Making computers more human at Universe. Previously built Lore.

  1. August 16, 2014, Rockaway Beach


  2. August 17, 2014, Williamsburg


  3. Burning Man, The Culture

    Ten days ago, 70,000 people flocked deep into the barren Nevada desert, stocked with a week’s food, power, and water. They formed a temporary, magical metropolis called Black Rock City, an alternate world without the rules — social, legal, professional — of modern life. This is Burning Man, the annual festival, a celebration of life, a state of mind.

    Describing Burning Man is often a futile effort. Our vocabulary from the “normal” world usually misses the essence of this alternate one. But the best I could do is to say that Burning Man let’s people be people — to be free, expressive, excited, and kind.

    While Burning Man exists physically in Black Rock City, it’s not limited to it. The festival is the center of a larger culture with deep values. When successful, the culture permeates and inspires each participant. These people then think somewhat differently, empowered to change their surrounding world to be a little bit more like Black Rock City. To me, that’s the ultimate promise of Burning Man.

    For that reason, it’s worth understanding what underpins this ecosystem and the results it yields.

    Read More

    TAGGED: writing


  4. Mindful Product Evolution


    John Gruber, remarking on Steven Levy’s 2011 profile of Nest:

    Because Apple now dominates the tech world, its influence is beginning to spread. We’re going to see more products and companies that adhere to Apple-like ideals and priorities.

    Nest was the latest micro-Apple: a startup entering an unsexy space with an obsessive focus on user experience and full-stack thoughtfulness.

    The other high profile micro-Apple is Square.

    While there is only so much you can glean from outside of a company, it’s interesting to contrast the two organizations and how they’ve developed.

    They both have high profile founders. They both employ lots of Apple people. They both bring elegance and simplicity to neglected industries. They feel like they’re part of the same family.

    They both started small. Nest, with a thermostat; Square, a card reader.

    But Square wasn’t happy with being “just a payments company.” It expanded into Wallet, a product that serves another customer — not merchants, but consumers. They did a distracting deal with Starbucks that would eventually cost them $100mm. Today the company finds itselfgrappling for focus, trying to regain its footing. I believe they can do it with their amazing team, but the stakes are very high.

    Nest, on the other hand, took a different approach. It was clear from the beginning that they had ambitions beyond thermostats. The name itself hinted at a company that will connect your whole home. But their expansion was slow and deliberate. They eventually released Protect, a smart smoke detector. It’s rollout certainly wasn’t seamless, but the product felt like a natural extension of the brand. It was a small step, but it set the stage for an ecosystem that would grow into a family of smart devices for your home. Of course, Nest sold to Google for $3.2B, giving the company the resources it needs to own this market.

    While there are obviously many more differences in how the companies operate, and their markets, there’s a takeaway for me here: focus obsessively and only expand your scope organically.

    Thoughtful, patient growth is hard when you’re an ambitious team facing ablue ocean market. But extending into a market too quickly, unsure of how well the new opportunity fits into the larger company focus, can lead to slower growth in the long run.

    We had a bit of this experience at Lore, my last company. Our core product was for instructors. And some point, we were fed up with the adoption rates of professors, so we launched Lore for Students, a way for students to use Lore without their professors.

    This made sense in theory. In practice, there was an incongruence. Students who already used Lore with their instructors were confused by the two very different product offerings, and new students didn’t understand why they’d want to use the service. We would have better off incrementing our instructor product over time to be more and more student friendly.

    Patience takes courage and discipline. It doesn’t imply a lack of ambition or intensity. Not letting an exciting opportunity force your hand requires real confidence.

    We’ve seen this approach work time and time again with Apple. They took their time with iPod and iPhone, and now we’re seeing it with television and wearables. When they’re ready, they’ll go into the market with full force. Historically, they’ve wiped away early players who instinctively rushed into the opportunity.

    In this way, Apple employs a sort of corporate mindfulness.

