Out and about: Blade Runner 2049

*** No plot spoilers*** Where do you start when talking about the most hyped film of the year?

Blade Runner 2049 starts up some 20 years after the original film. It captures the visuals of the original film, moving it onwards.  The plot has a series of recursive sweeps that tightly knit both films together which at times feels a little forced, a bit like the devices used to join Jeremy Renner’s Bourne Legacy to the Matt Damon canon.

Blade Runner 2049

The 1982 film took the neon, rain and high density living of Hong Kong in the late summer and packaged it up for a western audience.  Ever since I first saw  it represented a darker, but more colourful future. I felt inspired, ready to embrace the future warts and all after seeing it for the first time.

The new film is a darker greyer vision largely devoid of hope. You still see the Pan Am and Atari buildings of the first film, now joined with brands like Diageo. The police cars are now made by Peugeot. It also captures the visual language of the book, something that Scott hadn’t done in the original to the same extent. In the book, Dick (and the Dekkard character) obsess on how the depopulated world’s crumbling ephemera is rapidly becoming dust.

Visually the film dials down its influences from Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore and instead borrows from the crumbling industrial relics of the west and third world scrap driven scavenging from e-waste in China and Ghana to the ship breaking yards of Bangladesh. The filthy smog and snow is like a lurid tabloid exposé of northern China’s choking pollution during the winter. It paints a vision more in tune with today. Automation and technology have disrupted society, but orphans are still exploited for unskilled labour and vice is rampant.

Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford do very capable performances. And they are supported by a great ensemble of cast members of great character actors at the top of their game. Dave Bautista, Robin Wright, Barkhad Abdi (Eye in The Sky) and David Dastmalchian (MacGyver, Antman, and The Dark Knight). The one let down is Jared Leto – who now seems to play the same character in every film since his career high point of Dallas Buyer’s Club – I suspect that this is as much a problem with casting as performance. I think he needs to be cast against type more.

For a three-hour film it still manages to hold your attention and draw you in to its universe without feeling tired. It’s also a film that forces you to think, so if you are looking for visual wallpaper for the mind a la Marvel’s Avengers series of films it won’t be for you.

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The sublime world of machine learning

Scott Galloway talks about the way brands are using AI (machine learning) and the examples are very much in the background so that the impact on the customer experience won’t be apparent. In many respects this is similar to how fuzzy logic became invisible as it was introduced in the late 1980s.

The Japanese were particularly adept at putting an obscure form of mathematics to use. They made lifts that adapted to the traffic flows of people going in and out of a building and microwaves which knew how long to defrost whatever you put into it. Fuzzy logic compensated for blur in video camera movement in a similar manner to way smartphone manufacturers now use neural networks on images.

The Japanese promoted fuzzy logic inside products to the home market, but generally backed off from promoting it abroad. The features just were and consumers accepted them over time. In a quote that is now eerily reminiscent of our time a spokesperson for the American Electronics Association’s Tokyo office said to the Washington Post

“Some of the fuzzy concepts may be valid in the U.S.,”

“The idea of better energy efficiency, or more precise heating and cooling, can be successful in the American market,”

“But I don’t think most Americans want a vacuum cleaner that talks to you and says, ‘Hey, I sense that my dust bag will be full before we finish this room.’ “

More information
The Future of Electronics Looks Fuzzy | Washington Post (December 23, 1990)

Apple Special Event – key outtakes

Key takeouts from the Apple special event with a little bit of analysis
 
Retail
First presentation by Angela Ahrendts. There is a question of why she hadn’t presented at previous keynotes.  My read on it is that that the revenue per square foot metric beloved of retail analysts will tumble. Apple seems to be taking the mall companies idea of shopping as entertainment and doing it for their individual stores.
Town hall – what they call the stores internally, bigger focus on engagement rather than transactions – is this an effort to try and recapture cool?
Store features
  • Plaza – public private spaces outside the store if possible, interesting implications on future store placements – probably less in malls
  • Forum – open plan internal space
  • Boardroom – private space focused on developer relations, was probably the most interesting push. Stores are being given a stronger push as embassies for developer relations. 
  • Creative Pro – Apple genius for the creative apps, probable mix of amateur and professional audiences addressed
  • Today at Apple – driven by Creative Pro staff to focus on creating more usuage of key offerings i.e. photo walks – think Nike Running Club. Also includes teacher outreach
  • Genius grove – the genius bar but with plants presumably to try and break up the overall store noise
  • Avenues  – wider aisles that products are on
Continued retail expansion in the US including Chicago – interesting that international expansion wasn’t mentioned. 
 
