Guest Host: Rebecca Sheir

The popularity of many technologies is rooted in their ability to make our lives easier. A proliferation of apps, online services, gadgets and tools are now available to act as our virtual personal assistants. We find out how these existing technologies help us cross items ranging from grocery shopping to waiting for the cable guy off our to-do lists, and learn about devices bringing us closer to the promise of the ‘Internet of Things.’


  • Steven Overly Reporter, The Washington Post & Capital Business
  • Geoffrey Fowler Personal technology columnist, The Wall Street Journal
  • Maria Thomas Chief Consumer Officer, SmartThings; Former CEO, Etsy; Former Senior Vice President for Digital Media, NPR


  • 12:06:40

    MS. REBECCA SHEIRFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Rebecca Sheir, sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, 52 years ago, when we first met George Jetson and Jane, his wife, many Americans expected that by now, we too would just hop on a conveyer belt to get showered and dressed in the morning, grab lunch prepared from our robot maid on our way out the door and strap on a personal jet pack for the short trip to work.

  • 12:07:18

    MS. REBECCA SHEIRNow, while those innovations aren't reality yet, technology has made our lives easier. We can outsource our grocery shopping with the click of an app, we can use a website to make sure someone is home to meet the cable guy or we can set reminders for our daily to do list on our smart phone. Joining me to explore the ways in which tech is making many of our lives oh so much easier and where it might go from here are Maria Thomas. She's Chief Consumer Officer at Smart Things, which is building an open platform for smart homes and enabling consumers to control and monitor their homes with a single, smart phone app. Thank you so much for being here, Maria.

  • 12:07:52

    MS. MARIA THOMASThanks for having me, Rebecca.

  • 12:07:53

    SHEIRAlso in the studio, Steven Overly. He's a reporter covering the business of technology, biotech and venture capital in the region for the Washington Post. And for its weekly publication, Capital Business. Welcome to the show, Steven.

  • 12:08:06

    MR. STEVEN OVERLYThank you.

  • 12:08:07

    SHEIRAnd from the studios of KQED in San Francisco, Geoffrey Fowler. He's a personal technology columnist with the Wall Street Journal. Hi there, Geoff.

  • 12:08:16

    MR. GEOFFREY FOWLERHi. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:08:18

    SHEIRHow does technology make your life easier on a daily basis? What kind of app, tech device or online service would help you accomplish certain things from day to day? You can join the conversation here on "Tech Tuesday" by giving us a call. Our number is 1-800-433-8850. Find us on Facebook or send us an email. Our address is or send us a tweet. Our handle is @kojoshow. So Geoffrey, I'm going to start with you here. Then we can open up to others.

  • 12:08:48

    SHEIRBut technology obviously makes our lives easier in so many ways, and the allure of that promise keeps us buying new gadgets and new apps. So thinking about the big picture, what, outside of the obvious convenience, do you think drives the demand for these things?

  • 12:09:05

    FOWLERWell, oftentimes, it's just driven by what technology companies are able to do, and unfortunately, that leads to some, sometimes really not great services. You know, they -- now it's possible to put the internet in a crock pot, so thus, you can buy an internet connected crock pot. But beyond those, I think people really do want a world where the things around them are smarter. You know, they want their house to be the right temperature when they get home. People want to be able to get around town easier than it is finding a taxi.

  • 12:09:41

    FOWLERSo, you know, the best of these products are really solving like a core consumer need, a core itch that we all have.

  • 12:09:49

    SHEIRSteven, what do you think?

  • 12:09:51

    OVERLYI think the smart phone has really been a transformative device. I think that's what's really introduced a lot of consumers to this notion of having on demand services right at the tip of their finger. And so we're starting to see folks take lessons learned from the smart phone and apply that to watches, apply that to glasses, apply that to refrigerators. And while there's a lot of interesting technology there, the one that, still to date, has been most adopted by consumers is the smart phone.

  • 12:10:20

    SHEIRNow Maria, you helped pioneer e-commerce at Amazon and at Etsy. You also helped public radio expand into multiple platforms. We're becoming more and more accustomed to technology that helps us get what we want and when we want it, so I wonder how have you noticed our relationship with that technology change through the years?

  • 12:10:39

    THOMASI think that people don't always know what they want when technology is in the early days, and so maybe one observation from my experience is what hasn't changed. In the early days, when I first went to Amazon in 1999, probably only about half of Americans had internet access, let alone, and not including broadband access. So, I think as technology is adopted over time, people come to understand what is possible. So the common element for me is a long term horizon and really to accept the fact that things change over time, and that trends that we see today might not be mainstream for a few years.

  • 12:11:22

    SHEIRAnd Geoffrey was saying one of the trends we're seeing is phones are still king, like Steven said, but we want to get out of the phones, away from the phones to other devices, which brings us to SmartThings, which aims to get us closer to the kind of plugged in household we see in a lot of movies and TV shows, often those that take place in the future. So, tell us about SmartThings. What does it do and how exactly does it work?

  • 12:11:41

    THOMASSure. SmartThings is a way for consumers to create a smart home. What SmartThings does is create an open platform for the smart home. And what that means is that consumers can buy hardware, available today on our site and at Amazon. And they download an app, and working together, the hardware and the software enable the consumer to set up a smart home which can mean many things to different people. So it can mean what Geoff said, for example, to adjust the temperature in your home from your phone.

