Takeaways from Alexa Dev Day, Bangalore
Voice-based interfaces are all in rage right now. On one side tech is being driven by Machine Learning. On the other side, speech-to-text, text-to-speech and Natural Language Understanding are complementing it from the perspective of user interfaces. This is not to say that keyboards and touchscreens are going to go away. It does suggest that there are many applications where sight and touch can be freed for parallel tasks while you converse with your apps using voice.
Some of the speech agents that power voice-based interfaces are Siri, Alexa and Cortana, just to name the well-known ones. Today I had the chance to attend Alexa Dev Day organized by Amazon Alexa team. Similar events are scheduled to happen all across the world in the coming weeks. The event hall was packed, mostly with developers, and mostly with those who already owned Echo devices. I found this to be the key differentiator with Alexa. Amazon has managed to get Echo devices into a number of homes and offices. Early adopters perhaps bought them for the novelty factor but thanks to them, basic uses cases have been shown to work. Now there's sufficient interest from developers to reach this bunch of Echo owners and beyond to interest them with innovative apps. Novelty therefore is moving from Echo hardware to apps powered by Alexa. I met someone trying to do railway ticket bookings with Alexa. A couple of guys from Sulekha are exploring voice-based hyperlocal searches. Another person is looking to give first-aid advice and emergency care.
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Until a few years ago, for many decades, telecom operators had been claiming that all they provided was a "dumb pipe". It was not their concern what those pipes carried; and they were not responsible for content that was served or consumed at both ends of the pipe. Their main goal was to ensure that the pipes had enough bandwidth to serve average and peak traffic requirements. All was well and good until over-the-top (OTT) content starting dominating the market. Such content bypassed legacy circuit-switched services and value-added services provided by the operators.
Indeed telecom operators started to lose both ends of the bargain. They now wanted control over the content and charge a premium but all they could collect from their customers was for bare bits and bytes. In a price-sensitive market, "unlimited plans" became the order of the day. When OTT content became predominant, operator revenues started to drop. Content also became rich in multimedia, particularly video that congested backhaul links. Operators couldn't afford to upgrade these backhauls. Yes, operators were providing dumb pipes but apparently even these had a hard time keeping up with demand.
Plus an exciting quiz on IoT
IoT Project Day is our quarterly event. It's an event for exchanging knowledge, inspiring others and networking with peers. It really doesn't matter how trivial the project, we give chance to everyone to showcase what they have built, get feedback, learn and iterate. By having college students and industry folks on the same platform, students become aware of industry trends and project opportunities. As usual, we are happy to have it at Microsoft, Bangalore, and we thank them for opening up their venue for this purpose. We also thank all presenters who gave demos and withstood the barrage of tough questions from the audience!
Development is more than just writing code
Technology is changing so fast that it's becoming hard to keep track of what's new or where it's going. It's typical for a developer to invest a few weeks learning a framework, a productivity tool or a new language, only to be told to her annoyance that there's something better and shinier that has came out just two days ago. Often there's no clear-cut comparison to suggest that one choice of technology stack is better than another. Developer skill-sets, community support, open libraries, documentation, cost, and application requirements are some factors that influence that choice. The problem has become so acute that some developers spend days or even weeks researching and get indecisive. Wouldn't it be nice to have a place that introduces technology to beginners?
When I say "beginner" I don't mean in the sense of someone in college or just starting his career. You could have years of experience in one technology and still be a beginner in Data Science, Big Data, Virtual Reality, IoT or any of dozens of new technologies that are coming up. I've found from personal experience that often initiations are in the form of Getting Started Guides, Setup & Installation Guides or Hello World examples. This fails because it's telling folks how to use something rather than explaining what it is or why it's relevant.
Image source: Kumar, M., 2013, ‘Digital Privacy, Internet Surveillance, and The PRISM – Enemies of the Internet’, The Hacker News; Security in a Serious Way.
The world we have built around us is due to human ingenuity as well as engineering skills. Tools play an important role in this. It's not an exaggeration to say that most engineers think about the tools at their disposal before starting to give form to their ideas. To sculpt something, you need first good chisel and hammer. To build a bridge, you need precision measuring instruments. To dig a tunnel, you need a boring machine. In today's digital economy, you need connected servers, software platforms and algorithms.
Tools improve both efficiency and effectiveness. The problem with the use of tools is the intent. A knife can be used to cut fruit or to kill your neighbour. A cook and an arsonist use fire in very different ways. Now imagine what will happen when a powerful tool is created with bad intent but the public is told that it is for their good. Aadhaar seems to be in this category.
An opinion on the diversity of cloud services
I've just returned from AWS Summit held at Taj Vivanta, Bangalore. It was a busy day of multiple back-to-back sessions interspersed with networking over tea, coffee and lunch. The venue was packed. The sessions were heavy, at least for someone like me who has never used AWS in any big way. I was familiar with some of the terms before coming to this event but I was surprised how much more there is to the AWS platform. They say that as a developer you can focus on developing your application while the cloud takes care of everything else: deployment, configuration, scaling, security, access control, monitoring, etc. While this is certainly true in the long term, as developers we need to put in upfront investment in terms of time and effort to understand the plethora of services that a particular cloud platform provides.
They say there are 90+ services in AWS. It's bad enough that developers need to aware of all these different services at their disposal. It's worse when you consider that making the choice of the right set of services for your application isn't trivial. This is particularly hard for folks used to only on-premise software built in monolithic fashion. We have to be really clear what we mean by the word "monolithic", which is usually not properly explained in such summits.
Payments made easy
It was in December 2016 that the BHIM app was launched by our Prime Minister. BHIM couldn't have asked for better timing. It came at the heels of demonetization when all of India was focusing on cashless payments. Cash was in short supply and alternative means of payments were in demand. About two months later, YourStory carried a story about 27-year old Nikhil Kumar who had apparently built the BHIM app in just three weeks. A few days ago Nikhil Kumar spoke at a small gathering of enthusiasts at Thought Factory, Bangalore. I attended mostly to know about UPI and BHIM but also partly out of curiosity to see the man behind the app.
I am yet to install the BHIM app on my smartphone. While I'm not a Luddite who stands against the advance and adoption of technology, I'm certainly not an early adopter. Since I know the engineering side of things, experience tells me that early releases are prone to contain bugs. Particularly in today's world of MVP releases and lean/agile processes, no one waits for a well-tested product. First releases will certainly contain problems when test-driven methodologies are not followed; or test automation has been sidelined due to more pressing delivery deadlines. So I haven't been using BHIM but I certainly wanted to know what it was.
The new kid on the block
The emerging IoT industry is an aggregation of products and services, complementing each other to enable efficiency and cost optimization in multiple industries. It does not have a vertically oriented value chain. IoT end nodes will be scattered in billions in various industries.
As mentioned in my earlier post ARM vs Intel: The new war frontiers, COTS processors will not be ideal for building these end nodes, as the latter are application specific. Companies would be inclined to adopt custom processors as they offer flexibility to assemble only required parts. These parts can include analogue sensor, DSP, proprietary IP, etc. Further, custom processors substantially reduce BoM cost and die size, which will minimize power dissipation. It also helps companies to differentiate their product from those of their competitors. In view of failing Moore’s Law, customization is the answer as it can reduce the BoM cost significantly.