    TAGGED: writing


  5. Growing the Size of the Internet

    Benedict Evans wrote an excellent post on how the internet market multiplies in its shift to mobile. He saved me the effort of writing a similar article:

    There are around 1.6-1.7bn PCs in use today, and there are already perhaps 2bn iOS and Android devices. Over the next few years the great majority of the mobile base will convert to these devices: there will be 3-4bn smartphones in use and hundreds of millions more tablets. 
    So, mobile means there will be two to three times more personal computing devices connected to the internet. But actually, that understates the change massively. The difference in how those smartphones are used is actually just as important as the raw numbers.

    Evans then explains the difference between PC and mobile usage. Half of PCs are owned by companies, and the others are largely shared devices. Mobile devices bring the internet everywhere. And they’re more sophisticated—and far easier to use—than their predecessors. 

    Mobile devices are the truly the first personal computers. Desktops were first designed for work and then hacked into general purpose computers. Phones, on the other hand, were designed for life. People love their phones. 

    When you pull these strands together, smartphones don’t just increase the size of the internet by 2x or 3x, but more like 5x or 10x. It’s not just how many devices, but how different those devices are, that has the multiplier effect.

    I agree with everything he’s written in this post. My bet, however, is that he’s underestimating the market’s growth. When I consider the increase in users plus all the additional ways we will use the internet, I expect to see the mobile market dwarf its predecessor by something like 100x or more. 

    For most of the world, the mobile internet is the only internet. It’s still extremely primitive. I’m excited to work on this frontier.

    TAGGED: writing mobile

  6. The Internet is a Human Evolution

    Human anatomy hasn’t changed in 200,000 years. Instead, humans evolve with tools. Language, global commerce, and print are inventions that augment our cognition, allowing us to think with abstractions, learn new things, and create a better world. The internet is our latest evolution.

    Interacting with software—apps, art, games—requires a human brain. Hand a dog a tennis ball and it will play, but give it an iPad and it’s lost. Like animals, we live in physical space. But unlike them, humans reason, create, explore, and converse. Our intellectual process defines us.

    Software allows us to use that intellectual process while transcendingphysics. In the digital world things move instantly, copies are free, scale is infinite, work is distributed, and personalization is the norm.

    Steve Jobs once said that the computer was like a “bicycle for the mind.” But it’s way more like a motorcycle.

    When you connect computers to each other the metaphor expands exponentially. It’s not just a motorcycle for the mind, but billions of motorcycles traversing infinite, intricate roadways.

    For a long time, the realm of software was severely limited by available hardware. But we’ve hit escape velocity. We have a giant surplus of hardware technology: everyone has a connected smartphone in their pocket.

    Networked software is analogous to the mind’s evolution with language, an empowering abstraction that allowed us to communicate concepts and form far more complex thoughts. With words and sentences we construct intricate ideas in ways that other people can understand and expand on.

    When we engage with the internet our brains similarly rewire; they evolve. Without the limits of physics or biology the realm of possibilities becomes virtually infinite. Our learnings are limited only by our drive and curiosity. Our creations, by our imaginations.

    Artists can share songs with the world instantly, a lone traveler can navigate a foreign city to find the best izakayaand students can learn about spacefrom astronauts while they’re in orbit. We don’t have to remember random facts. We work at the mind’s pace. When a digital solution will do, it will always win.

    It’s as if we discovered this alternate universe that has these magical properties. We just got to this place. We are adapting, evolving, to understand it and construct a new home.

    The internet is the world’s nervous system. Every node on the network gets smarter and stronger as the network expands. What isn’t connected will die. The synapses create an integrated system, a collective, exponentially smarter brain.

    We’re just beginning to see the effects of this. Google answers any curiosity instantly. Uber moves people cheaper and faster than ever before. Facebook lets you keep in touch with a 1000 people at once.

    Quality of life goes up. People get access to the whole world from anywhere. And they can contribute to it.

    Our current internet is in its infancy, though. By the end of the decade the number of people with smartphones will triple to 6 billion. We’re just scratching the surface of what can be done in this new environment. How will we create, learn, eat, heal, live, love?

    Imagine a world that evolves with the internet.


    In the coming weeks, I’ll be writing more about the state of software, its history, and where we can take it. Thanks to Luke Crawford and Eddie Cohen for feedback and insights on this post. You can follow me on Twitter @josephcohen.

    TAGGED: writing