  • 12:12:15

    THOMASTurn on and off your lights from your phone. Send text messages if a door or a window is unexpectedly opened or closed. So, when you think about what is -- what are the higher value propositions of smart phones, we think a lot about home security, and we think about peace of mind and also savings, ultimately, for the energy use cases.

  • 12:12:37

    SHEIRAnd it's customizable for each user?

  • 12:12:39

    THOMASExactly. And that's one of the key points is you say smart home and if you were to ask people on the street, what's a smart home? People may come up with different answers, and the idea with SmartThings is to enable a platform based approach so that people can configure the system as they want. For some people, that might mean lighting automation. For others, it may mean keeping track of people or items in the home with various sensors, et cetera. So, it's not necessarily one description of a smart home, but the idea is to make it very simple for consumers to connect many objects in their home.

  • 12:13:15

    THOMASAnd to set the rules -- we call them smart apps, to make that possible.

  • 12:13:22

    SHEIRDo you have a favorite app, online service or device you use to get through the day or week? Tell us about it. Join the conversation. You can reach us at or give us a call. 800-433-8850. Maria, going back to SmartThings for a moment, it plays into the idea of a term I've been hearing. The internet of things.

  • 12:13:41


  • 12:13:41

    SHEIRCan you explain what that is?

  • 12:13:43

    THOMASYes. I can explain what that is. The phrase "the internet of things," generally is referring to connecting physical objects to the internet. So, typically through sensor technology, it can be applied in both industrial settings as well as consumer settings. So, the internet of things is a phrase that applies in many different industries. If we focus only on the consumer for now, we can think of things like connected homes, as I was just describing with SmartThings. We can also think of connected cars.

  • 12:14:15

    THOMASSo there are many companies that are making devices that you can plug right in underneath your steering wheel to keep track of how you're driving, what your driving habits are, et cetera. You can think of things that probably are known to many of your listeners, which are fitness trackers. So Nike Fuel Band, Job Own Up, et cetera. These would also fall into the broad category of "the internet of things" as it applies to our health or our bodies.

  • 12:14:41

    SHEIRWell, that brings me to another question I was going to ask about wearable tech and other devices and tools for personal use. Geoffrey and Steven, you've both noted that the phone is still king. We have these other devices, bracelets you can wear and whatnot, things you can plug into other things. But the phone maintains its royalty. So Geoffrey, starting with you, how does and why does the phone still stay king, and what kind of hurdles do new non-phone products have to overcome if they want to be adopted with the same, you know, vim and vigor that the phone's being adopted by?

  • 12:15:13

    FOWLERWell, you know, I think the phone really has become kind of the control panel for our lives. And that's why it's still at the center of all this. And going to the point we were talking about earlier, nobody really would have thought of that five years ago even. Right? Apps were new, and we wouldn't have thought that gosh, this is the one little square, little rectangle in our pockets that could control our house or can get all this other information. But for the time being, nobody has really come up with another kind of device that gives you access and control to all those things.

  • 12:15:44

    FOWLERHowever, that may not be forever. I know some folks think that actually, it's not an ideal place to put the control over your computer or over your house. Because it's in your pocket and you have to get it out and it creates this very awkward social interaction to kind of pull it out and look at it. That's why there's so much work going into people trying to move the key information that you might need to go about your day onto your arm. Or move it into your eye or even into your ear. I think that's the -- one of the great undiscovered terrains of the human body for technology at this point.

  • 12:16:17

    FOWLERIf you remember the film "Her," the one piece of technology other than the little square that he wore on his shirt was the piece in his ear that let him talk with his virtual girlfriend. And I think that's a great space, as well. So the idea is, how can we have the interactions that we need to have with the internet, with a computer, without having to totally disturb our social interactions, which phones do today.

  • 12:16:42

    SHEIRSteven, how do you feel about that?

  • 12:16:44

    OVERLYI certainly agree with Geoff. I think also, we have to remember, we're not just creating technology for technology's sake. At the end of the day, it is human beings who are using the technology, and so that technology either has to change the human behavior or ingratiate itself with human behavior. You know, we're used to computers and then laptops and then PDAs. And then smart phones came along. It was sort of -- it was part of an evolution. And so when you introduce things like smart watches or smart eyeglasses, you have to alter consumer behavior yet again.

  • 12:17:17

    OVERLYYou have to get them comfortable with these technologies yet again. And that takes time. And when it's an experience that consumers are not necessarily accustomed to, it's going to take even more time and it's going to take even more, what we call, early adopters, or folks who are willing to take the risk, buy and use the technology and sort of push it into the mainstream.

  • 12:17:36

    SHEIRAnd what about what Geoffrey just said about phones and other devices being sort of personally disrupted in terms of communicating with the people around you face to face?

  • 12:17:45

    OVERLYWell, it's interesting. Before we started the program, I put my phone in my bag, because I knew I would look at it instinctively, at least a half dozen times. You know, it's become, you know, at this point, where it's considered rude but not uncommon for someone to pull out their smart phone at the dinner table or to check their phone in a meeting. You know, I guess we have to decide, sort of, as a society, if we're willing to accept that as proper etiquette and behavior, or if we want to adjust the technology to sort of fit the customs we're used to.

  • 12:18:15

    OVERLYI personally don't find it offensive for someone to check their smart phone when we're having a conversation, but there are other folks who may. And so that's, again, sort of this intersection of technology and human behavior.

  • 12:18:26

    SHEIRIndeed. Well, let's...oh, sorry. Yeah, go ahead.

