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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