatics. I think many reporters are spending way too much time in the tub.

When we make the things that people say online into news, we’re missing what’s really happening in the country. We amplify the voices of the extremes, and play them back as if they represented the center of society.

Our constant diet of anger and division are breaking down the dialog that makes a society livable. More in Common found that about 77% of Americans are in an “exhausted majority” caught between the extremes. They are willing to work together and compromise to solve the country’s problems, but feel intimidated and shouted down by people with extreme views. More in Common wrote:

“We don’t seem to disagree anymore without perceiving another person’s views as stupid, wrong or even evil. We’re being played off each other; and told to see each other as threats and enemies, not Americans just like us but with separate experiences and views. The loudest and most extreme voices get heard, and others just feel like tuning out altogether.”

We need to change the dialog

If the problem is built into social media and the press, how do we solve it? We can start by getting more exposure to regular people. If we heard from each other more often, the extremists couldn’t make their caricatures stick.

My coworkers and I are launching a project to help regular Americans listen to one another. Called the Human Empathy Project, it’s a website where we share the voices of regular people discussing their views and problems (link). Through videos in which they get to do the talking, you’ll understand where we actually agree and disagree, and the reasons why. Sometimes we’ll dig into the reality behind an issue that’s generating controversy. Sometimes we’ll just feature people talking about their lives and challenges, so you can get a better understanding of other Americans.

We’re launching the site with three sets of videos:

•  The views and concerns of undecided voters in the 2020 Presidential election (they’re far more nuanced and informed than the stereotype) (link)

•  Messages that regular Americans want to send to the country (we asked a balanced mix of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, and I bet you’ll have trouble telling the difference between them) (link)

•  A look at the hardships being caused by the pandemic (they vary tremendously from person to person) (link)

In the weeks to come we’ll post additional videos on other important issues. I think you’ll find that your real neighbors are far more reasonable and thoughtful than you realized. We sometimes disagree deeply, but there are usually understandable reasons for those disagreements, the sort of things you could work through over a cup of coffee. And I promise we won’t take sides against anyone — except maybe the people who tell you that the other side is evil and that you have to destroy them.

Please join us, listen to each other, and get to know the real America.

Note: Although we used the UserTesting system to collect these videos, the opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the company.

Q. Are the big tech companies guilty of antitrust violations? A. It doesn't matter, they will probably be punished anyway

In a previous post, I wrote about the big tech companies’ tin ear for public relations, and how that’s feeding mistrust of the whole industry (link). More than a year later, we’ve made little progress on public mistrust, and that’s feeding a legal and regulatory attack on the industry. Today I’ll talk about that attack, and why it should worry all of us, not just people who work in tech.

If you grew up in a democracy, you were probably taught that the rule of law is essential to a free society. It’s supposed to work like this:
     - The law describes clearly what's illegal
     - If you're accused of breaking the law, you'll be tried by an objective judge or jury who protect your rights
     - If you're innocent you'll go free
     - If you're guilty your punishment will be comparable to that of others who committed similar crimes
     - The law can't be changed after the fact to make you guilty

None of those principles apply to the antitrust actions being proposed against the big tech companies. For those companies, actions that were previously legal are now being made illegal. This change is being made without the enactment of new laws, but rather by reinterpreting existing laws to give them dramatically different meanings. Many of the people accusing the tech companies are not objective; they are also the ones who will judge them. And the punishments are being made up as we go along.

Don’t get me wrong, I'm not here to excuse the actions of the big tech companies. As I’ve said before many of them have done things that are morally reckless, stupid, and bad for society. You may think they deserve to be punished. In some cases I agree.

But let's all be clear about what’s going on right now: The crusade against the tech companies is much more about emotion than rationality, and it’s eroding the rule of law that protects us all from arbitrary action by populists.

If this doesn’t scare you, it should.