  • 12:18:28

    FOWLERIf I could jump in, I would say one alternative that has come out to the smart phone, you know, is the Google Glass. The, you know, putting the screen right in front of you. And I live in San Francisco, where it's pretty common, around certain neighborhoods, to see people wearing those. And I would say, from where I sit, that has been a complete failure in terms of the idea of replacing the smart phone. Because now, when you have this screen and this little camera right in front of you at all times, it feels even more disruptive to a social relationship between two people.

  • 12:19:01

    FOWLERIt feels like what is this person, this person has some kind of advantage over me. And they're recording me. And I think that that kind of technology, you know, just hasn't really found, even among the early adopters, just hasn't found its home yet.

  • 12:19:15

    SHEIRWell, let's go to the phones now. In Fairfax, Virginia, we have Frank calling. Frank, go ahead please.

  • 12:19:21

    FRANKHello. I appreciate your folks' interest and concern about the disruption to personal, social relations. But I think people with influence and visibility, like people from the panel, should give some thought to the larger issues. I'm a policy researcher at a university, and I find that we have a terrible information pollution in the US. So that superficial or wrong data just is a blizzard that gets in everybody's way of finding out answers. Not only that, from the disruption point of view, lectures, even by distinguished foreign visitors, have practically no attendance by faculty or grad students.

  • 12:20:11

    FRANKAnd then, of course, I see parties. I'm invited, my family is invited, people over for parties, we're retired. I'm active, but retired. We can afford to do that. They can't afford to do that, because they're in a highly competitive system, not to mention government grant proposals are now about 25 percent, and this is all electronic, and the small state school get you out of the loop. 25 percent grant, funded, or rather activated, even the funded proposals. Where we're completely out of control, and I think as much effort as you put into the tech side, we need to be thinking about how we use this and how society can adapt.

  • 12:21:05

    SHEIRThanks for your call, Frank. So, Steven, what of that, the fact that, you know, it is disruptive? But at the same time, we turn to something like Washio, it's one click. You get your laundry done. It isn't like you're in the middle of a conversation and you have to have so much interface with your phone. I find that with a lot of these, it's one click and it's done.

  • 12:21:27

    OVERLYRight. You know, we were talking earlier about the internet of things and really what that is about is the fact that technology has become ubiquitous. You know, it's no longer you sit down at a computer to do your word processing or to do your internet search. Technology is this thing that pops up throughout our daily lives, sometimes without us even being consciously aware of it. And the more seamless these apps become, the more that happens. So you brought up Wasio, which, for those who don't know, is a laundry service where basically, with the tap of an app, you set the time you want, what they call a Washio Ninja, to come to your home, pick up your dirty laundry and your dry cleaning.

  • 12:22:03

    OVERLYThey take it, clean it, and return it to you at a time that you've specified when you'll be home. You know, like you said, that's not a service that necessarily disrupts a social interaction. What it does is it disrupts your chore list. And, you know, makes it so you don't have to spend an hour and a half doing your laundry. You can now take that time and devote it to something you either want to do or need to do. And we're seeing that, increasingly, with these on demand apps, Washio being just one of them.

  • 12:22:31

    SHEIRMaria, do you find that's the same with SmartThings? Is it easy to program that way?

  • 12:22:36

    THOMASYeah, I think SmartThings is a very easy interface for ordinary people to follow and set up what they want to set up. I do agree also with Steven's point that some of these on demand apps, outside of the smart home and outside of SmartThings actually do provide real value in our lives and are time savers and are conveniences. So whether we're talking about Washio or, you know, an online grocery app which allows you to save a list and not repeat the same list every time.

  • 12:23:02

    THOMASOthers, for me, I enjoy cooking and gardening, so I love an app called Evernote Food, which helps me to discover recipes, store recipes, buy ingredients and find other recipes using similar ingredients, so there's a lot of value to be found in some of these apps, as well, from an everyday living perspective.

  • 12:23:19

    SHEIRLet's go back to the phones now. We have, in Herndon, Kunal is calling. Kunal, are you there?

  • 12:23:30

    KUNALThanks for having me on the show.

  • 12:23:32

    SHEIRThank you.

  • 12:23:33

    KUNALI just wanted to make a quick comment about -- the speaker's talking about Google Glass. I have a Google Glass, and it actually -- it's actually meant to be paired with your phone. The concept -- I'm not entirely sure if the concept was successful, but it's not meant to replace your smart phone, but be an additional interface so that you don't have to actually pull your smart phone out of your pocket. But Google seems to have refocused its efforts from Google Glass onto a new product called Android Wear, which is a smart watch product.

  • 12:24:05

    KUNALSo that -- it's also meant to be paired with your phone, but instead of having to pull your phone out, you can just glance at your wrist, if you get a notification. That way, when you get a notification, it alerts you, and you don't have to pull your phone out of your pocket. You can just like glance at your wrist and then decide whether it's something that actually requires taking your phone out or not.

  • 12:24:24

    SHEIRAh. Geoffrey, have you -- thank you, Kunal. Geoffrey, have you given that one a try? You're an early adopter of things.

  • 12:24:30

    FOWLERYeah, my job here at the Wall Street Journal is I test and I try technology for us. And I think the problem, and actually the earlier caller was also addressing this is that there is now so much data out there. So many things that would be blinking at us and demanding our attention. And each of these apps is a little company that wants another extra, you know, three or five minutes out of our day. That it really can be -- get really frustrating and really hard as a consumer to really kind of ride that wave and control it. Wearable have this problem, as well, right?

