Monday, October 23, 2017

Triby

Several years ago, France’s Invoxia introduced what seemed like a novel product: a little smart speaker called Triby that was one of the first third-party devices to have Amazon’s Alexa baked in.

But the world of tech gadgets moves fast. And while having a voice-activated device in the home was unusual in 2015, now Invoxia faces a market in which tech giants on all sides are pushing voice-activated smart speakers, from Apple’s HomePod with Siri to Google Home powered by Google Assistant. And, of course, Amazon’s own line of Alexa-driven Echo gadgets continues to expand. Somewhere in the middle is Sonos, which has recently announced a new speaker that will work with Alexa, and eventually with Google Assistant.

So how can a small, independent player like Invoxia stay in the game?

The company offered its response to that question today with the release of a new version of the Triby. The general shape of the device is the same as that of its predecessor: a box with curved corners, a handle at the top, and a magnet on the back designed to attach to the refrigerator. As with the previous version, users can send short messages, use it to make calls to pre-set numbers, and stream music from services like Spotify. It retains its casual playfulness. And the price is still $199.

But Invoxia CEO Serge Renouard is hoping two things will help set the Triby apart: its portability and its ability to serve as a voice-activated hub for Apple’s HomeKit. The speaker has a rechargeable battery that frees it from being constantly plugged in. And having both Apple and Alexa features potentially makes it more appealing to folks who don’t want to be locked into just one ecosystem.

“The Triby becomes one of the first portable HomeKit switches,” he said. “You don’t need to have your iPhone with you anymore.”

The speaker has five buttons on the front that can be associated with different features. Users can assign the “scenes” they create on their HomeKit app to one of the Triby buttons. So, for instance, one button could activate a scene that turns on certain lights, changes the temperature, and activates other appliances.

For those who are a bit more technically minded, the Triby will also work with the IFTTT home automation protocol.

Of course, Renouard knows that home automation is primarily of interest for the earliest of adopters and is limited to those with the resources to install connected gadgets and appliances around the home. Still, the shift to a focus on home automation is a next step in carving out a distinct role for the Triby.


“It has become difficult,” Renouard said. “[Competitors] all have enhanced products. And there are a lot of new brands, like Sonos, that will support Alexa or Google. It’s a real challenge for us. And that’s why we don’t try to just rely on the voice recognition stuff. We probably address a very limited population. But we address the tech people who were already interested in connected devices. That’s a population that’s very familiar with these technologies, and they’re open to new products.”

Friday, October 20, 2017

New ZTE Dual-Screen Phone


Leading Chinese mobile devices provider ZTE launched a dual-screen foldable smartphone in the United States on Tuesday, marking another milestone for the company as it seeks market expansion overseas.

The latest flagship device, named Axon M, features two 5.2-inch screens that can be folded to the size of a traditional smartphone.


The phone has three unique modes to accommodate various users' needs.

With dual mode, the users can open different apps on each screen simultaneously. For example, one could watch a basketball game on one screen and order a pizza on the other.

When extended, the two screens can become one larger screen and offer game or video experience similar to that of a tablet.

The mirror mode provides people the option of sitting across each other and watching the same content on one device.

"The Axon M creates an entirely new foldable smartphone category, one that ZTE is committed to invest and lead the way in," said Lixin Cheng, CEO of ZTE Mobile Devices.

He said revolutionary model will also be available in China, Europe and Japan, and ZTE has partnered with major carriers and e-commerce platforms including AT&T, China telecom, jd.com, and NTT Docomo to market the model around the world.

Starting from November, AT&T customers will be able to purchase the Axon M for 24.17 U.S. dollars for 30 months on AT&T Next.

"Our customers continue to demand more from their mobile entertainment experience. Pairing DIRECTV with the dual screen capabilities of the ZTE Axon M will deliver a new and transformative way to enjoy the entertainment they want on the network they need," said Kevin Petersen, SVP of Device and Network Services Marketing, AT&T Entertainment Group.

Many of the ZTE customers have already been looking forward to buying Axon M and some say they believe in the future of foldable dual-screen devices.

