March 23, 2015
March 10, 2015
Big technology companies are snapping up small design firms, reports Molly Wood in The New York Times (3/19/15). “Google, Facebook, Adobe, Dropbox and Yahoo, for example, have all bought design-oriented startups since 2010,” according to a report by John Maeda, a venture capitalist. The primary reason is recognition that design — not just of products but of user experiences — is the crucial competitive advantage. “If you can make this amazing bracelet and the software is bad, you’re going to throw it away,” says John.
The primacy of function over form is spreading because really good apps are highlighting the potential of good user design in new categories. “Let’s say you’re a doctor and electronic medical records are really terribly done as an industry,” says Ben Blumenfeld, another venture capitalist. “Doctors are starting to use iPhones and they’re saying, ‘Wait a second, why doesn’t my electronic records system work like my iPhone apps?’” The potential has been particularly heightened by well-designed apps like Uber’s, which make a hard task easier.
However, “the real design victory is in carefully considering exactly how someone will want to navigate an app, communicate with another person or conduct a transaction. That’s a big shift for the tech industry, which has long prized engineering acumen and product management.” John Maeda says the traditional focus on product design alone is “just surface-driven thinking,” adding: “It isn’t that design is more important than technology or the business model. You need both.”
February 25, 2015
Some vacationers are willing to pay a premium to be free of wi-fi, reports Cecilie Rohwedder in The Wall Street Journal (3/6/15). Such travellers are often parents who want their kids to have a screen-free holiday. It took Joanne Halbrecht “about a month” to find “a destination with little or no online access” before booking a trip to the Black Mountain Ranch in Colorado. Her two kids hated the idea. Daughter Jarrett, 16, says she texts “pretty much all day” and son Kent, 14, plays video games at nearly every opportunity.
The surprise was that Jarrett got hooked on horseback riding and Kent “enjoyed feeding cows and baby goats. Neither missed their devices, they said. It was mission accomplished for their mom, who enjoyed the children connecting with her instead.” While connectivity is generally “a coveted perk at hotels and getaways,” some properties are actively making a luxury out of disconnecting. St. Vincent and the Grenadines, in the Caribbean, are launching “a family-geared version of a three-year-old ‘Digital Detox’ marketing campaign.”
The Four Seasons in Costa Rica also has a program called Disconnect to Reconnect, in which “guests hand in their phones in exchange for a list of ‘25 things to do without technology’.” An outfit, also called Digital Detox, “runs four-day, all-inclusive tech-free retreats for adults called ‘Camp Grounded’.” Some parents have found the tables turned. When Daniel and Jennifer Voss tried to sneak a peek at their screens during a tech-free family holiday, their kids busted them. “They became the cops,” says Jennifer.
February 20, 2015
Smartphone designers need to stop thinking thin to truly satisfy customers, writes Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (2/23/15). The basic conflict, notes Christopher, is this: People want both really thin phones and really long battery life. The solution, he says, is "a company brave enough to persuade users that one of the things we’ve come to expect from phones and other gadgets — that every year, they become thinner and lighter — is a trend that has outlived its usefulness."
Christopher says "a little math reveals it’s more than reasonable that if the iPhone 6 were as thick as the iPhone 4, the iPhone 6 could have double its current battery life." The problem for Apple is that if it introduced a phone both thick in size and battery life, "it would be suicidal … Thinness and weight have become proxies for excellence in design, a shorthand for high-tech." Critics reinforce this to the point where "you start to realize that unrealistic beauty standards aren’t limited to judgments of other humans."
In short: "The battle for ever more svelte smartphones isn’t about utility; it’s about bragging rights." As phones have grown slimmer, our usage has grown fatter: "The average amount of time Americans spend on their mobile devices is up more than 60% in just the past three years, and we now spend more time looking at our phones than at TVs … Being alive in the 21st century means expending a meaningful portion of our limited cognitive capacity maintaining low-level anxiety about the length of a tiny green bar."
February 12, 2015
A $35 computer is intended to help kids "learn more about how computers work," reports Joanna Stern in The Wall Street Journal (2/18/15). Called Raspberry Pi, the computer consists of nothing more than "a green board covered with chips, circuits and ports. There’s no keyboard, monitor, or power cord. There isn’t even an operating system." The idea, says Eben Upton, co-founder of The Raspberry Pi Foundation, is that while kids these days "have wonderful technology in their lives … they are deprived of learning how it works."
