on{X}

A couple of weeks ago I came back from a great trip to visit my very talented and hip team at the Microsoft Israel Development Center in Tel Aviv.  Excitement was running high as we geared up for the launch of on{X}, which I can now talk about, as it went live today.  Here’s the “trailer”:

 

Eran, the team lead, already wrote a nice and detailed blog post for the website talking about on{X}’s capabilities, so probably I should just stick with the link.  I can’t resist reiterating some of his points, though, and giving a bit of my own color.

Sometime in the middle of the last decade, it became clear to everyone that mobile phones aren’t appliances or pieces of single-function consumer electronics, but rather are little personal computers— small enough to keep in your pocket, and with just enough battery to stay on the whole day.  I think that because of a kind of metaphor hysteresis, the implications of this still haven’t fully sunk in; we still call this device a “phone”, which is the same name we give to the fixed-function radio handsets some of us still have docked in a cradle on the kitchen counter… which are in turn nothing but “cordless” versions of their midcentury forebears, which in turn consisted of nothing but a speaker, a microphone, some wire, and some kind of dialing apparatus encased in a Bakelite shell.  Even that silly word we use in America, “wireless”, sounds like more or less a synonym for “cordless”.

So we now agree that it’s not really a phone, but rather a telephony-capable pocket computer.  To call it a “phone” is an unnatural act of metonymy akin to calling a toolchest a screwdriver.  Think of how funny it sounds to say “my phone comes with a phone app preinstalled”.

One oddity about this pocket computer idea is that unlike the bigger computers those of us who like to hack have grown up enjoying, smartphones still inherit much of the fixed-function thinking that pervades consumer electronics.  Deep in the phone’s OS is a kind of dispatching or command-and-control system, a switchboard, that takes all of those wonderful sensors and capabilities and organizes them into rigidly predefined appliance-like behaviors: when the always-on radio detects an incoming phone call, launch the phone app.  When there’s an incoming SMS, launch the SMS app.  You don’t need to know that there’s an app for that, because the phone itself does.

What if you could open up that switchboard on your own device and rewire it to do whatever you want?  With all of those sensors and capabilities, and all the power of the Internet, one should be able to do a lot more than perform fixed phone-like functions and run apps.

This is especially interesting when it involves the automation of actions based on events on the phone or in the world, which one could call “push” or “reactive” behaviors.  (This is to distinguish them from “pull” behaviors, which are characterized by beginning with an explicit user action with intent— for these cases, the app model works well.)  We think there’s great untapped potential in push and reactive programming.  The sample scenarios and scripts we’ve put on the site begin to explore the possibilities, but we imagine that the developer community will come up with a much, much larger set.  That’s why we didn’t restrict on{X} to prescripted rules, but rather made it possible for anyone with JavaScript skills to hack a new behavior.  This thinking (and of course our choice of scripting language) is very much inspired by node.js.

The most exciting thing about this project, for me, will be seeing what people do with this wide-open field.  Makers, have at it!

In the meantime, we’ll be busily adding capabilities and sharing ideas.

3am update: apparently we’ve just made AppBrain’s top 10 hottest Android apps :)


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4 Responses to on{X}

  1. Anonymous Coward says:

    No, not more push capabilities! Push is synonymous with disrupt. Life has too many disruptions as it is and once you open a conduit, people will find a way to abuse it.

    • blaise says:

      Based on both the comment and the IP address, Anonymous Coward, I’m guessing you’re my father :) I agree that push can easily be abused, but keep in mind that on{X} is purely about automation of one’s own device– like setting an alarm, except that the conditions for the alarm can be much more general than a time– they can be, for example, a place, or a sensory stimulus– and the result can be much more general than an alarm bell– e.g. sending a text message. You can only spam yourself :)

  2. PHONE, DEVICE, HANDHELD, PUSH & PULL …ranting on the portable cranium

    The notes section of my device is thousands deep. Notes weigh more than the ten thousand contacts or hundred thousand images, if “weight” was how we valued them.

    Though it is powerful to have my own personal tap to the “massive web brain” it is not that feature of our handhelds, that I treasure most. (Not the fact that the device can grab “key data” from the ether and tickle my head with an elevator operator’s name… just in the nick of time, -to warmly greet her. )

    Though it is almost sorcery that I carry a good “eye” in my pocket. A good eye that is a master of the millisecond and an eye that can make moments stick, forever poke-able and conjur-able and load-up-able to the cranial blur that is both mind and a web. Yes, that has an occult kind of magic to it, but it is not what I treasure most.

    Most treasured, in this age of prizes, is that my device has become a place where I can leave things. Particular things. Things that evaporate quickly. Things that I think are germs. Germs that I want to keep. Though undeveloped ideas appear as spats and spews to others, having a place to spew and to then later go back and find the spew is why my little device of a brain stays in my pocket.

    When I see the yellow notes “cranial moan” “standing on liquid” “Is this the person you dreamed you would be when you were a child?” …..I deem my device the title (etch hum) “Royal Carrier of the Thread” and I think, hearing that, my device is proud to know that I couldn’t live without them as well.

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