Apple Watch
  • 50% yearly growth – the series 2 fixed many of the hygiene factors wrong with the first version
  • 97% customer satisfaction – health seems to be driving this
Health features: focus on heart rate monitor and getting proactive about flagging elevated heart rate. Also focusing on heart rhythm changes as well.
 
watchOS 4 out September 19 available to all customers. Interesting that they didn’t drill into some of interesting features on watchOS 4 using Siri
 
Series 3 Apple Watch with cellular built in. Your Dick Tracy fantasies are alive. Apple thinks that people will leave their phones at home and bring their Apple Watch. They also see it as killing the iPod Nano with wireless music playback. I am yet to be convinced.
Apple added a barometric sensor; usage example was focused on health and fitness rather then locative apps. Not a great surprise given that these sensors have been in premium G-Shocks for a good while. 
 
Apple used specially designed lower power wifi and Bluetooth silicon. But no news about who is making the cellular modem. The SIM is embedded on the motherboard and presumably a software update? These changes could have interesting implications for future phones?
 
Interesting carrier partnerships, in particular all three of China’s mobile carriers, but only EE in the UK?
 
Apple TV
 
  • Apple TV now supports 4K, unsurprising hardware upgrade and includes high dynamic range – Apple is following the TV set industry’s lead
  • More interesting is the amount of content deals Apple has done with studios, in particular keeping the price point of 4K HDR content the same as was previously charged for HD content.
  • Interesting TV partnerships but no major UK TV stations only Mubi
  • Emphasis on easy access to sports on the Apple TV would wind up cable companies further
  • Apple TV was also positioned as the control interface for HomeKit smarthome products. There was no further  update on HomeKit in the presentation 
iPhone 8 incremental changes
 
  • Wireless charging with glass back. The steel and copper reinforcement of the glass is probably to help with the induction charging
  • Incremental improvements in picture quality. Bigger focus on AR including new sensors.
iPhone X
 
  • Positioned as future direction for iPhones. Biometric face ID is clever but has issues. I wonder how it will work with facial hair or weight gain – Apple claims that it will adapt. Apple also claims to be able to detect photos and masks. It’s also used for face tracking in AR applications with some SnapChat lens demos.
  • As with Touch ID, there is a PIN code if your face doesn’t work. I have found that Touch ID doesn’t work all the time so you need that PIN back up.
  • The notch at the top poses some UX / design issues and the industrial design implies case free usage which will be a step away from usual iPhone usage.
  • What isn’t immediately apparent to me is the user case for the iPhone X versus the iPhone 8 plus?
What was lacking in the iPhone presentation was a celebration of all in the changes in iOS 11 under the hood.
A11 – Bionic chip in the iPhone 8 and X
  • Includes new integrated GPU for machine learning and graphics. This explains why Imagination Technologies are in trouble
  • New image sensor processingThe A11 processor has a hardware neural network on the chip for the iPhone X – unsure if its also usable on the 8
Apple’s moves to embrace, co-opt Qi wireless charging and build a super-standard on top of it will likely wind up members like Qualcomm and Huawei. How much of this is down to user experience and how much is down to the desire to get Apple IP in the technology stack?
Apple is left with a large product line of iPhones: SE, 6 series, 7 series, 8 series and the X

Five for Friday | 五日(星期五)

I’ve been a bit quiet on here this week, I was freelancing in Shoreditch, living the Nathan Barley dream with smoked salmon coffee. Here’s the things that made my day this week:

乐播报丨七夕节,乐高积木X搜狗输入法送“独家”惊喜啦! – Nice collab between Sogou and Lego on digital assets including stickers and a keyboard

Naomi Wu shared this cyberpunk themed maker festival video by Tao Bao – the Alibaba-owned mainland China marketplace. I quite like it, it has a 1980s post-Blade Runner vibe to the visuals – but through the lens of Hong Kong comedy director Stephen Chow.