The adventurous might have to spend a little more to get much out of this computer, although it is possible to use keyboards, monitors and power cords you already have kicking around. No hard drive is included, which means you can either buy "a $10 card pre-loaded with Raspbian, a basic Linux OS optimized for the Pi," or download the free software and put it on your own card. You might also want to buy a plastic case to house the computer — which can be purchased online along with the Pi at adafruit.com.
While the Pi isn’t necessarily easy to use, a pre-loaded web browser enables users to "check email, Twitter, and Facebook." A free LibreOffice suite provides word processing, etc. Another free program, OSMC, lets users access YouTube, Pandora, ESPN and stream videos from an iPhone via AirPlay. Others have used the Pi to create "game consoles, printers, even Internet-connected dog feeders." Lima Fried, aka LadyAda, writes tutorials to help users along, and says "you’ll learn skills you normally wouldn’t learn, and hopefully have fun."
November 13, 2014
The decline and fall of American leisure time tells the tale of RadioShack’s demise, reports Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal (2/9/15). Hard as it is to believe now, in the 1960s, workweeks were growing shorter and Americans had plenty of time on their hands. "Leisure time is opening markets to us," said Charles D. Tandy, who bought RadioShack in 1963, when it had just nine stores. "Everyone’s spare time is our challenge." This began to change in the 1970s, as RadioShack opened "three stores a week."
At the time, "citizens’ band radio hobbyists" drove RadioShack’s growth. This changed in the 1980s, with the rise of personal computers, and RadioShack was an early leader with its TRS-80, for which "Bill Gates himself wrote the operating system." Steve Wozniak bought parts at RadioShack, and "a teenage Michael Dell saw his first PC" at a neighborhood RadioShack. The retailer’s mistake was that it "unwisely decided only to offer its own software on its earliest PCs, and so it was soon eclipsed by Apple and then the IBM PC."
At that point, RadioShack had little choice but to become a consumer electronics retailer — besides, hobbyists were turning their attention from hardware to software. One might think it could have re-gained its footing among today’s DIY crowd, but that’s a niche market: Make Magazine "has a circulation of only about 125,000." RadioShack in many ways is a reflection of America’s "culture of disposable everything," which became dominant precisely because "we no longer have time for anything else."
October 1, 2014
A Chinese company is producing the "Model T" of drones, report Jack Nicas and Colum Murphy in The Wall Street Journal (11/11/14). "Back in the day, you could talk about cars, but pretty much every car on the road was one of the Model Ts," says Matt Waite of University of Nebraska, drawing the parallel. The ‘Model T’ of camera-equipped drones, popularly known as the Phantom, is made by Shenzhen-based SZ DJI Technology, which is "selling thousands of its 2.8-pound, square-foot devices for about $1,000 each."
This not only makes DJI "the world’s biggest drone maker by revenue," but also "the first Chinese brand to pioneer a major new global consumer product category." The Phantoms are attracting all kinds of interest, having "garnered fans for their aerial footage of extreme sports, fireworks and Niagara Falls, and famous users," including Steve Wozniak, Jamie Foxx and Martha Stewart. They are being used "in filmmaking, farming and construction — all in defiance of the FAA’s effective moratorium on commercial drones."
Founded in a university dorm room in 2006 by Frank Wang, DJI had "90 employees and $4.2 million in revenue in 2011." It now has 2,800 employees, three factories, and this year expects to post sales three to five times greater than in 2013, when it posted $130 million in revenue. This has led to growing pains, including lawsuits and customer-service issues. "Their innovation rose them to the top very quickly,’ says Stephen Burtt, CEO of Aerial Technology, a drone retailer. "But then it was: ‘Oh wait, how do we clean up the trail we just blazed?’"
September 8, 2014
The Des Moines Register hopes virtual reality will reinvent the news experience, reports Lukas I. Alpert in The Wall Street Journal (9/22/14). The newspaper is "incorporating the technology of Oculus VR, computerized game platforms and 360-degree cameras." In this way, a story about "how a sixth-generation Iowa farming family is struggling to maintain its traditions in an increasingly globalized world of agribusiness … takes a viewer into a computerized world of cows, soybeans and grain silos."
