Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands

The recent collaboration between New York’s Supreme and Louis Vuitton seems like a natural fit.  The reality is that luxury and streetwear have been dancing around each other for a good while.

Snide started it all

Snide was slang in the 1980s for fake or counterfeit. Hip Hop and the Caribbean-influenced Buffalo movement in the UK each used counterfeit and real luxury in their own way.

Daniel Day, better known as Dapper Dan was a was a Harlem-based craftsman and business man who dressed a lot of New York based artists from the golden age of hip hop. Dan’s first hip hop client was LL Cool J back in 1985. Dan’s style was luxe, the finest silks and furs were standard issue – think Puff Daddy before Puff Daddy. They went for customised outfits with their branding on which Dan provided. As the scene took off Dan incorporated suit lining material (which replicated the likes of the Fendi, Bally  or MCM brands) and Gucci or Louis Vuitton branded vinyl to make one-off products.

He customised trainers, clothing and even car interiors. Dan’s own Jeep Wrangler had an interior retrimmed in MCM branded vinyl.

Much of the luxury branding Dan used was coming in from Korean factories which at that time supplied the fake trade. Now similar products would have come out of China. I took a trip to the South China City complex in 2010 where fabric suppliers would offer Louis Vuitton labels and Supreme tags side-by-side.  I can only imagine that the Korean suppliers of the 1980s  had similar markets in textile industry centres like Deagu. Outside of hip hop, Dan was the go-to tailor for all the hustlers in Harlem – so you can see how he could have got the hook-up into the counterfeit suppliers.

At the time hip hop culture was not in a relationship with brands who where concerned about how it might affect them. LL Cool J was the first artist to get a deal with Le Coq Sportif. Run DMC got a long term deal with Adidas after their single ‘My Adidas’ became successful. But these were the exceptions to the rule.  So with Dan’s help they co-opted the brands to try and demonstrate success.

Over in the UK, the Buffalo collective of stylists, artists and photographers including Ray Petri, Jamie Morgan, Barry Kamen (who modelled for Petri), Mark Lebon and Cameron McVey. Buffalo was known as an attitude, which threw contrasting styles together and filtered into fashion shoots and influenced the collections of major designers including Yohji Yamamoto, Jean Paul Gaultier and Comme des Garçons. Even if you didn’t know what Buffalo was, you would have recognised the aesthetic from the likes of i-D, Blitz, New Musical Express and Arena. 

Buffalo mixed Armani jackets with Doctor Martens work boots, or a Puma bobble hat. Petri used music to sound track his process and this was pretty similar to the kind of stuff that influenced street wear pioneer Shawn Stussy over in California. Motown and hip-hop to dub reggae was the sound which explains the Feeling Irie t-shirts created by the white surfboard maker.

If you thought Bros looked cool in their MA-1 bomber jackets and stone washed Levi’s 501 jeans – there was a direct stylistic line back to Buffalo – rehabilitating the items from their link to skinhead culture.

Buffalo permeated into the street style of the decade; influencing the likes of Soul II Soul. Meanwhile over in Bristol The Wild Bunch were yet to morph into Massive Attack. Two members headed to London; producer Nelle Hooper and Miles Johnson (aka DJ Milo who went on to work in New York and Japan). A shoot was organised by i-D magazine and they turned up wearing their street clothes alongside DJ Dave Dorrell and model / stylist Barnsley. At the time, it was considered to be ‘very Buffalo’ in feel, but Dave Dorrell admitted in an interview that they had just came as they were. Dorrell wore his t-shirt as ‘advertising’ for it.

buffalo

The Hermes t-shirt and belt were snide, the Chanel Number 5 t-shirt sported by Dave Dorrell were being knocked out by a group of friends. Young people in London co-opted brands just like the hip-hop artists heading to Dapper Dan’s in Harlem.

Homage

From 1980, surfer Shawn Stussy had been growing an clothing empire of what we would now recognise as streetwear. Stussy had originally came up with the t-shirts as an adjunct and advertisement of his main business – selling surfboards. But the clothing hit emerging culture: skating, punk, hip-hop and took on a life of its own. It went global through Stussy’s ‘tribe’ of friends that he made along the way.

Stussy is known for his eclectic influences and mixing media: old photographs alongside his own typography. In a way that was unheard of in brand circles at the time, Stussy manifested his brands in lots of different ways. The back to back SS logo inside a circle was a straight rip from Chanel; the repeating logo motif that appeared in other designs was a nod to MCM and Louis Vuitton.

All of this went into the cultural melting pot of world cities like Tokyo, New York, London and Los Angeles. Stussy went on to do collaborations from a specially designed party t-shirt for i-D magazine’s birthday party to the cover art of Malcolm Maclaren records. Collaboration with mundane and high-end brands is backed into streetwear’s DNA.

Coke Zero x Neighborhood limited edition cans

(Neighborhood x Coke Zero was something I was involved with during my time in Hong Kong.)

Japan with its engrained sense of quality and wabisabi took the Buffalo mix-and-match approach to the next level. Japan’s own streetwear labels like Visivim, Neighborhood, W-Taps, The Real McCoy and A Bathing Ape (BAPE) took streetwear product quality, exclusivity and price points into luxury brand territory. That didn’t stop BAPE from making a snide versions of various Rolex models under the ‘Bapex’ brand.

Bapex

Some two decades later Supreme came up in New York. The brand takes design appropriation and homage to a new level. Every piece Supreme seems to do is a reference to something else. The famous box logo rips from Barbara Kruger’s piece ‘I shop therefore I am’. From taking a snide swipe at consumerism to ending up in the belly of the beast took Supreme a relatively short time. This heritage of appropriation didn’t stop Supreme from using legal means against people it felt had appropriated its ‘look’.

In an ironic twist of fate, Supreme was sued by Louis Vuitton in 2000 and yet the 2017 collaboration looks exceptionally similar to the offending items…

The last time I shared this story the page was just at 2k followers. With the collaboration officially announced today- and the page having 40k more followers since then- I figure it’s time to re-share. The year was 2000, and a 6 year old Supreme took their hands at referencing a high fashion brand as they did early on (Burberry, Gucci,) this time with Louis Vuitton. Box Logo tees (and stickers), beanies, 5 panels, bucket hats, and skateboard decks all featured the Supreme Monogram logo (pictured right). Within two weeks, Vuitton sends in a cease and desist and apparently, ordered Supreme to burn the remaining available stock. Clearly, many of the products from 2000 are still in the resell market, circulating today. Now we arrive at today’s FW Louis Vuitton fashion show. As most everyone is aware by now, Supreme is in fact collaborating with the luxury brand for a July- into fall collection. I’ve seen quite a few pieces from the collaboration (20+, check @supreme__hustle @supreme_access and @supreme_leaks_news for more pics) and it’s panning out to be Supremes largest collaboration to date. It’s interesting to see the references of both brands within the collaboration- from old Dapper Dan bootleg Louis pieces, to authentic ones, to Supremes monogram box logo and skateboard desks (pictured left). 17 years later and @mrkimjones proves that time can mend all wounds (amongst other things). Excited to see what all will release alongside this legendary collaboration. #supremeforsale #supreme4sale

A photo posted by Supreme (@supreme_copies) on

The new customers

North East Asia’s fast growing economies had been borne out of learning from developed market expertise, state directed focus on exports and ruthless weeding out of weaker businesses. Intellectual property was cast aside at various points. Korea, Hong Kong, Japan and China went from making knock-off products to displacing Europe and the US as the leading luxury markets.

Asian luxury consumers, particularly those second generation rich in China were younger than the typical customer luxury brands cater too. These consumers bought product as they travelled taking in style influences as they went. First from nearby markets like Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore and then Korea. This drew from a melange of hip hop, streetwear, Buffalo styling and contemporary western designers like Vivienne Westwood – as well as the more matronly styles of the traditional European luxury houses.

The luxury brands had to adapt. They brought in new designers who themselves were drawing from similar influences.  These designers also collaborated with sportswear brands like Alexander McQueen and Puma or Jeremy Scott and Raf Simons for Adidas.

Luxury brands got seriously into new product categories making luxe versions of training shoes that could be charitably called a homage to the like of Nike’s Air Force 1.