Here's why:

Fun and games with the federal government

In my career, I've had a lot more involvement with competitive law than I wanted. Specifically, I had a front row seat to four cases:
     - When Apple sued Microsoft for stealing parts of the Macintosh interface, I was working in Apple's competitive analysis team. I saw the runup to the suit, gave a deposition, had a lot of in-depth interaction with Apple's lawyers, and saw how the legal system worked.
     - When I worked in the Visual PC group at Silicon Graphics, I saw firsthand how Microsoft and Intel manipulated their products and licensees to keep control over the PC market.
     - While at Palm, our legal team had me travel to brief the Federal Trade Commission on what we believed were deceptive advertising practices by Microsoft. I saw up close how the government handled that case.
     - Also while at Palm, I was subpoenaed to testify in the states’ antitrust suit against Microsoft. That involved many more  trips to Washington that I wanted, a deeply unpleasant time in federal court, and another inside look at the system in action.

In all four cases, my side, the people and companies I thought were in the right, lost. My painful experiences being beaten up by big competitors ought to make me rabidly enthusiastic about the charges against today's tech titans. But I’m not, because there’s a double standard in play. The courts and government decided the behavior of the “Wintel” duopoly was generally legal, and those companies escaped serious punishment. I didn’t always agree with that outcome, but there was a logic to it, and it set out some fairly consistent rules for what tech companies could and could not do. Apple and Google and Amazon and even Facebook have generally followed those rules; their behavior wouldn’t have even gotten you charged in the 1990s, let alone punished. So why are we now talking about breaking them up?

How competitive law used to work. Traditionally, regulation of big companies has focused on one central principle: Are you hurting customers? If the answer was yes, the government would act aggressively against you, on the assumption that individual customers didn’t have the ability to defend themselves against a corporation. But if there was no customer harm – in particular, if prices weren’t being jacked up – the government left companies to duke it out in the market, with the idea that the public should be allowed to choose the winners and losers rather than a government bureaucrat. Here are a couple of examples of how it worked:

Example 1: Deceptive advertising. When I worked at Palm, Microsoft was late in focusing on mobile, and did a lot of misleading promotion for Windows CE (the mobile version of Windows). In particular, it made claims in ads that overstated its features outrageously. We were so mad about it that we complained to the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising. The FTC asked us to give it a briefing. That seemed to go well, and we thought the government was going to protect the good guys (us) from unfair advertising by the beast in Redmond.

Imagine our surprise when, months later, the FTC accused both Palm and Microsoft of misleading advertising. Ads from both companies, we were told, had failed to disclose that if you bought a wireless device you'd need to pay for a service plan. We thought that was kind of obvious, but it was the early days of wireless data and the FTC said our ads might deceive customers. Palm and Microsoft were both forced to sign consent decrees, legal agreements with the government committing us to add text to every ad, for many years, saying that a service plan was required for wireless data.

It was a slap in the face for both companies, but we got the FTC's message: Don't come to us whining about your competitive problems; we're here to protect consumers. I was not happy at the time, but gradually I’ve come to respect the government’s behavior. Companies have lots of money and many different ways of defending themselves; they should not expect the government to do them favors. Individual consumers have much less power. So the priority is to protect consumers from predatory behavior by companies.

Example 2: Tying products together. At several places where I worked, one of our biggest complaints against Microsoft and Intel was that they manipulated the Windows-Intel standard to protect their other businesses. For example,
     - Microsoft threatened to withhold its Basic programming software from Apple unless it licensed the Mac interface to Microsoft
     - When Silicon Graphics tried to enter the personal computer market with a computer that had supercharged graphics, Intel withheld its latest processors from SGI until Intel’s own competing graphics accelerators reached the market
     - When Palm had its most momentum in the market, Microsoft threatened and manipulated our ability to sync Palm handhelds with MS Office, in order to discourage IT managers from standardizing on us

I complained bitterly to our lawyers about this "tying" together of unrelated products. But I was told blandly, "the courts don't view tying as illegal unless you can show that it's increasing prices to consumers." Once again, the standard was not complete fairness between companies, but avoiding predatory behavior against consumers.

Today’s tech leaders are not breaking traditional competitive law

The big tech companies are being threatened with all sorts of new regulations and lawsuits, but by the standards of previous decades, it's almost impossible to make a case that they've broken the law.

