March 2017

Volume 32 Number 3

[Don't Get Me Started]

Stranger Things

By David Platt | March 2017

David PlattIn this column a year ago (“The Internet of Invisible Things,” March 2016,, I mentioned the philosophy of Harry Shum, director of Microsoft Research: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is invisible.” Today I want to analyze and develop another maxim of Harry’s: “It’s the user that’s mobile, not the app.”

We initially thought of a “mobile app” as an application that runs on a mobile device. The app is mobile because the user carries the device in his pocket, filling any and all gaps in his life: commuting to work (“Ring Around My Neck,” February 2012,, waiting in line at the supermarket, sitting in the living room and so on.

But as mobile devices multiplied, users started owning more than one and switching between them, using different devices in different locations. Amazon was the first major company to recognize and develop this location neutrality with their family of Kindle reader devices and apps. Amazon remembers my behavior across my network of devices and apps, trying to anticipate my needs. It mostly succeeds.

For example, I read Kindle books on a Kindle Fire reader that I keep by my bedside. I also read them on my phone when I’m out and about, or on my other phone when my first one’s broken or out of charge. Each app or device remembers what I was doing with it—that I’m working on the latest Jack Reacher thriller—and jumps to my most recently read page when I open them.

The new class of household voice-control speakers, such as Alexa and Google Home, are the logical evolution of this idea. Instead of having to carry a device from place to place, a connected device is waiting for you wherever you go. Some users love this arrangement, some hate it. I’ve seen the lovers place one in each room of the house because they’re too lazy to walk from the den to the kitchen to order a pizza. (Is this user being mobile or immobile?)

None of these electronic entities yet recognizes the different users in the household, but I’m sure it won’t be long until that happens. For example:

Bobby (in his room): “Alexa, order a pizza.”

Alexa: “Sorry, Bobby, your Mom said no more pizzas until you clean your room.”

Mom (in the living room, hears Alexa on speaker there): “It’s OK, Alexa, he did it. Sort of.”

Alexa: “OK, Bobby, you got it. Want to try anchovies again?”

Bobby: “Yuck!”

Mom: “Alexa, just put them on my half.”

Alexa: “OK, got it.”

Working with these ubiquitous voice-recognizing household controllers gave me a weird sense of déjà vu, until I finally remembered where I’d seen them before—“The Addams Family” TV show (1964-1966). Alexa and Home are simply modern versions of Thing, the disembodied hand that appeared from a box in every room of the spooky Addams Family mansion. Like Alexa, Thing would deliver the mail in the format of the time (Figure 1). Thing also played music (Figure 2), auto-dialed phone contacts (Figure 3) and served as the world’s first voice-controlled TV remote (Figure 4). Thing was truly the earliest app for the mobile user.

Thing Delivering the Mail
Figure 1 Thing Delivering the Mail

Thing as Voice-­Controlled Music Player
Figure 2 Thing as Voice-­Controlled Music Player

Thing as Contact Auto-Dialer
Figure 3 Thing as Contact Auto-Dialer

Thing as Voice-Controlled TV Remote
Figure 4 Thing as Voice-Controlled TV Remote

I’m sure viewers will remember that Morticia Addams never failed to graciously say, “Thank you, Thing,” for its assistance.

Each of today’s digital assistants recognizes its own name in its wake-up sequence: “OK, Google,” “Hey, Cortana,” and so on. Amazon recently took a great step forward by releasing a new wake word for Alexa—you can now address her as “Computer,” inspired by the Star Trek canon ( I wonder which digital assistant will be first to respond to the name “Thing.”

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at

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