Bringing things full circle

As the supreme_copies Instagram account notes the collaboration with Supreme and Louis Vuitton brings things full circle with the pieces having a nod to Dapper Dan’s custom work as well as Supreme’s own ‘homage’.  Luxury brand MCM (Michael Cromer München), which Dan borrowed from extensively in the 1980s was restructured in 1997 with shops and brand being sold separately. The brand was eventually acquired eight years later by the Korean Sungjoo Group. Korea now has its own fast developing luxury fashion and cosmetics brand industry. Textile city Deagu which was the likely source of Dapper Dan’s fabric is now a fashion and luxury business hub in its own right. The Korean entertainment industry is a trend setter throughout Asia. For instance, Hallyu drama My Love From A Star drove breakout sales for the Jimmy Choo ‘Abel’ shoe.

The only question I still have is why did a move like Louis Vuitton’s collaboration with Supreme take so long? The luxury brands spend a lot on customer insight, they were using social listening far longer than they had been on social media. They know that a customer wearing their jacket could have a Visivim backpack slung over the shoulder and a pair of Adidas Stan Smiths on their feet. Customers mix-and-match Buffalo style for all but the most formal occasions. For streetwear brands, collaboration is in their DNA and they get an additional leg-up in the quality stakes.

More information
Ray Petri
How Buffalo shaped the landscape of 80s fashion – Dazed
Dave Dorrell interview part one | Test Pressing
Dapper Dan
Barbara Kruger Responds to Supreme’s Lawsuit: ‘A Ridiculous Clusterf**k of Totally Uncool Jokers’ | Complex
Volume and wealth make Chinese millennials a lucrative target market: GfK | Luxury Daily
Just why are Louis Vuitton and other high-end retailers abandoning China? | South China Morning Post – although Chinese shoppers consumed 46 per cent of luxury goods around the world, their purchases in their home market accounted for only 10 per cent of global sales, falling from 11 per cent in 2012 and 13 per cent in 2013
How a Jimmy Choo Shoe Became a Global Best Seller – WSJ

Living with the Casio GWF -D1000 Frogman watch

When you typically look at reviews of products, there are usually reviewed over a short time when they are new-and-shiny. Often a products features and character come out over time – a symbiotic process between product and user.

I picked up a GWF-D1000 soon after it went on sale for considerably less than the £800 that it is the current street price. Up until I bought the GWF-D1000 (which I will call the D1000 through the rest of the copy for brevity), I had owned its predecessor the GWF-1000 (which I will call the 1000 from here on in).

So what is the GWF-D1000 anyway?

The D1000 is the latest in an a series of G-Shock watches aimed at scuba divers. The first Frogman came out in 1993. The overall design has largely been the same with an asymmetric case and a large display to make operation easier. The positioning of the watches and price points changed over time – some of the previous models had titanium cases and came under the Mr-G sub-brand. The last few models have a stainless steel core case with a DLC (diamond like coating) to protect the surface.

Over time it has picked up features as the technology improved. It became illuminated by a small green bulb, then electro-luminescent material. It moved from relying purely on battery power to having solar cells and a rechargeable battery. The watch became more accurate by picking up time signals via radio from six locations around the world that are calibrated with an atomic clock (precursors to the NTP services around the world that keep your computer and smartphone bang on time.)

The key technology gains over the 1000 include:

  • A dive computer rather than a dive timer (neither matter to me), it has the same basic functionality that dive computers used to have 20 years ago (minus PC connectivity). No big shakes until you remember that it is doing this all from a solar-powered rechargeable watch battery
  • Digital compass which is surprisingly handy, it is very forgiving of the way you hold it, expect this in other Casio watches soon.
  • Temperature reading (again more for the diver) or when you are running a bath
  • The display has been rearranged and a bit easier to read
  • Much better display light and crisper to read at night

The real benefits for me were in the build quality:

  • You get a sapphire crystal rather than the usual hardened mineral glass. This isn’t the first time that Casio has used a sapphire crystal on a watch, but they are harder to manufacture and more expensive than the usual mineral glass face
  • The manner in which the strap is secured to the case has been completely revised. There is are new Allen key screws and a carbon fibre rod to secure the strap to the case
  • The strap is made of polyurethane resin reinforced with carbon fibre. The loop that holds the excess strap length is now a section of stainless steel which has been bent around the strap

How do I use it?

It makes sense to tell a little bit around why I wear a Frogman. I want an accurate watch (who doesn’t?). I want a reliable watch (again, probably a hygiene factor for most people; but one that hints at why the G-Shock has replaced Rolex as the default watch I have seen on Hong Kongers over the past 10 years or so. G-Shock offers robustness that 20 years ago would have come from fine Swiss engineering – at a much lower price point.

I love my Swiss dive watches but there is a time and place for everything.  The knockabout case and its water resistance means that you can forget about the watch. You don’t have to coddle it or worry that it will pick up undue attention. You don’t have to worry if you get a bang on an elevator (lift) door, dropped on the bathroom floor or going for a swim.

The G-Shock is an everyman watch – unless its got a lurid colour scheme it isn’t likely to attract the attention of your average petty criminal. I’ve often taken it off in the office so that I can type in greater comfort and left it there by accident when going home. I’ve never had a G-Shock go missing.

It is relatively easy to use, despite the modal nature of its interface design. To change settings, use functions or see recorded information you have to cycle through a series of text menus – it has more in common with a 1980s vintage video cassette recorder or a DEC VAX. Quite how this goes down with consumers more used to iPads and SnapChat is interesting. Casio seems to do alright by attracting them with bright plastic cases reminiscent of Lego -based colour schemes.

I haven’t dived seriously in a long time, I took up scuba diving while working in the oil industry and have never got back into it since moving to London.  PADI diving at resorts is tame compared to British diving club scene I had been used to.

My work environment is creative which means that t-shirts, flannel shirts,  jeans and suede hiking boots make the G-Shock an ideal accessory. I work in the London office of an American digital marketing agency, owned by a French multinational and my clients are scattered in the different offices around the world of pharmaceutical companies. The functions I tend to use most are the world time, date/time and the night light. My iPhone is now my alarm clock.

The reality is that most of these watches will end up on the wrists of people like me rather than people who dive for a living.

What’s it like to live to live with the D1000

The D1000 is only incrementally heavier than the 1000, it felt a bit strange to wear for about 30 minutes after swapping over to the newer model. But in some ways the D1000 doesn’t yet feel like its my watch.

The 1000 strap became shiny in places over time and more pliable, it felt like it became adjusted to me. Give the D1000 a rub over and it still looks box fresh. The downside is that the strap feels stiff and I still feel its edges on occasion – this isn’t about discomfort, but about the watch not feeling like part of you. There are no shiny parts of wear – it feels less like a ‘personal item”. It lacks what a designer friend calls authenticity; unlike distressed jeans, customised flight jackets or combat Zippos.

Zippo Lighters

This sounds great for the resale value, but I feel that it provides a worse experience for the wearer of the watch.

The reinforced strap does have one bonus, it holds securely to the case. Look at these pictures of my two year old 1000

Casio GWF 1000 Frogman

You can see how the retaining screw that held the strap to the case came undone and disappeared over time. You don’t have these kind of problems with the D1000.

The screen on the D1000 uses its real estate in a different way to the 1000.

Here is the 1000

Casio GWF 1000 Frogman

Here is the D1000

Casio GWF D1000 Frogman

At first the differences aren’t obvious. If you look at the top right side of the screen, the tide and moon segments are replaced by a multi-use screen on the D1000. The small icons for alarms and hourly alerts are moved to the bottom and left of the screen on the D1000, the moon icon now moves to the left of the main screen down from the top right. This probably marginally increases the screen real estate and helps make legibility a bit clearer at night.

GWF 1000

The biggest 1000 feature that I miss is the ability to toggle with one press of the top left button from showing the date on the screen to showing a second time zone; it was extremely handy for work. And having come from the 1000 to the D1000 it was a real ‘what the fuck’ moment.

By comparison I have to press six times to get to the world time screen. Instead, it now toggles between a tide table and the day. Even giving it a two press option would be a better fix than what the D1000 currently has. It’s a small gripe, but it annoyed the heck out of me.

My work around has been to keep the watch in world time mode and if I need to know the day or date, I find myself reaching for my iPhone.

If you are really that worried about tide tables, you will be likely using a specialist service as they vary a good deal over relatively short distances.

If the D1000 still sounds like the kind of watch you want, you can get it here.

