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Mobile Web, Internet of Things, and the Geeks

I’m a geek. It’s not just the domain I used to use, but it’s a the truth at the core of myself. I’m also a gadgeteer: if there’s a new gadget that may do something I’m interested in, and I can afford it, I’ll have it (sometimes even if I can barely afford it). I love “toys” and novelties, and I don’t mind if they are a bit on the rough side, “some assembly required”.

All of this, though, is sometimes hard to reconcile with the absolute vitriol I see online, among the communities that include geeks, free software activists, privacy activists and so on.

I sometimes still hear a lot of people complaining about websites optimizing for mobile, sometimes to the disadvantage of 32″ 4K HiDPI monitors — despite the fact that the latter are definitely in a minority of use cases, while the former is the new reality of web access. I do understand that sometimes it’s bothersome just how messy some websites become when they decide to focus primarily on mobile, but there are plenty of cases in which a “mobile-first” point of view is just what people are more likely to need, and ignoring this can be actively harmful.

Let me try to build up an example, which may sound a bit contrived but I would expect to be very realistic.

As you now know, I now live in London, and things here are different than in Ireland. In particular, I can no longer just drop by the pharmacy every other week and go “Just refill me in on this stuff please”. Instead I need to order the prescription to the pharmacy by going online, to the portal of the service provider my surgery contracted, and fill in the form. Then I need to note down when the stuff will be available and go pick it up.

The service provider that my surgery is using did not do a particularly good job in the UI/UX of their product. The website is definitely not mobile optimised, it does not integrate with anything and does not send email reminders for anything, let alone ICS attachments. And when I spoke about that with friends and colleagues, reactions were mixed between the «Why would they spend time on mobile? It’s just fancy stuff» and «Only geeks would care about receiving ICS attachments».

I disagree because the thing is, I can definitely see myself taking the last pills from the blister while on vacation and remembering I need to order more — but I probably don’t have my computer at hand. Being able to just go on the mobile website (or app) and ordering them on the fly can easily be a lifesaver, particularly for people who don’t usually travel with their laptop at all.

And similarly, if I were to ask people about the ICS attachments themselves they would probably wonder what the heck am I talking about, but ask people if they’d appreciate their calendar to show when they are meant to pick up their prescription, or when they have an appointment with their GP, and they probably would go “Yes, please!”

Let me take another example: the Internet of Things. Of course it’s a buzzword, nowadays, but it does not come out of nowhere. The concept of home automation (which in Italian actually takes the word “domotica” for well over 20 years) is not new and it’s not just a matter of being the trend of the year.

While there indeed are a number of “connected things” ideas that make me raise eyebrow or frown on “what the heck were they thinking?”, dissing the ideas tout-court just because they are, well, “connected things” is, in my opinion, short sighted.

I don’t remember if it was Samsung, LG, or whoever else, that proposed first on the market a fridge with an Internet-connected webcam, so that you can check on what you have inside. I heard people complain that it’s just a gimmick and for the lazy — but I could definitely see myself using it. See something on sale at the supermarket, which you didn’t put on the list? Do you remember if you have enough space to put it in the fridge, or if it would be wasted?

Plenty of the solutions that relate around Internet of Things are indeed easy to disavow as “lazy” – I would love to have a washing machine that could be started while I’m the bus because I forgot to do so before leaving the apartment – but at the same time, they are very valuable for people who do have real problems with remembering about things later on. It does not strictly have to be available from the phone in the middle of London — if my phone could, once I get home, remind me “The dishwasher is done. The washing machine is done. You’re out of milk. You need to take out the trash”, that would make my day.

But instead of saying “Hey folks, we need better, safer products!”, I see lots of geeks just going “That’s the Internet of Shit for you, why would you want your coffee machine connected to the Internet?” — like this was never dreamed of by geeks. Or insisting that, since “Internet of Things” is a marketing term, it is cursed and everything that relates to it is “ungeek”.

From my point of view, a lot of these people are those that are now looking down on iPhone users, but were sending email instead of text messages back when you had to use WAP to access anything mobile.

Stop blaming the users. Accept that you may not like or have a need for something but someone else might want it anyway. And if you really want to help, start figuring out how we can make things more secure by default instead of making fun of those that get burnt by the latest vulnerability.