"I'm very excited for Axon M because I want to be able to multitask with the device, watching video while reading emails or texting messages on the other screen," said Pete, who purchased his first ZTE smartphone, Axon 7, last year.

"While they (ZTE) are still behind Samsung and Apple, they are gaining market share with their lower-tier devices," he said, adding that he believes the brand is also gaining more presence with its higher-tier devices.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Privacy

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to resolve a major privacy dispute between the Justice Department and Microsoft over whether prosecutors should get access to emails stored on company servers overseas.

The justices will hear the Trump administration’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling last year preventing federal prosecutors from obtaining emails stored in Microsoft computer servers in Dublin, Ireland in a drug trafficking investigation.

That decision by the New York-based 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals marked a victory for privacy advocates and technology companies that increasingly offer cloud computing services in which data is stored remotely. Prosecutors say a ruling in favor of Microsoft could undermine a range of criminal investigations.

Microsoft, which has 100 data centers in 40 countries, was the first U.S. company to challenge a domestic search warrant seeking data held outside the country. There have been several similar challenges, most brought by Google.

“If U.S. law enforcement can obtain the emails of foreigners stored outside the United States, what’s to stop the government of another country from getting your emails even though they are located in the United States?” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said in a blog post on Monday.

A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Smartphone Sales

iOS and Samsung’s U.S. market share is now tied, following growth for Apple’s smartphone OS over the three months ending in August, based on new data from Kantar Wordpanel, which tracks smartphone market share by way of sales data. According to its analysis, iOS is up 3.7 percentage points year-over-year, to achieve 35 percent market share, while Samsung only grew 0.8 points, reaching a 35.2 percent share.

Kantar says that weaker sales through Verizon hurt Samsung, while Apple reached nearly a 50 percent with that carrier — the U.S.’s largest. That’s higher than its share with AT&T, the firm pointed out, which has been a traditional stronghold for the iPhone.

The increased iPhone sales in the U.S. also came one month before the release of the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus — interesting to note, given that, sometimes, device sales slump ahead of the expected launch of new hardware.

But it’s also worth pointing out that while Samsung and iOS may now be tied, Android is still far ahead in the U.S., with a 63.2 percent share to iOS’s 35 percent.

That said, iOS is growing elsewhere, too.

iOS posted growth in China, Germany, France and Spain, but dropped in the U.K., where Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and J3 (2016) have been selling well. Overall, iOS market share was up by 1.2 percent in Europe’s five largest markets — only a slight increase due to Samsung’s success in the U.K., and some slowed momentum ahead of the new iPhone announcement.

“Samsung took full advantage of the weeks just before the iPhone 8 and iPhone X were released in Great Britain, with significant promotional activity that helped drive its overall share to a three-year high of 38.4% for the three months ending August 2017,” explained Dominic Sunnebo, Global Business Unit Director at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, in a statement.

“More than one in four Galaxy S8 buyers cited a specific promotion as a key purchase influencer, and almost half said that a good deal on the price of the phone was key to their purchase. Both of these metrics experienced a large increase over the last two months of the period,” he added.

Strong iPhone SE sales, however, helped to contribute the slight growth seen in the top European markets.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Rapidx

By Bayle Emlein

Rapidx offers several small appliances to improve your motoring experience. The company name is based on their lead-off product, the Xscape. It looks like an ordinary dual-port USB adapter for your car, but has added features for emergencies: a seat belt cutter under the clip and at the power tip a safety hammer that can break through side window glass. The USB ports make it convenient enough that you are likely to have the Xscape where you can reach it should you need the emergency features.


Recognizing that we are not always solo in our cars, Rapidx developed the X-5. It has two 2.4A USB ports on the power jack for the front seat and three USB ports on the extension that reaches to the back seat: Up to 5 people can charge at once. You might not be able to give a new car for the holidays, but you can stuff several stockings with an X-5 in orange, red, green, or blue to match or contrast with the interior or exterior decor.