Students Nicci Yin and Nan Hung Tsai  from the ArtCenter College of Design gave this interesting talk on making locative art more social. Like the ARKit stuff, these explorations feel fresh like the computer graphics in the early 1990s and Macromedia (pre-Adobe) Flash. The idea of scanning items with a hand controller into virtual reality and it becoming a virtual social asset is was interesting. There are interesting implications handing off across realities in storytelling.

Great interview with Action Bronson – I let him speak for himself

ARKit reminds me of back in the day with start of Macromedia Flash; developers and artists being creative and playful. Check out this brief animation from a Japanese developer

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Function and form

Great interview with Henry Rollins with BBC Hard Talk from January 2016. The interesting bit after 6:00 is how Rollins talks about his stage image that evolved from the rudimentary circumstances of being on the road.

The gym shorts and torso look was to cut down on the washing he needed to do in restaurant sinks post-concert.

I noticed that Whiskas had upped its packaging game. They added a bit of personality to the container design with ears. It cut through the tins, oval plastic trays and aluminium trays usual in cat food packaging. It acts as great brand signage.

Whiskas packaging

Christina Xu on Chinese user experience and consumer behaviour

I’ve been a big fan of Christina’s work for a while and this presentation is a great example of his work. Bookmark it; watch it during your lunch break its well worthwhile.

Great examples of online to offline (O2O) interaction in processes and services that are continually expanding.  Interesting points about the lack of social norms or boundaries on the usage of online / mobile service in the real world. I’ve seen people live their online life in the cinema there are NO boundaries as Christina says.

Five for Friday | 五日(星期五)

Things that made my day this week:

It’s quite rare for someone who has had as as long a career as Mick Jagger to still do relevant material. His double A side single featuring England’s Lost is an exceptionally political track featuring Skepta. The last track from similar artist would likely be Pink Floyd’s The Wall. It wouldn’t sound out of step with The Stone Roses or The Charlatans and the video with Luke Evans performance is amazing.

Omega seem to have spent most of the summer dwelling on the NASA Apollo programme heritage of the Omega Speedmaster with launches happening around the world including PR people in faux spacesuits for photo shoots and socialite cocktail parties.  The excuse is the 60th anniversary of the Omega Speedmaster’s launch in 1957. They’ve supported it with a scripted film using brand spokesperson George Clooney talking with Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin as ever is awesome.

60 years of production makes the Speedmaster a design classic. At the time of the Speedmaster’s launch Omega would have been a more bankable name than Rolex. That seems surprising now given Omega’s move more towards the fashion end of the market. There is a great interview at The Peak Magazine; with Peter Chow the recently retired veteran salesman at The Hour Glass in Singapore. The Hour Glass is a famous watch retailer that has attracted the world’s richest customers.

“You could buy a manual mechanical watch with a fine Swiss movement for S$20 plus,” Mr Chong says. The well-known brands then were Titoni, Titus, Movado and Cyma. “Omega was the best, not Rolex.” Mr Chong quit his job in 1959 and with S$6000 from savings and loans, opened a shop in Bukit Panjang. But within three years, poor sales drove him out of business.

It was something I heard from my parents, though I had partly put this down to both of them having had Omegas – which they bought for each other when they got married.

Northampton’s most famous son, author Alan Moore Interviewed by Greg Wilson and Kermit – real name Paul Leveridge from the Ruthless Rap Assassins and Black Grape. Interesting dissection of modern counterculture and the general sense of ennui.

I am addicted to videos about mesmerising manufacturing processes and vinyl records. This video combines both of them. The hipster movement has done more than drive up the cost of avocados and gentrification. We’ve seen vinyl manufacturing plants revived and thrive. Over time the machinery has needed to be modernised, this has meant modern manufacturing techniques (like SCADA controllers) have been melted to post-war industrial technology. Anyway enough of my blathering check it out.