Throwback gadget: shareware

Back before the internet became ubiquitous, software was distributed by bulletin boards. It was expensive to dial into a board, so magazines uses to have storage media pre-loaded with applications on the front of them.

For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s my parents used to use MacFormat magazine CDs and floppy disks as coffee coasters. One disk may come with bloatware such as the installation software for AOL, Demon or Claranet. The other disk would be full of free or paid for software.

The paid for software was often written by a single developer. It was a labour of love / cottage industry hybrid. Often the developers wrote the software to deal with a real need that they had, it was then passed on as they thought others would benefit as well.

Open source software the way we understand it now was only in its infancy in terms of public awareness. Packaged software was big money. As recent as 2000, Microsoft Office for the Mac would have cost you £235. Quark Xpress – the Adobe Indesign of its day would have cost in the region of £700+ VAT.

Into the gap sprung two types of software: freeware and shareware.

Freeware was usually provided as is, there was little expectation of application support. It would become orphaned when the developer moved on to other things

ChocoFlop Shareware Style

 

Shareware usually had different mechanisms to allow you to try it, if you could see the benefit then you paid a fee. This unlocked new features, or got rid of nag screens (like the one from image editing app Chocoflop).

In return you also got support if there was any problems with the app. Shareware hasn’t died out, but has become less visible in the world of app stores. One that I have been using on and off for over 20 years is GraphicConvertor by Lemke Software. It handles any kind of arcane graphic file you can throw at it and converts it into something useable.

Kagi Software were one of the first people to provide programmers with a way of handling payments and software activation. Kagi provided an onscreen form to fill out, print, and mail along with their payment. it was pre-internet e-commerce.

I can’t remember exactly what utility programme I first bought for my college PowerBook, but I do remember that I sent the printed form and cheque to a developer in Glasgow. I got a letter back with an activation code and a postcard (I’ve now lost) from the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Later on, Kagi were one of the first online payment processors.

From the late 1990s FTP sites and the likes of download.com began to replace the magazine disk mount covers. Last year Kagi died, making life a little more difficult for the worldwide cottage industry of small software developers. it was inconvenient, but now with PayPal developers have an easy way to process payments and there are various key management options.

Jargon watch: lights out production lines

If you are of a certain age, ‘hand made by robots’ brings to mind the Fiat Strada / Ritmo a thirtysomething year old hatchback design that was built in a factory with a high degree of automation for the time.

Fiat subsidiary Comau created Robogate, a highly automated system that speeds up body assembly. Robogate was eventually replaced in 2000. The reality is that ‘hand made by robots’ had a liberal amount of creative licence. Also it didn’t enable Fiat to shake off its rust bucket image. Beneath the skin, the car was essentially a Fiat 127. Car factories still aren’t fully automated.

Foxconn is looking to automate its own production lines and create products that truly are ‘hand-built by robots’. Like Fiat it has its own robots firm which is manufacturing 10,000 robots per year.

Foxconn has so far focused on production lines for larger product final assembly (like televisions) and workflow on automated machine lines: many consumer products use CNC (computer numeric control) machines. That’s how Apple iPhone and Macs chassis’ are made. These totally automated lines are called ‘lights out production lines’ by Foxconn.

Foxconn is looking to automate production because China is undergoing a labour shortfall as the population getting older. Foxconn uses a lot of manual workers for final assembly of devices Apple’s iPhone because the components are tightly packed together. It will be a while before Foxconn manages to automate this as robotic motor control isn’t fine enough to achieve this yet.

More information
Foxconn boosting automated production in China | DigiTimes – (paywall)

2017: just where is it all going?

We are entering a period of turbulence in much of the world and I suspect that there are going to be more changes over the coming years.

Smart watches still won’t be as big as fitness trackers. Fitness trackers will peak.

  • Smart watches are struggling for a reason to purchase. Apple’s Watch 2 was the product that they should have realised the first time around. It was fixing the bugs in the first version. But there is still no reason to purchase
  • Android Wear supporters seem to have laid off on development. Huawei Watches are now available for half the list price. Lenovo has laid its Android Wear ambitions aside.
  • Fitness trackers seem to have done a very good job at reaching health fanatics. However the market will soon become driven by replacement devices. There is a constant tension between buying a cheap device which requires low amounts of purchase consideration versus moderately expensive devices that competes agains the smartphone doing the job. It is interesting that Jawbone could not find a buyer and Pebble was sold to Fitbit

If there is a common content format and a rise in content (beyond brand marketing) then VR could take off (and hammer TV sales in the process – at least in single user situations. I still think that VR googles could act as a TV substitute for single person households, shared living and student dorms. When content is time-shifted or binge streamed you can get by without a TV tuner.

The key driver would be the high cost of housing. If you are a hipster living in a small bedsit, having a large TV is a waste of your precious space.

The ‘next billion’ smartphone users in the developing world won’t get their handsets as fast as everyone thinks. Why?

  • Much of the supply will come from small no-name brands. These brands currently are on razor thin margins. Smartphone manufacturers are being shaken out
  • Razor thin margins are crushing key component manufacturers, those that are left will prioritise big customers first
  • The Hanjin Shipping meltdown will hit small suppliers with valuable cashflow tied up in containers that can’t move. Hanjin is expected to precipitate failure in other shipping businesses as the industry still has massive over-capacity and financial institutions will be less interested in helping out distressed businesses. Mearsk’s acquisition of Hamburg Sud is a further sign of this
  • Increasing nationalism in key markets like Indonesia and India is requiring local investment in production lines and component sourcing. This will take the focus away from addressing other markets and likely temporarily rise manufacturing costs
  • Declining economic outlook in mature markets including China, the US and EU will affect the capital available to fund speedy expansion

Leaks about Uber’s finances and rising interest rates are likely to drive increased scrutiny of Silicon Valley businesses. Uber’s finances sound eerily like the investment money pits prevalent.

Media investment is going to pour into the Alt-Right at a VC level. Its been a void that they’ve left up to now. Given that many of the markets that they’ve tried to disrupt are going nowhere, expect Breitbart and Co. to start seeing VC funded competition.

2016: crystal ball gazing, how did I do?

Here are the predictions made at the top of the year

I expect Uber will continue to funnel money into China and still get sand in its face. Quite what this means for Lyft I am not so sure.

Uber raised more money, realised that things still weren’t improving and then got a face saving exit from the Chinese market. I’ll call that a win.

Twitter gets a change of management, but that doesn’t do any good… All of this would be bad news for potential advertisers and their intermediaries in the advertising and PR world.

God, where do we start with Twitter. It has had extensive management churn and a big staff lay-off. I don’t think that my own view about a change of management is correct though. I envisaged this as a strategic proactive more by the board rather than the current rotating door. I have been impressed by how well Twitter advertising has held up. Twitter might look like the Yahoo! of social media, but it still holds a lot of weight with the mainstream media which still counts for something.

Fintech bubble that will take good ideas and bad ones down together. Banks are currently considered to be ripe for disruption. One of the key problems with this is that technologists think it will be easy to sweep aside regulations that banks operate under.

This one is still percolating out. Banks are looking particularly at Blockchain as the basis of a better transaction ledger/database. Informally, I have heard that VC funding has largely dried up on fintech start-ups; but the other shoe has yet to drop.  Zopa applying for a bank licence and becoming a bank felt like a watershed moment.

The internet in the EU will become increasingly regulated. At the moment the European Union is succumbing to The Fear. 

The fear has grown beyond terrorism to being overrun by immigrants (some of whom will be terrorists). The UK is well on its way to putting into law some of the most Draconian web laws in the western world from porn filtering to sharing citizen web history access with a wide range of government agencies.

Overall this has made less progress than I expected because Brexit became the existential challenge that the EU members will seek to vanquish.

We will have reached peak smartphone and tablet. China has now reached replacement rate for devices, there is a corresponding lack of paradigm shifts in the pipelines for smartphone design and software. Tablets have shown themselves to be nice devices for data consumption but not requiring regular upgrades like the smartphone or replacement for the PC.

We’ve certainly reached peak tablet. Smartphones are taking a longer while to shake out. What we are seeing is declining margins in smartphones. Apple increased its industry share of profits to 90% despite:

  • Making a weak update to the iPhone 6S
  • Having a declining market share
  • Having a higher cost in terms of bill of materials

There were some one-off factors such as the Samsung Note 7 recall and the collapse of Hanjin Shipping which curtailed the supply of some handsets.

