Data dispatch: Ambient takes on Google


This little gizmo is the latest data dispatcher from the people at Ambient. It’ll cost you $149.00 and you can use it for info on the DOW, S&P 500, NASDAQ, the weather, even the presidential approval rating. For an additional subscription fee, it will give particular stock prices, the allergy index, even traffic congestion reports.

Modernism, especially the modernism of the mid 20th century, liked to conceive of life as something best lived in motion, that “getting ahead” and “progress” were the objects of the day, that people were happiest when “really going somewhere.” “Life as motion” was one of the powerful ideas of the day.

And it’s not hard to see why. Forward motion was a good metaphor in (and for) a technologically advanced, socially mobile world where things changed so quickly you could be forgiven the sensation of movement even when standing still. (Standing on a corner of any busy city and it looked like the place was changing at time-lapse speed, that we and the intersection were racing forward in time.)

But that’s pretty much done for. These days we are more inclined to suppose that we are stationary and the data move. We like to talk about data streams, bit torrents, mobile data. In a post-modern era, we are still. It’s the data thats always in motion.

No snappy terms and compelling metaphors yet. We are still the captive of the notions “push,” where data is send to us (sometimes intrusively), and “pull” where we must decide what it is we want (sometimes laboriously). I

But it’s clear what we want: streams of data that are perfectly chosen, arriving just in time, in exactly the form we need them. Every cell phone, PDA, laptop and desktop offers this promise. All of them disappoint. The company that gets this right will have created the ultimate killer app. And that’s because what used to appeal to us as a “cool gadget” now has the status of a necessity. It is the only device that promises us order in the world.

This has to be one of the reasons that Google just got into the portal game. The new portal gives us time, weather, news flashes, email. Google is a welcome player. It was late to the search engine game and still rose to the greatness. It did this partly by eliminating things from the screen. This sounds easy but it was, until recently, entirely beyond the poor bastards at Yahoo! and eBay who managed to make the screen look like the dog’s breakfast had just exploded. (It turns out that the rule of parsimony that governs good prose operates here as well. What we take out is just as important as what we put in.)

And now there is a new player in the data dispatch game. The system from Ambient is not much to look at for the moment. The “dashboard” above is a breathtakingly old fashioned (I will not say “retro”) metaphor straight outa the 1950s. No, this iteration is not very promising, but listen to what Ambient offers as their business concept:

For the first time in history, ubiquitous wireless networks can affordably deliver digital information anytime, anywhere. The result for most of us is cacophony. Ambient wants to make the world calmer.

This is a very Google-ish objective and bodes well. Everyone in the computer space is in the business of manipulating and delivering information. And those who do merely this risk playing in the commodity basement. Advantage goes to those who can offer discrimination in a data rich world. Still greater advantage goes to those who can offer calm. This is the very top of the value chain, perhaps the biggest “value add” of all

Someone will surely say, “So, this games belongs to Google and Ambient has no play.” The thing is Ambient uses a proprietary broadcast system. This allows it to communicate with ordinary objects in our lives. The dashboard, an orb that shows the state of the stock market, a cube that announces the weather. No internet connection is required. Ambient has in other words found a way to disintermediate the disintermediator. Hmm, this is a value that Google cannot deliver, at least not until we find a way to wire (or wireless) the fridge and other things around the house.

But here’s the thing that I thought really makes it sound like Ambient gets it.

With Ambient the physical environment becomes an interface to digital information rendered as subtle changes in form, movement, sound, color or light.

The dashboard is not very interesting, but an environment that pulses with data dispatches…that we can use.

Now, we can choose between a) waiting till we go to the Google search engine for our data dispatch, or b) having the data come to us on any/all of the surfaces of the domestic world. This is data access that works a little like the pilot’s “head’s up display:”all but only the data we need, exactly where and when we need it.

Ambient needs a better execution than the “dashboard” before it puts fear into the hearts of Google. And in the meantime, I would bet, Google will buy them as a precautionary bet against the rise of a new channel play.


The Ambient website here

7 thoughts on “Data dispatch: Ambient takes on Google

  1. Matt

    When Google’s service requires that Google build their own seperate internet and deliver it simultaneously to everywhere they might want to have a customer, then I’ll think that Google has a good reason to worry about Ambient.