Their Dashio universal magnetic car mount is another Rapidx tool designed to make your mobile life easier. Stick the mount to any flat surface and then use its magnet to quickly and securely mount your smartphone or tablet in your car, boat, home, garage, or office. The 360° swivel design means you can easily rotate your device to any position.

Rapidx is trying something completely different with its MoodX wireless light. The light comes with a cork base that you use to create the lamp of your choice, for example using a jar or bottle. Depending on the brightness you choose, you get 4 to 40 hours of continuous 250 lumen (25 watt) light per charge cycling through the colors of the rainbow. Shake three times to turn it on, shake three times to turn it off. Waterproof and self contained, the MoodX lights can be used indoors or out without concern for the location of wall sockets.

Monday, October 16, 2017

More From Innovate and Celebrate

By Bayle Emlein

Sports Innovation
The October 9-11 INNOVATE and CELEBRATE event in San Francisco, co sponsored by the Consumer Technology Association and TechCo, highlighted trends and trajectories as well as the new and emerging initiatives that are just starting to see the light of day. Sports is a major passion world wide. Tech is changing how sports are  played and marketed.
Panel member Portia Blunt, Senior Digital Sport and Wearables Innovation Manager for New Balance pointed out that the New Balance brand is built on the notion of innovation and helping athletes meet their goals. Embedded technology and data analysis are now key to targeted, individualized modifications.
Mounir Zok, Director of Technology & Innovation for the U.S. Olympic Committee added that technology is helping put US Olympic competitors in a position to win. Most of the time it’s the difference between Silver and Gold but sometimes it's the difference between Gold and 12th place. Technology is a part of each athlete’s life. Technology captures body data and personalized use of technology helps each achieve individual goals. Technology that starts with elite athletes becomes available to the general public to enhance performance and life-long general health. One size does not fit all, and different users will employ a single device differently and make different uses of the data.

Investment options are also looking at improving the fan experience. How can technology enhance it?  The fan experience in stadiums might be enhanced by being able to reserve your space in line at the snack bar. Reserve parking before the event.  Just as the current tech landscape couldn’t be envisioned 10 years ago, it’s hard to imagine what tech will offer us in 10 years. (If any builders of the future are reading, how about an app that will GPS me to the shortest restroom line in a stadium or theater? And another one that provides just-in-time paper supplies.)

Friday, October 13, 2017

Innovate and Celebrate Celebration

By Bayle Emlein

A 3 day global celebration of innovation and entrepreneurship, originating in San Francisco

The Consumer Technology Association does so much more than sponsor CES, the premier B2B lollapalooza in Las Vegas each January. In its second year, INNOVATE/CELEBRATE brings together the ideas that will be making news at CES. Partnering with TECH.CO to not only provide ideas that have developed to market-readiness a forum but also to provide mentoring, funding information, and individualized support in moving from inspiration to marketabiity.
Frank Gruber, CEO and founder of TechCo reported on the selection process for companies seeking the honor of being among the final 100.  To show the kinds of opportunities that might evolve, NASA sends representatives to both provide input as to what is needed and also to gain inspiration.   

Gary Shapiro, President and CEO of CTA reported two significant developments from Washington that represent not only progress but also wins for consumers: legislation that defines hearing aids as over-the-counter consumer products, rather than as high-priced medical devices. Also, states will individually be able to regulate self-driving vehicles.
Gary reported on the renewed focus on making life better, healthier, and more informed via technology and innovation.  Technology empowers people and equalizes opportunities. As old jobs disappear, new jobs that empower not only the users but also the workers in new industries. It is critical that new ideas get exposure with the fewest bureaucratic barriers.
   
Senior Vice President and General Manager of New Technology Group at Intel Corp, Josh Walden, keynoted how data-driven innovation is “the new oil” for the post-industrial economy. A smart world is a connected world, and we are rushing to a more connected world. Not just data, but analysis of data, drives innovation.  Josh leads Intel’s  New Technology Group to identify nascent technologies both within Intel and partnering with other companies. His horizon is 5 to 10 years. Initiatives that are not consistent with the Intel mission might be spun off, with funding support through Intel Capital.  It is critical that companies working together have congruent missions and vision.

