News Roundup

I love to get pointers to interesting relevant stuff going on in the world at large.  Here are a few links I was sent recently.

Ari Weinstein shared the news that Belkin announces WeMo Smart, coming to your coffee pot later this year.  I haven’t talked about WeMo yet on the blog, but it’s a gadget that I use in my apartment to control my lights.  It connects to my local wifi network and lets me use an iPad app or even IFTTT to write simple programs.  They sell an outlet and a motion sensor, so one program I have turns on my bedroom light for a minute in the evening whenever motion is detected.  I’m a fan of wifi-connected devices, so I appreciate Belkin’s existing product.  The new product isn’t described in any detail in the press release, but, reading between the lines, I think the idea is that they will produce a piece of electronics that will be embedded in the coffeemaker so it can be controlled and monitored via the WeMo cloud.   I don’t know if Belkin’s protocol is open, but they were at least willing to team up with IFTTT, so I’m encouraged by this development!  (Neither Belkin nor IFTTT has embraced general programming as an interface, so there’s still work to be done here.)

I also like the model that both Belkin and IFTTT have used—don’t solve all possible problems up front.  Instead, offer something small and simple that works and then grow from there.  Had Belkin attempted to tackle “home automation” in one go, they would have failed.  If IFTTT had attempted to tackle “end-user programming” in one go, they would have failed.  I very much like the way they are sneaking up on their targets.

The next item, sent by my colleague Shriram Krishnamurthi to the Brown CS faculty, is tangentially related: Ford, GM roll out red carpet for app developers.  Apparently, high end Ford and GM cars run a user-facing computerized system called Sync that interfaces with smartphones.  The news is that they are opening up the system to third-party developers to create car-based apps.  As an example, the article mentions one that reads newspaper articles out loud to the driver.  They are planning to prohibit software that will distract drivers with video, games, and the like.

According to Wired’s Exclusive: Ford Wants to Create the Android of Automotive Apps, they will also go further and offer their platform to other automakers; the idea being that the existence of a standardized platform will make it easier for software developers to invest the time needed to create outstanding applications.  One touchy point, apparently, is whether the system will be integrated with the car’s functioning (beyond the screen and audio).  The more integrated it is, the cooler the apps can be, but the less likely competing car manufacturers will be to trust it.  Plus, I suppose it could be quite risky to allow an app to mess with steering, braking, or even headlights and such.

For what it’s worth, I’ll note that the move to open up the platform to third party developers is far from inevitable.  I was just getting excited about the apps available for the Livescribe computerized ballpoint pen.  (The Zork port is pretty neat and the demo where you draw a piano and then you can play it with the pen is a kick!)  I was hoping students might be interested in developing software that can use the pen as an interface to household devices and then I discovered a page proclaiming Livescribe Discontinuing Developer Program.  That’s so sad and it seems like precisely the wrong direction.  We want to talk to our machines!

Partner-in-crime Blase Ur sent me Computer security and the modern home, an academic paper that analyzes the vulnerabilities of the collection of networked, computerized devices that are becoming available.  Just as programmable devices bring the flexibility of software into the physical world, they also amplify the opportunities for software to enable physical crimes.  The paper  provides a thorough, if dry, analysis of what makes computerized home devices risky from a security standpoint.  They did use one wry phrase I particularly liked, though.  The authors were describing the risks inherent in the fact that home devices are not generally administered by professionals.  Toys, in particular, may end up being particular problematic because they are effectively given to kids to administer

…despite the child’s likely lack of experience with computer security and different stance on privacy issues.

I assume the authors’ experiences with kids’ “privacy stances” are similar to mine—kids are willing to say just about anything to just about anyone.  Even in the unlikely case they understand how to keep their electronic toys from violating the privacy of people in the home, they wouldn’t understand why.

I respect the authors’ efforts in highlighting security concerns.  I recognize the importance of securing our homes and the risks that come with extending global communications networks inside them.  Nevertheless, reading about all the horrible things that can go wrong makes me feel all icky.

Lastly, the story Welcome to the home of the future sounds like it should be relevant; it’s pretty close to my first blog post title, in fact.  I didn’t find it interesting, though.  It talks about the excitement at companies like Apple and Microsoft about the market for advanced household devices, which is is a good thing.  But it focuses on things that are weirdly futuristic and doesn’t really tell a convincing story of how we might get there.  On the positive side, I lost the information about who sent me the link, so no one needs to feel bad about it.