December 25, 2014

A Successful 100k Steps Leads to a Sore, Yet Happy, Christmas

Monday's personal record setting Fitbit dashboard

Last week, I introduced a crazy and audacious goal, of knocking out 100,000 steps (as measured by Fitbit), in the name of personal achievement and to raise money for Camp Taylor, a summer camp for children with heart disease, in honor of colleague Ken Norton's son, Riley. And I'm beyond happy to say our adventure was a success.

As chronicled on all the social channels (Twitter, Facebook and Google+ for starters), +Stephen Mack and I passed the 100,000 mark shortly before 10 pm Monday night, after 16 hours of pavement pounding fun that covered more than 46 miles - seeing us start before dawn, and keep pressing forward until daylight was a distant memory. And better yet, our efforts were not in vain as many of you were eager to support us through nearly $5,000 in donations to Camp Taylor, beating our target of $4,500.

Our fundraising goal for Camp Taylor: Achieved!

As I set out in our planning, Stephen and I got nearly all our walking in through three trips along the Stevens Creek Trail, which connects Sunnyvale to the San Francisco Bay through Mountain View, just past the Google campus. We grabbed backpacks with essential snacks and fluids, multiple phone chargers for guaranteed power, and thought ahead - bringing bandaids and Advil for inevitable pain, and head-mounted lamps to break through darkness.

Some scenes from early morning Monday, before the pain.

Our initial pace was quick, as I'm accustomed, and Stephen did a solid job adjusting, as we maintained strides through most of the day, even beyond the 10, 20 and 30 mile marks. And we were lucky enough to be joined for much of the journey by friends, each of whom did a lap with us, meaning we were marching in a group of three for about 80 percent of our trek, sharing new pains, stories and sights with one another.

Having walked greater than 50,000 steps a few times myself, I knew I could hit the 100k as a stretch goal, so long as life didn't get in the way, but as our mark neared, I absolutely felt the fatigues and aches that threatened to make finishing difficult. We were each battling aches in practically every part below our waist, and our feet were a mess of blisters and soreness that wouldn't be solved until we were done.

By the 92,000 mark, just an hour and a half away from the proverbial finish line, I was nearly overcome with dizziness and a slight spell where I was a bit concerned I'd pass out and fall short. Whether I was dehydrated or had just hit a wall, I'm not sure, but with water and about 10 minutes rest, we were able to continue marching, and eventually things settled back to where they were at a good rhythm through the end.

Hitting 100,000 Fitbit steps just before 10 p.m. Monday night.

As my math had planned, we made it back to my house the final time with 99,000 steps complete. We dropped off our heavy bags, and took one last victory lap around the block, reaching 100,000 steps at 9:52 p.m., after a momentary scare that Fitbit couldn't handle six digits and our walk would have been mocked at the very end. My tracker had stuck at 99,999 steps and then jolted forward to 100,007, so no pictures of perfection exist, but we had done it. We wearily high fived one another and then trudged home to call the event a success.

As I told Ken, I promised I would do the full 100,000 steps, and we had done it. Our promise to Camp Taylor, and those supporting us with their donations, or words of encouragement in the streams, was that we would make our full effort, despite fatigue or soreness. And of course, our momentary strains that are nearly gone a few days later are nothing like the prospect of heart disease the youth we were walking for live with each day. So we had pressed on.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw little walking at all, as you can imagine. I completed the Christmas shopping Tuesday and walked around a bit Wednesday, but didn't even crack 10,000 on Fitbit. I hope you'll understand. But I wanted to thank Stephen, and his sister Joanna, our friends Roger and Ken for walking with us, and the more than fifty people who donated to Camp Taylor and really had our back. What we did was hard and fun, and it was made easier with a real and virtual team. This is the experience I'll most remember from this year's Christmas season.

If you haven't yet made your donation to Camp Taylor count, our page is open for one full year. They need all the help they can get.

December 18, 2014

Taking the 100k Steps Fitbit Challenge and Raising Money for Charity

On Monday, I have a crazy plan to set a new personal record for Fitbit steps. The goal? 100,000 steps in a single day, blowing away my previous personal best by more than 50 percent, and coming close to fifty miles walked - while also helping raise money for Camp Taylor, a free summer camp for children with heart disease, in memory of Riley Norton, the son of my friend and colleague Ken Norton.

Ever since getting my Fitbit and being hooked on challenging myself to walk further and compete with friends, I've seen the allure of reaching new marks. I had my first 50,000+ step day in December of 2012, and managed more than 60,000 this September, even when I stopped pounding the pavement around 10:30 that night. I've walked 40,000 steps pushing three kids in a stroller, managed more than 200 flights of stairs in an evening in my house, and know that each personal record simply put the bar higher to make the next mark even more difficult.

But as I've seen my numbers increase, the math has a strong magnetic pull toward one-tenth of a million steps in a single day. If one averages 100 steps a minute at a good walking pace, it's fairly easy to hit 6,000 steps in an hour. Given there are 24 hours in a day, managing 16 hours of walking (plus a bit) to reach 100k is absolutely doable, assuming I can push myself to keep going.

