The site uses cookies that you may not want. Continued use means acceptance. For more information see our privacy policy.

The Challenge of Open

The balancing act of opening up while avoiding spread requires much caution and planning.

Shutting things down is hard, but minimizing transmission of pestilence in anything approaching normal conditions is at least an order of magnitude harder. Avoiding it entirely would require far more than what society is willing (perhaps able) to do.

We must recognize that opening up a bit means the containment will be less than it has been. It means some people will get sick, and some of those will die. It’s the nature of opening things up, just as some fraction of cases today still occurred under the relatively closed conditions we have.

The trade-off of opening up a bit is to be prepared to test and trace and isolate cases. Not doing so, and not planning to do so, invites uncontrolled spread and a fast retreat to stay-home.

A good mental model is cars. We have done a ton to make cars safer. Seatbelts, airbags, licensing, crumple zones, and so forth. They aren’t completely safe. People still die from car crashes. But we’ve tried to minimize that harm. The plans being worked on by businesses and governments are similarly designed.

They are weighing all sorts of options and considering the logistics, acceptability to customers and the public. Like on the Apollo 13 mission, trying to connect a square CO₂ scrubber to a round air exchanger takes a lot of thinking through. Unlike that mission, the danger is mostly contained as long as people stay home and the clock is more about trying to get people where they can work safely.

For example, if you went to a fine dining establishment, how would you feel about having the wait staff instruct you how to bus your own dishes or wipe your own table? Is that something we can comfortably ask the public to do? Or do we stick to take-out only, depriving work from those who would normally be in the dining rooms? Or do restaurants switch to disposable tableware and some easy way to biohazard the entire table in one fell swoop? Or some other option? What are the risks? What are the costs? How do we balance it all?

For example, with grocery delivery in-demand, can stores work with delivery services to streamline the process, to minimize transmission, improve contact tracing, and increase service throughput?

There are tons of businesses and they all need solutions that fit their business and the community. Some of them will make mistakes.

But the number one tool we have is technology. All manner of businesses need to look at how they can use phones and computers to rework their business so that contact is minimized. And that’s going to require new software. Now more than ever it should be built with standard interfaces, where one app can be used by multiple businesses rather than requiring every last business to have a custom app built. We simply do not have the developer bandwidth to do the latter.

It’s a heavy lift. But the alternative of an unprepared reopening—something some states might try (and something that, unfortunately, many on the right media are urging)—will see another spike and more death than necessary. And the economy will still be worse off for those states, after they have to tuck tail and deal with another round of stay home. Their citizens will be less willing to trust those governments, and they will be watching on TV as the slow-and-steady states see slow-and-steady improvements.

Society has been wounded by the virus. We are convalescing and have fresh stitches. Communities that try to get up and run will tear their stitches and have to be rushed to get themselves sewn back up and then back to bedrest. Places that take it slow, cautious, will heal faster and be back on their feet.

Unfortunately, with interstate travel, there’s always the risk of the stitch-tearer bungling into another patient, tearing her stitches too. The virus can bloom in a foolish state and infect a smart state anew.

As things do open up a bit, remember that you have the right to say no. If you think the precautions are inadequate, you should seek alternatives. If a business is asking you as a customer or worker to do something you think is unsafe, you should speak up.

In some other universe, Americans are seeing a coordinated federal response to the pandemic and, for the first time in decades, they are seeing what the machine, firing on all cylinders, is capable of. It must be a thing to behold, but sadly we are deprived it and its comfort in these trying times.

Set-top Competition is the Medicine Cable Needs

The very FCC plan that the cable industry resists is exactly what it needs.

The FCC has been trying, after last decades attempts fell flat, to open the set-top box market to competition. Cable companies make a lot of money off of forcing subscribers to rent boxes, which are often underperforming and ill-equipped to serve the modern video consumption habit.

Cable is in a bad position as streaming continues to expand, with advertising and subscriber revenues expected to continue falling. The one thing that could help the market transition smoothly, the advent of the all-comer hardware device, is being actively resisted by the industry that needs it the most.

The proposal was already corrupted in a switch from an API-based model where access comes to the companies to an App-based model where the companies go to the devices. Now it is stalled completely.