Has Amazon's e-commerce business hurt consumers? It’s hard to find the damage. Amazon has almost certainly lowered prices and increased availability of goods, especially for people outside the big cities. Yes, it has taken money from a lot of other retailers, but there’s a long tradition of competitive change in retail. What’s happening in online commerce is just a continuation of a trend that’s been going on at least since the first mail-order catalogs took on general stores in the 1840s (link). More recently, in the late 20th century Walmart devastated the shopping districts of small towns across America (link), and nobody broke them up. On the contrary, Sam Walton (founder of Walmart) was a folk hero.

Has Google increased prices on anything? Considering that it gives away most of its software, it's really hard to make that argument. Even the things Google charges for are usually cheaper than the alternatives. For example, Android is incredibly less costly to license compared to Microsoft’s old OS pricing, and Google Docs is far more economical than traditional Microsoft Office was. Google has definitely hurt the advertising industry, and other tech companies, but remember that hasn't been illegal in the past unless it raised consumer prices.

What about Apple? They definitely charge a premium for their products. But nobody I know of is being coerced into buying an iPhone. There are very good, lower-priced alternatives in the market. People choose to buy the iPhone and Macintosh because they like the brand, because of peer pressure, and because they admire their design and features. Nothing about that is illegal. The App Store is definitely a monopoly, but having a monopoly isn’t illegal unless you use it to raise prices, and the way Apple manages the store has driven down app prices, not raised them. The one time Apple did conspire to raise prices, in ebooks, the feds slapped them down promptly (link).

Meanwhile, Apple’s tight control over iOS applications has kept many viruses out of its phones. All those controls suck for software developers, and I don’t really like them, but they haven’t been predatory against consumers.

Then there’s Facebook. It’s an arrogant and reckless company that’s pathetic at public relations. But that’s not illegal, it’s just stupid. The time Facebook did break the law is when it failed to protect consumers’ privacy after promising to do so. For this it has paid huge fines and agreed to a consent decree that puts its privacy policies under an external monitor (link). Good. To me, that showed the system was working – when Facebook broke the law, it was punished, and it’ll be punished a lot more severely if it does so again.

The real motivation behind the attack is emotion

There are many more charges against the big tech companies, and I don’t want to go through all of them here. But in my opinion, none of the situations would have, in the past, justified the extreme act of breaking up or deeply regulating a company. So the people who are advocating heavy regulation are trying to reinterpret the law.

There was an article about the process in the NY Times last year, headlined “To Take Down Big Tech, They First Need to Reinvent the Law” (link). The article explains many of the arguments being made by the re-interpreters, and it makes the point that there’s a history of antitrust law evolving. (If you want to read a much more detailed article on that subject that covers both sides of the issue, check out the article here).

But that’s not the most important part of the article. I think the key phrase in it is this one near the start:

“Big technology companies work on artificial intelligence that threatens to create a world where human beings are eternal losers.”

Think about that for a second. It’s an amazingly sweeping assertion. I know the reporter is trying to summarize the public mood, but the fact that the paper put it in a news article without any attribution or supporting evidence is shocking to me. Unfortunately, this is a common pattern in much of the recent coverage of the tech industry. At its heart, the campaign against the tech companies isn’t really about antitrust law, it’s about fear of the future and distrust of the people running tech. We’re making decisions emotionally, and then trying to rationalize them by cherry-picking the evidence.

The legal system (and the professional press) is supposed to protect us from this sort of hysteria. If you're reporting on an issue, you're supposed to cover it in a balanced way, and to fact-check every assumption. If you want to change the law, you’re supposed to propose a bill, debate it, pass it through Congress, and get the president to sign. It’s an intentionally complex process, designed to force us to pause, think about what’s happening, and listen to arguments on all sides of the issue.

Re-interpreting the law bypasses all of that process, and puts us at risk of creating new rules that do more harm than good. To give you a couple of examples:
     - One proposal is to prohibit tech companies that have marketplaces, like Amazon, from selling their own branded goods. But if you make that a rule, what’s to stop it from eventually applying to Trader Joe’s, or to the discount house-branded products in every grocery and drug store in the country?
     - Another proposal says tech companies should be prevented from buying startups that might threaten them. But if you cut off the possibility of selling a startup to a big company, you reduce the incentive for VCs to fund those startups. You could end up crippling the creation of startups rather than increasing it.