Basically, the reader gets a sense of "roaming around a farm in Page County, Iowa." This does require "strapping on Oculus’s virtual-reality headset," but it allows viewers to "walk up to the family’s machine shop and click on an icon that places them inside a 3-D video feature about maintaining high-tech farming equipment," for example. They "can view the information in any order," not unlike a videogame. If they don’t have an Oculus helmet, they can still interact in 2-D "on any computer."
Roy Peter Clark of Poynter Institute says it has limitations. "Although we call it multimedia, most of these stories are hybrids that use the visual elements to amplify the underlying narrative," he says. "You can take a virtual tour of a building where an event occurred, but that is a different thing than having characters who are fully explained." Other limitations are that the "virtual-reality technology" makes some people dizzy, and currently only 125,000 Oculus headsets are in circulation.
August 18, 2014
Eytan Adar has "collected hundreds of examples of deceptive design" in technology, reports Kate Green in Pacific Standard Magazine (9/3/14). For starters, "the standard user interface on your computer — a desktop with folder and trashcan icons … hides a universe of code behind a simple, ‘usable’ facade." Then there’s "the progress bars presented on computer screens during downloads, uploads and software installations maintain virtually no connection to the actual amount of time or work left before the action is completed."
There’s a long history of such deception in technology: "In the 1960s, the hardware that comprised the byzantine switching systems of the first electronic phone networks would occasionally cause a misdial. Instead of revealing the mistake by disconnecting or playing an error message, engineers decided the least obtrusive way to handle these glitches was to allow the system to go ahead and patch the call through to the wrong number … most people assumed the error was theirs, hung up, and redialed."
So-called placebo buttons are another common example — "many crosswalk and elevator door-close buttons don’t actually work," but do "give the impatient person a false sense of agency." In the future, "true artificial intelligence systems will alter the game significantly," and may get a sense of "biological cues (variations in heart rate, skin conductance, eye movement)" and respond accordingly. This is not unlike the way humans "suss out whether it might be best to fudge the truth with someone we care about."
July 31, 2014
The magic of the emerging shopping experience — online or off — "comes from the data," reports Molly Wood in The New York Times (8/15/14). For e-commerce enterprises, the data enables a level of personal service that approximates — or potentially improves upon — that which can occur naturally in a store. "In traditional retail, they have the benefit in that they have real people who in theory could offer a very personalized experience," says Katrina Lake, founder of Stitch Fix, an online women’s clothing retailer.
Stitch Fix "sends its customers boxes of clothes picked by a combination of personal stylists and big data." The advantage over, say a mall or a traditional e-commerce play, says Katrina, is that it eliminates the often overwhelming array of choices. Bill Gurley, a Stitch Fix investor, says the data science involved in making this happen is significant. "There’s a 15-page profile, there are over 66 characteristics tracked and there’s a predictive heat score for every single item against every single user."
Birchbox uses a similar approach with beauty products. "We use curation and personalization as a way to make the internet have some of those fun and satisfying elements of shopping," says Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp. "There is still this desire to work with somebody that you trust." Birchbox takes a similar approach at its sole physical store, where Birchbox’s online customers can provide their email address to an employee, who then directs them to relevant items, based on their profile.
July 21, 2014
A new kind of shoe buzzes to let wearers know "where to turn to reach their destination," reports Dhanya Ann Thoppil in The Wall Street Journal (7/26/14). Made by Ducere Technologies, an Indian startup, the Lechal running shoe syncs "with a smartphone app that uses Google Maps and vibrates … in the left or right shoe" to "lead the way." "The shoes are a natural extension of the body," says Ducere co-founder Krispian Lawrence. "You will leave your house without your watch or wristband," he notes, but not your shoes.
Originally, the shoes were intended "to help blind people who rely on walking canes. Canes can help the visually impaired detect obstacles, but they cannot tell them which way to face or when to turn … While testing the shoes, the company realized their potential for the sighted as well. Joggers, mountain bikers or tourists can plug in their destinations and not have to stop to check their phones as they move; they just turn when their shoes buzz. The shoes can also be used to record distances traveled and calories burned."