  • 12:25:01

    FOWLERSo, I've got a little bracelet that I wear, made by Jawbone, that tells me how many steps I take and how many flights of stairs I go up. But what am I supposed to do with that information? What am I supposed to do with all of that data? So we're at this point, with a lot of these technologies, where there is an incredible amount of information out there that we maybe couldn't even get before. But now that we can, what are we supposed to do with it? How do we turn data into action in our lives?

  • 12:25:28

    FOWLERSo, you know, there's so many of these things that we can buy, but I'm not certain that they're necessarily always making our lives better right now.

  • 12:25:36

    SHEIRMaria, something that came up in the past, that was considered a new tech gadget at the time, the remote control. You've noted that new tech gadgets could take a lesson from that. What can we learn about adoption rates from the good old remote control?

  • 12:25:51

    THOMASWell, I'm not sure I remember the exact data around it, but I think I mentioned in a pre-show conversation that mass adoptions of TVs, by the late 60s, had occurred in the United States. So, most American homes had a television set. But it took another decade or more to reach mass adoption for the remote control, which now is a ubiquitous device in almost every US home. Really with multiple -- I think the average number of remotes in a home is something like four.

  • 12:26:23

    THOMASSo I think the lesson is time, and I think Steven and I have both mentioned it thus far in the conversation, which is technology trends tend to evolve over time, and in the short term, it's hard to see where the settling point will be, but in the long term, we do end up seeing mass adoption of things that may look crazy today.

  • 12:26:44

    SHEIRWell, we'll continue our conversation after a short break. We're talking about virtual assistance in the tech realm. Give us a call if you have thoughts on that. 1-800-433-8850 or send an email to I'm Rebecca Sheir, sitting in for Kojo.

  • 12:28:56

    SHEIRWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Sheir, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking about virtual assistance with Geoffrey Fowler. He's a personal technology columnist with the Wall Street Journal. Maria Thomas, chief consumer officer at SmartThings. And Steven Overly, a reporter covering the business of technology, biotech and venture capital in the region. Now, we just got a tweet from Rachel. She says, do we adjust the technologies to fit our customs or our human behavior to tech? Think about that one. Steven, what do you think? You're nodding your head.

  • 12:29:28

    OVERLYI think it's a mix of both. It's really not a clear cut answer because, you know, we're talking today about virtual assistance for things like grocery shopping, laundry, housekeeping. You know, these are human activities that people have done for ages. We're now just applying technology to them. So, are we adapting our human behavior to technology or applying technology to human behavior? I think it's debatable. You know, to me, it seems a bit more like the latter. You know, we're not inventing new activities around the technology.

  • 12:29:58

    OVERLYThought that certainly does happen. In these particular instances, we're saying okay, I've needed to always go grocery shopping. I always need to do laundry. How can I take technology and use it to make those tasks, you know, easier, faster, more efficient. In some cases, we may lose the human elements of that, but you know, I personally am content not to wash my clothes by hands anymore, as human as that may be.

  • 12:30:24

    SHEIR(laugh) Geoffrey, what do you think of this chicken and egg question?

  • 12:30:27

    FOWLERI agree. It's a little bit of both, but I think what's happening is as these technologies get closer and closer to our bodies, and closer -- and interact more with the relationships we have with other people, we just need some new criteria to judge technology and to say whether it is a good thing or a bad thing and whether we should buy it and whether it's going in the right direction. And I think one of the tests that we need is something I would maybe call a relationships test.

  • 12:30:53

    FOWLERThink about, you know, certainly, a piece of technology can change how I interact with the world, how I see the world. But what impact does it have on the relationship I have with other people? How does it impact people around me? I'll give you an example of that. Earlier this year, I tested some of these tiny little cameras that you can actually wear on your lapel. They look like a -- maybe like a postage stamp or a tie clip. And the idea is that they'll take a picture of whatever's in front of you every 30 seconds so that you don't have to bother getting at your phone or your camera to record your day.

  • 12:31:26

    FOWLERIt's for, you know, people who are life loggers, is the term. Or people who just want to go to a concert and enjoy it, instead of holding their phone up. And that sounds like a great idea, but when I wore those around, like the people in my life, the people in my office, my family, they got really creeped out. Nobody wanted to hug me anymore. And, so, so the technology was successful in terms of taking some great photos that I would never have normally been able to take and capturing all sorts of things about my life that I thought were kind of cool.

  • 12:31:55

    FOWLERBut it completely failed in terms of maintaining my relationships with the people around me. And that's an important test that I think we need to think about with these things.

  • 12:32:04

    SHEIRThe tie camera reminds me of like old spy movies. That was kind of the thing you would see. Or even in a futuristic movie, which gets me to a question -- another question for you, Geoffrey. You know, you get to try out a lot of new gadgets and services early on. And regular readers of yours might note that you often evoke movies and TV shows in your columns. Where do you think we are as a society right now in terms of what we expect about technology and of technology versus the current reality of it?

  • 12:32:30

    FOWLERI'm so glad you asked. You know, because I've had a chance to install SmartThings and some of its competitors in my house as well. And I would say we have this image right now where -- there's these technologies that we've seen in "The Jetsons," that we've seen in, you know, "Minority Report," that were just out of reach previously. But in the last year or so, we've actually been able to buy them and get them. Things like smart brains for your house or drones are your personal flying photographers. Or 3D printers.