But my biggest concern is that if we give in to hysteria in this situation, what’s to stop us from doing it again and again, every time a group or an industry becomes unpopular?

Who’s to say the next reinterpretation of the law won’t be used against you?

In an age of general fear and populism, eroding the rule of law is the last thing we should be doing. If you really believe that tech needs to be reined in, write a bill and let’s debate it. That’s how democracy is supposed to work.

That’s my take on the legal situation; I welcome your comments, including disagreements. There’s also an underlying issue we should be discussing: Why have we all become so angry and afraid that we’re willing to sacrifice the law this way? Until we’ve dealt with that underlying situation, society will continue to be at risk from hysteria and the bad decisions it produces. I think the tech industry bears some of the blame for this mess, and also can help to help fix it. I’ll cover that next time.

Here Comes the Hammer: The Tech Industry's Three Crises

The next few years are going to be extremely uncomfortable, and maybe disastrous, for the tech industry. Political opposition to the big tech companies is coming to a head, and the industry lacks allies who could protect it. On the contrary, one of the few areas where many politicians on the left and right agree is that they want to see the tech industry punished (even if they're not completely sure what it should be punished for).

I think many people in tech are in denial about the situation. They think any punishment will apply only to a few firms, or they believe companies that have good intentions and haven't broken laws will be protected. Even big publications like the Wall Street Journal have indulged in this hope (link). That article is behind a paywall, so here's the key section:

"A growing number of critics think these tech giants need to be broken up or regulated as Standard Oil and AT&T once were...But antitrust regulators have a narrow test: Does their size leave consumers worse off? By that standard, there isn’t a clear case for going after big tech—at least for now. They are driving down prices and rolling out new and often improved products and services every week."

The reality is that the usual standards don't matter. Antitrust and regulatory law are incredibly vague, and their enforcement is driven by political attitudes more than by the rule of law. If enough politicians and pressure groups want to hurt tech companies, they can find many ways to do it.

Although the focus of public discussion is on the big American tech companies, that's not the real danger. The big companies will face some new regulations, but they have enough money and momentum to weather almost any storm, at least in the short term. I think the much larger danger is the collateral damage that may be inflicted on the leaders of the future, the next generation of tech companies that are just getting started now and can't survive adversity. Reckless regulation could disrupt their ability to create new markets, and changes in antitrust enforcement could dry up the flow of funding to new companies.

Ironically, careless regulations could easily strengthen the current tech dominators rather than weaken them, by stopping the growth of the new companies that would displace today's leaders. It could also shift tech leadership out of the democratic world by enabling firms in other parts of the world, where the government doesn't put the same restrictions on their business practices, to dominate the next wave of technology (link).

The challenge to tech is especially daunting because the industry doesn't actually have just one problem, it has three: a PR problem, a legal problem, and a political problem. They're all coming to a head at once, and they all interact to reinforce each other. I'm going to write a few posts exploring the problems, what caused them, and what we can do about them.

Let's start with the PR problem: the tech industry's mishandling of its own image.

How we hurt ourselves

I won't say the tech industry deserves what's happening, but part of it is our own fault. As a group, we don't communicate well with the rest of the world. We've created a distinct culture, language, and set of business practices that don't make intuitive sense to people outside the industry.

Because we're living in our own little bubble, we are profoundly tone deaf about the way we come across to the rest of the world. We assume people will understand our good intentions, but they don't. What we think is playful they see as arrogant. We celebrate a cool new technology and they see a threat to yet another segment of the economy. Our idea of good aggressive business tactics comes across like careless brutality.

There are so many examples of this that they could fill a book. But here are three recent incidents:

1. Elon Musk's decision to sell flamethrowers. What in the name of God is he thinking? Democracy is in trouble, nukes are proliferating, there's Ebola in Africa -- and Elon and his buddies play with fire guns. If you want to convince people that you're an unstable man-child unworthy to plan the future, I can think of no better way to do it. Elon's poor judgment and lack of self-control is especially troubling because he's running businesses that rely on public trust: trust me not to kill you with my car, trust me not to blow up your astronauts, trust that my tunnels under Los Angeles won't collapse in an earthquake, etc.