Drone technologies are nascent technologies, but they are already saving time (=money) and lives. They can easily perform inspections where humans cannot go. This is consistent of the core Intel value of improving the experience of being human. The Intel Insight platform enables drone operators to analyze data and create actionable information. For example,  it can already report on vegetation encroachment in places like railroad tracks and power lines. It will eventually be able to report on developing  infrastructure problems before they become disasters. Because of regulatory barriers in the US, Europe currently leads in opportunities for testing and development.

Partnering with established leaders as well as with start-ups, Intel continues to seek to fill in gaps in the developing landscape.

Amy Jo Martin, Author of Renegades Write the Rules interviewed COO of GoPro, CJ Prober. CJ recapped this fall’s launch. Quick Stories automatically offloads GoPro content to your phone. The next feature of the announcement is the Hero 6 camera. The final announcement was the first GoPro 360 camera.  The Hero 6 edits automatically and highlights the most interesting content.
GoPro took off as a popular item. Just before their IPO, they began expanding not only as a company but also in devices. Customers were confused and the company was in financial trouble. Under CJ’s leadership, GoPro has flattened the organization and refocused on customer experience and content. Focusing on a few priorities and continually sharing information transparently helped GoPro return to profitability with minimal delay and the least pain possible.

The GoPro vision is that the camera is as an untethered lens to your phone. This makes sharing easier and more natural.

Amy Jo asked CJ about his personal operating system. It’s very organized and focused. Amy Jo then asked about common themes in the big decisions of CJ’s life. One that he could identify is following his passion. He is super analytical in planning, but in the end he pays attention to his gut. Regular physical activity is how he maintains perspective.

“What keeps you up at night?” asked Amy Jo. CJ’s answer:  striking a balance between growth and innovation and company focus.

Amy Jo’s final question for CJ asked what advice he would give his earlier self. He answered that maintaining focus was important. Team health has been critical, especially in the light of the layoffs necessary to return to profitability.

CTA’s Five Technology Trends to Watch, Jeff Joseph, Senior Vice President for Communications and Strategic Partnerships, CTA noted that the future of work will be increasingly automated and connected. Even garbage collectors will need new skills. STEM education ensures that the workforce of the future will be ready.

A second trend will lead to 5G smarthomes being as normal as indoor plumbing is today.

Justin Fishin, COO of Local Motors described how crowd-sourced vehicles and microfactories have changed the face of mobility. Safer transportation addresses the world’s number one cause of death in young adults: traffic accidents. In 2014 Local Motors introduced the world’s first 3D printed vehicle. Their goal is to be able to deliver a vehicle to customized consumer specs within a day. A traveler could choose the features that are needed for any kind of driving experience.

Crowd-sourcing a problem from a large manufacturer enables Local Motors to find solutions quickly. Olli, the autonomous trolley, is one example.

The Local Motors vision is to create many local microfactories,creating jobs at dispersed facilities. They are also focusing on creating the world’s most accessible vehicle.

Holly Liu, Co-founder and Chief of Staff at Kabam global gaming company. She addressed challenges and lessons learned as the company has grown.

In the founding phase of a company, innovation is natural. The company is unknown, and you have a lot of freedom. It's easy to re-invent yourself, you can see your impact quickly. In this phase, it’s more important to have a few users who love you than gazillions who sort of like you.
In the growth phase, it’s important to have enough resources to manage expanded use. Real competition provides solid impetus for growth.

As it goes to scale, building a company becomes focused on the organization rather than the product. Maintaining innovation becomes an issue. Focus on real users, reduced reporting, adequate resources, a system that works for the particular company all help to keep innovation alive as a company expands.

Cybersecurity is one of five technology trends to watch. Michael Hermus, Chief Technology, Department of Homeland Security, was interviewed by Jeff  Joseph, Senior Vice President of Communications and Strategic Partnerships with the Consumer Technology Association. INNOVATE and CELEBRATE hosted a Fireside Chat with the Department of Homeland Security.