My week was soundtracked by this epic mix of Herbie Hancock tracks.

A few design things

Whilst looking for the BBC’s new ‘Reith’ font – which they’ve done in-house to update Gills Sans and not pay licence fees, I came across this interesting specification on global web page design by the BBC.

Mark Ovenden talks about the new font as part of a wider appreciation of Gill Sans and Johnston (the London Underground font) in a BBC 4 documentary. It was interesting to hear how Neville Brody used it in City Limits magazine and the challenges these fonts faced in the move to digital – first of all for graphic design and then for online consumption.

Finally, from a font perspective, I found this video from Apple WWDC 2015 that Apple used to introduce its San Francisco family of typefaces as its system font (they also use it as their corporate font now). This was the first font designed in-house at Apple in 20 years. Apple keeps it tightly controlled and restricts access to it.

I looked back on Apple’s website from 10 years ago following the launch of the iPhone I realised how fad driven web design could be.

Apple's website circa 2007

In particular notice the reflection was very now at the time. Javascript had taken off with web 2.0 and someone came up with a block of code that did reflections on images a la the image effect you can get in PowerPoint. This then drove a wider trend to do this in code or in InDesign. You can blame the font gradient on a similar ‘cool Javascript hack’ to design trend meme as well.

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Five for Friday | 五日(星期五)

Things that made my day this week:

Dubliner Rosemary Smith is a 79 year old woman who owned her own driving school. But from the 1960s through the 1970s she was one of the world’s foremost rally drivers. With the right support, she could have done so much more. Renault decided to put her behind the wheel of a single seater racing car. Rallying and racing are different disciplines, but Smith still had some of the magic as you could see in this video

Westbam featured in a short film talking about how he started off and the intersection of music and culture in Berlin during 1989

American Petroleum Institute has put together a video reminding the public of all (ok just a small amount of) the stuff that oil actually goes into. When Teslas rule the roads, we’ll still need oil

The sound track of my week has been various mixes from DJ Nature

Campfield Futon – Snow Peak – I love the design and quality of Japanese outdoor brand Snow Peak. The Campfield Futon is an amazingly flexible piece of furniture that would be great outdoors or in an apartment

Living with the Apple Watch

I got the first iteration of the Apple Watch and managed to put up with it for about 48 hours before giving up on it. I have managed to persevere with the the Apple Watch 2.

Apple managed to speed up the performance of glanceable content, but it still doesn’t have the use case nailed. Watch 2 tries to go hard into fitness, which is a mixed bag in terms of data and accuracy. I am not convinced that it is any better than Fitbit and similar devices.

They did improve the product in two design areas. The Nike straps make the watch less sweaty to wear on your wrist. It is now comparable to wearing a G-Shock. They also managed to life-proof the Watch. You can now wear it swimming (but I wouldn’t advise snorkelling or scuba diving) and in the shower.  The battery life is still meh.

I upgraded the OS to watchOS 4 public beta but haven’t managed to use the Siri powered contextual face yet. As a concept it promises to be a step in the right direction to provide the kind of transformation wearables needed.

watchOS 4 made me realise something that had been nagging me for a while.

The Apple Watch doesn’t have any personality, or at least traits of a personality that I’d care about. It’s a detail that disappoints me. Mostly it’s invisible as a device, with the occasional glances. It gives me the occasional messages that sound like a vaguely resistant teen or like bursts of micro-aggression.

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It wouldn’t take that much effort to have a bit more manners or personality in the copywriting. How about some icons?

Susan Kare was the icon designer for original Apple Mac, back in 1984. She came up with icons that were useful and gave the machine a personality. You got a sense of the personality behind the developers who created the machine. This was the kind of detail that Apple was known to obsess over.

dogcow

Some of the icons like the dogcow, the bomb and the sad mac became iconic shorthand amongst Mac users. The dogcow was used in printer utility to show page orientation.

Like the early Mac, the Apple Watch doesn’t have a clear killer app and defined use case. It would benefit from manners, humour or even a bit of Siri wit. What’s more using well designed icons would reduce the effort in terms of product localisation.