Lechal means "take me along" in Hindi, the shoes are protected by a total of "24 international and Indian patents." This apparently has something to do with Krispian’s past as a US patent prosecutor. The shoes "will come in red or black" and cost $100 when they go on sale in September. Krispian "says he already has orders for 25,000 pairs and expects to sell 100,000 by March." Runners aside, there are about 250 million visually-impaired people worldwide, with about 90% "in developing countries, including India."
June 30, 2014
David Rose thinks household objects should "mimic the qualities found in magical tools of fantasy and folklore," reports Penelope Green in The New York Times (7/17/14). He means things like "the swords of Arthur and Frodo, say, or the talking mirror in ‘Snow White’." The goal, he says, is to fulfill "human drives with emotional engagement and elan." His concept is to embed, for instance, "his keys, his musical instruments, his wallets and his pens … with special powers."
David refers to such devices as "enchanted objects." For example, "an umbrella that tells you when it’s going to rain, a trash can that orders food, a table that displays your Facebook photos." In his own home, he has "talking pill bottles, a teleporting cabinet (open a door and it connects by Skype to his parents in Wisconsin)." An instructor at MIT’s Media Lab, David envisions the home as a kind of "app store." This is now possible, he notes, because the "computer has atomized … and its functions can be distributed."
The limiting factor, some say, is the inherent connection to the Internet, the data it collects, and the companies that might have access to it. Among the critics is Sherry Turkle, also of MIT and author of Alone Together, who decries what she calls a "regime of memory." "We didn’t get to vote on this regime, there’s no law and there’s no going back … The new regime comes with an extravagant language of gifts and miracles … Well, that’s the way people in fairytales talk. But if you remember your fairy tales, there is always a cost."
June 10, 2014
GoPro is successful not because of its camera, but rather the experience of using it, reports Issie Lapowsky in Wired (6/26/14). GoPro, as you’ve likely heard, is a small, high-definition, wearable video camera that people have used "to record their every sky-diving, drone-flying, shark-riding adventure." It raised $427 million in its IPO — unusual for a camera-maker because smartphones are not only cameras but also a GPS, video game console, stereo … "and, oh yeah, a telephone."
However, as Ben Arnold of NPD Group notes: "They don’t just sell a video camera, they sell the memory of the wave or the ski trip down the slope … I think we are entering the age where lifestyle in technology is becoming very important." The power is in devices that "say something about the people who wear them … when you see someone with one of those GoPro Hero 3 cameras strapped to her chest, it’s a signal to the world that she is about to do something awesome."
The result is that in "2013 alone, GoPro users have uploaded 2.8-years worth of video featuring GoPro in the title. In the first quarter of 2014, people watched over 50 million hours of videos with GoPro somewhere in the title, filename, tag or description … And so despite the fact that GoPro only sells cameras … it became better known as an adventure sports brand than as a camera manufacturer." Among other things, GoPro now plans "to launch a GoPro Channel on Xbox Live" and "turn itself into a media company."
May 30, 2014
"Fans will pay top dollar for a music accessory or a music event … They just won’t pay for, oh yeah, music," writes David Carr in The New York Times (7/9/14). This emerging reality is a direct result of cost-free music streaming on Spotify, Pandora and similar services — the "outbreak of free" as David calls it. This is a bonanza for music fans but a crippling blow to artists who make the music they love, as royalties on streaming are beyond the scope of "the 73-year-old agreements that govern" music licensing fees.
The Justice Department is looking into this, but in the meantime, "the musician Van Dyke Parks" recently told The Daily Beast "that in the good old days, a song he recently co-wrote with Ringo Starr would have provided him ‘with a house and pool.’ But at current royalty rates he estimated that he and the former Beatle would make less than $80, which means he would have to choose between a dollhouse and a kiddie pool and then share it with Mr. Starr." (link)
Some complain that the sound quality also suffers, but NYU’s Clay Shirky notes that, for most, "good enough is good enough." Especially if it’s free — which frees up cash to buy "expensive Beats headphones – $300 and up in a variety of colors so they also serve as a fashion accessory" or pay hundreds of dollars for live shows. Spotify, meanwhile, "has doubled its number of subscribers, paid and unpaid, in the last 18 months, and reached a milestone of 10 million paid subscribers worldwide last month."