I care deeply about what Elon's doing with SpaceX. It's the sort of bold game-changing initiative that the tech industry ought to be driving. Why distract from it with self-indulgent trivia?

(Speaking of SpaceX, I loved the photos of the Tesla in space, but how much better would it have been to send into orbit something that was a symbol of peace and hopefulness rather than a commercial for your cars? Such a wasted opportunity.)

2. Google bamboozles an innocent hair-dresser. Technologically, one of the most interesting demos at Google's recent I/O conference was Duplex, the AI-driven appointment scheduler (link). It made a voice call to a hairdresser and set up a haircut appointment. To folks in the tech industry, it was a cool (if very limited) effort to pass a Turing test. But to everyone in the normal world, it came across as Google using its technology to trick a poor woman in a hair salon into thinking she was talking to a human being – while tech insiders laughed at her.

Sure enough, there were immediate calls for regulation of the technology. Way to go, Google – in one demo you made yourself feel good and simultaneously creeped out everyone else on the planet.

3. Amazon's headquarters competition. Jeff Bezos is an incredibly good businessman, probably the equal of Steve Jobs in his own way. But sometimes he lets his competitive instincts get in the way of good judgment. From Amazon's perspective, it makes perfect sense to have a big public competition for the location of its next headquarters: Amazon can play off all the cities against one-another, and it gets tons of free publicity in the process.

But politically the competition is awful. It positions Amazon as a colossus to which cities and states must genuflect, and it's generating dozens of communities that will be disappointed when Amazon turns them down. The politicians there will have to face voters asking why they lost the opportunity. Do you think those politicians will say "well, candidly, our business climate and incentives just weren't competitive"? No, they'll say Amazon was greedy and they'll blame it for jerking them around. Amazon is creating grass roots enemies for itself across the country.

Tech in the age of cynicism

The tech industry has always had these communication problems, dating back at least thirty years. But the problem was survivable in the past because we were kind of cute and dorky, and we weren't all that big a chunk of the economy. Huey Lewis told people it was hip to be square, and they gave us a pass.

But the dorky act doesn't come off well any more, for two reasons. First, the public mood has changed. The 1980s and 1990s were a time of optimism; many people were willing to trust that the benefits of our products would outweigh any disruption we caused.

But a series of shocks, starting with the terrorist attacks on 9/11, have systematically eroded public trust. Our institutions have repeatedly failed to keep us safe, and some huge companies have been revealed as corrupt at the highest levels. We've entered an age of cynicism and fear in which institutions are assumed to be dishonest and self-serving, and almost no one gets the benefit of the doubt.

For an industry that generates change and uncertainty, losing the benefit of the doubt is a severe problem.

Second, the tech industry has grown to be a much more prominent part of the economy. Tech companies are seven of the 10 most valuable companies in the world. That prominence has changed us. We used to be the outsiders who wanted to help destroy corruption. Apple sold the Macintosh as a tool to defeat dictators, and Google said it was going to break the monopoly of the wireless carriers. Today, in order to do business, we have to get along with those same entities. So Apple bans apps when the Chinese government tells it to, and Google cosponsors ads with the carriers it once wanted to destroy.

Somewhere along the line we became The Man. And in today's world, The Man isn't trusted.

Our rising profile and the loss of public trust alone would be enough to create a crisis for tech, but it's  actually the simplest of our problems. We're also in trouble legally and politically. Next time I'll talk about the legal situation.

I welcome your comments.

VR Cinema: Keep Trying

After two and a half nonstop hours of watching VR "cinema" this weekend, I reached two conclusions:
--My head hurt, and
--This stuff is not yet ready for prime time

The setting was Cinequest, Silicon Valley's quirky independent film festival. This year it added a VR "experience," with eight half-hour VR programs you could watch, at ten bucks a pop. I chose five of them. They were a diverse selection: Big-budget Hollywood movie excerpts done up in VR, independent animation, what appeared to be game trailers, and some live action shorts.