So I've been eyeing this 100k mark with some anticipation - looking for a day where I'm out of the office, where my kids are taken care of, and I can just go, walking in a straight line until the day is finished.

This week, as I told my friend (and TiVo employee +Stephen Mack) of my plan, he said he wanted to join in the adventure as well. Stephen, who I profiled on the blog more than five years ago, has been among my most consistent Fitbit competitors for the last two years, and has yet to see a fun contest that he'll turn down - especially if it can keep you in good shape. So we've made plans to set off early in the morning Monday and achieve this goal together.

My comparatively bumpy activity from September's 60k day.

To be clear, walking at a normal pace for most of a day is by no means the toughest endurance challenge one's ever seen. It's harder to run a marathon or a 50 mile or 100 mile endurance challenge. There's no swimming or biking. No weight lifting, beyond our feet. But it requires the will to keep going even if the effort seems monotonous or never-ending. And having a second person there will make the challenge more fun.

The ideal course  will allow for us to keep walking all day without crazy hills or interruptions, even as small as traffic lights. We should be close enough to food so we can refuel beyond what we can carry, and have proper rest stops where they make sense. So I've sketched out a plan for us to navigate the Stevens Creek Trail between Sunnyvale and Mountain View, all the way to the San Francisco Baylands beyond Google's Mountain View campus. With three laps of this trail, we should be more than on our way to the 100,000 mark, and if not, we'll find a way to get there.

So you might ask... why do this? Are your egos so big that you have to take the whole day for a silly hobby of virtual badges? Are you raising money for charity or something? Well, the first answer is "because we can." The math says it's possible, and data exists so we can measure it. And the second answer is also yes. While I'm doing this no matter what, it's also great to have the wind at our backs by doing this for a good cause. So I've started a page to support Camp Taylor, and extension, Riley, who passed away in October far too young after a lifelong battle.

Our walk toward inevitable soreness and personal achievement starts in the dark hours on Monday. I'll be posting our progress as often as I can, batteries depending, with the #fitbit100k hashtag on Twitter, Google+ and all our streams. Good luck to us.

December 17, 2014

Tablets, Touch and Talk: Technology Through the Eyes of a Child

Braden With my Nexus 5, Watching the MLB At Bat app.

My children have never known a world without high speed Internet, streaming movies on demand, and a seemingly all-knowing personal assistant, available to answer their every question when asked. They've grown accustomed to concepts which once seemed fanciful, like the ability to order all sorts of items on your tablet and have them delivered in the same day, having every photo you've ever taken available to you from any device, or having video chats with just about anyone instantly. For them, there is no such thing as technology. There's just the real world, which is directly impacted by pervasive Internet.

As the major enabler of this, and someone who largely has converted from analog to digital at every opportunity, I've been especially excited to see how this impacts the way they interact with each other, what they choose to learn, and how quickly they grasp ideas - even when, to them, there is no user manual. I'm naturally curious to see what they choose to do and choose not to do, and what simply proves too hard.

My twins are now six years old, and Braden (pictured) is four. The twins are in first grade, and Braden is in preschool. The older two can read well, and do some writing, but while Braden recognizes letters, it's not as if he's sitting down with a good book yet. Despite the mild illiteracy, all three can breeze through tablet usage - from memorizing a pin or lockscreen, to finding applications, launching apps, moving them to folders, and even downloading new ones from the Google Play store. And it's not far-fetched to say Braden is actively learning to read from applications you'd never expect, like Major League Baseball's At Bat, where he's working hard to memorize stats and names of players I've never even heard of. (See also: Wired: How Videogames Like Minecraft Actually Help Kids Learn to Read)

Braden Seeing Baseball Highlights from the Majors on my Nexus 7

Given my kids' capabilities, it should come as no surprise that their primary interaction with the Web is through touch on tablet or phones. They were exposed to iPads and Android tablets early on, and have grown familiar with the practice of touching an icon to launch and app and how to navigate the apps - including the always important ability to hit the small X in a corner to close ads. And when the app isn't what they are looking for, they just ask Google. Depending on how well they ask, Google should find them what they want, whether they are looking for "videos of cupcakes", "pictures of beagles" or whatever strikes their fancy that day.

It'd be easy to say kids, like us, use technology to be entertained. They each have favorite games, and frequently open Netflix or YouTube to watch videos - or, as Braden does, the MLB At Bat app, to see highlights from all of the previous days' games. But they also use applications to draw, or for education, whether they are matching games, flashcards, or adventures that teach them language or math. And on more than one occasion, I've found my Google Express shopping cart full, with hundreds of dollars of items, from everything to do with Disney's Frozen or Minecraft, to books, toys and food. Luckily, they haven't yet figured out the last steps of the purchase, so I've always been able to clear the cart before having to explain away crazy charges.

Sarah posts to YouTube, complete with titles and emoji.