Comments 4
  1. And similarly, if I were to ask people about the ICS attachments themselves they would probably wonder what the heck am I talking about

    Although I’m the kind of person who’s experimented with running their own calendar server (because Google Calendar isn’t perfect) I still had to do a double take on that. But yes, I greatly appreciate attached ICS files that in most applications are simply visualized as an “add to calendar” action.

    (At least when they’re of sufficient quality. A stock location can be worse than no location, that kind of thing.)

    And if you really want to help, start figuring out how we can make things more secure by default instead of making fun of those that get burnt by the latest vulnerability.

    Would the most obvious solution be the same one that has existed in domotics systems going back to the ’70s? Make the devices (washing machine, coffee machine, lights) support a relevant domotics protocol so that you can control it with a device of your choosing. Whether that’s your phone, your laptop/computer or your dedicated geek daemon on your router or Raspberry Pi.

    I wouldn’t mind being able to easily control my washing machine, but I think I’d rather do it with a smart outlet (i.e., a domotics in-between plug) than with some dedicated washing machine app that won’t work on my next phone and will need severe firewall rules to prevent future security threats. But I’d trust it as a cordoned off service on my Ubiquiti router. (Cordoned off because I’d want to access it outside my house without enabling any kind of access to my local network.)

    Afaik, but I haven’t properly researched it or anything, that kind of stuff mostly already exists. I’m guessing the main problem is vendor lock-in, difficulty setting it up, or both.

  2. There’s a few home automation things I would like. A “smart fridge” is one of those, especially if it actually supports the use-flow I saw proposed back in, um, whenever. You come home, wave the bar-code of each newly-bought item at the fridge, it looks them up and adds them to the “you have these things”. And when you finish with the whatever., you press the “throwing this away” and scan it out.

    Paired with this, you could then have a set of default “lasts this long before going manky” (ideally tweakable, since milk (as an example) goes “ew” for different people at different times), so the fridge can remind you that X is expired (or close to expiry).

    Not sure I actually want/need it permanently hooked up, as long as it syncs with a … thing.

    And for a while, I had an “internet-enabled set of bookshelves”. Well, no, not really, I had a database with all (or almost all) of my books, with a bunch of varying labels (publisher, ISBN, author, translator, category, …) and since this was before smartphones were much of a thing, but phones with web browsers did exist, I dumped a set of HTML files to the phone over the sync wire every so often. Yes, I was noodling with trying to get an online WAP interface working, but…

    And on the whole, I think I would prefer something like X10 (which I guess falls under “domotics protocol”) to “dials back home to unknown external servers, doing ghu knows what”, with a general “does not need to call home” wifi bridge so I can get snapshots of the state of things when at home, that should in the typical case give me all I actually want, there’s not many things in home automation land that I think I need that would suffer from an “up to when I was last home” snapshot. But, I am optimising for my use-case here, not the general use-case.

    1. Your proposal about the fridge sounds very labor-intensive to me without much added benefit. I’m probably more interested in a “smart” fridge that uses energy more intelligently. Imagine I have solar panels on my roof. At 14:00, when the sun’s beating down, the fridge should go on full. Normal freezer temp -19°? Go to -25°! (Or whatever makes sense in context.) Then at night it can basically just “thaw” to -19°. I think there’s probably a fair bit of untapped energy storage potential available along those lines instead of hooking up (large) batteries.

      And on the whole, I think I would prefer something like X10 (which I guess falls under “domotics protocol”)

      That’s what I had in mind when I wrote “going back to the ’70s,” yes.

      1. If the barcode scanning is implemented with “camera on the inside” or me waving items past something as I drag them in or out of the fridge is essentially only an optimisation. As-is, I have a rough idea of what’s in my fridge in my head, but I have no rough idea of the age of things (that’s essentially too much info for autonomous tracking). It’d be less work than the book-entry was, and that was useful. I am imagining that the syncing would not be manual (because if it was, I would TOTALLY forget to do it, I change fridge contents more frequently than I added things to the library, so for the library tracker thing, I would simply sit down and enter the latest batch of books when I brought them home, then run the “generate the relevant files” command, then copy that to the phone; OK on a weekly basis, not OK on a daily basis).

        I’d genuinely NOT want my freezer to vary its temperature. Or, at least, not without a study disproving my notion that it’d compromise frozen-goods durability. 🙂

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