I came in with high expectations: I've always been fascinated by 3D computing, and my first experience with an Oculus Rift was close to a religious event. So I was excited to see Cinequest's "new and amazing worlds" in which "you don't just watch, you actually experience these movies all around you," as the program put it.

Cinequest is a cool organization and they put on a great show. They're a nonprofit, staffed heavily by volunteers, and I applaud them for trying this experiment. But mostly what the VR experience showed is that our technology, and VR cinema itself, isn't yet living up to the hype.

That's not too surprising – we're still in the very early days of this new platform, and my experience with every new platform is that you get a lot of weird experiments while people work out what they can do with it. Based on what I saw at Cinequest, VR cinema is still in the weird stage. Below I'll give you details on each of the shorts I experienced, but here's a summary:

The technology needs more work. When you came into the VR room, the staffers equipped you with a Samsung Gear VR headset with a Galaxy smartphone and a pair of wireless earphones, and told you how everything worked. So right off the bat, this wasn't a movie-like experience; you don't just sit down and watch. The staffers did a very good job of teaching people and maintaining the devices (more on that below), but it was still confusing. The most puzzling part was that there were volume controls on both the headset and the earphones, and you had to turn them both to max in order to hear the content.

The on-screen interface was familiar because I'd played with a Rift before, but as soon as I started my first program I had problems. The video was running at about five frames a second, and the sound seemed way out of sync with the images. After several minutes of futzing around with the controls, I gave up and called over one of the staffers. He explained that the Galaxy smartphones used in the headsets were getting overloaded by all the video files, and had to be restarted regularly. He rebooted my system, a procedure I had to do two more times in the two and a half hours.

Now the video was running at good speed, and I was very pleased that I didn't experience any lag when I moved my head. But the images were grainy, far more so than either a film or television show. The color palette seemed to be limited as well – the live action videos looked washed out, peoples' faces were monochrome, and in dark scenes there was noticeable pixelation. It reminded me of watching an old pre-hi-def color TV.

None of the programs were as immersive as a good movie. In movies we have almost a century of experience in how to tell a story visually. VR is different enough that we need a new set of best practices. For example:

--The camera was sometimes in odd positions. In one film, you appear to be sitting in the passenger seat of a car, but squashed down about a foot above the seat so you're looking up at the characters and can't see out of the front of the car. Instead you have a panoramic view of the world's largest car stereo.

--You don't know where to look. In some of the films I ended up looking in the wrong direction and missed important action.

--Whiplash. One of the films featured a tense discussion between two actors, one on your right and one on your left. You had to whip your head back and forth to follow their interaction. That got old really fast.

--The seams get in the way. Live action VR is filmed with multiple cameras pointing in different directions. The edges between the camera images are blended so you don't usually notice them. But occasionally a character would step into the border between them and his head or some other important body part would disappear.

--It's hard to do closeups. There's a very fine art to the way a film communicates human interaction, a subtle rhythm of closeups, reaction shots, etc. A VR film can't jump your perspective around that way – you'd feel like you're being teleported all over the room. So your perspective tends to stay in one or two places for the duration of a scene, which makes it feel a bit like watching surveillance camera footage. Instead of being in the story, you feel like you're spying on it.

Add these issues to the resolution and color problems, and often I found myself paying more attention to the technology than to the story.

The rules of storytelling still apply. In some of the films, the script and storytelling were awful. No amount of great technology can compensate for awkward dialog and a lack of conflict. Ironically, the worst offender in this area was one of the big-budget Hollywood productions. You'd think they would know better.

I doubt that cinema is the killer app for VR. Even if all of the problems above were solved, I came away doubting that cinema experiences will be the thing that pushes VR into the mainstream. For me, the thing that makes VR special is its eerie sense of presence, the feeling that you're actually in another place even though you know you're not. The VR films gave me almost no sense of presence, which surprised me. I felt like I was in a wraparound Imax theater (with bad image quality), rather than being transported to a different place.