They've each also figured out the tablets and phones are capable of creative work as well. I was recently surprised with an email notifying me that I'd successfully uploaded three new videos to YouTube. After momentarily thinking I'd been hacked, I realized my daughter had not only filmed three new videos, but correctly titled them and uploaded them to my account. Meanwhile, the automatic backup capabilities of Google+ come in handy when we want to see pictures the kids have taken with our devices, from their perspective. Sarah has also been known to tell me to take a photo of something she's proud of, with the intent of my sharing it on Google+ or Facebook, saying "Daddy, take my picture and put it on the Internet."

"My" invite to Brian to join Ingress, sent by Braden.

Last week, just before I wrote my post about Ingress, I got a note from my friend Brian Fitzpatrick, thanking me for inviting him to the game. But I hadn't. Braden did. While I was at the office, Braden had opened up Ingress, sent off a dozen or so invitations to people in my address book, and unhelpfully, dropped some of my equipment into the front yard, for me to reacquire when I got home. That was amusing, and luckily for me, he didn't mess up my account any further. And this Sunday, Braden jacked up our thermostat to 82 degrees, using the Nest app, before I realized things were more than a bit toasty.

On Sunday, we were a comfortable 80 degrees in our house. Thanks, Braden.

Just as important as seeing what they're doing with my devices is seeing what they aren't doing. Aside from the Ingress invites, I've never seen the kids interested in opening up Gmail, or posting to any of my social networks. No fun tweets or posts to delete. No mass apologies to coworkers for toddler missives to internal mailing lists, and no inadvertent likes of odd posts in the stream. They're not interested in Google Drive or browsing the Web, and they've only fired up Sonos to blast music in our house a couple times. For them, the tablets are purpose driven. They have a short time to delivery of the content they're looking for, and if they can't find it, they'll ask Google in a different way, or go back to what they know works.

Just like many of us find we struggle with handwriting after years of regular typing, I'm interested to see how my kids are going to operate with analog assignments that may require pencil and paper, or if textbooks might be the rule, instead of downloadable equivalents. I'm curious to see if they'll master speed typing at a faster age than I did, thanks to the availability of computers, or if touch and voice will rule the day so they might not have to make it a priority. But for now, they're especially handy on the tablet - be it a 5 inch phone, or my Nexus 9, which Braden calls my "big tablet", as opposed to my "medium tablet" Nexus 7. And as Google Now improves, time between what they want and what they find should even further decrease. It's a lot of fun to watch.

Disclosures: I work at Google and enjoy products of ours I mentioned in the post, from Android to YouTube, Gooogle Drive, Gmail and Ingress. So do my kids.

December 09, 2014

Ingress: The Incredible & Addictive Covert Game Being Played All Around You

A little over two years ago, a small team within Google called Niantic Labs introduced Ingress, a game that adds a virtual reality layer on top of the entire world, which you can claim, defend or destroy for your cause - depending on which side you've chosen. And while I tested early versions of the game while it was developing at Google, and dabbled with it just after launch, I put it aside before jumping back in with both feet two months ago, when a pair of colleagues on my new team couldn't stop talking about it. And now I won't stop talking about it either.

Simply put, in my view, it's the most well-designed, intelligently deployed concept I've ever seen for an immersive experience on mobile, which encourages you to get off your butt, explore the world around you, and find new people to help you achieve goals together. Every facet of the application, even while it seems mysterious, is designed to help you get out of house, to explore new crannies of your neighborhood (and beyond) and discover people on your faction who need your help to achieve what would be impossible alone. I've never seen anything like it.

Some shots of Ingress badges and live portals.

As you know, I've been an avid wearables and personal fitness tracking nut for the better part of more than two years. Fitbit has been counting my steps and Moves has been showing where I go. But while Fitbit only counts my activity, it doesn't provide direction or give me a specific mission. Ingress does - making my steps matter, as they are pulled toward each new destination, and seemingly every turn provides yet another opportunity to take down an opponent, power up or build on my own space, or hack away and get new equipment to make me stronger. This combination has accelerated my near-constant walking and movement into personal record highs, consistent leaderboard domination, and I've fallen way behind in any regular TV watching.

There are many other sites dedicated to the gameplay of Ingress, so I won't go too deep, but at its heart, Ingress is a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. In the storyline, the Earth has been seeded with exotic matter (XM), and you either believe this XM will enlighten us all, or you will resist it. So from the very begining, you choose a side: The Resistance (blue) or The Enlightened (green).

The Two Factions of Ingress: Enlightened and Resistance

Once you pick a side, you then have three primary functions, much like other multi-player games. You can build sites for your faction, you can destroy the opposition, or you can continually farm for new equipment to make you stronger. This is done by visiting sites, known as portals, which consist largely of landmarks across the world, from water fountains to murals, sculptures, churches and standing structures. If it is something that can shape your mind and appears exotic, there's a good chance it's a portal.

Ingress is played globally as teams battle for position.

As one friend of mine tastefully said, you can't play Ingress "from the comfort of your own toilet." You have to move. And in especially dense places with plenty of landmarks, the next portal can be just another block or less away. So if you find yourself out to build, farm, destroy or explore, the only limit to how much you participate is your own time, and how long your phone can hold a charge. That's led to something of a cottage industry for Ingress players lugging around external phone battery charges so playing doesn't stop short at the worst time.