What can companies do to be repared? It’s an uneven playing field: the bad guys only have to be right once. The good guys have to be right all the time.
Good online hygiene is essential. That includes keeping software updated, two-step authentication, and using the services of security experts in companies that don’t have inhouse security personnel. Even small businesses need to manage their security.
In the government, personnel operations (hiring and firing) and purchasing have become increasingly cumbersome. Each regulation is the result of reaction to the missteps of a few.
The DHS mission includes disaster recovery and law enforcement. Wearables and sensors are big in law enforcement, not only reporting incidents but also enhancing the safety of first responders. Advanced analytics will change the effectiveness of DHS.
The impact on jobs is not that jobs are being displaced but incorporating change is becoming increasingly important. Technology generalists who understand systems and how to work within the existing environment will become  technology leaders.
DHS, and the government, are just beginning to develop strategies for taking advantage of community resources. It is up to entrepreneurs to approach the government, and at this time it isn’t necessarily easy. Various agencies are at various stages of progress in adapting. The smaller, more independent agencies are less constrained. As one of the larger, Cabinet-level departments, DHS is relatively agile.
The rate of change is accelerating. Organizations need to learn to adapt. The competition is small and agile and is not necessarily constrained by the rule of law.
Jeff’s final question for Michael focused on his favorite technology now. In addition to the new iPhone and the new xBox,Michael is amazed by what a single user can accomplish with open resources such as Python.

Beyond the sharing economy, is the experience economy. GenZ (born after 1995) usage predicts the trajectory of change. Older users will eventually be brought along.

Kara MGuire, Advisory Leader, CEB Iconoculture Consumer Insights offered Insights on the GenWe (aka GenZ) Generation. This group believes in the power of the group. Surprise: many millennials are now parents.

GenWe worries about terrorism, war, bullying, homelessness, pollution. GenWe is diverse; it values individuality: being different is interesting. GenWe is shaped by technology. Teens don’t necessarily make a distinction between off-line and on-line. It’s all part of Real Life.
The top 10 GenWe values are success, equality, authenticity, loyalty, happiness, sharing, courtesy, comfort, ambition, and enjoyment. Many of these values are shared with Millennials.Sharing, ambition, and enjoyment are unique to GenWe. Purpose, fun, ambition and adventure are all important to the group as a whole. This generation has more social concerns than previous ones. They can’t just go to college without thinking of how to pay for it and how to make it pay.
What are the important traits of GenWe? Kindness, self confidence, common sense, hardworking, self control.
        
“I care about what happens to others, and, “When Someone’s feelings have been hurt, I try to make them feel better,” are the two statements GenWe survey participants found to be most descriptive of themselves.

Through technology, kids are empowered, viz. a teen Nobel prize winner, teen and pre-teen entrepreneurs. Access to technology also helps teens research options and make choices. Three quarters of kids consider how much things cost. This generation also realizes there are no guarantees and that they will need to work harder than those in the past to have a satisfying career. Work is not necessarily a bad thing for this group: doing something you care deeply about and making a profit are not mutually exclusive. Companies that depend on brand loyalty, beware!
        
To conclude day two of INNOVATE and CELEBRATE, Frank Gruber of TechCo hosted a couple of robot demos. First was “Sub” Datta of Soft Robotics. Problem: strawberries are very fragile and must be picked by hand. And because of lack of pickers, many rot in the field. And at the same time, companies hire a vast workforce for the holidays, invest in giving them space and training, only to let them go in a few months. Traditional robotics don't work in food and ecommerce.
         
Soft Robotics has developed a gripper that adjusts to the shape of the object to be grasped without additional programing. The Suerpick robot can be trained through Human-in-the-Middle programming to perform tasks. The robots can be controlled remotely, and one person can control multiple robots. It’s not a question man vs. robots; now its cooperative. Eventually they might have home uses, especially valuable for people with physical limitations.