You could argue that limited device resources don’t allow it. But I don’t buy that theory, an Apple Watch has more memory and computing power than the original Mac. I think its about that legendary attention to detail that Steve Jobs had (and drove everyone else made with. Apple has tried to codify this in their process, but you can’t bake in quirky obsession.

I guess I am old school Apple. I use an iPhone because it works well with my Mac, rather than the other way around. I still come across things where I see ‘Ahh, Apple’s thought about…’ in my Mac. My iPhone is a portable extension of my data, and doubles as a mobile modem for the Mac as needed; it gets in as the Mac’s plus 1.

By comparison the Apple Watch has less of a connection to the Mac and leeches off the iPhone. For a product that has little use case, it needs to work harder at building loyalty through my relationship with it as a device.

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My decade of the iPhone

Last week has seen people looking back at the launch of the iPhone. At the time, I was working an agency that looked after the Microsoft business. I used a Mac, a Nokia smartphone and a Samsung dual SIM feature phone.  At the time I had an Apple hosted email address for six years by then, so I was secure within the Apple eco-system. I accessed my email via IMAP on both my first generation MacBook Pro and the Nokia smartphone.

Nokia had supported IMAP email for a few years by then. There were instant messaging clients available to download. Nokia did have cryptographic signatures on app downloads, but you found them on the web rather than within an app store.

At the time BlackBerry was mostly a business device, though BlackBerry messaging seemed to take off in tandem with the rise of the iPhone.  The Palm Treo didn’t support IMAP in its native email application, instead it was reliant on a New Zealand based software developer and their paid for app SnapperMail.

Microsoft had managed to make inroads with some business users, both Motorola and Samsung made reasonable looking devices based on Windows.

The iPhone launch went off with the characteristic flair you would expect from Steve Jobs. It was a nice looking handset. It reminded me of Palm Vx that I used to have, but with built in wireless. Whilst the Vx had a stylus, I had used my fingers to press icons and write Graffiti to input text. It looked good, but it wasn’t the bolt from the blue in the way that others had experienced it.

But in order to do work on the Palm, I had a foldable keyboard that sat in my pocket.

By the time that the iPhone launched, I was using a developer version of the Nokia E90 which had an 800 pixel wide screen and a full keyboard in a compact package.

Nokia e90 and 6085

I had Wi-Fi, 3 and 3.5G cellular wireless. I could exchange files quickly with others over Bluetooth – at the time cellular data was expensive so being able to exchange things over Bluetooth was valuable. QuickOffice software allowed me to review work documents, a calendar that worked with my Mac and a contacts app.  There was GPS and Nokia Maps. I had a couple of days usage on a battery.

By comparison when the iPhone launched it had:

  • GSM and GPRS only – which meant that wireless connectivity was slower
  • Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth (but only for headphone support)
  • No battery hatch – which was unheard of in phones (but was common place in PDAs
  • No room for a SD, miniSD or microSD card – a step away from the norm. I knew people who migrated photos, message history and contacts from one phone to another via an SD card of some type

I wasn’t Apple’s core target market at the time, Steve Jobs used to have a RAZR handset.

As the software was demoed some things became apparent:

  • One of the key features at the time was visual voicemail. This allowed you to access your voicemails in a non-linear order. This required deep integration with the carrier. In the end this feature hasn’t been adopted by all carriers that support the iPhone. I still don’t enjoy that feature. I was atypical at the time as I had a SIM only contact with T-Mobile (now EE), but it was seemed obvious that Apple would pick carrier partners carefully
  • There was no software developer kit, instead Apple encouraged developers to build web services for the iPhone’s diminutive screen. Even on today’s networks that approach is hit-and-miss
  • The iPhone didn’t support Flash or Flash Lite. It is hard to explain how much web functionality and content was made in Adobe Flash format at the time. By comparison Nokia did support Flash, so you could enjoy a fuller web experience
  • The virtual keyboard was a poor substitute for Palm’s Graffiti or a hardware keyboard – which was the primary reason that BlackBerry users held out for such a long time
  • The device was expensive. I was used to paying for my device but wasn’t used to paying for one AND being tied into an expensive two year contract
  • Once iPhones hit the street, I was shocked at the battery life of the device. It wouldn’t last a work day, which was far inferior to Nokia

I eventually moved to the Apple iPhone with the 3GS. Nokia’s achilles’ heel had been its address book which would brick when you synched over a 1,000 contacts into it.