  • 12:33:00

    FOWLERSo, they're actually here and if you have, in some cases, a couple thousand dollars, you can get it. But the reality of a lot of them is, right now, it's what some people call the trough of disillusionment that we're entering. It's this phase where the reality of how some of these things work doesn't quite live up to the expectation and the hype. And it's a really tough place for any emerging technology to be in. And I think the smart home business is definitely in that trough, as well. You know, when I tried these smart home brains out for my house, you know, and I, you know, I tried to make my coffee pot go off when I would get up in the morning.

  • 12:33:36

    FOWLERAlong with the heater and, you know, all the other kind of pieces. But my house ended up feeling a little bit more like the "Wallace and Gromit" house. If you remember Wallace...

  • 12:33:45

    SHEIRThe claymation characters, right.

  • 12:33:47

    FOWLERExactly. His faithful dog would create these kind of contraptions that would automate their lives, would always go slightly wrong. And that's what happened to me. You know, my, you know, things that we used to know how to work in my house, like a light switch, you couldn't touch that anymore. Because the bulb that it was connected to was on the internet and if you turn off the light switch, it would shut off the bulb. And my family ended up getting really angry at me. And making me -- basically, I had to install, not all, but many of those smart home devices around my house. Cause the intelligence just wasn't there.

  • 12:34:19

    FOWLERThe systems weren't yet smart enough to really understand the rhythms and patterns of me and my family and our daily lives to really match them.

  • 12:34:27

    SHEIRWell Maria, how do we get out of this trough of disillusionment then?

  • 12:34:31

    THOMASRight. Well, I think the answer is back to the evolution over time. And I think the answer, too, is that we will get there. The trough of disillusionment is, I think, a specific term that Geoff is using to refer to a graph that a consulting firm has been using -- Gartner has been using, to describe the curve that technology typically follows to get to mass adoption. And actually, just yesterday, they published that the internet of things is now at the peak of the hype, which is the next step after the trough of disillusionment, I believe, or the prior step. I can't remember which. I think it's the next step. In any case, I think there's movement along the curve and that technology will improve.

  • 12:35:15

    THOMASSensors will continue to get smaller and less expensive. The app interfaces will continue to be more intuitive and simpler. And I think, eventually, over a period of time, which will probably accelerate now that we're in it, this will become simple and more pervasive.

  • 12:35:34

    SHEIRWell, we can't talk about all of these, you know, personal, virtual assistant type tech objects without talking about investing. It can be a gamble, investing in a tech startup. Especially in markets that are already really crowded or are quickly becoming competitive. So let's say you have an app or some sort of device aimed at making our lives easier, but, by no means is it the only game in town. Steven, how do you make it appealing to investors?

  • 12:35:57

    OVERLYSure. Well, I think investors are very excited about, sort of, this market to begin with. Because they see early, you know, success stories. Or seeming success stories. Uber being perhaps the largest recent example. And so they're excited to invest in companies that may be able to latch on to a similar idea or follow a similar pattern. But it is a gamble, as any venture capital deal is. I think investors are probably looking for a couple of things. The first of which is the ability to attract and retain consumers.

  • 12:36:27

    OVERLYYou know, none of these apps will make money or continue to exist if people don't use them. So, not only do you have to get people to use them, you need to get them to come back. You know, they can't just wash one load of laundry through your service. They want you to empty their hamper every week, cause that's how they'll make money. I think they're also looking for folks who don't have a lot of upfront costs to the business. You know, one thing that folks may overlook, you know, when they think of Uber, for example.

  • 12:36:55

    OVERLYWhich is a car sharing or on demand chauffer, if you will, to drive you to your next destination. There's not a lot of upfront cost there for a company like Uber. They don't own the cars. They do pay the drivers, but they're not full time employees, so there aren't the same health benefits or other considerations. And so that's a low cost business that's been able to attract a lot of consumers. And that's sort on an equation that's very appealing to a lot of investors.

  • 12:37:22

    SHEIRWell yeah, a lot of these services do have a real human element. You were just talking about Uber. Also, those Washio folks who do your laundry.

  • 12:37:28

    OVERLYThe ninjas.

  • 12:37:29

    SHEIRThe ninjas. That's the technical term. Ninjas?

  • 12:37:30


  • 12:37:31

    SHEIRThat's what they -- love it.

  • 12:37:32

    OVERLYThat's their title.

  • 12:37:34

    SHEIR(laugh) Geoffrey, what do you think the pros and cons are of having this new kind of worker in society?

  • 12:37:39

    FOWLERWell, you know, a lot of these startups and a lot of these kinds of jobs came along in the recession. And I think that happened for a good reason. You know, there were a lot of young people who couldn't get, you know, regular full time paying jobs, and they were attracted to these apps and services because they could at least get pieces of it. And obviously, it's providing work, and any work is good work. But I also wonder what kind of economy it's building for us, right?

  • 12:38:07

    FOWLERIf the idea is, and it's very popular out here in Silicon Valley right now, that we're all basically gonna become temporary workers of a sort, or part time workers that get assigned our tasks by some master controller computer. What happens to the worker? Who cares for the workers' rights and making sure that they get paid enough? Or that they are protected from abuse. Or, honestly, that they even do a very good job. I mean, one of the things that these services still struggle with is figuring out how to make customers feel comfortable that the worker that they're going to be assigned to wash their clothes or drive their car is actually a good one.

  • 12:38:44

    FOWLERAnd isn't going to, you know, crash the car or maybe even something more subtle like, you know, fade their favorite blue jeans. And that's something that, you know, the internet and internet companies have been trying to work out for a long time, dating back to the eBay days. And they have struggled, still, with figuring out reputation on eBay. How do you know whether somebody is really going -- gonna sell you the thing that they promised on eBay.

