Monday, March 31, 2014

Macworld 2014 Rounds Up Apple Fans And Tech Stars

My first computer was an Apple Macintosh I bought in 1995.  I kept it for as long as I could until I had to switch to a Windows laptop in 2000.  I rarely revisit Macintosh tech unless some high-profile event entices me.  Enter Alfidi Capital into Macworld / iWorld 2014 at Moscone North last week in San Francisco.  I had to go to see if I could score free food at the afterparties.  Seriously, I went to see cutting-edge tech.

My free expo pass didn't get me into any of the supercharged intellectual conference sessions.  Sooner or later the people running high-profile conferences are bound to recognize my extreme genius and put me on their speaking calendars.  I shall prowl their expo floors and free sessions until those salad days arrive.  The coolest thing I saw on this year's expo floor was the FLIR ONE infrared attachment for the iPhone.  I asked the booth dude to take my picture with it, and the result is below.

I must admit that I look quite handsome even when I'm only visible on the infrared part of the spectrum.  Women can't resist an infrared version of Yours Truly.  I look like the enlightened Buddha or something similarly transformational.  I first noticed FLIR ONE in some news report from the last CES in Las Vegas.  I'm impressed that FLIR is branching out from the defense market.  Now everyone can take infrared pics of their household pets and post them to Instagram.  They'll all look the same and no one will care because yokels love novelties.  The product may actually have some commercial uses besides physical security.

The "makers" on one of the free stages discovered some things that got me thinking about how quickly a manufacturing renaissance can happen.  Form factors matter so much that third party accessory makers must have good OEM specs so their components properly fit those major items.  The best synergies for smartphones, AI, and robots right now will come from routine tasks managed remotely (think Roomba).  Ordering but not shipping keeps customers in limbo, but some makers think they can get away with such poor service.  If it happens deliberately, consumers have a case for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate.  Good companies constantly model demand versus their capacity, and plan expansion to meet demand.

The live Vector podcast from iMore was very much for hard core tech fans who think Wall Street tries to push Apple into doing bad things.  I'm no fan of Wall Street either.  Developers are passionate about Apple keeping its acquisition strategy focused on buying small companies that add to its tech base.  They would be aghast if Apple ever pulled a headline-grabbing stunt like Facebook and Google's typical billion-dollar acquisitions.  One panelist was skeptical about the total addressable market (TAM) for virtual reality (VR).  He may have a point some humans naturally resisting immersive environments due to phobias and the limits of physiology.  I think the TAM for VR will prove to be small but lucrative for niche players.  A whole nerd subculture has grown up around gaming and they spend serious coin on tech.

The Macworld interview with Dr. Jeffrey Smith, CEO and founder of Smule, turned out to be a huge eye-opener.  He figured out how to make apps that mimic piano chords and wind instrument effects.  His most important discovery is the value of music as a shared activity.  People are very happy to collaborate on musical performances over long distances.  Smule apps make money when people share their music online.  I first noticed the power of online musical collaboration when I saw a YouTube clip of Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir singing "Sleep" a couple of years ago  The choir shares Smule's philosophy of democratizing musical performance.  Latency constraints degrade long-distance live performances but they are no problem in recorded performances.  Dr. Smith's description of digital archives that collect millions of recorded music performances gave me a brainstorm.  I am convinced that Big Data sets of amateur musicians now present a disruptive opportunity in the music industry.  Data mining these performances for talent establishes a "Moneyball for music" set of baselines that can estimate a performer's marketability.  This disintermediation of music from recording studios and performers' unions is the ultimate free-market end run around the music industry's traditional gatekeepers.  You're going to hear more about this concept as I develop it in future blog posts.  Thank you, Dr. Jeff Smith.

Live podcasts proliferated at Macworld.  TechHive's Clockwise podcast discussed what home appliance Apple would make if it could.  I vote for a clock radio, since Apple already knows how to put timekeeping on the iPhone and music in an iPod.  Macworld's Pundit Showdown Live podcast featured the very attractive Susie Ochs of TechHive, who did cute dances in her chair whenever the host played some theme music.  The pundits need me on their next podcast because I offer more than nerd references to Ars Technica.  Tech I hate?  Bitcoin.  Myth I'd dispel?  The need for all of us to learn coding.  I got the vibe that the DECE consortium's UltraViolet digital library has a bad rap among Apple's fan base.

One panel of longtime Apple watchers debated the company's past, present and future.  I think early adopters would love Apple wearables based on these guys' chatter.  I grokked a consensus from several panels like this one that Apple doesn't pursue niche markets like gaming.  I can't understand why they would cede the huge gaming market to Microsoft and Sony.  Apple may be happy to grow its share of the desktop PC market by default as people turn away from Windows PCs and adopt tablets.  Mobile isn't going to completely destroy desktops no matter what tech gurus like to say.  Knowledge workers must still perform word processing and data analysis using the keyboard/mouse interface, so desktops and laptops have a future.

One of the last free sessions I could attend at Macworld 2014 was a Bitcoin Meetup.  Yeah, right, I know what you're thinking, I went there just to stir things up, right?  Well, I behaved myself except for the few loud snickers I uttered in the back of the room.  These Bitcoiners repeatedly contradicted themselves.  They claimed Bitcoin couldn't be destroyed by any government, but then said a few coders could change the algorithm to make it do something completely different.  I spoke with a few of them afterwards to test their intellectual abilities.  I told them that the IRS's recent ruling on Bitcoin meant that everyone who mined it since 2009 would have to file amended returns to report that mining as income.  The scofflaws among them claimed that wasn't necessary.  I then reminded them that the blockchain is publicly visible and FINCEN won't have much difficulty tracing Bitcoin owners through that chain so the IRS can gather a list of its tax evaders.  My logic opened the eyes of a few curious people in the room who had not drunk the crypto-hogwash.  These people were mostly schmucks disguised as coders.  One guy was pitching some open-source contraption that was supposed to be a Bitcoin ATM running Raspberry Pi.  It looked ridiculous.  Someone would have to be really stupid to stick their ATM card in something that looks like a toolbox.  These people are tools.  Stupid tools love Bitcoin.

I'll end on a high note.  I went back to the expo floor where one of the audio techs working the second stage's soundboard recognized me from other conferences.  I didn't recognize him but I take this as a sign my reputation in Silicon Valley is growing if even the show floor operators know me by sight.  He mentioned his desire to get involved in this whole startup scene himself.  I related the story of David Choe, an artist who painted murals on Facebook's corporate walls in exchange for shares.  His Facebook shares later proved to be worth a fortune.  You don't need to be a software engineer or financier to strike it rich in Silicon Valley.  The very first corporate treasurer, HR director, and night shift security supervisor at Yahoo, Google, and Facebook probably made out like bandits if they had stock options.  Anybody who shows up at enough Meetups, seminars, pitchfests, and conferences with their specialty in hand stands a chance of landing a gig at a VC-backed startup.  Bring your thing anywhere, even to Macworld 2014.