Now that Ingress has you out of your house, and walking with specific destinations, with the next stop just a little bit further away, you're being stretched. Stretched to find new places in your community you hadn't previously seen, new spots in other cities you've never visited, and it sets you up to be territorial, knowing that particular portals are valuable to you or your side.

The Denver, Colorado Ingress Scene: A Mess of Blue and Green

But if you really want to have an impact, you can't just go it alone. Even the most experienced Ingress player can't build a portal up much more than halfway to full strength, thanks to features in the game that limit your ability to power up portals. It takes two players to take a portal to 75%, three can take it to just over 80%, and in order for a portal to reach 100% strength, it take contributions from eight individual players. So you can deploy and hope, or you need to find people on your side who are often more than eager to help and build, destroy or hack together - spurred on by built-in communications in the app, or augmented through dedicated communities on Google+, Hangouts and other chat tools. There, people will arrange times to meet, secret build or teardown events, or provide updates about activity in their neighborhood.

One Los Altos portal in our neighborhood.

I recently heard somebody say you either go deep into Ingress or you don't go at all. And it's probably true. I originally didn't get the attraction, as a low level player. But now I've seen things I build at midnight before heading home get taken down at 1:30 in the morning, or by six a.m. the next day. I've started to recognize and greet players on both teams, and you learn the patterns of the game, as one faction gains control over a geography, or specific people just refuse to ever give up, and seemingly play around the clock. And once you go deep, it really becomes a numbers game, as every activity is counted. Every hack. Every deployment. Every link from portal to portal. Every field. Every destroyed opponent portal. The more numbers you get, the more abilities you have and the stronger you are against the competition, and the more they need to be prepared for you.

Joining the Enlightened on Ingress has brought destinations, goals and missions to the activity I was already doing with Fitbit. It's dramatically reduced (even further) my idle sitting time, it's made me see and enjoy experiences I hadn't yet gotten to around town and in neighboring cities, and I'm getting new relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds, who all hold at least one thing in common - that we're playing Ingress, and working to expand the minds of humanity. It's more than a game. It's the true reality. I hope you do check the game out, and see what it does to your daily routine. And while I don't mind more competition, it'd be awesome if you saw the world in a new light by joining the Enlightened.

Grab Ingress on Google Play for Android and on iTunes.

Disclosure: I work at Google, and the Niantic team works within Google.

November 25, 2014

You Can't Achieve Equality by Expecting Everyone to be the Same

There's not much a fairly privileged white guy who hails from the suburbs can say about diversity or racism without being questioned. Compared to many other people who don't hail from WASP backgrounds, most of my challenges are pretty easy. I don't come into life fighting against a biased expectation of who I am or what I'm capable of. I don't immediately find that people assume I'm not smart enough, or honest enough, or trusted enough to participate in their workplace and their communities. Things are remarkably comfortable.

Speaking up or talking about hard issues like racial bias or diversity, or calling for attentiton to inherent problems, makes it possible I'll misspeak and say something quotable where I don't want it. It's instead much easier to sit quiet and let other people fight their battles - to watch big conflicts and flareups remotely, trivializing someone else's experience, as something that's not happening here. But even in the 'burbs, and in our corporate offices, there are issues. We may not see unarmed men shot 12 times and killed in our hallways, but there are opportunities to bring down or build up our peers daily, and most of us aren't doing much to aid their quiet struggles.

Earlier this month, one of my best friends, +Erica Joy, who works with me here at +Google, talked about how bias has worked against her, as a black woman, in a predominantly white and east Asian world. Her piece "The Other Side of Diversity" removes the abstract anonymity of company statistics and tells you the direct reality of what it's like as someone who walks into a position where people may have already made their mind up about you, where your mere presence may make them uncomfortable, and where artificial limits are put on your potential.

Lunch With +Erica Joy in 2013 #throughglass
(And she'll hate that I shared this photo...)

I've known Erica for about seven years, and have been colleagues with her for the last three plus. She's the kind of person who I've always felt free to open up to and tell her just about anything. She's clever, insightful and hilarious - if you take the opportunity to know her. She's also especially thoughtful. She can be a sharp critic when our products don't work well, and she can push back on me if I say something daft that needs revision or clarification. And yet I know not everyone is open to finding out her personality, and as she spells out in her piece, as well as the follow-on "No Solution", her professional career (and personal no doubt) has been impacted, multiple times, by the shortsightedness of others.

While I may comfortably sit on the side where I don't have to fight for inclusion, it's incredibly frustrating to see this happen time and again, whether people are strong enough, like Erica, to speak up about it, or they remain in silence. For no matter how you carve up the numbers being shared from our workplaces, we have some obvious gaps in our nurturing, recruiting, hiring and retention practices - which extend a gulf in our representation of women and minorities in tech. This is a systemic issue at all levels, and while I know companies (including mine) honestly are working hard to improve things, the day to day realities can't be glossed over with an expectation of prettier futures.