VR in 2016 will be all about finding the right content. VR won’t work in gaming unless it provides e-gaming athletes with some sort of competitive advantage, if it does then gaming will blow things up massively. Gaming will not be the only content vehicle for VR, it needs an Avatar-like moment to drive adoption into the early mainstream.

There were two things that surprised me about VR in 2016.

  • It look Sony so long to get VR on to the PlayStation, it will be a while for us to see the impact of gaming on the use of VR. It certainly provides immersive experiences, but does it provide e-athletes with competitive advantage?
  • China blew the amount of VR headsets available out of the water, but there has been a corresponding dearth of content. The stuff on YouTube is nice demo-ware, but where is the ‘Breaking Bad’ of VR

One thing that people aren’t talking about is the role of VR googles as a replacement for a large TV set. I have heard that some of the most used apps for VR is Netflix.

Older predictions
2016: just where is it all going? | renaissance chambara
2015: crystal ball gazing, how did I do? | renaissance chambara
2015: just where is it all going? | renaissance chambara
2014: crystal ball gazing, how did I do?
2014: just where is it all going? | renaissance chambara 
Crystal ball-gazing: 2013 how did I do?
2013: just where is it all going?
Crystal ball-gazing: 2012 how did I do?
2012: just where is digital going?
Crystal ball-gazing: 2011 how did I do?
2010: How did I do?
2010: just where is digital going?

Just one more thing: Apple’s unpleasant surprise of a MacBook Pro

My initial reaction to Apple’s MacBook Pro wasn’t overwhelmingly positive. Now that I’ve tried one very briefly, I was even more unimpressed than I was at the launch.

Thin

I didn’t feel that much of a weight different between my current machine and the new model MacBook Pro. Who gives a flying fuck about the laptop being even thinner than the current MacBook Pro? You have to wonder if Apple really believes customers are gagging for a thin incompatible clamshell of mediocrity? I’d be more interested in power density of the battery – more charge and better performance from the laptop. Some connectors that I actually use would be great as well.

Display

If you already have a retina display laptop this is exactly the same.  The touchpad display is interesting, but it seems to take no account of finger span in the way the controls work on a couple of the default apps that I tried from the perspective of a touch typer.  I suspect that the 11″ MacBook Air was killed because Apple is desperately hoping sales will go to the iPad Pro.

Tactile experience

Apple made a big deal of the keyboard, but the truth of it is that it was wasted. The real effort was not about user experience and more about making things thinner. It isn’t the improvement on the previous MacBook Pro keyboard experience despite the clever engineering involved.

Real world performance

I’m a bit spoiled from a tech point of view. I am working on an early 2015 model MacBook Pro (Retina) 3.1GHz Intel Core i7 with 16GB of RAM and 1TB of solid state storage. I have an attached SuperDrive by USB and two Apple Thunderbolt displays.  The graphics performance is adequate with an Intel Iris Graphics 6100.
about this mac
Having had a quick play with the new MacBook Pro there didn’t seem to be a real world performance difference. You probably would need a machine that is five years old or more to get a speed bump.

Working class truths, populism and dark futures

Following president Trump’s election and the British plebiscite on European Union membership there has been lots of hand wringing about workers who traditionally participated in legacy industries being outside society.
We won't pay for their crisis - Mancunian protest sticker
Here is what we have to deal with:

  • The ‘traditional’ jobs aren’t coming back
  • Middle-class roles are already being disrupted
  • There is a declining  return on investment in further education, yet lifelong learning is a compulsory requirement
  • Globalisation is working at an aggregate level, but isn’t working at a local level
  • Western society has fractured. It will become more fractious once the realisation takes hold that:
  1. It can’t be resolved by simple measures, populists might listen – but can’t solve anything. Jobs are governed by a multiple factors that affect both cost and demand considerations
  2. It can’t be solved in a relatively short time frame. You can’t build the necessary eco-system and supporting industries to bring the jobs back; even if the economics made sense
  3. Governments don’t have their hands on the levers of control, the best governments can do is actively manage decline. Technological disruption puts the levers of control with a smaller group of people
  4. There is a lack of willingness by those with the money and the power to solve it – primarily due to the pressures that drive their behaviour
  5. Existing social welfare safety nets aren’t sustainable

The realisation that populism doesn’t deliver is likely to cause a further visible outburst of anger. Which should be good news for the private security industry. This could result in civil or international conflict. It has already happened. Factors that contributed to the Arab spring and the Syrian civil war included a large under-employed population living in stagnant economic conditions with no hope in sight. This probably sounds familiar.

I am ruling out some sort of positive ‘black swan’ event which changes the game completely and provides meaningful work with great wages across societal boundaries. If I could reliably predict these, I would be writing this from my private Airbus A380.

Instead I can see four broad categories of outcomes, all of which are ugly:

  • Carry on – carrying on isn’t likely to be sustainable as societal pressures go to breaking point
  • Managed decline – from a rational point-of-view the most ‘possible’ solution. Unpalatable from a voter perspective. It begs the question at what point would the UK economy bottom out? Managed decline makes the most sense as an interim measure whilst a country works out what its new place in the world is and charts a path towards it based on careful strategic investments with limited capital
  • Massive investment – presents a number of challenges that make it nearly impossible for western countries. It would require a long term view – unlikely without consensus driven politics with a high level of comity, huge access to credit – again unlikely with highly indebted economy and a slowly declining credit rating like the UK. Would take too long to satisfy angry voters
  • Massive disruption – the dice is thrown in the air as society tears itself apart and the strong gain control – think China’s Cultural Revolution. Wages and worker rights may drop to make them more cost competitive for low skilled manufacturing allowing for an employed but disgruntled workforce. Power is unlikely to shift too much, the corresponding upheaval in population numbers may provide some supply side pressure on wages when its all over. In all likelihood, it would just reduce pressure for change, increased willingness to work together on a longer term solution, but not provide much medium term economic benefit

Disruption

Here is a chart of numerous successful business, some of them are over a century old. AT&T and Verizon can trace their history back to 1877 and the Bell Telephone Company set up by Alexander Graham Bell’s father-in-law. General Electric goes back to work by Thomas Edison in 1880. These companies took from 117 – 137 years to become $200 billion businesses. Facebook took ten years requiring only 3% of the people AT&T needed.

It would be reasonable to assume that the future is going to create less jobs with given investments rather than more.

Company #Employees Year its market capitalisation became US$200 billion
Facebook 9,199 2014
Microsoft 27,000 1998
Apple 46,600 2010
Alphabet (Google) 46,600 2012
Amazon 165,000 2015
Verizon 176,800 2014
General Electric 239,000 1997
AT&T 302,000 2007

So large private enterprises will:

  • Employ less people which means less ancillary demand for services in the locale. Less restaurants, shops, artisanal coffee shops, micro breweries, nail bars, car valets, hotels and hair salons
  • Employ even less unskilled people – what unskilled labour is required will be employed on a flexible basis. Their roles will be competing on ‘total price’ with a global workforce and robotics

This hypothesis is supported by data from the MIT Technology review which showed that modern US manufacturing managed to increase productivity by 250% whilst reducing staff numbers by over 40%.

Win-Win to Winner Takes All

Technological progress and globalisation has resulted in a decline in the middle class in western countries. Pew Research claims that the US middle class declined from 61 per cent of the population in 1970 to 50 per cent by 2015.

Corresponding average ‘real wages’ for US ‘good producing’ workers peaked by the mid-1970s and have been broadly stagnant since. A pattern mirrored in other developed economies. Hong Kong saw a similar peak from 1967 riots through to the early 1990s until factories moved across the border.

Manufacturing productivity had grown steadily over that time. You can argue over the data points but the overall trend seems to hold true.

Owners of capital have enjoyed increased returns versus the providers of labour. Knowledge work, a key part of middle class roles could be easier to export than production lines. A classic example is the bank back office roles that have been exported to India.