The cable company is protecting its box rental revenue and its subscriber revenue at a time when it has enough of both to take a hit and resettle its place in the content delivery field. Instead, as entrenched industries are wont to do, it is fighting against the inevitable. It will see its revenues dwindle anyway, and its corpses (or at least the cable-related appendages; the ISP parts may survive) will then be swallowed by the new generation of media companies.

It is the same sort of short-sighted behavior that threatens our planet when major energy conglomerates don’t buy into the next generation of renewable energy. We may not see the pattern repeated with the auto industry, but that will likely depend on how fast they can merge as fleets of autotaxis become the norm.

What is clear is that the Republican seats on the FCC are actively blocking competition, which is antithetical to the Republican charge that free markets rule. The anti-regulation strain of so-called conservativism is stronger than the free market strain, when the two principles find themselves in opposition.

The lack of easy, integrated media devices will continue to drive consumers away from cable, as most streaming services are available through a single device. Media consumption is largely a social behavior, with people watching content those around them also watch. A generation is growing up without caring about traditional content delivery, and cable is basically ignoring that and fighting against a shift that’s already happening.

The best choice for cable would be to embrace the FCC’s original plan, lobby for the door to be two-way (allowing them to support streaming content on their own hardware offerings), and fight to make the best interface they can at the best price they can. They could even try to strike some subscription deals with streaming services, offering their subscribers the ability to add streaming packages in exchange for a finder’s fee.

Unfortunately, the bigwigs in the cable companies think that this is a very different year, where they can afford to weather the storm. They are betting that the unfathomable will come to pass and their ship will magically right itself. They are foolish for thinking this.

Mobiles versus Wallets

Mobile devices should not become the new wallet. They should be something better.

(Calling it a phone anymore is sort of silly. Mobile makes more sense, as a shorthand for mobile device or mobile computer. Better words may come forth, but phone is dead.)

Apple, Inc. is working to bring mobile payments or digital wallets to market. These novel technologies allow you to provide payment information with a mobile computer, rather than through something like a credit card. The market position is that with vendors upgrading their point-of-sale systems to handle more modern chip-and-PIN credit card systems (a response to mass attacks on credit systems of major vendors), they might as well also add digital wallets to the mix.

So far, so good. And maybe this will spell the death of the traditional wallet as mobile payments become the norm. But that is no reason to start thinking of your mobile as your wallet. Wallets are bad enough.

The wallet problem is this: you store important, valuable, or otherwise sensitive documents in your wallet (like currency, or identification). If your wallet is lost or destroyed, you are stuck with rebuilding your lost hoard of necessary items it comprised.

But one of the biggest advantages to digital storage is the ability to have redundant copies of data. If you lose your mobile, it should be a minor inconvenience. You might be sans ID, payment information, etc. for the time it takes to replace the mobile, but you should no longer need to go through the lengthy process of replacing credit cards (i.e., replacing payment data), replacing identification cards (i.e., getting a new driver’s license issued), etc.

Your mobile should be more like a pair of shoes than your wallet. If your shoes are lost or destroyed, it would be an inconvenience. But it wouldn’t be a major life disruption. If the move to digital payment does not come with some simple and fast way to transfer authority to a new device and revoke authority from an old device, and if the digital wallet becomes too much like a real wallet, it will be a disappointing missed opportunity.

That doesn’t mean that everything needs to be cloud-based, or at least not cloud-readable. It mainly means that mobile payments should still require authentication. So, at least a PIN or a biometric check. It might also prove useful to have small amounts available without authentication, with the risk of loss like cash in your wallet if you fail to report a theft before it can be spent.

So how is the mobile payment like a wallet? If pre-authenticated money is in it, it’s got a form of cash. But everything else should be locked down behind authentication. It should not be a major pain to lose it, beyond the cost or aggravation of replacing the device itself.

Even the cash-like money could be triggered only by context. For example, walking into a coffee shop could trigger the availability of what you normally spend, and excess could be revoked if you leave without spending it. Or if you use a transportation app, it could trigger the availability of the payment funds. That could either happen when you hail a cab or enter the subway, or at the time you actually get in the taxi.

And here’s the kicker: if people start buying things with mobiles, why shouldn’t they log in with them? That is, why should they keep creating new logins and passwords for each service, when they don’t have to do that to actually spend money? So at the very least, maybe something good will come from mobile payments beyond just making moving money easier.