Sometimes when Erica and I get together, we joke about seeing if we can hit a quota of spotting more people like her (namely black women) on campus - like the proverbial unicorn. If we can find two more (not including her) over a standard lunch visit, we've done pretty well. Sometimes, depending where we walk or where we're eating, we see more. Other times, none, as streams of geeky white guys (like me), and assorted people from all other directions walk by.

But it shouldn't be a numbers game. One shouldn't have to try and play "Where's Waldo?" to find peers who share their same background. One shouldn't have to try and mask their identity to be included, or assimilate as to not draw attention. As I read Erica's first post pre-publishing, as a friendly editor, what struck me the most from her experience was one of her last bullet points:
"I feel like I’ve lost my entire cultural identity in effort to be part of the culture I’ve spent the majority of the last decade in." -- "The Other Side of Diversity"
If you have to change who you are to fit into the culture, maybe it's the culture that needs changing. I've been lucky enough, even as a dumb white guy from the burbs, to have had some experiences in fairly open communities. I'm glad I attended UC Berkeley, which was even more diverse when I attended school there in the late 1990s than it is now, and for all its continued challenges, I believe Google has its heart in the right place to empower people from all different backgrounds, and is working on it from multiple directions. While my neighborhood isn't the picture of diversity, I've always followed and engaged with stimulating people online, no matter their racial makeup.

As a numbers exercise, I did a quick count a week-plus ago of those whom I'm connected to online. Of the 246 people I'm mutual friends with on Facebook, for example, only eight are black. That's 3.5%. If I edit the count to remove immediate family members, or colleagues, to only include friends I've hand selected as acquaintances, that goes up to 4.5%, ahead of the Santa Clara County percentage of 2.9%, but behind the California percentage of 6.6% and the national census of 13.5% or so who self identify as black. And really, what constitutes a good number anyway? I can't look at my social networks, pick a few dozen black avatars, add them to my circles and call it a day. There's no seal of approval that clarifies whether I'm part of the problem or part of the solution.

The Ferguson incident and its ongoing echoes has the topic of race back in the headlines again. And eventually our short attention spans will migrate on to some other hot issue of the day, while the family and community suffers permanent scarring. But for many of our friends and peers, this is not a one day, one week, one summer type of challenge - but a lifetime.

We can abstract the Valley's diversity issues into sets of percents, charts and graphs, and cite our efforts with dollars spent or scholarships awarded, but whatever we do, we have to keep pushing and it starts with a recognition that something is broken, and we need to be aware of it. We need to encourage people who run into these trials daily to speak up, and to please be themselves. We are better because of our differences.

November 07, 2014

Our Smartphones Have Surpassed Their Role as Computers In Our Pockets

The prevailing mantra holds that as our phones become increasingly smart and constantly connected, that we're walking around with the equivalent of computers in our pocket.

These intelligent devices can do practically everything their PC predecessors could, from email and web browsing to document sharing and creation, music and photos, and any application you can think of. In fact, I'd argue that we're not only seeing people spend more hours with their mobile devices than traditional PCs, they're more functional as well - as the smartphone has surpassed the PC. Ever try taking photos with your iMac? It's tough.

Now, instead of considering these phones and tablets as miniature computers, which are used to access our desktop content on the go, we're seeing the reverse take place. The smartphones are initiating the activity, and the desktop connects us to the results. Instead of many small computers in our pocket, our PCs are essentially larger versions of our phones - and we come to our Web browsers and desktop apps to pick up where our phones left off.

Rachio's Web site is as Functional as the App

Not too long ago, it was common to expect apps to be made for our smartphone platforms that were extensions of our Web experiences. These simple mobile apps were wrappers for our cloud-based data, or simply sucked down web pages and media, but didn't offer experiences that were enhanced by being mobile. It was just a mirror of what you could get on the desktop. However, as the app ecosystem exploded for iOS, Android and other platforms, coding for the smartphone became the primary destination and effort for new companies and ideas.

Automatic's Web dashboard leverages data from the mobile device.

You could see this evolution go in a a three step process, from "Mobile too" to "Mobile first" and in many cases now, "Mobile only." Mobile experiences can't just be a shadow of the desktop version, but instead are now carefully crafted to meet rigid design expectations, with a user experience that adapts for smaller screens, and gets better with understanding of the user's location data or other apps installed on the phone. We're spending more and more time inside of our mobile apps, which can be our primary messaging and sharing vehicle, our second screens while watching TV or using the desktop, or a constant companion - to the point we hold them in our hands as we walk everywhere, or put them out on the table in front of us wherever we may go, waiting for the next chirp to grab our attention.

Fitbit takes its data and makes smart charts and graphs on their site.

The natural evolution of this mobile first, mobile centric reality is that we're now no longer going to our phones to pick up where our desktops left off, but the reverse. And when I do end up in front of a full-sized keyboard and monitor, I'm clamoring for smart Web experiences in my browser that reflect activities that have happened on the phone. If it's a miss, I may end up closing my laptop and picking up my Nexus 5 instead.