By comparison Apple’s contacts application just as well as Palm’s had before it. Despite the app store, many apps that I relied upon like CityTime, MetrO and the Opera browser took their time to get on the iPhone platform. Palm already was obviously in trouble, BlackBerry had never impressed me and Windows phone still wasn’t a serious option. Android would have required me to move my contacts, email and calendar over to Google – which wasn’t going to happen.

 

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Technology is way ahead of interface designs

This post has taken a while to write. When I started we were on the cusp of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference. If you’re interested in technology, but aren’t an Apple fan it still matters as it sets the agenda. Apple’s moves affect wearables, smartphones, tablets and OTT (over the top) TV services.
 
The New York Times published an interesting article Apple Piles On the Apps, and Users Say, ‘Enough!’.
 
Ignore the title of the article itself, which is a function of clickbait rather than content. Instead, it provides an good critique of interface design across platforms. It highlights:
  • The difficulty in finding and installing other apps inside Messages. Many users aren’t aware of the functionality. This is different to the ‘interface as oldster barrier’ that SnapChat had. DoorDash – a Deliveroo analogue dropped a support after a few months due to a lack of users. Apple took a second run at this with iOS 11 trying to improve discoverability
  • Apple 3D touch isn’t used to drive contextual features by app developers
  • The Apple Watch’s mix of crown, button and small touch screen made ‘lean in’ interactive apps hard. The Apple Watch interface isn’t learned by ‘playing’ in the same way that you can with a Mac or an iPhone. Apple’s forthcoming watchOS update looks to have Siri ‘guess’ what you want. It wants to provide contextual information to users (and reduce interactions)
If you ignore 3D touch for a moment, these problems are cross platform in nature. (Some vendors like Huawei have attempted a similar 3D touch feature in their own apps. They did not try to get developer adoption.)
 
Thinking about Messenger app developers struggle to integrate disparate features into the interface. The exceptions are:
  • LINE
  • WeChat – the take up of mini-apps in WeChat have been disappointing performers. Is this indicating a possible ceiling for functionality?
Wearables as a category looks thin, with Apple being one of the largest players. Pebble got acquired by Fitbit. Jawbone seems to be a dead company walking. Their blog was last updated in October 2016, Twitter in February. It’s ironic: their original BlueTooth headset business would now be a great opportunity.
 
I’ve tried Casio’s BlueTooth enabled G-Shock, four Nike Fuelbands and a Polar wearable. I am on my second Apple Watch and I still don’t know what the real compelling use case is for these devices.
 
So how does this stuff come about? I think its down to the process of creation, which affects analysis and critical analysis of the product. Creation in this case is essentially throwing stuff up against the wall until it sticks and then the process becomes reductive. As a case in point, look how smartphones have evolved to the slab form factor. 
 
Throwing stuff against the wall
 
I’ve worked enough times on digital products to understand the functionality is king. It’s the single most important thing. I’ve worked on products that wonderful functions but:
  • Consumers didn’t know they had a need, its hard to get consumers to build new habits. Forming habits can be hard
  • They were a bitch to sign up with. Yahoo!’s sign-up process killed products. It’s a fact. We’d get consumers hyped up, we’d deliver them to the relevant page and they wouldn’t convert. I didn’t blame them, if I wasn’t an employee or digital marketer I’d have done the same
That’s how products are now built. The focus is on speed of execution of the idea. It isn’t about thinking through the complete experience. Agile methodologies with their short sprints puts emphasis on function. Away from data to feed into big picture optimisation. A function focus means that you end up with ‘lean in’ interaction designs as default.
 
There aren’t many organisations that get it right. I’d argue that the early Flickr team and Slack ‘got it’. Though there are common factors:
  • Both Flickr and Slack had common key team members
  • Both products fell out of failure. Flickr came out of tools for Game Neverending. Slack began as a tool in the development of Glitch
Where are the ergonomists and futurists?
 