    What it really seems like they’ve found a way to do is spend mind-numbing sums of money building (and making ubiquitous) an unneeded network redundant with the networks that much larger enterprises have gone bankrupt (can you say Worldcom? I knew you could!) building, all in service of a quirky little application that _might_ sustain a small, 50-person company in profitability.

    I suppose their business idea mandates that in addition to the (inexpensive) information business they also be in the (captial-intensive) hardware business and the (ruinous) network infrastructure business. But just because those crippling limitations are unavoidable in their context, doesn’t mean I’m not betting against any company that suffers from them.

  2. Undertoad

    $149 for a device that tracks three variables which change slowly?

    In an era when every single location is being wired (and un-wired) for permanently-on IP connectivity, someone is going to pay one hundred and forty nine dollars to follow a presidential approval rating which is mentioned routinely on all news broadcasts?

    Or are they going to track more important, more dynamic variables such as stock prices… with a display as dynamic and readable as a wall barometer? “My net worth is declining and I can tell because the needle moved slightly to the left!”

    Ever heard the phrase “information wants to be free”? I don’t agree with the sentiment entirely, but I do know that information does NOT want to be ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY NINE DOLLARS.

  3. Grant

    Matt, Worldcom! Thanks, Grant

    Undertoad, well said, I defer to the wisdom of my betters (you and Matt). However, I still believe that information wants to stream (not quite the same thing as being free) and perhaps the Ambient challenge will persuade the boys and girls at the lap to get it out of the computer into the world. Thanks, Grant

  4. Matt

    Hey, I said the business model was terrible…nothing about the idea. (Actually, no…I did say something about the idea. I said I thought a small company could potentially make a nice profit with it.)

    My problem with Ambient isn’t even that they’re being drastic…it’s that they’re being _unnecessarily_ drastic. Much as we might laugh today at the thought of wiring up your fridge, wired appliances _are_ coming in the near future. And while they probably won’t support any interesting applications out of the box, it won’t be hard (once your fridge has a screen for diagnostics) to hack some software that’ll use that screen and the internet connection to do something like what Ambient does.

    There’s no really compelling reason that the next TiVo service upgrade couldn’t support a bug on your TV screen to do the same kind of thing, as well. (Frankly that’d be a lot more useful than doing it with your fridge…and a lot less problematic than another bothersome piece of physical hardware to worry about finding a place for.)

    So yeah, semi-OK idea about something the market might want, but LOUSY execution.

  5. Grant

    Matt, well said, I guess the thing that appealed to me most about Ambient was the way they help us rethink what I take to be the real communications task ahead of us.

    As it is, there is an inclination to make data delivery from the internet to some part of the ambient world a mere version of that this data would be if displayed on one’s browser.

    But the opportunity and challenge here is to say, “new medium, new codes.” We don’t want internet data of the traditional kind on ambient devices. We want something that is faster and more visual so that it can stream over us all the time and that we can take it in just in time. Ambient has got us thinking in the right direction.

    Not that it matters but this is very like what happened when historians started to consult the material culture record more seriously. They consulted it for exactly the data they were looking for in the archival record. New medium, old methods. The real opportunity here was to see how objects could answer new questions, not old ones.

    Thanks, Grant

  6. Steve Portigal

    I’ve never been interested in these various tools that give you loose data in the less-used communication channels to help you get a sense for something going on “out there” (despite that fact that my MSc thesis was about using background audio cues for hypertext navigation, but hey) – and then this past week I was in NYC doing an ethnographic study of financial traders, and we heard several examples of how they “feel” the market based on collapsing a large set of indirect cues. Suddenly, this device made a lot more sense.

    I still don’t want one, but having found an example of people cobbling together their own ambient information, I like the concept just that much more.

  7. Mori Guthridge

    Great blog, and I think you do a better job seeing the forest for the trees than some of the commentors.

    I’m glad Ambient built a network, because I was able to purchase one for my mother. Although I, and many people I know have broadband – we are a far cry from my mother being able to hang a barometer on the wall showing her allergy levels and have it work. Have you seen the Tivo manual for wifi setup? ugh. Additionally, I found out about ambient after reading this months Business 2.0, where it says they’ve got less than 10 employees, so clearly this is not Worldcom.

    They’ve been smart about getting a technology to work for the laymen years ahead of time… that may mean it’s expensive now ($150 is -way- too much) but this is bleading edge technology my friends. Where do you think the price is going to go?

    So thanks, I’m bookmarking this page and checking back in a year when the Google announcement to buy Ambient comes out.

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