May 22, 2014
Jimmy Iovine says the difference between Apple and other tech companies is that other companies are "culturally inept," reports Ben Sisario in The New York Times (5/29/14). "You go into any recording studio in the world and you see candles, lights and that Apple light from a Mac," says Jimmy, who along with Beats Electronics co-founder Andre "Dr. Dre" Young, will now try to help the Apple brand "see around corners" and find its way in the music business.
Having sold Beats to Apple for $3 billion, the two men will join the company "in senior positions," reporting to Apple content chief, Eddy Cue. While there’s no truth to the rumor that the merged company will be called Beatle, Jimmy was a long-time friend of the late Mr. Jobs and once fetched tea as John Lennon’s recording-session gopher. Jimmy and Dr. Dre are expected to bring not only music-industry acumen but also a certain star power that’s been missing from Apple since Steve Jobs died.
Venture capitalist David Pakman offers a mixed prognosis for the Apple-Beats deal, however: "Jimmy has time and again proven his ability to understand the tastes of the mass market, in an extraordinary way … But he hasn’t yet proven his ability to get a digital music service off the ground," he says. Pop star Gwen Stefani refers to Jimmy’s persistent style as "Jimmy Jail" — as he repeatedly sent her back to the studio to write "that career-changing track. "The good news is, he’s Jimmy," says Gwen. "The bad news is, he’s Jimmy."
May 19, 2014
Email and text messages have a ‘body language’ all their own, reports Elizabeth Bernstein in The Wall Street Journal (5/20/14). It’s relatively easy to ‘read’ someone face-to-face, but a bit trickier when the only clues are of a digital sort. One tip-off is the "use of emphatic language. It doesn’t necessarily mean s/he is lying, but rather that s/he really wants you to believe what is being said. This is also the case when a person keeps saying the same thing over and over in slightly different ways."
In person, "someone may unconsciously distance himself by crossing his arms in front of him. In writing, he can achieve this same effect by omitting personal pronouns and references to himself from a story. Say he receives a text that says, ‘Hey, I had a great time last night, did you?’ He might reply, ‘Last night was fun.’" Then there’s the "unanswered question," which could mean s/he "doesn’t like saying no, or doesn’t want to hurt your feelings," or that s/he is "keeping something from you."
"This is all very subtle," says Tyler Cohen Wood, author of Catching the Catfishers. Pay attention if a "usually chatty" person turns quiet, or someone who generally provides a lot of details suddenly goes vague on you. Phrases like "pretty sure" and "must have" signal evasion, and "to be honest" can mean just the opposite. Watch out for "tense hopping." If someone is telling a story, and switches from past to present tense, it just might mean s/he’s making something up on the fly.
May 14, 2014
Only the most insightful can thrive in today’s Darwinian shopping terrain. By Sharon Love. We live in a world where few things seem steadfast. Trusted brands with long histories and heritage falter; new brands enter our consciousness and own the shelves seemingly overnight. The ways people think, behave and interact are a constantly moving target.
Traditional retail has intersected with emerging commerce, creating an on-demand environment in which people are now able to exercise their personal power to decide when, where and how they engage with your brand. Technology is driving so much of the evolution, along with people’s expectations of the space and experience.
Their technology-driven shopping experiences have shaped the way they move through the dynamic retail space. The space will continue to evolve and at a faster pace. Old and new are coming together, creating a Darwinian retail environment, where only the insightful survive. continue …
March 27, 2014
The global economy will change as smartphones get a whole lot cheaper, writes Andy Kessler in The Wall Street Journal (5/13/14). That eventuality is already upon us, with "a Chinese manufacturer … showcasing a $35 smartphone" and Firefox "flirting with selling one for $25." (link) Once "dirt-cheap" smartphones — not cellphones — are widely available, they will become "a productivity platform for wealth creation," Andy writes, as those in "the developing world can build lives with a $35 smartphone."
"Poor villages and townships will finally have a platform to escape despair," says Andy. "Now we need applications to use $5-a-day workers to eyeball documents, photos, blueprints and anything that requires human cognitive skills, things that can’t yet and may never be coded into artificial-intelligence algorithms. This is the greatest challenge for Silicon Valley that it doesn’t even know about." Indeed, the smartphone business currently "is staggeringly lucrative."