The final demo was
Kaijen Hsiao CTO of Mayfield Robotics conducted the final demo  at the CTA/TECH.CO INNOVATE AND CELEBRATE conference in San Francisco. She presented Kuri. They designed Kuri to be a normal home robot, a part of the family. She has a touch sensor in her head to recognize touch, a heart light to express emotion, gestural mechanics in her eyes add expression, speakers for voice, 4 microphones so she can “hear” directionally.
         
Mayfield Robotics developed their own laser sensor to help Kuri navigate in the unstructured environment of a home.The user experience was critical to Mayfield. This included a quiet drive train. Kuri makes robot sounds, but does not speak; she is a companion like a pet. She is not a maid or butler. But she can recognize and capture video of family moments.  

It is important for robots to have believable personalities to become accepted. Mayfield worked hard to give Kuri a realistic personality. This acceptance can lead to kids becoming interested in robotics as a career field. In the meantime, before the demo was over, at least one audience member had preordered Kuri to be a watchful companion for her elderly mother, who is often home alone.

Toshiba Can't Sell Memory Unit??

Western Digital has put out a statement saying that Toshiba cannot complete the sale of its memory division to a Bain-led consortium without its consent.

‘Toshiba ignores that the arbitration seeks to prohibit the transfer of any JV interests without SanDisk’s consent. Because Toshiba transferred other JV interests, such as its managerial and control rights in the JVs, Toshiba cannot close its transaction if SanDisk prevails.’

WD claims that it has contractual consent rights to the sale and notes that Bain hasn’t reached out to Western Digital as Bain had claimed.

Western Digital reiterates that Toshiba doesn’t have the right to complete the Fab 6 NAND manufacturing without Western Digital’s participation.

The company also shoots down Toshiba’s contingency plan to set aside the JV interests and sell the rest of its memory unit with a lowered price.

WD says that Toshiba thinks it can close the sale even if Toshiba loses the arbitration.

‘Toshiba implies that our they still intend to close even if Toshiba loses,’ says the WD document.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

12 Hours a Day!!

Individuals in the US still manage to spend the equivalent of half a day consuming media. eMarketer estimates that adults will spend an average of 12 hours, 1 minute per day with major media in 2017. People have become more efficient at multitasking, thanks largely to mobile devices (excluding voice), which will take up more than one-quarter of total media time.

Those are just some of the conclusions from eMarketer’s new report, “US Time Spent with Media: eMarketer’s Updated Estimates for 2017.”

eMarketer counts each minute of media consumption time regardless of whether it’s simultaneous with any other media. Therefore, total media consumption time continues to grow, even as the number of hours in a day remains the same.

For example, an hour spent watching TV while simultaneously using a smartphone counts as an hour of usage for each medium, and therefore as 2 hours of overall media time. In 2017, the average US adult will spend an additional 2 minutes per day with media over figures from 2016, and 24 minutes more than was spent in 2012.

Multitasking via mobile is primarily responsible for the overall increase in time spent with media. Consumers are spending more of their time on mobile devices conducting attention-heavy activities like video viewing and mobile gaming, but also with less visual activities like audio listening that enable continuous media intake. US adults will spend 3 hours, 17 minutes per day on nonvoice mobile activities in 2017—an increase of more than an hour since 2013.

The amount of attention that an individual can provide to media has its limits, though, and growth is slowing. Time spent with mobile nonvoice will rise by 12 minutes in 2017, and will be offset by declines in time spent with desktops/laptops, print, radio and—most of all—TV.

Despite this, TV will remain the most time-consuming traditional medium for US adults. The format will account for 3 hours, 58 minutes of daily time this year; however, that’s down 7 minutes from 2016. It’s also lower than eMarketer’s previously published forecast of 4 hours, 19 minutes per day.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The End is Near

Bill Gates has given up his Windows phone. HP is pulling production of its flagship Windows handset. Now Microsoft has finally seen the writing on the wall -- there aren't enough people using Windows 10 Mobile or enough apps to make it viable.

Corporate vice president of Windows 10 and head of Microsoft's "PC-Tablet-Phone" division, Joe Belfiore, said on Twitter Sunday that Microsoft will continue to support Windows 10 Mobile with bug fixes and security updates, but new features and hardware are no longer front and centre.