Supply chain

At the moment UK manufacturing jobs operate as part of a complex supply chain that primarily addresses the European Union as a market. The supply chain is built around a number of factors:

  • The value of the product
  • The weight of the product
  • The volume of the product
  • The cost of shipping versus the cost of production
  • How well the product travels
  • Distribution of product demand
  • Proximity to suppliers
  • Proximity to talent

This is why companies may package a product in one country and manufacturer in others. Washing powder is a classic example of this. Chocolate travels well, so Cadbury could move production lines of internationally popular products to Poland. There is a greater incentive to move low skilled work out of areas that aren’t geographically central to a given supply chain.  European freedom of movement may have kept jobs in the UK by allowing low and semi-skilled workers to move rather than the factories. This would be of little consolation to UK workers, but would benefit UK tax coffers.

This complex formula is the reason why jobs move in and out of the UK.

Cutting the UK out of this supply chain with a hard Brexit ensures that suppliers have to make complex choices. BMW will probably be wondering what UK presence it needs to maintain in order to keep the Mini brand values. It may decide its easier to evolve the quirky Britishness out of the brand over time and just keep it quirky. The Audi TT hasn’t been harmed by actually being assembled in Hungary.

The majority of components in the supply chain for the Mini production line is based in Germany.

A post-Brexit UK could be in the position of importing more rather than less products once companies take into account the bigger picture of the supply chains and the EU single market.

Role of eco-systems

Richard Florida is a Canadian professor who has spent much of his time looking at urban studies from the perspective of prosperity. He is known for is work around the creative class and urban regeneration (or gentrification). His work is controversial. One key concept he has of relevance to working-class communities is one of ‘clusters’ where eco-systems exist.  When you apply it to traditional working class industries one can see how the jobs aren’t just going to come back. The UK has a series of traditional clusters that are in overall decline, this is best illustrated by the state of chemical, oil refinery and coal sectors which underpin a wide range of manufacturing industries.

Where new clusters spring up (Silicon Roundabout and the FinTech businesses within the Square Mile) they create employment that much of the UK population is ill-equipped to fulfil.

Let’s look in greater depth at traditional manufacturing industries.

Factories build on suppliers, who build on raw materials processors, who build on utilities and extractive industries. Take for example industrial revolution era Stoke-on-Trent which was close to high quality clay pits and coal that could be cheaply shipped in from mines in Lancashire or South Yorkshire.

Unfortunately for Stoke-on-Trent; clay is readily available around the world, opening up the possibility of production in areas with cheap labour. Automation raised the quality of production and fashion can quickly dictate whether an ‘area’ brand is in demand.

If we look at the industrial landscape of the United Kingdom, the manufacturing industry has been hollowed away during the 1980s and 1990s. The UK lost 18% of its manufacturing capacity in the space of 18 months during the conservative government of Margaret Thatcher.

There has been a corresponding (likely terminal) decline in the necessary facilities to support an industrial economy. Now let’s look in-depth at three essential types of facilities that underpin manufacturing:

  • Oil refineries
  • Coal mines
  • Chemical plants

This base of the UK industrial eco-system is running on ‘life support’ in critical areas.

I was fortunate to have a great science teacher at school, he once said to me that you could measure the size and health of an industrial economy by the amount of sulphuric and hydrochloric acid it manufactured and consumed. In order to manufacture hydrochloric acid you need a chlorine gas plant – neither chemical is something you want to transport over long distances. The side effects of a leak would be catastrophic.

The UK currently has one plant to make chlorine gas that is government subsidised because there isn’t a sufficiently large industrial base to support continued profitable production. What industrial capacity is in the UK is perilously close to being snuffed out.

What is left of the UK chemical industry has consolidated in the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEEPIC). Some of the products created are intermediary chemicals for use elsewhere in the European Union. Brexit is likely to have a disruptive effect on some of these manufacturers. The cluster is a key reason why Nissan decided to build a manufacturing plant in Sunderland. NEEPIC is dependent on oil refining capacity for key chemical building blocks (feedstock).

Oil refineries are considered by the public as providers of petrol (gasoline), diesel and jet fuel. The reality is that they provide feedstock (chemical building blocks) for most things in everyday life:

  • Foods
  • Medicines (or we can go back to leeches and blood letting)
  • Paints (containers, large manufactured goods, civil engineering)
  • Plastics (the modern world as we know it) – structural plastics, coatings, fibres including clothing textiles

As I write this is, it is easier to look around my desk and count the products that don’t have an oil-derived input – one item, the desk itself which is unpainted. Though I would put good money on it that the trees it was made from were felled with petrol chain saw and transported on a diesel powered lorry to the saw mill.

Yet the UK has lost a huge amount of oil refining capacity. From 1974 – 2012 refining capacity almost halved from 148 million tonnes to 77 million tonnes (Energy Institute). This decline happened despite start of UK North sea oil production in 1975.

Peak production on North Sea oil occurring in 1985 and 1999 (two peaks due to technological innovation). There were 22 active oil refineries in 1974, at the time of writing there are now seven.

Part of this was driven by changing energy consumption such as the decline of home heating oil and more fuel efficient cars. But a good deal would be due to reduced ability to compete against foreign petro-chemical feedstocks and reduced industrial capacity.

Oil refining capacity has moved to closer to where the industry is.

Belgium and the Netherlands have oil refining capacity beyond their internal needs because of their ease of access to continental European markets. Germany as Europe’s industrial powerhouse has the largest refining capacity in the European Union – which matches its industrial economy.

Much of the capacity to provide chemical feedstocks for industrial use has moved to the Far East; notably Singapore, Japan, Korea, Jamnagar in India and China. Overall industrial production has moved to East and Southeast Asia.

Coal production in the UK is roughly 10 percent of what it was in 1980. There are no deep coal mines active in the UK, only a handful of open cast mines. Coal is not only useful as a fuel but also a alternative supplier of feedstock for a diverse range of products including fertilisers, plastics and medicines. Even if coal comes back to prominence as oil reserves run out it would take a lot of effort to get UK production going again – perhaps too much effort.

Managed decline

The purpose of managed decline would be to concentrate efforts where they can make the most impact. London would draw in more people from the hinterlands. Cities like Liverpool would continue to decline in population. Low quality housing (think trailer parks or shanty towns) would cater for the internally displaced workers and there would be a likely increase in casual or gig economy roles.

So what would managed decline look like? We have a clue from government discussions after the 1981 Toxteth riots. Lord Geoffrey Howe wrote a letter which was considered too controversial at the time

“I fear that Merseyside is going to be much the hardest nut to crack,”

“We do not want to find ourselves concentrating all the limited cash that may have to be made available into Liverpool and having nothing left for possibly more promising areas such as the West Midlands or, even, the North East.

“It would be even more regrettable if some of the brighter ideas for renewing economic activity were to be sown only on relatively stony ground on the banks of the Mersey.”

“I cannot help feeling that the option of managed decline is one which we should not forget altogether. We must not expend all our limited resources in trying to make water flow uphill.”

Howe realised that even discussing the concept at the time would be explosive.

In practical terms, it would mean:

  • Re-centralising government departments
  • Not spending on infrastructure beyond critical maintenance
  • Rationalising government support infrastructure: police, hospitals, social services
  • Re-zoning areas from a planning perspective to encourage development only in future clusters
  • Allowing local government to go into bankruptcy protection and under go US-style emergency management
  • Once population decline hits a critical mass, turning off the last services, rather like the city of Detroit has done
  • Focus infrastructure investment on ‘clusters’
  • Connecting benefits to re-location

This process would then give time for western countries; in particular the UK, to re-invent themselves and think about their economic purpose in the world beyond consumption.

The Chinese government have already started on this process whilst their economy is still in a high state of growth – looking to move up the manufacturing value chain, moving into the professional and financial services sectors that the west currently occupy. On the flip side they have not flinched from closing down excess capacity in the steel industry and low value industries. This is causing economic hardship amongst unskilled workers in Guongzhou and the steel towns of Hubei province.

Former clothing factories are being bulldozed to make way for corporate campuses. Small electronics factories in Shenzhen are making way for a financial services centre including a stock exchange.

If one thinks about the Chinese experience and their migration to higher value work, where would the UK go next?

More information
The Current Moment | Poverty, Inequality and Productivity
Manufacturing Jobs Aren’t Coming Back | MIT Technology Review
The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground | Pew Research Center
Toxteth riots: Howe proposed ‘managed decline’ for city | BBC
Detroit’s Least Bad Option | The New Republic

China is making a product that Apple should have done

Trawling eBay gives access to a cottage industry of predominantly China-based suppliers. They take iPod Classics and remanufacture them. They get new cases and new batteries.