According to iSuppli, a research firm, a "16-gigabyte iPhone 5S," selling for $649 without a carrier contract, cost just $191 to build. "The Samsung Galaxy S5 contains $251 of materials." Of course, consumers aren’t just paying for components; we buy "the experience of the look, feel and touch — for the software, operating system, graphical user interface and apps." Andy argues that such distinctions will inevitably dissipate, ushering in a "post-iPhone era," with smartphones re-born as "an antipoverty program."
February 24, 2014
A filmmaker and a journalist are “turning the tables back” to 78 rpm records, reports Andy Beta in The Wall Street Journal (3/22/14). The filmmaker is Alex Steyermark, who along with journalist Lavinia Wright recorded and filmed artists including Rosanne Cash, Marshall Crenshaw and Richard Thompson cutting acetate 78 rpm records. The resulting film, The 78 Project, recently debuted at the South by Southwest Music Festival.
Both Alex and Lavinia say they were influenced by Alan Lomax‘s legendary “field recordings rendered on a Presto.” Lavinia, who is 30, says she grew up listening to her father’s collection of 78s. “It was a big ceremony in my household when as children we learned how to properly put the needle down,” she says. “My parents took it very seriously.” Recording artist Joe Henry, who contributed a track to the project, feels the 78 does indeed create a special kind of “listening experience.”
“To play a 78, you pick a song and make a deliberate act out of sitting in front of it and listening to it go by, lifting the needle after,” he says. “You have to bring yourself to it in a way that most people don’t any longer. It insists upon your full engagement.” Moreover, because “of the nature of the acetate, where every playback slowly destroys the record,” each of these 78s would only be played once, to transfer them to digital. “You listen very differently when you understand that it will be the only time you have this particular experience,” says Joe.
February 19, 2014
Bruce Rosenbaum says he was "steampunking before he knew what it was," reports Megan Buerger in The Wall Street Journal (2/21/14). Originally, back in the 1990s, Bruce was in the "direct-mail marketing business targeting consumers based on major life events." On the side he "set up a workshop to explore his artistic interests." His first effort "was a mission-style coat rack festooned with Victorian hardware and topped with a World War II clock." He didn’t realize he was on the cusp of an emerging trend.
By 2007, he and his wife, Melanie, set up a new business, ModVic, which "began as a Victorian-home restoration company." That didn’t last long, thanks to the financial crisis, but Bruce and Melanie "re-launched the business, focusing on period furniture, such as clocks or arm chairs." Today, ModVic turns out "about 100 pieces every year that range in price from $5,000 to $250,000, sometimes more." Typically, they repurpose "salvaged, often antique furniture into functioning, modern pieces" — a desk made out of a bandsaw, for instance.
Materials tend toward "leather, copper, iron and bronze" and clients are often "history lovers who pine for the craftsmanship and detail of a bygone era." Gary Sullivan, a ModVic client, says that steampunking is on the rise partly because of "an exhaustion with modern objects that have built-in obsolescence." Bruce describes its appeal as the combination of "history, plus art plus technology," adding that "function is the key. Real steampunk art includes purposeful mechanics, not just random doodads. It has to perform."
Intel’s resident anthropologist sees the future in being present, reports Natasha Singer in The New York Times (2/16/14). "What would it be like to have technology that celebrated presence, not absence, that grounded you in being in that place, not being somewhere else?" says Genevieve Bell, director of user experience research at Intel Labs. The idea is "to encourage real-time communication between people who are in the same place at the same time, offering a physical complement to virtual networks like Facebook and Twitter."
The corresponding technology is a laptop with two screens — one facing the user and the other facing the public. Users can "post photos and text messages of up to 140 characters on the exterior laptop screens." Intel has tested this "in cafes in and around Portland and Seattle," and at first people "would glance quickly at the screens, then look away. But if researchers posted a question — like … ‘Do you think Nordstrom has good customer service?’ — strangers would start talking to one another."
"We keep talking about how technology is destroying social activity," says Genevieve. "It was reassuring that, when you give people technology that reinforces presentness, they embrace it." Such insight is at the center of Genevieve’s charge at Intel, which is to transition the company from "turning out increasingly efficient technology for industrial customers" to focusing on "consumer happiness as a starting point of product development." "I am firmly in the present," says Genevieve. "But sometimes I want to drag the future here and see if we want it."