  • 12:39:11

    SHEIRAnd on the side of the workers, I mean Steven, they're basically economic contractors, right? No insurance, no benefits.

  • 12:39:16

    OVERLYRight. They're -- for most of these companies, they're considered independent contractors. So they're paid, basically, for the number of jobs that they complete, but they're not salaried positions. They're not positions that receive health benefits or retirement benefits. Some of the other perks that come with full time employment.

  • 12:39:35

    SHEIRJoin in the conversation. If you've developed or invested in a tech tool, tell us about the process. You can reach us at 800-433-8850. Email or send a tweet to @kojoshow. We're talking with Maria Thomas, chief consumer of SmartThings. Chief consumer officer, sorry, at SmartThings. Steven Overly, a reporter covering the business of tech and Geoffrey Fowler, a personal technology columnist with the Wall Street Journal. We're talking about virtual assistance and we'll continue the conversation in a moment. Stay with us.

  • 12:41:59

    SHEIRWelcome back. I'm Rebecca Sheir sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. It's Tech Tuesday. We're talking virtual assistance with: Steven Overly, a reporter covering the business of technology, biotech, and venture capital in the region, Geoffrey Fowler, a personal technology columnist with The Wall Street Journal, and chief consumer officer at SmartThings Maria Thomas. To join the conversation, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send an email to

  • 12:42:23

    SHEIRWe just got an email from Constance who brings up an interesting point. "These apps that let you order groceries, get your wash done, and get a ride to the airport, they aren't available everywhere. They're probably not available in most places. You may think that tech has changed our way of life, but outside the major metropolitan areas, it's basically the 1950s." So she asks who's being left out as technology moves forward. Steven, you want to take that?

  • 12:42:48

    OVERLYSure. I think Constance has an excellent point because that is very true. A lot of these on-demand apps that complete services are focused on major urban areas. And there's a number of business reasons for that. You know, if you look at their core market who -- the folks that they identify as most likely to use their app on a regular basis, it's young urban professionals who -- it's parents, working parents, and business travelers are sort of three of the major groups. These are folks who are, you know, identified as being crunched for time but also having disposable income.

  • 12:43:21

    OVERLYAnd so a lot of those folks do tend to be concentrated in urban markets. So you can reach a large number of them just by going into a major city. There are some startups you're starting to see who are focused on sort of the Tier B markets, still large cities but not as large as, say, San Francisco, New York, or even Washington, D.C. So I think tech is beginning to reach out to those other areas, but she's absolutely right, that it's not quite there yet.

  • 12:43:48


  • 12:43:49

    THOMASI was just going to add that those three groups that Steven mentioned are also probably the same groups that own smartphones. And I think we're at about 60 percent penetration of smartphones in the United States. Having said that, there are new services -- the company that I used to lead, as an example, which is Etsy, which doesn't require an app and doesn't require physical delivery by a person, so finding handcrafted or vintage goods and services online is possible from a computer and opens up choice for consumers -- actually not just in rural areas but across the globe.

  • 12:44:23

    THOMASSo there are, I think, new services that exist that don't involve the physical element of delivery or the physical element of a task or service being delivered to the consumer personally.

  • 12:44:34

    SHEIRLet's talk about the practicality of some of this tech. I mean, Geoffrey, you're definitely an early adopter. You're a pioneer, you know? Now, your curse, I think, or your gift, based on how you might see it, is how do you figure out how to fit these gee whiz tools into our lives, practically speaking? For instance, you recently wrote about your adventures with the 3-D printer. Talk to us about that.

  • 12:44:55

    FOWLERWell, you know, it's -- I find a way to fit it in because it's my job -- that's part of it -- but also because I love this stuff, you know. And I want to figure out -- you know, I studied -- in college, I actually studied anthropology. I didn't study technology or anything like that. So I want to figure out what rules these things can play in their lives. So, yeah, there are now 3-D printers.

  • 12:45:16

    FOWLERThat's the technology where it works kind of like a very sophisticated glue gun that a little nozzle will squeeze out whatever shape -- a 3-D model on a computer tells it to make, usually out of plastic. That's now available. You can buy those for about twelve or 1,300 bucks. You can have one that sits in your house. So I had one from one of the earliest companies in this space called MakerBot. And then I said, OK, now that I can make anything of a certain size, what would I make? And the problem was there wasn't a terrific answer to that yet.

  • 12:45:53

    FOWLERYou know, I started -- I made a comb, but I said, you know, gosh, how many combs would I have to make to make this thing pay for itself? But, you know what, over time, over using it, what I sort of -- what I've realized, it was basically -- it's creative tool. It was a thing that I could use to kind of imagine new projects for my life, and it felt a little bit like when I was a young guy and my family got its first printer at home. And there was a piece of software called Print Shop, and I started -- you know, my dad would use it, you know, to print out work reports or whatnot, but I was too young to have, you know, work reports.

  • 12:46:28

    FOWLERAnd so what I did is I started making banners with it. Then I started -- I made my own family newspaper with it. And I feel like that's kind of the phase we're in with this 3-D printing technology. The people who are actually probably going to find the most use out of it is going to be kids who are going to start printing out little toys or jewelry or little projects on the side. And rather than thinking of it as this utilitarian, like, I will never have to go to the dollar store again. Like, we'll just print everything out. No, rather, at this point, it's -- it may someday be that. But, for now, it's really much more like a kind of a weekend project kind of toy.