For applications that are primarily experienced on mobile, seeing a strong Web interface that contains the same data as on mobile is a pleasant surprise. You can see this difference in the way Fitbit has worked hard to have a great Web experience to mirror mobile, while the Moves app does not. Automatic and Rachio have a workable Web experience to match their mobile version.

Managing the Nest thermostat via the Web - same as the app.

Not too long ago, trying to use the Web and get data on our phones was exasperating. We had subpar experiences, had to make excuses for short email replies, or say we'd get to something when back at the desktop. But now, often, when at the PC, you're pining for what's on the phone - even if you can send texts or make voice and video calls from the browser. It's delightful to see when the two are working in sync, and the desktop experience makes the phone experience better. As a user, I'd be delighted to see the front-end experience for the same shared back-end data become more in sync and know the devices are working well together for every service.

Disclosures: I work at Google, who is behind Android, owns Nest, and makes browsers and apps for desktop and mobile. I work on the Google Analytics team, which has a great web experience and mobile apps for Android and iOS. (The first version of this post incorrectly said Nest didn't have a strong Web interface. I was wrong.)

October 17, 2014

Fitbit Launches Challenges to Push You and Friends to Go Further

The charm of Fitbit has always been more than just counting steps and seeing how far you've meandered in your day. Even more than the virtual badges you can collect for hitting new personal records, one of the most engaging pieces of this smart wearable has been informally competing with your friends for a place atop the leaderboard, learning who is the most active, and seeing just how much further you need to go to land a spot at the top.

With a new feature rolled out quietly last week, Fitbit has formalized these challenges, encouraging you to take on your friends directly.

New on Fitbit: Challenges to Take On Small Groups of Friends

Available on the mobile app for both Android and iOS, Fitbit has started with three separate challenges for you to extract steps out of your fitness social circle - namely Weekend Warrior (for the Saturday/Sunday stomper), Daily Showdown (for 24 hours of high stepping action) and the Workweek Hustle (to get you out of the cubicle Monday through Friday).

The challenges are pretty straight forward. The clock starts ticking at midnight in the time zone of the friend who proposed the challenge. Those who accept the challenge have their steps measured against other participants, and you can see microevents of who's adding on, whether people are practically tied, or if anyone has achieved their own daily personal goals.

You can also challenge people head to head and see updates.

Like any gamified app, the expectation is that a change in the virtual world will deliver a change in the real world. If my friend takes me on a one day challenge, am I more likely to sit on the couch, or go walk a few blocks to make sure I take the gold medal? And for those of us who've amassed large friend lists in Fitbit, due to non-dramatic promiscuity, the challenges act as a way to focus on specific people or a small group. In one head to head challenge, I had a friend with a planned 15k race at the end of the day, who effectively was sandbagging his activity in an attempt to finish first. Unfortunately for him, he finished just short, as my consistent walking was too strong. After all, my competitive streak doesn't have an off mode. Challenge me here. I plan to win.

October 14, 2014

What If We Redid the 2000 .Com Monopoly Edition for Today's Web?

In the year 2000, as the .com bubble was at its peak, it seemed new tech names were going to rapidly eclipse the old guard. Emails and downloads were new conversation topics, and if you weren’t still on AOL, debates would ensue over which ISP you should choose, or which search engine or portal was the best. Sun was the dot in .com and Linux seemed poised to take over the desktop. Obviously, not everything turned out that way, even if some of the names are still around, and even strong.

The 2000 .Com Monopoly Board

One of the fun collectibles that came out of this time was a .com edition of Parker Brothers’ Monopoly. Instead of properties around Atlantic City streets, you had websites. Community Chest and Chance were replaced with Email and Download cards. And you couldn’t buy property for a few hundred bucks, as everything was in the millions of dollars. Not too soon after the game came out (and of course, I still have it), the .com market was decimated, as the companies of the future weren’t built for the present. Now the game board itself looks like a relic of a short-lived era gone by.

The 2000 List of Companies and Categories

As something of a lark, and thought exercise, let’s consider who would take these 2000 era companies’ spots on the board. I’ll go first with my take on today’s cast of characters.

Dark Purple
2000 .com Monopoly edition: and FoxSports
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Deadspin and

Commentary: Back in 2000, ESPN, as part of Disney, didn’t have a great approach at owning its web presence. It was part of the family, one reason it missed the original .com board. Now, ESPN represents sports on all media. Deadspin is an exceptional alternative with sharp commentary that is a must read for serious sports fans. (Apologies to SB Nation)

Light Blue
2000 .com Monopoly edition: GeoCities, Oxygen and iVillage
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Pinterest, SnapChat, and WhatsApp

Commentary: The 2000 edition definitely had a bent toward community. With iVillage and Oxygen, two of the three properties were focused on women. GeoCities didn’t age well and was retired. Pinterest, SnapChat and WhatsApp have become some of the fastest growing communities for pretty much all ages and both genders.