Real trick is in the new component put in the device. Out goes the Toshiba micro-hard drive of 120GB or 160GB and in goes a 256GB SSD. Apple had abandoned production of the iPod Classic because it couldn’t get the right parts any more. Technology had moved on and flash memory had replaced micro hard drive’s as storage technology of choice for portable consumer devices.
iPod ClassicSwapping out the hard drive for an SSD provides an iPod with a number of advantages:

  • Its a third lighter than Apple’s version of the iPod Classic. This changes dynamics in usage. It no longer has the same heft, you feel less conscious of it in a pocket or jacket
  • The battery lasts longer. I now get about 30 hours of listening from the iPod. By comparison I get 18 hours out of my smartphone. If I used the smartphone as a music player as well, that battery time would drop further. If I used a streaming service, that would sound worse, hammer the battery life and mobile phone bill even further
  • It holds more music. At 256GB up from 160GB in the last model of iPod Classic it makes the difference between being able to hold all of my music library with me or not. You don’t have Spotify when you have 15,000+ tracks to choose from
  • The same great iPod experience. iTunes still syncs with the device. It has a good quality DAC (digital-to-analogue convertor) chip. With the right headphones and a sufficiently high sample rate it is indistinguishable from CDs. Under normal circumstances it sounds better your typical smartphone – which is trying to do lots of job well
  • It is quieter than the original iPod Classic. There is no longer the noise of a hard drive spinning up and reading the music data from the disk
  • Vigorous movement is not a problem. Apple had done a good job with the original iPod Classic songs were cached in RAM to iron out temporary stoppages due to movement affecting the hard disk. An SSD had no moving parts so it isn’t an issue any more

What becomes apparent is that Apple wouldn’t have had to make that much effort to make the product itself, but for no known reason it didn’t want to.

I suspect that part of this is down to:

  • The law of big numbers. The iPod Classic revamped in this way would be a decent business for most companies, but just isn’t as big as Apple is used to
  • A modified iPod probably too simple a design solution. Apple likes to take a big step forward (even when it doesn’t) – there are no plaudits or design awards in an iPod Classic with a solid state drive

The reimagined iPod is a development in sharp contrast to Apple’s new product developments:

  • Loved products bought by key Apple advocates have not been updated or ignored: the Mac Pro and the Apple Display (which Apple has abandoned)
  • Moving out of entry level products. With the MacBook Pro and MacBook line-ups, the entry device is now a secondhand laptop rather than the 11″ MacBook Air or the non-Retina MacBook Pro
  • Big bets that aren’t resonating with the marketplace: the Apple Watch has been a best selling smart watch; but is in a category which lacks a compelling reason to purchase. The iPad is a passive content consumption device for most consumers. It has a replacement cycle that would be more familiar to television manufacturers than a computer company

 

The internet of hacking or WTF is happening with my smart home?

Mirai – is a bot network that is powered by a range of devices including infected home routers and remote camera systems. It took over these systems by using their default passwords. The network of compromised machines is then targeted to overload a target network or service. Last week the Dyn DNS service was targeted which restricted access to lots of other services for users on the east coast of the US.

DNS is like a telephone directory of internet destinations, if no one knows where to go it becomes a lot harder to get in touch.

DDoSing
Mirai didn’t spring miraculously out of thin air. It finds its history in passionate gamers who used distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to slow down or even kick opponents off online gaming platforms. Eventually the gaming companies got hip to it and went after the cheaters, not to be outdone the cheaters went after the gaming companies.

Taking a service offline using DDoS became a source of extortion against online banking and e-commerce services. Attacks can be used as a form of ‘digital hit’ to take out opponents or critics like online security commentator Brian Krebs.

Computing
Moore’s Law meant that computing power has become so small and plentiful that it is surprising what we often have in the palms of our hands. The first Cisco router was built on the circuit board of a Sun Microsystems workstation. Home routers now are basically small computers running Linux. A CCTV camera box or a DVR are both basic PCs complete with hard drives.

Back in 2007, BlackBerry co-founder Mike Lazaridis described the iPhone as

“They’ve put a Mac in this thing…”

The implication being that the power of a sophisticated PC was essentially in the palm of one’s hand. The downside of this is that your thermostat is dependent on a good broadband connection and Google based cloud services and your television can get malware in a similar manner to your PC.

Security
For a range of Chinese products that have been acknowledged as part of the botnet; the manufacturer acknowledged that they were secured with a default admin password. They fixed the problem in a later version of the firmware on the device. Resetting the default password is now part of the original device set-up the first time you use it.

The current best advice for internet of things security is protecting the network with a firewall at the edge. The reality is that most home networks have a firewall on the connected PCs if you were lucky. The average consumer doesn’t have a dedicated security appliance on the edge of the home network.

Modern enterprises no longer rely on only security at the edge, they have a ‘depth in defence’ approach that takes a layered approach to security.

That would be a range of technology including:

  • At least one firewall at the edge
  • Intrusion detection software as part of a network management suite
  • A firewall on each device
  • Profile based permissions across the system (if you work in HR, you have access to the HR systems, but not customer records
  • Decoy honey post systems
  • All file systems encrypted by default so if data is stolen it still can’t be read

Processes:

  • Updating software as soon as it becomes available
  • Hard passwords
  • Two-factor authentication

Depth in defence is complex in nature, which makes it hard to pull off for the average family. IoT products are usually made to a price point. These are products as appliances, so it is hard for manufacturers to have a security eco-system. The likelihood of anti-virus and firewall software for light bulbs or thermostats is probably small to non-existent.

The Shenzhen eco-system
Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong has been the centre of assembly for consumer electronics over the past 20 years. Although this is changing, for instance Apple devices are now assembled across China. Shenzhen has expanded into design, development and engineering. A key part of this process has been a unique open source development process. Specifications and designs are shared informally under legally ambiguous conditions – this shares development costs across manufacturers and allows for iterative improvements.

There is a thriving maker community that allows for blurring between hobbyists and engineers. A hobbyists passion can quickly become a prototype and then into production . Shenzhen manufacturers can go to market so fast that they harvest ideas from Kickstarter and can have them in market before the idea has been funded on the crowdsourcing platform.

All of these factors would seem to favour the ability to get good security technologies engineered directly into the products by sharing the load.

China
The European Union were reported to be looking at regulating security into the IoT eco-system, but in the past regulation hasn’t improved the security of related products such as DSL routers. Regulation is only likely to be effective if it is driven out of China. China does have a strong incentive to do this.

The government has a strong design to increase the value of Chinese manufacturing beyond low value assembly and have local products seen as being high quality. President Xi has expressed frustration that the way Chinese manufacturing appears to be sophisticated, yet cannot make a good ballpoint pen.

Insecurity in IoT products is rather like that pain point of poor quality pens. It is a win-win for both customers, the Chinese manufacturing sector and by extension the Party.

More Information
WSJ City – Massive Internet Attack Stemmed From Game Tactics
Your brilliant Kickstarter idea could be on sale in China before you’ve even finished funding it | Quartz
Asus lawsuit puts entire industry on notice over shoddy router security | Ars Technica
Europe to Push New Security Rules Amid IoT Mess — Krebs on Security
Why can’t China make a good ballpoint pen? | Marketplace.org

Technology autopsies

Jean-Louis Gassée has been at the centre of the technology industry for at least the past 30 years. He worked at Apple though the early Macintosh years, founded Be Inc. – a now forgotten OS and workstation company that focused on multi-media prowess and was chairman at PalmSource.

He recently published a meditation on why Palm, BlackBerry, Nokia and Microsoft failed in the smartphone sector – it makes a really good read, I have linked to it under more information. But there a few details missing, I suspect for the ease of storytelling. I’ve added them below as additional accompanying notes for his essay.

Nokia

Reading David Wood’s ‘biography’ of Symbian makes you realise how from the early years the OS was kludged together into something fit for purpose.  Moving Symbian on was a major issue, one that Nokia knew they faced. It was perplexing why Nokia couldn’t get Maemo right. I had used a developer model Nokia N950 and it was an impressive piece of kit – a symbol of what could have been.

A second part of Nokia’s problems were hardware related. Nokia Networks and phones had thrown their lot in with Intel on WiMax for 4G, rather than LTE championed by Siemens, Ericsson and NTT Docomo.