  • 12:47:05

    SHEIRWell, let's talk about how smart this smart technology actually is. I mean, a lot of users might find Siri, for example, frustrating if she doesn't understand what we're saying or something like Pandora. It just doesn't get us, you know, our musical taste. Or self-checkouts at the grocery store, I personally have wanted to throttle that machine because it just can't quite figure out what I'm trying to do which is check out of a store. So how smart is smart technology anyway, Maria?

  • 12:47:31

    THOMASWell, that's a big question, Rebecca. Let me try to address that with respect to SmartThings. With SmartThings, I think the technology is as smart as you make it. As we were discussing before, it's customizable product, so it really does depend on which devices you choose to put in your home. Your thermostat -- for example, temperature in your home can't be smart and adjust to your preferences unless you have a smart thermostat and unless you actually set up the app, the SmartThings app, to control that.

  • 12:48:03

    THOMASSo I would say in the case of SmartThings, the technology is very deep and has limitless possibilities really. But it's up to you to configure it in the way that suits your routines and your preferences.

  • 12:48:18

    SHEIRGeoffrey, what do think? How smart is smart technology?

  • 12:48:21

    FOWLERWell, ultimately what we have is an artificial intelligence problem. Yes, SmartThings, you can set up programs in it that will make certain things happen under certain conditions. But most of us don't want to or are not able to program out our lives basically like it would require us to do to tell it, OK, at eleven o'clock every night, when you see no more motion in this part of the house, then make all the lights in this part of the house go off. Most people just don't want to do that.

  • 12:48:53

    FOWLERI think a lot of these technologies we've been talking about here today face this problem of they really have to figure out how to learn enough about us that they can make things happen like we really want them to happen. I can give you a great example of this. I tested out this speaker called the Cone. Now this speaker was unlike any other music speaker that you've tried before because it actually listens to you.

  • 12:49:15

    FOWLERSo the idea is, first of all, you can just talk to it. You can pick it up, and you can say, play Rihanna, you know, and it will play some Rihanna. But beyond that, it would pay attention to whatever you were listening to at a particular moment and, back on some server somewhere, record it and then try to predict what music, what song, what artist you would want to listen to at any particular moment in the day of your life. This sounds amazing.

  • 12:49:37

    FOWLERSo it would know on a Tuesday morning that, you know, I really like to listen to NPR. Or it could know that on a Friday night, I really want to listen to Rihanna. This seemed like a kind of a magical idea. You know, finally, this is what the iPod should become in an Internet era. But, you know what, it never quite got me. And it was in the end ultimately really frustrating because, for some reason, early in my relationship with this speaker, I allowed it to play a little bit of country music.

  • 12:50:06


  • 12:50:06

    FOWLERAnd it -- and I didn't stop it from playing the country music. And then, all of a sudden, good Lord, I was -- I had to sort of -- I felt like I was trying to counterprogram it. Every time it would come on with a country song, I would pick it up and say, no, play Rihanna, play Rihanna. And it just -- the problem ultimately was that the intelligence wasn't there to really understand me, even after using it for a couple of weeks.

  • 12:50:27

    SHEIRSo, again, it's that promise versus the reality.

  • 12:50:30

    FOWLERYeah. Yeah.

  • 12:50:31

    THOMASExcept now I know I can come to your house and set to SmartThings so that when you open your door, it's going to play Rihanna on your Sonos immediately. So I do...

  • 12:50:40

    FOWLERWe could all live that dream.

  • 12:50:41

    THOMASThat's right. I do agree with Geoff that the technology, in the case of the smart home, while I do think it's very simple and accessible today, we need to move it to a point where it is basically background noise, if you will, happening in the background, more seamlessly reacting to our preferences and our actions. I do think we'll get there. And this gets back to the point that I've been making, which is we tend to be very wary of new technologies when they're first hitting us and not clear on how to accept them or fit them into our lives.

  • 12:51:11

    THOMASAnd while they may not all fit and we may not all have the Cone speaker, oftentimes they do. And who would have thought, you know, 20 years ago, just 20 years ago, that we'd all be carrying a smartphone in our pocket, accessible 24 by seven and, you know, emailing our friends and contacting our friends and relatives around the world? So there is this question of evolution over time.

  • 12:51:32

    SHEIRHow does technology make your life...

  • 12:51:33


  • 12:51:33

    SHEIROh, sorry.

  • 12:51:35

    FOWLERI was going to say I do agree with that. And there are certainly things that SmartThings and some other smart home companies have gotten right and are still installed in my house. The thermostat is a great example. Nest makes one that -- the intelligence that it gathers, it's based on -- it has a little sensor in it and sees every time somebody passes by it, and then it keeps track.

  • 12:51:57

    FOWLERAnd then basically, once I installed a Nest in my house, I haven't really had to think about adjusting my thermostat again. It just knows. And, to me, that's the magic point. That's where you want to get with this technology. That's when it's actually smart. It's when you don't actually have to think about it. You don't actually have to program it.

  • 12:52:14

    SHEIRWell, we have someone who emailed us from Olney, Md., David, who sort of argues a different way. He says, "Technology has made life harder, not easier. Now, everyone can and does work almost 24, 365. I remember a time," he writes, "when we only had the telephone, and everyone had weekends." Steven, you're laughing a little bit there.

  • 12:52:35

    OVERLYYes. And Olney's my hometown, so shout-out to Olney. You know, it's true that, as technology has made our lives simple in some way, it's made it more complicated in others. You know, I think many folks have experienced not being able to escape your email, and even at night or on the weekends. You know, it's this sense that because we can always be connected, we should always be connected.

