Jan 162013
Technology: Rusted Plow as Yard Art

Technology: Rusted Plow as Yard Art


On the pace of Technology change, by Kevin Kelley, posted over at PopTECH:

Five hundred years ago, technologies were not doubling in power and halving in price every eighteen months. Waterwheels were not becoming cheaper every year. A hammer was not easier to use from one decade to the next. Iron was not increasing in strength. The yield of corn seed varied by the season’s climate, instead of improving each year. Every 12 months, you could not upgrade your oxen’s yoke to anything much better than what you already had. 

Whatever you learn today, you will need to relearn tomorrow.

Sep 122012
Apple CEO Tim Cook will introduce the iPhone 5 on Wednesday. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle / SF

Apple CEO Tim Cook will introduce the iPhone 5 on Wednesday. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle / SF

As we wait for the Apple product launch on Wednesday, it’s worth reading a contrarian view by Dan Lyons, creator of the “Fake Steve” blog that ran until January 2011. Dan has always had a sharp eye for Apple’s moves and the expectations for the new iPhone and possibly a new iPad (perhaps even a mini) are high.

The stakes are high for Apple since the iPhone generates 70% of its profits. According to SF Gate:

Phone sales last quarter alone reached $16.2 billion, 33 percent higher than Google’s total sales and almost as much as Microsoft’s $18.1 billion.

And even more striking given the current state of the economy:

 Apple’s new iPhone could contribute as much as half a percentage point to U.S. economic growth in the fourth quarter, according to analysts at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Lyons has a long list of what’s wrong out in Cupertino. FIrst, Android-based phone sales are up significantly and Apple market share for the iPhone (the design has changed little over the years) is down. Instead of innovation, Apple now seems to be copying it’s competition – a larger iPhone here due to Samsung’s Galaxy, a smaller iPad there due to Amazon’s Kindle and Google’s move into the tablet market.

Here’s a few observations from Lyons article on BBCNews:

This week it’s the the iPhone 5. Everyone pretty much accepts that Apple will introduce it, and there have been so many leaks that everybody pretty much seems to know what it’s going to be. Word is it will look a lot like the last two versions of the iPhone, except a bit thinner and a bit taller, with upgraded guts and a refreshed operating system.

If that’s correct, I imagine Steve is not happy. First of all, he’d be furious about the leaks. Steve liked surprising people.

More important, is this really the best we can expect from an outfit that claims to be the most innovative company in the world? This is the sixth version of the iPhone, and the user interface still looks almost exactly like the original iPhone in 2007 . . . 

What else is there to complain about?

Um, Siri still doesn’t work. The oft-rumoured Apple TV doesn’t exist yet, presumably because media companies won’t let Apple take over their business.

The latest batch of Apple ads were such embarrassing garbage that Apple to take them down from YouTube. Apple’s new guy in charge of retail launched a plan to lay off workers and boost profits, then had to walk it back when people pointed out that this was stupid . . . . 

Apple got where it was by taking bold risks. Now it has become a company that copies others and plays it safe.

A company that once was run by a product visionary now is run by a number-cruncher – chief executive Tim Cook, whose claim to fame involves running an efficient supply chain and beating ever lower prices out of Asian subcontractors and component suppliers . . . .

Apple has more than $100bn in cash. Its market value of $632bn makes it the biggest company in the world, bigger than any company in US history.

That’s great for Apple’s shareholders. But for customers, who cares? In terms of products, Apple has become the one thing it should never be. Apple has become boring.

Somewhere up there, I can hear Steve screaming.

For Lyons, Apple needs to confront two major problems: the lack of investment in research and development (Apple spends about 2% of revenues on R & D, Google and Microsoft are closer to 14%) and a lack of vision. While it’s true that Steve Jobs singular vision drove the company, it was not a one-man show. Or so we thought.

We will see on Wednesday to what extent Apple was more than Steve.

Aug 132012
Self portrait of NASA's Curiosity rover, released by NASA

Self portrait of NASA’s Curiosity rover, released by NASA. REUTERS/NASA/JPL/Handout

The landing of Curiosity on Mars is a stunning achievement, but here’s an interesting side note about the technology aspect and what it says about the speed of innovation – it’s incredibly out of date. It was built years ago and the pace of innovation has continued unabated and perhaps accelerated, resulting in a processor that is less powerful than what you have in an iPhone.  The processor in the iPhone? Ten times faster than what is powering Curiosity. According to the LA Times:

NASA said the rover is going through a four-day “brain transplant.” During this time, engineers are  updating Curiosity’s software, currently primed for its flight stage, to prepare it for its operations on the surface of Mars. The update will add two crucial functions — the ability to use the geochemistry lab’s sampling system, and to drive.

The update had to wait until after the rover landed because its processor, built years ago to withstand the harsh environment of interplanetary space, is limited compared with today’s consumer technology, said senior software engineer Ben Cichy. 