I think the problem is that in a movie your point of view has to be controlled in order to tell you a story. The movie pushes you around – sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, but almost always you have no control. I think the ability to move around is an important part of the sense of presence in VR. Without it, the whole experience was much less compelling. I think I'd prefer to watch a conventional movie; the resolution is better, and you don't get a headache from the headset shoving your glasses into your face.

What it means: Keep looking

VR today reminds me of the early days of multimedia: We're seeing some interesting bits and pieces, but they're more like curiosities than finished products. I think we'll need a lot more experimentation, and better hardware, before VR will be ready to take off in the mainstream.

Multimedia software came of age in 1993 when Cyan released Myst, the first software title to fluidly merge the large storage of CD-ROMs with high-quality graphics, sound, and interesting experiences. Along with a couple of other popular titles, it created a whole multimedia industry in the 1990s. If we've found the Myst-equivalent for VR, I didn't see it at Cinequest.

Details on the programs

Speed Kills. VR scenes from an upcoming movie starring John Travolta. A movie about speedboats and drug runners ought to be gripping in VR, but this was the weakest program of the bunch. The scenes (which didn't fit together into a narrative whole) were mostly tedious: Travolta feeding a horse, Travolta hitting on a waitress, Travolta talking to a guy in a restaurant. To make it worse, they inserted credits and titles between every scene. So the whole thing felt like a bad commercial.

La Camila. This is a cute animated story with lovely colors, and it was obviously a work of love for the people involved. Unfortunately, the character models were surprisingly primitive. My expectations have been skewed by Pixar, and it was jarring to see people and animals that look like a bunch of linked sausages bouncing like marionettes. Unfortunately, about 2/3 of the way through the program I accidently restarted it while adjusting my headset, and I couldn't get the video to fast forward to where I'd been. So I moved on.

The Humanity Bureau. More movie excerpts, these from an upcoming Nicolas Cage movie. Much better structured than Speed Kills, but I was distracted by some very strange camera angles. There were some good outdoor sequences, but when the story moved indoors I felt the surveillance camera effect very strongly.

The Recall. A VR experience based on a 2017 alien abduction film featuring Wesley Snipes. Stilted and confusing. It reminded me of the Geico commercial parodying horror films. This is the one where I missed a lot of the action because I was looking in the wrong direction, but the things I did see were unintentionally amusing rather than scary.

Boxes. Much better thought-out than the movie excerpts, this is a live action short in which a young man cleans out the home of his late parents, and reminisces about his childhood in a series of flashbacks. A nice story well told, but I don't think it gained much from the VR.

Volt: Chain City. A frantic four minute animated chase with Star Wars-style speeders plunging through a landscape of wreckage. Hello motion sickness.

Women on the Move. A sweet live-action story about a woman in Niger who has high hopes for her granddaughter. It was an interesting visit to a village in Africa, and the VR did give me a good view of the homes and streets of the village. But I didn't feel like I was there, probably because I couldn't move around on my own.

Doctor X: Pale Dawn. Dinosaurs chasing a dune buggy. Even more dizzying than Volt.

Hutong in Live. A love letter to the Hutong lifestyle in Beijing, this one was interesting because it mixed animation and video. Unfortunately, the animation was very limited – the models were low res, you could only move between predetermined spots, and your perspective jumped from place to place rather than moving smoothly. Other than the 3D, it reminded me of a QuickTime title from 1992. I think it would have been much more successful if it had recreated a hutong and allowed you to move through it freely.

Meeting Rembrandt: Master of Reality. An animated interaction with Rembrandt. Nice idea but not very engaging. It felt like an explanatory video you'd see in a museum.

Ultraman Zero VR. Campy but fun: A guy in a monster suit attacks a scale model of Tokyo, and is defeated by a guy in a superhero suit. It was kind of fun to be between the monster and giant superhero, with both of them towering over me. But they still looked like a couple of guys in suits, and the novelty wore off quickly. If I were an Ultraman aficionado I probably would have been more charmed.

What do you think? Have I missed the point? Is there a killer title I should have watched? I'm interested in your comments.