That put them in the wrong camp to do business with Qualcomm and its SnapDragon processors for modern smartphones. Nokia’s engineering brain trust had been completely wrong-footed. It also explains why valuable time was lost merging Nokia’s next generation mobile device OS with Intel’s similar project. Ironically, this operating system now powers Samsung smartwatches – which is a testament to its ability to squeeze real-world performance out of extremely low powered devices.

Texas Instruments a long-time Nokia supplier, pulled out of the mobile embedded processor market in 2012, which would have had implications for Nokia’s much vaunted supply chain, in particular chip pick-and-place machines.  One could see how these operational problems would have rippled through the engineering organisation.

Nokia actually had a prototype iPhone-esque device running by mid-2004, but were afraid to make a leap of faith

“It was very early days, and no one really knew anything about the touch screen’s potential,” Mr. Hakkarainen explained. “And it was an expensive device to produce, so there was more risk involved for Nokia. So management did the usual. They killed it.”

I had used touch screen devices since 1999, but it is hard to explain how transformative a responsive capacitative touchscreen interface was in comparison to everything that had gone previously.

Palm

By 2002 Palm had acquired Be Inc. presumably because they realised that mobile computing needed to have a modern OS for its underpinnings. Palm had previously looked at moving its OS over on Symbian as by 2000 the PalmOS was creaky.  PalmOS at that time ran on a low power version of the Motorola 68000 series processor that powered the first Macs in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. The OS was migrated to an ARM processor for use on mobile devices.

Its PalmSource subsidiary was spun out of the business to better build an eco-system of licensees. The work of Be Inc. made it into a modern version of Palm OS called Cobalt in 2004, but this was not used by Palm or anyone else. Cobalt covered multi-tasking, better security and better multimedia.

PalmSource acquired a Chinese mobile Linux company in early 2005. PalmSource was sold to ACCESS of Japan.

ACCESS Linux offered the Palm interface running on top of a Linux micro-kernel and functionality for mobile networks etc.  ACCESS Linux was ready to go in 2006 prior to the launch of the iPhone.  While there was collaboration with NEC, Panasonic  and NTT Docomo there hasn’t been an ACCESS Linux powered device launched.

Instead Palm launched its WebOS in 2009. WebOS was slow and sluggish to use. Part of this was because the device was under-powered compared to competitor products.  So despite having an interface which had many of the pieces in place Palm had at least three gos at the software and still failed badly in terms of execution.

Microsoft

Gassée rightly points out that Google giving away its OS left Microsoft’s business model for Windows Mobile disrupted.

However, truth be told Google did a poor job of signing all the disparate Chinese manufacturers onboard and fully legit on Google. Many Chinese handsets had not gone through official channels for compatibility testing (CTS) and do not have a Google Mobile Services (GMS) license.  Google historically hadn’t bothered to scale to address the international aspirations of Chinese tier two and tier three handset makers.

Building a partner eco-system in the west would have been challenging. Microsoft had too many skeletons in their closet and their partners didn’t do too well.

  • Nortel was a historic Microsoft partner in wireline telecoms prior to going bankrupt in 2009. Where companies have PC / phone integration  it is built on the knowhow Microsoft gained with Nortel on VoIP PBXs
  • Motorola had a Microsoft Windows Mobile-powered smartphone the Motorola Q. That worked out sufficiently well that Motorola abandoned it and focused on Android devices
  • Sony when it was co-branded Sony-Ericsson used Windows Mobile for its Xperia phones for two years as it recognised that Symbian had reached the end of the line. Eventually Sony-Ericsson moved over to Android in March 2010, the company has struggled to remain relevant in the mobile market
  • Sendo was a start-up founded in 1999, they signed an agreement with Microsoft to be the company’s go-to-market partner for their Smartphone 2002 mobile operating system. The deal gave Microsoft a royalty-free license to Sendo’s designs if the company went insolvent. There was a legal dispute when Microsoft used Sendo’s designs to create the first of the Orange SPV phones made by HTC
  • After making Windows phones from 2009 to 2013, LG said that there was no demand for Windows Phone devices and moved its portfolio exclusively over to Android where it competes with a respectable performance against Samsung

Microsoft’s name in the telecoms industry is mud. To add insult to injury its Skype VoIP application is a direct competitor to carrier voice minute businesses on both wireless and wired connections.

More information
Blackberry: Meditation At The Grave | Jean-Louis Gassée
Nokia’s New Chief Faces Culture of Complacency | New York Times (paywall)

Fixing email the Apple way

Despite millennials and social networks email is still the killer app of the web. But all is not good with email. I look at friends home screens and see thousands of unread emails in their inbox. They use search to find what they need.
Email bankruptcy
It gives me heart palpitations just looking at the photo above. It was apparent for years that something needed to be done for email. Identity for e-commerce and social platforms still hinges on email addresses. For networks like Quora and LinkedIn, much of your interaction is driven in response to email prompts.

Email is a mature technology that works across a range of platforms and generally does a good job. It’s searchable, it has a permanence. Alongside the address book app, its a database to many aspects of your life from concert tickets, friend’s news or interaction with the government.

There has been a renaissance in quality email newsletters such as Azeem’s The Exponential View or The Hustle. Email marketing continues to be an effective marketing channel for e-commerce businesses.

Apple’s iOS 10 and MacOS Sierra have tweaked the email experience on their default mail.app.
Ios10
Apple has managed to detect the unsubscribe function in many email newsletters and give users control over their subscription at the top of each email.

Using the beta version of Sierra and iOS10 I found that I unsubscribed from many marketing emails. This seems to hold out in some of the anecdotal feedback I’ve heard from friends as email campaigns have reported a surge in unsubscribes since it rolled out from beta to general availability. This has been the same on both b2b and b2c clients.

However many of these people will be unengaged subscribers who hadn’t gained sufficient momentum to cancel without Apple’s assistance. Google takes a different approach, Gmail masks these emails in a separate folder – out of sight, out of mind.

A second part of this was that I found I was prepared to take a chance on new interesting newsletter subscriptions. The content that I did have, I engaged with more because it was easier to get rid of meh content.

I think this is an exciting development, it is a palette cleanser, an opportunity for email marketers to raise the quality of content and engagement. An opportunity to get direct immediate feedback through subscriptions and cancellations. A confident email reading consumers is a fantastic opportunity for agencies and progressive clients. However this will only happen if they chose to look beyond the dip.

Thoughts on the Apple event of September 7

Style

  • The presentation was telling a hard story to an audience that were likely to be underwhelmed. Phil Schiller rather than Tim Cook carried the most difficult parts of the keynote.
  • The piano finish device was an obvious attempt to provide a style angle to the new iPhone and mask the aerial sections. However it is a class action waiting to happen as it will dull over time with micro-scratches
  • The story that the audience was told didn’t feel right. Lets talk about the headphone jack. The double camera only appears in the Plus, so the requirement for room isn’t a credible argument on its own, other vendors have managed to waterproof handsets with headphone jacks. I suspect that Apple isn’t sure that its backing the right horse. Its the least aggressive change they’ve made in a while. The inclusion of an adaptor shows that their user aggression still isn’t as high compared to when they got rid of: SCSI, Apple Desktop Bus (ADB), iPod 30 pin port (still pissed about that one), AppleTalk, floppy disks or optical disk playback and storage – I suspect that they are fearfully waiting to see what the pre-order numbers will be like and they should be. A straw poll of AdAge readers (core Apple user demographic) showed overwhelming disappointment
    AdAge readers on new iPhone
  • There is a lot of really nice features in iOS 10 – I’ve been using it for a while, why didn’t they make more of this and macOS Sierra?

