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May 23, 2013

Apps and Gadgets Optimizing More of Your Life Data

It's been just over a year since I started my experiment with Fitbit, tracking not only my every step daily, but also my weight, learning how I measured up against my peers and against myself. The act of tracking my information, and keeping up with my peers, along with an irrational desire to stay atop virtual leaderboards, led me to lose thirty pounds at peak, and with little dramatic effort, I dropped 7 inches in my waist and have had to rebuy clothes more than once.

But Fitbit hasn't been the only data tracking app I've made part of my life, and I'm looking forward to more, for information truly is power, and as you start to quantify and measure that power, you get results.

If Fitbit is about tracking your activity, how much energy you burn, and how far you get with that effort, it's not too much of a stretch to see Nest's smart thermostat as Fitbit for your home. The attractive Nest dial not only is a small conversation piece in our home, but it has simplified our heating and cooling, letting us manage our home via smartphone and the web, all while getting regular reports on how much we've tasked our utilities.

Okay, thirty pounds is enough. I don't need more badges.

I purchased our Nest thermostat in March of last year, and that means we've gotten through a full twelve months, giving us enough data to check usage year over year. Even with the usual caveats of weather variations, kids needing more laundry done due to more activities, or anything else, it's clear we routinely have saved anywhere from $40 to $100 a month in electricity and gas with Nest, which means we broke even on our $299 purchase within six months.

PG&E Agrees We're Saving Energy and Money

That catapults Nest from the "fun gadget" category to the "real benefits" category. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to say that you use less heat when things warm up, like my monthly Nest Energy statement from April reported, but it does take smart science to learn when my family is in the house, and how to cool or heat our home at the right time, so nothing is wasted.

Monthly variations from Nest hit my email, showing use.

Fitbit and the Nest aren't the only devices that urge you to be better with the delivery of data and smart analysis. Today, I got more excited about a new gadget than I've been in some time, when I stumbled upon the promise of Automatic.com, and their early stage smart driving assistant. The assistant, which you can read more about on their site, sucks down information from your driving behavior, sends it to your phone, and helps you learn how you can change your behavior to save money on gas, and generally be a better driver. It even promises to help diagnose mysterious issues that flare up with everyone's car now and again.

Obviously, living and breathing a world like Google, as I do, we're thinking about data and separating good information from bad all the time. But this isn't a story about Google. It's a story about how smart thinking and critical application of the right information can make your life a better one. You don't need ten posts from me that crow about how Fitbit has made me thinner, but it did. You don't need me to tell you I'm one of the cool kids who has Nest, but I did get one, and I'm very glad I did. In months, after my preorder of the Automatic driving assistant comes through, I bet my driving may change in the same way my walking has - and the same way we don't have our air conditioning and heater constantly blaring.

We're in an interesting time in technology, where we're moving from a counting data for data's sake, and posting it without filters, like the first passes with Last.fm and Foursquare, to a utlity-based model, where the machines and software are getting smarter, teaching us and guiding us to be better. It's really exciting when you think about it - as we move not just from quantitative data, but qualitative data, and present it in such a way that it's not just for the geeks, but for everyone. Bring on more gadgets like this, please.

May 02, 2013

Mobile Data Goes Up, Phone Calls Go Down, Can't Explain That

By the end of last month, Verizon was regularly sending me updates on how close I was to reaching the top of my 4 gigabyte data cap available in the plan I share with my wife. A little over two weeks in, I had used more than two gigabytes, after three weeks a third, and by the end of the billing cycle, I could have hit maximum capacity, had I just left my favorite Spotify playlist on play and asked all my apps from Google Play to update simultaneously.

But I was nowhere near capacity for our shared voice plan. Not by a long shot. In fact, the month saw a record low in our actual voice usage, racking up less than an hour's time over 30 days, which averages down to less than 2 minutes per day, more than enough time to call home, say, "Are the kids fine? Do I need to get anything?" and hang up.

It's unlikely the activity seen in our own home is unusual. Where just a few years ago, one could see passersby talking on their phones as they jostled down the sidewalk, or ringing phones would be commonplace in cafes and restaurants, it seems more people are looking down at their phones to trade updates than picking one up for a quick call. At this point, it's likely most of us don't even know our best friend's phone numbers, but could rattle off a few hundred Twitter handles of mere acquaintances if it came down to it.

The story of how static land lines with inflexible phone numbers were rapidly diminished with mobile phone numbers that stuck with a person from plan to plan, phone to phone and more recently, carrier to carrier, is a well known one. Hotels can no longer expect you to rack up ridiculous phone bills for local calls and family updates, and hope they can instead get you to foot the bill for 24 hours of questionably high speed Internet instead. And the telecoms are no doubt praying that all of the youth addicted to texting stick with SMS and far away from the many different free services that connect people in real time.

When I was on a trip last month to Paris and London, I didn't even make an effort to ensure my phone worked in Europe after I had crossed the Atlantic. Where in years past, walking around with a less than functional phone would be crippling, and worth the extra quid to get a few megabytes and minutes, I replaced all that potential cost with daily Google+ hangouts to see the family face to face, and stuck near WiFi for everything else.


That's not intended to be a plug for Google+ hangouts (although you all know I work at Google and think hangouts are great), but a real clear example where traditional voice seems rather quaint. Instead of a voice relationship and fighting over the phone between my 3 youngsters, I could see them and their expressions, even to the point of making funny faces, from thousands of miles away.

Our phone voice use has never approached our max, and is at a new low.

What I did see, however, especially in London, was the availability of SIM cards with pre-paid contracts that were data only, with no voice attached. It's clear that in a world of apps, our mobile devices aren't expected to be held up against our ears, but in front of our eyes, ready for our hands' next command.

Voice calls now are the refuge of two major parties - the salesmen and the grandmothers, essentially. Receiving a phone call from a number you don't know, or a geography you don't visit is practically guaranteed to be a robocall or somebody wanting your money or your opinion. And grandmas get a pass because they've usually passed the point where they can learn new tricks.

Just like we passed a time where physical media made sense, becoming a clutter in our home, and practically all of us said goodbye to our landlines, I wonder how long it will be until we say goodbye to voice functionality on our phones, except in the event of an emergency. These devices won't cease to be communicators, as our primary point for email, social networking and photography, but voice is practically an also ran on the very devices initially created for that very purpose. It's very interesting to watch.