  • 12:52:58

    OVERLYAnd when we're not connected, suddenly we feel, you know, less secure or less in tune with the world around us. It comes back to this notion of technology versus human behavior and that balance. You know, there are certainly folks who are nostalgic for sort of a less technologically-driven society. But then there are also folks who, you know, are eager to adopt the next technology and see how it can better their life.

  • 12:53:24

    OVERLYI think, you know, what's necessary is that these are all personal devices, and what that means is you, as a consumer, deciding what makes sense for you, what apps or what personal gadgets make sense for you. You know, the smart watch or the smart tennis shoes may not make sense for everybody. Maybe you're content with a smartphone, and you want to shut that off after 7:30 p.m. You know, that's your prerogative as the consumer, and we have to keep -- be mindful of that.

  • 12:53:51

    SHEIRBut we also heard earlier in the show Will from Adelphi, Md. And I'm sorry that we couldn't get your call, Will. But he wants to know if this is driving the disparity between the haves and the have nots. What if you can't afford that phone? You can't get that bracelet? What then?

  • 12:54:07

    OVERLYI think that's an excellent point. You know, we've been talking about, though sort of as an alternative, we've been talking about these on-demand apps, like Washio or Uber. And those, in some respects, have made those services more affordable to folks who can't afford a personal driver, can't afford, you know, a full-time maid or drycleaner. You know, they're able to use what's called the shared economy to just summon an Uber when they need a ride or only, you know, summon a Washio ninja when they need to do laundry every two weeks.

  • 12:54:35

    OVERLYAnd that's actually less expensive than having a full-time personal assistant. So, on the one hand, it has actually made those kind of services more accessible to folks in maybe a lower income bracket. But we still do have a technological disparity in a lot of communities in this country where folks may not have access to the devices because of cost or because of information. They just may not be aware that they exist.

  • 12:54:57

    OVERLYAnd I think you see a lot of government and nonprofits trying to address what's called the digital divide, which speaks to that issue. And I think you're starting to actually see the headway made in those areas. You know, there is some data that certain communities, even low-income communities, are actually earlier adopters of things like smartphone technology and other technologies. They may not always be in it. It may not be for all devices, but they're more in tune than some folks may think.

  • 12:55:22

    SHEIRHmm. And then what about regulations? Some of these apps and services have run afoul of existing laws? I'm thinking about the car service Uber, which we keep talking about. Then we have Clink and Drizly, the alcohol delivery apps. What are tech companies and local governments doing to keep up with the demand and make sure that everything is fair, square, kosher, legal? Steven.

  • 12:55:42

    OVERLYIt's certainly hard, I think, particularly for the governments because technology moves very quickly. And government tends to not move as quickly, I think, as we all have seen, particularly when it comes to regulation. Whenever a new regulation goes into place, there's a lot of deliberation. And by the time you've come to an agreement, the technology has moved on. Uber has certainly come up against this. The alcohol delivery apps, you mentioned.

  • 12:56:04

    OVERLYAnd so there's a lot of questions as to whether these apps can even be regulated, if the same rules should apply, and then, if the same rules shouldn't apply, how do you draft rules that are able to keep pace with evolutions in technology? I don't know that anyone has quite figured that out yet. But, to date, the technology continues to evolve, and, you know, the sky hasn't necessarily fallen.

  • 12:56:25

    SHEIRMaria, have you found anything with SmartThings in terms of having to deal with local, federal regulations, laws?

  • 12:56:31

    THOMASNot in term of dealing with laws at this stage, Rebecca. I think that there's a lot of education going on at the federal level. The FCC has had a couple of forums here in D.C. to talk and learn more about the Internet of Things and about smart technology in the home. So I think, even in that arena, we're still in the early days. There's a lot of talk around standards and trying to create common standards. It's a little bit different than regulation, but still in the early days there.

  • 12:56:56

    SHEIROK. We have a little bit more than a minute left, and I have to ask this question of all three of you. I want to know what tech tools you use most often to make your own lives easier. Geoffrey, let's start with you.

  • 12:57:06

    FOWLERWell, I've been using those ridesharing apps quite a lot. I used Lyft to get here to the studio this morning. And it certainly, you know, makes it easier to get around town for a lot less than it cost than it used to. I've also been using those smart thermostats and a couple of Internet-controlled light switches to just make things go on and off when I want them to, which I wouldn't have expected a couple years ago.

  • 12:57:32

    SHEIRAnd, Steven, how about you? What are you using these days?

  • 12:57:34

    OVERLYCertainly car sharing. I'm one of those carless, young professionals that you read about, and so I took Uber to the studio here today. And I, you know, I will say that every time I am staring down a basketful of dirty laundry, I reach for my smartphone, and I think, maybe I should just use that service today.

  • 12:57:51

    SHEIRCall the ninjas.

  • 12:57:51

    OVERLYRight, call the ninjas. So far, I have not.

  • 12:57:54

    SHEIRAnd, Maria, how about you? What tech tools are you using?

  • 12:57:56

    THOMASWell, SmartThings, of course. But in addition, on an everyday basis, I have an app called Moves which I put in my pocket to measure my steps every day, Duolingo for brushing up on Spanish, Relay Foods for online grocery. Parkmobile is one of my favorites.

  • 12:58:13

    SHEIRWell, Maria Thomas, Steven Overly, Geoffrey Fowler, thanks so much for joining us today for Tech Tuesday. I'm Rebecca Sheir sitting in for Kojo on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."

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