Microsoft is no upstart in the mobile space. It produced versions of its software for mobile devices for more than 20 years -- starting with Windows CE for personal digital assistants in 1996, and later with Windows Mobile in 2000.

But the ecosystem has struggled since the launch of Apple's iOS in 2007 and Google's Android operating system in 2008. According to the most recent sales figures from Kantar Worldpanel, Windows phones account for just 1.3 percent of the market in the US, bested only by BlackBerry at 0.3 percent. Compare that with Android's 64 percent share of new phone sales and 34 percent for iOS (figures that are closely matched in the UK and Australia).

Microsoft has attempted to leverage its legacy in the PC space to push further into mobile -- Windows 10 Mobile was billed as the "everywhere OS" that would let users shift seamlessly between desktop, tablet and mobile.

But users have long complained the lack of apps on Windows Mobile devices is a deal breaker.

While Belfiore said Microsoft has tried "very hard" to provide incentives for app developers to get apps onto Windows Mobile, the "volume of users is too low for most companies to invest" in the ecosystem.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

AIM To Go Away

Many people remember specific, weird things about September 11, 2001. For me, it was a headline about stamps tucked into the chaos.

As I started to absorb the horror of the day through TV and online news sources that Tuesday morning, I noticed an odd inflection point highlighted on the Washington Post's list of "Top News" links. While the first three stories were blaring headlines about the terrorist attacks, I remember clearly that the fourth was a news brief about the threat of postal stamp rate increase, the last trivial story published before all other news got pushed aside indefinitely.

I wanted to quickly share this lighthearted observation with my circle of friends, and in 2001 I only had one easy, surefire way to do that online. I brought up AOL Instant Messenger, opened the menu, and chose "Edit Profile." That's where I shared links to the Post's top four stories at the time and warned my friends not to miss the important postal news amid the other stuff going on (I also included a semi-apologetic note that I hoped the lighthearted joke would be a welcome distraction on such a dark day).

Looking back now, I realize that AIM profile was my first ephemeral blog. Going to college in the years before ubiquitous mobile text messaging and social media profiles, AIM's Away Messages and profile pages became a proto-social network for me and a group of peers looking for ways to keep easy tabs on each other. Friday's announcement that AIM would finally shut down after 20 years got me thinking about how we used it to share our status updates years before the online world would be dominated by Twitter, Facebook, and the constant newsfeed.

Nice to meet you, what’s your screen name?
My family got our first AOL account in 1996, when I was a freshman in high school. I don't recall using Instant Messaging for much in those days, aside from occasional consulting with colleagues working on my Super Mario Bros. fan site. My high school friends actually gravitated to ICQ and the school's Unix cluster to type messages to each other over dial-up modems.

When I started college in late 2000, though, everyone I met seemed to have an AOL "screen name," which by that point didn't require a paid AOL account. Sharing that screen name became more common than sharing a phone number when meeting someone new, and AIM quickly became the default way to talk to people when you didn't want to pick up the phone (which, for me, was most of the time).

It's hard to remember now just how freeing it was to be able to communicate instantly without the formality of an actual phone call. Carrying on multiple conversations at once, multitasking between chatting and "surfing the web," and pausing long enough to compose well-thought replies (but not so long that the recipient began to worry) were all brave new frontiers in communication through a much-too-heavy CRT monitor.

Using AIM also meant mastering the etiquette of the Away Message. In the days before we were all tethered to an Internet-enabled device 24/7, we used Away Messages to let others know that we couldn't respond to an Instant Message, while still leaving the computer online in order to receive messages that could be viewed later.

Users with Away Messages up appeared with a little yellow sticky note next to their screen

names on AIM's "Buddy List," showing that they were online but not actually around. If you sent a message to someone with an Away Message up, you'd get an instant response notifying you of that fact. You could also set up an Away Message to go up automatically if your computer was idle for too long, in case you stepped away from the computer without thinking.