There are people who can provide the rigorous critique.
Back in the day organisations with large R&D functions like NASA and BT employed writers to envisage the future. Staring into the future became a career. People like Syd Mead provided a visual map of the future. Mead and others did a lot of work thinking about the context of technology to users. At the present time lots of criticism levelled at VR glasses is it being anti-social. This comes as no surprise to anyone who has read William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Social interaction is more likely to come glasses wearer to glasses wearer. It will happen in a virtual third space. Neal Stephenson explored this third space in Snow Crash. The Black Sun was a virtual night club.
 

Bill Moggridge, designer of the GRiD Compass computer – the world’s first laptop thought a lot about ergonomics. The laptop had a 11 degree slope from pop-out leg to the keypad. This is something that your MacBook Pro or Surface doesn’t have. There is a lack of depth in technology design compared to what Moggridge had. He brought in psychologists and studied human computer interaction. He eventually co-founded IDEO.

Whilst the elements that Moggridge looked at were well known the thinking doesn’t seep into product categories. We are very good at asking can a product be made. We are poor at asking what does the product really mean. Apple’s viewpoint on the tablet segment is a case in point.

The vast majority of tablets are used for lean back media consumption from watching films and reading books to reviewing emails. It can work as a productivity device in specific circumstances with custom built apps – say field sales or replacing a pilot’s flight paperwork. The keyboard and power of modern Macs (and PCs) provide a better tool for content creators; whether its analysing a spreadsheet or writing this blog post. 

Yet, since its launch by Steve Jobs, Apple has viewed the iPad as a new PC. The iPad Pro has been designed to try and catch up in features with the Mac. It is ironic that Microsoft has moved a slim ‘MacBook clamshell design’ analogue into its latest Surface range.  It is very different to the pragmatic design ethos of China’s ‘shanzhai’ gadget markers who came up with both laughable and smart solutions. Everything from the dual SIM phone to the phone / electric razor hybrid. Successes bloomed and oddities slipped into the night.

I’ve been a bit quiet

I’ve been a bit quiet due to work and life intervening.  Alongside my work in looking at strategy through a data-centric lens I have also taken on a content strategy role on a project.  This isn’t about:

  • Coming up with a few social ideas
  • Editorial direction

But a much wider approach that takes a systems approach to content. What it is, where should it be and how it should be refreshed. With this in in mind I can thoroughly recommend The Content Strategy Toolkit: Methods, Guidelines, and Templates for Getting Content Right by Meghan Casey.

Meghan also provides a set of downloadable template to make your life even easier. I found the book relatively easy to digest but still have it about as a reference book on my current project.

I can also recommend the current British Museum exhibition: The American Dream – pop to the present. I really liked the works from the NASA art programme by Robert Rauschenberg that celebrated the Apollo programme.

The crowdfunded product problem with PopSlate as an unfortunate case study

I’ve go in involved in a few crowdfunded products and some of them have worked out but the majority haven’t. The latest example was the high profile e-ink phone cover PopSlate. PopSlate got over $1 million dollars of funding and was widely covered by the media.

“popSLATE 2 is E-Ink for your iPhone done right.” – Slashgear

“It’s an evolution, not merely refinement.” – Wired

Generally I’ve found that they tend to fail for three (non-criminal) reasons:

  • They underestimated the cost or complexity for batch manufacture of items. They have problems with getting tooling moulds to work and have to go through iterations that burn up cash
  • They get gazzumped; their product is sufficiently easy to make that Chinese manufacturers who go through Indiegogo and Kickstarter for ideas get the product into market faster
  • The engineering is just too hard. This seems to have been the problem for PopSlate who couldn’t innovate and get their product into market as fast as new phones came out

On the face of it its a great idea, bringing the kind of dual screen technology to the iPhone that had been in the Yota phone for a number of years. Huawei had a similar snap-on e-ink back available for the the P9 handset in limited quantities.

popSLATE – The smart second screen on the back of your phone

PopSlate had already launched a mark I version of their product.  With the mark II version of their product PopSlate tried to do too much: they tried to make it a battery case but still ridiculously thin.  The following email was sent out on Saturday morning UK time:

Critical Company Update

This update provides serious and unwelcome news.