Light Purple
2000 .com Monopoly edition:, and E! Online
2014 .com Monopoly edition: TMZ, Buzzfeed and Reddit

Commentary: Shockwave? Really. Let’s move on. For fun entertainment and burning hours of Web surfing, TMZ, Buzzfeed and Reddit can’t be beat. Reddit is a tough one to categorize, as it calls itself the Web’s front page, but it’s knocked off Digg, Slashdot and others for that title.

2000 .com Monopoly edition: Priceline, Expedia and eBay
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Square, PayPal and Yelp

Commentary: eBay could easily be a repeat in 2000 and 2014. Priceline and Expedia are still doing fine. But Square and PayPal are how the Web does business these days, while Yelp is often the place to go for recommendations on what to buy or where to go.

2000 .com Monopoly edition: The Weather Channel, and CNET
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Dropbox, Instagram and Tumblr

Commentary: looks like a content farm, and while CNET’s still alive and kicking, there’s been nothing to talk about since its CBS acquisition. The Weather Channel? Please. There’s an app for that. And more than just finding content sites, anybody can create and share content globally with apps like Instagram, sites like Tumblr and share it on Dropbox. (Apologies to WordPress, Box and others)

2000 .com Monopoly edition: eTrade, and Marketwatch
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Wikipedia, LinkedIn and Twitter

Commentary: and eTrade were monsters in 2000. I still use eTrade regularly, but they’re not known for their monkey-centric Super Bowl ads any more. Marketwatch is a snooze. Now, people get their financial and business data from each other via LinkedIn, in real time on Twitter, and check its veracity on Wikipedia. (Apologies to Seeking Alpha and StockTwits).

2000 .com Monopoly edition: Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista and Lycos
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Microsoft, Amazon and Apple

Commentary: In 2000, Search engines took the entire final row of the Monopoly board. But the positions of Alta Vista, Lycos and Ask Jeeves weren’t strong against innovators that got stronger in the next decade. Now, diverse infrastructure plays like Microsoft, Amazon and Apple (for many reasons each) occupy this highly valuable section of the board.

Dark Blue
2000 .com Monopoly edition: Excite@Home and Yahoo!
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Google and Facebook

Commentary: That Yahoo! was the Boardwalk of 2000 is telling. Excite@Home was a $6.7 billion megamerger in 1999, but by 2001 was pretty much in steep decline. Without intending too much bias toward my current employer, Google and Facebook are the 1-2 when it comes to the Web today, from the top destinations to hours spent, tools deployed, etc - and both play a role in discovery for everyone.

2000 .com Monopoly edition: Nokia, MCI Worldcom, Sprint and AT&T
2014 .com Monopoly edition: Verizon, Comcast, Netflix and YouTube

Commentary: Worldcom? Whoops. Nokia? Whoops. Things change, and companies don’t always adapt quickly. The megalopoly of AT&T is now most like Comcast’s ISP/cable monolith, and Verizon (including their FIOS offering) is the big carrier to be dealt with. Fighting the good fight, and using a ton of bandwidth in the process are Netflix and YouTube, which are essential media mediums on every device.

2000 .com Monopoly edition: Linux and Sun Microsystems
2014 .com Monopoly edition: WiFi and Cloud

Commentary: We’re still waiting for the year of the Linux desktop, and Sun is now somewhere in Oracle’s beautiful campus. But while you could take a stab at a language or a platform, like Python, Ruby on Rails, or even PHP, generically its best said that the storing of data and access to that data are the true utilities of 2014. Pervasive WiFi (or 3G/4G) and Cloud power every app and every site.

Summary: The Web is dramatically larger, and more global, now than it was less than two decades ago. This admittedly English-first version of the .com Monopoly for 2014 misses out on the international communities like Baidu, AliBaba and others. There’s no place for the Uber and Lyft rivalry, and while Tumblr was included, it’s hard to put Yahoo! on the board, which probably isn’t 100% fair. I wanted to find a spot for Spotify and Hulu, but failed. I’d be ecstatic to see if Parker Brothers was up for another run at the web centric board, and you know I’d buy it.

Disclosures: I work at Google, which is a customer, partner and competitor with many of the names on this board. Putting them on a Monopoly board is not an opening for the company (or any other on the board) being a monopoly joke.

October 13, 2014

Cloud Powered Near Instant PC, Mobile Upgrades Are the New Reality

Buying a new computer or getting a new phone used to be a huge pain. Even if everything was up and running right away, you had to plan for hours, or even days, of moving all your data from the old device to the new one. And if you didn’t successfully complete the data migration, or had sufficient paranoia, you could end up with old devices cluttering your home - just in case you might need to get that old content. But with so much of our data moving from local disks to the cloud, and new operating systems improving their sync and account setup, the day of hot swapping devices is here.

As you know, for the past few years, our home has been a ChromeOS and Android family. This started well before I joined Google, and as each OS gets smarter, that move looks to have been the right one - especially when it comes to this issue.

Samsung's 2012 Chromebook Got Bumped for the 2014 HP.

