Blackberry's Crazy Application Neutrality Proposal

In politics there is a tradition of injecting non-sequitor ideas into popular movements. It is similar to a search engine optimization technique where you try to get attention by making your idea sound like a thing that others are searching for and interested in. In some cases these points might make sense, for example people that raise the idea that in order to tackle education reform we need to tackle child nutrition. However in this case Blackberry’s proposal does not fit with the principles shared by net neutrality supporters.

The idea behind net neutrality is simple: people who deliver content over the Internet should be on equal footing. They should not be privileged or penalized based on fees that they would have to pay to an ISP. This is important to websites because studies show that the slower a webpage loads the less revenue a company will make. Services like Netflix can have their entire business model threatened if ISPs decide to throttle or kill the ability of their consumers to access it. Net neutrality is pro-consumer because most consumers do not have the option to switch to an ISP that has access to a service if their ISP blocks it. Net neutrality does not require any company to provide its services on all networks, it merely gives them the option to do so.

Application neutrality in contrast would require developers to engage in additional work to provide their apps and content on all mobile operating systems.1 This is bad for start-up companies because it would operate as a de facto tax that would require them to hire developers skilled in each operating system, or to require their current developers to become skilled in obscure technologies. They would also have to hire appropriate support staff and pay for the development tools.2 Alternatively it would restrict their application to being built in purely open standards like HTML5. While these open standards are powerful and people build applications on top of them, they do not always have access to the advanced functionality in modern phones.

The key difference between net neutrality and Blackberry’s proposal is that net neutrality gives innovators access to consumers that they would not have in any other manner, while Blackberry would compel innovators to build applications on its platform against their will. If consumers want to access a certain application or service it is easy for them to acquire another device that the software is available for. They have a remedy in the free market. Depending on where you live that remedy is limited or non-existent for the problem being addressed by net neutrality. Blackberry should spend more of its time building a better operating system and phones than trying to get the government to force developers to write apps for them.

  1. Except the folks at Angry Birds who seem to do this anyways. 

  2. For example it costs $99/year to enroll in the Apple iOS or OS X developer programs. 


I have recently been enjoying the Startup podcast. The premise of this podcast is that it is the story of Alex Blumberg’s journey of starting a podcast company. The podcast covers some of the interesting and tough situations that startup founders face like raising money and finding a partner. However the most recent episode covers a topic familiar to many in the legal and campaign professions: burnout.

When I started studying for the bar exam the first thing that the bar prep course covered was handling the stress of studying for the bar exam. The message the bar prep people had was simple: this is a marathon and not a sprint. When you know going into something that it’s going to be long and difficult you have to plan to be resilient. Doing so is different than powering through a tough day or week. You have to plan to rest becuase if you do not plan to rest you are planning to fail. It may seem scary to do it, but BarBri had evidence and data to backup the idea that if we followed their plan, which included not doing work on Sundays, that we would likely pass the bar exam.

So the key to avoiding burnout is something that most of us are bad at: time management. The good news is that you can plan to be bad at time management and you can also get better at time management. The first part is simple, whenever you are estimating how long it will take to do something you simply double that amount of time and then impress everyone around you when you finish early. This is how Scotty always had things ready in the nick of time for Captain Kirk on the Enterprise. Many times you will finish after your original estimate but before your double estimate. Eventually you will build the judgement that allows you to stop doubling your estimates but a little padding never hurts. Watch Randy Pausch’s time management lecture.

In life there will sometimes be things outside your control. You will forget to do something important or there will be an emergency that you have to tend to. There will also be times where you need to sprint to the finish line whether it is the last weeks before an election or preparing to give a speech to a group. However with appropriate planning and judgement it turns out that most burnout is optional. As Merlin Mann once said, there is no award given for being the most stressed out person in the world.

How Twitter Data can Save Flood Victims

Chris Moody tells some interesting stories about twitter and data at the beginning of this video:

Book Review - Data Smart Using Data Science to Transform Information into Insight

When I was working at the Connecticut Democratic Party last year we used algorithms to help us decide what voters to reach out to. I wanted to learn more about these algorithms, how they worked, and how they were made. Fortunately I discovered John Foreman’s Data Smart. Over the past few months I have set aside time to work through the examples and finally finished it last night. If you are interested in diving into the world of data science with little background, I strongly recommend this as an introduction.

This book is superior to its peers and much of the online material I have encountered in several ways. The first is that the majority of the book is run in Microsoft Excel. This provides most readers with a familiar environment to try out their new tricks in. The spreadsheets are made available for download from the Data Smart website so that you can follow along and also manipulate them. If something does not make sense in the book you are able to tinker with the spreadsheet or read the formulas in Excel to directly intuit what Foreman is explaining. Furthermore the book explains its concepts and examples in clear language. You are not likely to get bogged down in jargon or confused by too many math symbols. However Foreman does not baby you either, the math is there and there are plenty of references and recommendations for other texts to explore if you want to learn more about a subject.

The book is also well structured. It is divided into a series of case studies and examples around specific concepts. This allows you to sit down and go through an exercise to learn about a concept and then pick-up at natural stop points. If you forget a concept or need to re-read it is easy to locate the relevant material. Foreman starts with easier concepts at the beginning so you can build comfort with the material before tackling more complicated concepts like regressions. He has you crawl before he makes you walk, and makes you walk before you run.

Foreman is a talented writer, and it was enjoyable to read about the techniques he uses in his job on a daily basis. I walked away with a sense of what he does and how he does it. Fortunately the fun does not end in the book; he has a blog. There are also video sessions if you want to dip your toes in before committing to the book.

Can user experience design testing end poverty?

In the cubicles of Silicon Valley companies like Google have departments dedicated to user experience, often abbreviated UX. Google believes that this field is so important that they developed the following video that explains what they do:

You can see the impact of UX on websites in the form of one click purchasing on Amazon or iTunes. The whispersync feature in the Kindle that lets you pick up reading a book where you last left off on a different device is a UX innovation. The surveys that you are asked to complete after a customer service call are part of the user expereince design process as organizations try to collect feedback to better serve the needs of their customers. You may be surprised to learn that even your government has started to think about UX. The State of Connecticut had this presentation on UX on its website. It is thus little surprise that we have seen success follow in the form of high enrollment numbers.

User experience design has a lot of potential outside enrolling people in health insurance. Sadly we have not yet seen evidence of this thinking being carried over to other government departments. For example people still wait in long queues to obtain services at the DMV or talk to a representative at the Department of Labor or DSS. Companies like Apple have managed to deploy systems that allow people to schedule appointments for phone calls or in-person meetings that minimize wait times. They have also developed ways to help users help themselves through online knowledge bases that provide relevant answers based on the text of an e-mail. The resources and expertise to make government more responsive to the people clearly exists, and in the case of providing social services it can help reduce poverty, and in the case of tax administration it can increase revenue and compliance. This is worth doing.

New York State recently redesigned its website to focus on user experience. The front page provides easy access to tasks that people might want to complete including renewing drivers licenses, enrolling in health insurance, and starting a business. This is an interesting model, and it is encouraging to see that the talent to complete this sort of project is next door. Even if the state is not able to pull together the will and resources to improve user experience, I hope that one of the many mayoral candidates running in local elections embraces this as a cause.

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.