Based upon your support, we have spent the last year continuing to develop our vision for “always-on” mobile solutions. Our goal was to solve three fundamental issues with today’s smartphones: we wanted to simplify access to information, increase battery performance, and improve readability. Unfortunately, the significant development hurdles that we have encountered have completely depleted our finances, and we have been unable to raise additional funds in the current market. As a result, popSLATE does not have a viable business path forward.

This marks the end of a 5-year journey for our team, which started with a seed of an idea in 2012 and led to our quitting our jobs to start the company. Although we are very disappointed by the ultimate outcome and its implications for you as our backers, we are proud of our team, who worked tirelessly over the years to commercialize the first plastic ePaper display, globally ship thousands of popSLATE 1 devices as a first-in-category product, and re-imagine & further extend the platform with the second generation product. Despite a strong vision, high hopes, and very hard work, we find ourselves at the end of the journey.

We are out of money at this juncture for two key reasons. First, we have spent heavily into extensive development and preparation for manufacturing;  as you are aware, we hit some critical issues that multiplied the required spend, as described in previous updates.

Most recently, we learned that the fix for the Apple OTA issues would involve more significant redesign. While we initially suspected that the Lightning circuit was the culprit, it turned out that it was a much more fundamental issue.  Namely, our housing material is not compatible with Apple OTA requirements. You may think, “Wait, isn’t it just plastic?  Why would that be a problem?” While the housing is indeed largely plastic, we used a very special custom blend of materials that included glass fibers. The glass fibers were used to solve two issues, both of which were related to making the device super-thin: a) they enabled uniform, non-distortional cooling of the housing mold around our metal stiffener plate (the key component that makes popSLATE 2 thin but very strong) and b) they added tensile strength to the very compact form factor. Unfortunately, we have concluded that these added fibers are attenuating the RF signal and that we would have to spend additional cycles to tune a new blend with required modifications to the tooling. This is an expensive and timely process.

Second, we have been unsuccessful at raising additional financing, despite having vigorously pursued all available avenues since the close of our March Indiegogo campaign (including angels, VCs, Shark Tank and equity crowdfunding, both in the US and abroad). Many in our network of fellow hardware innovators have encountered this difficult new reality. You may have also seen the very public financial struggles of big-name consumer hardware companies—GoPro, Fitbit, Pebble, Nest and others—as highlighted in this recent New York Times article [link]. The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is the recent and sudden shutting down of Pebble, paragon of past crowdfunding success.

There is no way to sugarcoat what this all means:

  • popSLATE has entered into the legal process for dissolution of the company
  • Your popSLATE 2 will not be fulfilled
  • There is no money available for refunds
  • This will be our final update

While this is a very tough moment professionally and emotionally for us, it is obviously extremely disappointing for all of you who had believed in the popSLATE vision. Many of you have been with us since the March campaign, and a smaller set helped found the popSLATE community back in 2012. To you—our family, friends, and other unwavering backers—we are incredibly grateful for your enthusiasm, ideas, and support throughout the years. Just as importantly,  we deeply regret letting you down and not being able to deliver on our promise to you. We truly wish there were a viable path forward for product fulfillment and the broader popSLATE vision, but sadly we have exhausted all available options.

Sincerely yours,
Yashar & Greg
Co-founders, popSLATE

The problem as a consumer you have for much of these gadget is this:

If a product can be easily made in Shenzhen, it will be so you should be able to get it cheaper on lightinthebox or similar sites

If it can’t be turned out in a reasonable time, it has a low likelihood of succeeding

There have been successes of more hobby based products; I have a replica of Roland’s TB-303 synthesiser. It’s the kind of product that can be assembled whilst not relying a China-based supply chain. It also is based on well understood technology and there weren’t issues of with designing for very tight places or Apple’s requirements (in the case of iPhone’s accessories).

What about the poster child of Pebble? Pebble managed to go for longer with a sophisticated product but couldn’t withstand the gravity of declining sales in the wearables sector.