Last week, thanks to a sale on, I purchased a new HP 14 inch Chromebook for my wife. One evening, as she was using the 2012-era 11 inch Samsung Chromebook, I told her to close her eyes. I took her old laptop and put the new one in her lap, and when she signed in, she didn’t miss a beat. All her bookmarks were there, even down to the tabs she had open in her browser. With one move, and for the same $200 or so I spent two years ago, she got a faster device, double the RAM, and a larger, more vibrant screen, with no headaches around data.

There was no question of whether she had to back up photos, or copy her songs. No dragging and dropping off folders and documents. It just worked, exactly as I had expected it to. And the next morning, when she had to print to our networked printer, she just told the browser to print, and the printer was listening. No printer drivers, and not even a memory of a CD-Rom or DVD. It just worked.

Meanwhile, on mobile, the story is much the same. Whether it’s due to an accidental drop (which has happened in our home more than once), or a required factory reset thanks to trying new software before it’s ready (that’s also happened), starting over with a new phone or starting the phone over from scratch is no big deal any more either. Signing into my account brings my account information, access to my data, my apps, and my preferences.

In the storage industry, we used to talk about hot swappable units - which would enable upgrades without reboots or interruption of access to data. The dream of upgrading servers, disks, arrays or network equipment without downtime was rarely achieved, but often talked about. On the consumer side, many of us have grown accustomed to the inevitable pains that come with getting new devices or even upgrading those devices from one system version to the next, and it doesn’t have to be this way any more.

Standard Disclosures: I work at Google, the company behind ChromeOS, Android, and great tools that help you sync your content between devices. You can assume I prefer cloud-based data.

September 30, 2014

Automatic and Fitbit Data Show My Car Use Down 50% as Steps Are Up 33%

It seems fairly logical that if you walk everywhere, you're probably driving less. But even as I've been on something of a Fitbit kick since early 2012, I've reached even higher highs in the last month-plus, and increased my daily goal to 15,000 steps (from 12,000), thanks to one simple change - opting to leave my car at home each workday and benefit from one of Google's most visible perks, taking the company shuttle.

Looking at the data from Automatic, my dashboard shows I'm on pace to have set a new low for both miles driven and money spent on gas, this month, a full fifty percent below previous months. And even without the aggressive late evening walks I was orginally doing when losing my extra weight at the end of 2012, my step counts are up more than 30 percent from just a few months ago. You might think that's not worthy of a blog post, but the available data, and correlation from this simple life change is easy to document.

A new low for driving costs in September (via Automatic)

Prior to taking the shuttle, my routine was fairly simple. I'd walk the twins to school, drive to work, walk a bit to lunch and do usual scurrying from meeting to meeting, and get home well short of 10,000 steps. To hit my target of 12,000, I'd still have to head out at night and get the steps in. But now, after walking the twins to school, I head back home to get the laptop, and walk the mile plus to the nearest shuttle stop instead. I work on the shuttle until reaching campus, and by the time I'm at my desk, I've racked up 5,000 to 6,000 steps. I can easily hit 10,000 after walking to and from lunch, and by the time I head home, I'm close to 15,000 steps - good enough for reaching my higher goal. And if I want to head out, be it to walk our dogs or play with the kids or anything else, I'm just padding on, getting closer to 20,000 without too much effort.

Hitting 20k on Fitbit isn't an ordeal with a new shuttle routine.

Meanwhile, my poor car is sitting neglected. Instead of driving into work and doing battle with other Bay Area commuters, the shuttle driver is escorting me (and my colleagues) while I catch up on email, keep our social channels updated, and generally get my first 20-30 minutes of work in - while I'd probably just be listening to the radio and stuck in traffic on the old routine.

When I first got the Automatic dongle back in April, I was intrigued by it catching me going too quickly or doing other bad behaviors while on the road that might cut into my gas mileage. But with few exceptions, the occasional chirp hasn't really impacted me. If I'm on 280, I'm going to drive over 70. It's what the road was made for. And if I'm driving to an A's game in Oakland, there's no question I'll have to hit the brakes occasionally, to avoid making traffic worse. But having the accumulative dashboard is even more valuable. I'm not at the point where I'd consider getting rid of the car, and sharing my wife's minivan, but there are some weeks where I might not even start the car. Google Shopping Express handles almost all our shopping, and we can walk almost everywhere else.

Earlier this month, I hit 60k steps, a new record. Some day I'll get 100k.

Meanwhile, in Fitbit land, thanks to being pretty consistent about promoting this socially connected pedometer for the last two-plus years, I'm continuing to enjoy the daily and weekly competitions, literally around the world. +Thomas Power in London is now tweeting his daily step counts, and harrassing me if I fall behind. In something of a response, a few weeks back I made walking an all day thing, and hit a new personal best of 60,000+ steps. It just took walking on the treadmill while watching TV, and then a stroll to Mountain View after the kids were in bed. It was to prove I could do it, and put the rest of my competition in their place. No car was needed. The new goal? Some day I'll hit 100,000. I just need to get a free day from my wife, and walk around the clock.

So if you're looking for me, I won't be in the car. Find me on Fitbit instead.