Substance

  • Innovation in the smartphone category has flattened out. The iPhone 7 provides reasons for laggard iPhone users to upgrade, but nothing for 6 and 6S series users. There are few if any innovations for the likes of Huawei to ape in their new models
  • Innovation in smartwatches has plateaued. Apple is coalescing around fitness and dedicated products are much more cost effective for consumers. In China Xiaomi’s fitness band sells for about £15, for many consumers it would be enough. Fitbit is doing well – Apple’s wrist computer (alongside Samsung Gear etc) looks like a sledgehammer to crack a nut
  • Apple have done nothing to address the latent demand for new laptops amongst consumers (I am still happy with my 13″ Retina MacBook Pro). There was no replacement for the Cinema display (again, I am happy with my current set-up, but where is the pro-user love)
  • Apple abandoned its flirtation with luxury by discontinuing the gold Watch. They are still holding out to be viewed as stylish by doubling down with Hermes and a white ceramic device – it would work on the opposite wrist to a Chanel J12
  • It was curious that Apple moved away from talking about security and privacy; the collaborative document working using iWork which could be seen as a potential attack vector on to the desktop. The Air Pods that sync seamlessly with a device without visible security precautions.  iPhone security was addressed in the James Corden car karaoke skit at the beginning of the show rather than woven through the materials.
  • The speech about the app store was to try and bolster developer support, I suspect that services will shore up the Apple financial numbers over the next 12 months
  • The Nike branded Apple Watch was part of a broader move reposition the Apple Watch 2 as a fitness device.

Technology companies, we have to talk about China

Uber has been cited as an example of how US technology companies can’t succeed in China, but the wrong lessons are being learned. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Facebook

Facebook is viewed as having ‘failed’ in China. There are two parts to this. First of all lets talk about Facebook’s business model, simply put it monetises consumers attention by selling advertising and related services to businesses.  In order to get consumers in a relevant market, it has to comply with local laws. In the EU it has a relatively easy ride as it is policed by the Irish government for compliance with EU regulations.

China has taken much more of hands on regulatory approach to the internet, like all media. Much of this is down to keeping a ‘harmonious’ society. You might not like the way they do it, but the party views internal pressures in a similar way to Western views on terrorism. Whether that terrorism in the name of Islam or black bloc anarchists.

China has an extensive censorship mechanism, it is a part of doing business there. Whilst the content maybe different, it is similar to the censorship structure for the UK in many respects:

  • Government steered industry practice
  • Legislation

One of the big differences in the UK is site blocking to protect commercial rather than government interests such as sporting event rights. Facebook chose not to implement systems that would make it compliant in China – so it isn’t available to ordinary Chinese consumers. Facebook does sell advertising in China to companies who want to reach western consumers. It has been successful in its advertising sales, sometimes to the detriment of western consumers. State-owned enterprise (SOE) Air China features as a case study for Facebook’s advertising business. San Francisco-based Papaya Mobile has built a successful business providing an online portal that allows Chinese businesses to target Facebook users abroad. I’d argue that Facebook isn’t failing in China.

If Facebook wanted to get Chinese consumers on board it had three market entry routes:

  • Build a separate Chinese product. This is something that US companies generally don’t do, they may localise the product but they avoid forking the product
  • Build infrastructure that complies with Chinese regulations. Google had done this in the past, before they chose not to
  • Have a local partner do the relevant work. Skype successfully entered the Chinese market with Chinese partner TOM. The Chinese client of Skype is known to allow government listening and weaker encryption. But in a post-Snowden world that shouldn’t be too surprising, the Chinese lack the subtlety of other countries security apparatus in their implementation but the goals are similar

Facebook somewhere along the line decided that they didn’t want to enter the Chinese market for consumers as is; but may do in the future if market dynamics change.

It is notable that Facebook’s growth in both Korea and Japan was slower than comparable western countries. Local platforms addressed the market better (KakaoTalk) and social norms of ‘nick name’ identities allowed to Twitter to become a comparative success in Japan.

Google

Google had entered China in 2005. They hired a local executive to run the business who had previously worked at Microsoft. Four years later they were third in the market behind local firms Baidu and Soso (Tencent subsidiary). Google had an estimated 29% market share.

So Google was in third place before it had legal issues in China. Why was it in third place? Google is thought to have under-estimated the growth rate in terms of number of web pages of the Chinese internet. In the same way that Yahoo! and Bing under-indexed the western web and paid for it by losing market share to Google, Google lost out to Baidu. This was about localisation and agility rather than the system being gamed against it. Google hasn’t indexed non-Roman languages as well as English, French etc.

Google was particularly beloved of those Chinese who had a more international life; scientific researchers, journalists, bankers, marketers and the more cosmopolitan members of the middle class. But for the average Chinese consumer, other search engines did a better job.

Google services ran into trouble with a YouTube video showing security forces and protestors in Tibet. Google took action in the Chinese market when Chinese dissidents had their Gmail accounts hacked. Again in a post-Snowden world this isn’t the shocking scandal it would have once been. Complaints in the US together with this incident meant that Google was prepared to give up on Chinese consumers. The business still has an R&D team in China and works with manufacturers on Android.

So why do American companies succeed elsewhere?

The simple answer is one of scale. The US is a single country with largely the same regulatory framework, a single language, good infrastructure and access to large amounts of capital. It is a market for approximately 324 million people. This allows businesses to grow rapidly to a scale that is internationally competitive.

By comparison although the EU has an addressable population of just over 510 million people, you have different legal systems (though it is becoming more harmonised by the EU). You have 24 languages, a common currency but diverse banking systems.

This comparative lack of scale in EU technology start-ups has two effects:

  • They are harder to grow as there isn’t a comparable domestic market to incubate businesses. If they do grow, the better access of capital allows an EU start-up to be bought out. Look at last.fm, DeepMind or ARM as examples of this.  Some businesses have managed to break like Spotify as they tapped into US funding. It is also pertinent to point out that Spotify isn’t make money
  • With some noticeable exceptions like Spotify, getting capital to grow a business internationally is much harder. It isn’t realistic for a European start-up to pursue the Amazon / Uber model of betting against competition by assuming that they will always have access to cheap plentiful capital

This has meant that Facebook, Google and the like have risen largely unopposed in Europe. They have found it so easy that they’ve gained monopoly levels of market share. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. At best Europe acts like a ‘feeder team’ of talent and IP to US start-ups. Where Europe is successful is largely based on past dominance in legacy industry sectors like vehicle manufacture and pharmaceuticals. This also partly explains Europe’s stagnant growth.

China is different

China is the polar opposite of Europe. It has an addressable market for 1.4 billion people. Whilst there are many dialects in China the party railroaded Mandarin as the lingua franca and simplified Chinese as a common written language.  Live and incomes in the tier one cities would be comparable to parts of Europe. Economic growth has slowed to 6 per cent a year, but the economy is still flush with capital.

A huge population means a huge pool of qualified staff. You combine this with a large amount of capital and you have a business than can out-Uber Uber.

The culture of China is different. Chinese consumers like to go to Starbucks and KFC, use Apple products and wear luxury fashion brands; but only because these fit into Chinese cultural constructs. That means that products need to be optimised for the local market.

China has been through huge change since the rise of the party, which means that the owner executives of these companies have have a greater desire for risk to capitalise on ‘the now’.

This means that most of the advantages Silicon Valley has: agility of action, talent and capital are negated in their competition in China. In addition, since they committed to an approach that already works, adaptation to local market needs are limited. This is interpreted by the Chinese counterparts as hubris; the reality is more subtle.

China does have strategic interests which means that it regulates ‘state secrets’ very carefully. Mapping technology is carefully controlled. It has tried to use its size to benefit its businesses. In the same way that the EU through ETSI defined the GSM standard, the Chinese government tried to do the same with TD-CDMA. The reality is that favoured companies like Huawei have managed to allow their clients to get cheap funding for purchases via Chinese state-owned banks.

Like the US government, the Chinese government uses research funding and infrastructure spending to direct some aspects of technological development. Since the administration of Hu Jintao, the Internet of Things (IoT) has been a government focus.

The danger of the invincible China myth

Whilst China wants to have a world-beating successful technology sector. There are problems that comes with a perception of invisibility, China will find it hard to keep open markets. Trade negotiations will become intractable as the other party sees no upsides to working with China. An eco-system where foreigners have a modicum of success is a better outcome for the Chinese government.

Uber’s problems were entirely of their own making, their choice to go into China was likely their first error. Not because it is excessively gained against them, but because they didn’t have any comparative advantages over Didi.

More information
Uber has destroyed the Western myth that companies can grow huge in China without being Chinese
Content filtering by UK ISPs | Open Rights Group Wiki
Facebook “Will Do Everything We Can” To Address Shady Dress Retailers | Buzzfeed News
Facebook for Business | Air China
Papaya Shoptimize | Papaya Mobile
China listening in on Skype – Microsoft assumes you approve | GreatFire.org
Spotify financial results show struggle to make streaming music profitable – The Guardian