My phone has a processor that is 10 times as fast as the processor that’s on Curiosity and has 16 times as much storage as Curiosity has,” Cichy said. “And my phone doesn’t have to land anything on Mars. 

So now it’s in the midst of a digital transplant, dumping the landing software and replacing it with control software for driving around on Mars. Perhaps someday processors will rebuild themselves, but for now, a project like this ends up vastly out of date with what we carry around in our pockets.

Aug 082012
Craigslists Versus Newspaper Classified Revenue

Craigslists Versus Newspaper Classified Revenue

Whats happening to Craigslist? It seems to be a given in the cycle of technology innovation – a once-loved, disruptive project suddenly loses its way and becomes protective instead of innovative. Craigslist, which brought classified advertising in traditional news media to its knees, that understood the value of a fanatical focus on customer service (the founder Craig Newmark official title is still “Customer Service Representative & Founder”), is progressively throwing up walls around its little corner of the Web.

As this point Craigslist seems dated, somewhat like the Drudge Report, with text-heavy pages that simply list ads. But it’s been so easy to use that despite problems ranging from porn to marketing scams (especially over apartments rentals in places like NYC), it hasn’t been begging for traffic. But as new and better organized sites appear, Craigslist hasn’t been thinking about a redesign and offering new features. Instead, it’s focused on preventing others from searching its data.  That suggests it’s losing its way and if it continues, it may be relegated to the technology dust-bin in a few years. Here’s the details from Gigaom:

Craigslist, the once-loved classified site, is continuing its ill-tempered rampage against would-be competitors that offer cleaner designs and better user experiences.

Last month, it sued popular site PadMapper for using information from Craigslist to plot apartments on a map. Weeks later, Craigslist changed its terms of service to say that users gave it the right to use their ads for copyright lawsuits (See: Craigslist’s Big Bluff).

As noted by The Verge, the company has now followed up these acts of churlishness by telling search engines like Google and Bing to stop indexing Craigslist results. This effectively turns the taps off the data taps for sites like PadMapper and, at the same time, makes Craigslist’s own listings harder to find.

It’s hard to see who wins in this scenario. Internet users will be deprived of user-friendly sites as Craigslist tries to draw them back into its tortuous 1990′s time warp. And while Craigslist might reclaim some traffic in the short term, it’s likely to alienate users and developers who are increasingly regarding it as an unattractive bully. 

May 222012

Waterstone's bookseller Cuts Innovative Deal with AmazonThere’s been no letup in the pressure on bookstores with the continued growth of eBooks, but Waterstone’s, the largest bookseller in the UK is taking a different approach. Cutting a deal with Amazon, Waterstone’s will refurbish stores, create dedicated areas for digital books, add cafes and free wireless access and - sell Amazon Kindles.

You might wonder if this is a last gasp of a dying business/delivery model, or if Waterstone’s is pursuing an innovative approach that acknowledges the future omnipresence of eBooks in a highly digital environment. According to BBC News:

As well as selling the Kindle device, Waterstones will allow Kindle users to digitally browse books and take advantage of Waterstones’ special offers.

In a statement, James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, said: “The best digital readers, the Kindle family, will be married to the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop.”

Jeff Bezos, Amazon.com founder and chief executive, said: “Waterstones is the premier High Street bookseller and is passionate about books and readers – a dedication that we share deeply.”

Analysts say that Waterstones has little choice but to ally itself with Amazon.

“If readers are increasingly downloading books, then it is better for Waterstones to embrace that behaviour than to try and work round it,” said Douglas McCabe from Enders Analysis, told the BBC.

“Kindle has a massive market share of digital book reading in the UK, and Waterstones will start to take a cut of it.

“However, for all its success, Amazon does not have a solution for ‘discovery’ in physical or digital [books] that even comes close to the merchandising skills inside a branch of Waterstones,” Mr McCabe added. 

No choice or a creative move? To me, the most striking part of this project is not the word “eBook” but the phrase: “the singular pleasures of browsing a curated bookshop.”  The idea that the selection offered within the physical spaces of Waterstones is “curated” is important – we don’t often hear that term used in the context of a bookseller.

Like traditional print media, bookstores need to rethink what they do well and what they can offer in a highly digital environment. What is the value of the physical space? What might you sell that the eBook reader cannot deliver within its current technology?  Perhaps you might sell eBooks, coffee, space for conversation, and a unique selection of physical books. Don’t sell – curate.

Of course, once you head down the path of innovation, you also need to rethink what your employees should be doing. For a bookseller, you want a well-read staff with people skills because you’re now hiring curators. And maybe they should get something more than minimum wage. And do something other than stand behind the cash register. Waterstone’s may have taken an initial innovative step, but they probably should take a stroll over to an Apple store and look at their self-checkout process. Break the mold if you want to survive.