Charlie Stross at the Chaos Computer Club conference

Interesting lens on history, predictions and futurology by science fiction writer Charlie Stross. Culture has a role (and attendant responsibility) in shaping the direction of technology. Stross’ talk is an essay on unintended consequences, design, regulation and economics.

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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The foibles of poor ad placement

The display advertising market has moved on from where it was 20 years ago in terms of poor ad placement. Conference speakers and trainers still trot out the same story about knives and suitcase sets advertised next to to the story of a murder. The murderer had apparently stabbed their victim with a knife and put the body in a suitcase for disposal.

poor ad placement

However you still get less extreme examples of unfortunate ad placement like this one from Under Armour.

Have we reached peak streetwear?

At the end of January I wrote a blog post about the landmark collection by Louis Vuitton and Supreme.

I delved into the history of streetwear and the deep connection it shared with luxury brands. This linkage came from counterfeit products, brand and design language appropriation.

This all came from a place of individuality and self expression of the wearer.

obey

I reposted it from my blog on to LinkedIn. I got a comment from a friend of mine which percolated some of the ideas I’d been thinking about. The comment crystalised some of my fears as a long-time streetwear aficionado.

This is from Andy Jephson who works as a director for consumer brand agency Exposure:

The roots of street and lux that you point to seem to be all about individuality and self expression and for me this is what many modern collabs are missing. To me they seem to be about ostentatious showmanship. I love a collaboration that sees partners sharing their expertise and craft to create something original. The current obsession with creating hype however is creating a badging culture that produces products that could have been made in one of the knock-off factories that you mention. Some collabs that just produce new colourways and hybrid styles can be amazing, reflecting the interests of their audience. But far too many seem gratuitous and are completely unobtainable for the brand fans on one side of the collaborative partnership.

The streetwear business is mad money

From Stüssy in 1980, streetwear has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry. Streetwear sales are worth more than 75 billion dollars per year.

By comparison the UK government spent about 44.1 billion on defence in 2016. Streetwear sales are more than three times the estimated market value of Snap Inc. Snap Inc., is the owner of Snapchat.

Rise of Streetwear

It is still about one third the size of the luxury industry. Streetwear accounts for the majority of menswear stocked in luxury department stores. Harvey Nichols claimed that 63% of the their contemporary menswear was streetwear. Many luxury brands off-the-peg men’s items blur the boundary between luxe and streetwear.

The industry has spawned some technology start-ups acting as niche secondary markets including:

  • Kixify
  • K’LEKT
  • THRONE
  • StockX
  • SneakerDon
  • GOAT

Large parts of the streetwear industry has become lazy and mercenary. You can see this in:

  • The attention to detail and quality of product isn’t what it used to be. I have vintage Stüssy pieces that are very well-made. I can’t say the same of many newer streetwear brands
  • Colour-ways just for the sake of it. I think Nike’s Jordan brand is a key offender. Because it has continually expands numbers of derivative designs and combinations. New Balance* have lost much of their mojo. Especially when you look at the product their Super Team 33 in Maine came up with over the years. The fish, fanzine or the element packs were both strong creative offerings. By comparison recent collections felt weak
  • The trivial nature of some of the collaborations. This week Supreme sold branded Metro Cards for the New York subway
  • Streetwear brands that sold out to fast moving consumer products. This diluted their own brand values. While working in Hong Kong, I did a Neighborhood Coke Zero collaboration. The idea which had some tie-in to local cycling culture and nightscape. Aape – the second-brand of BAPE did a deal wrapping Pepsi cans in the iconic camouflage

Hong Kong brand Chocoolate did three questionable collaborations over the past 18 months:

  • Vitaminwater
  • Nissin (instant noodles)
  • Dreyer’s (ice cream)

By comparison, Stüssy has a reputation in the industry for careful business management. The idea was to never become too big, too fast. The Sinatra family kept up quality and selective distribution seeing off Mossimo, FUBU and Triple Five Soul. Yes, they’ve done collaborations, but they were canny compared to newer brands:

“The business has grown in a crazy way the past couple of years,” says Sinatra. “We reluctantly did over $50 million last year.”

Reluctant because, according to Sinatra, the company is currently trying to cut back and stay small. “It was probably one of our biggest years ever — and it was an accident.”

Sinatra characterises Stüssy’s third act as having a “brand-first, revenue second” philosophy, in order to avoid becoming “this big monstrosity that doesn’t stand for anything.”

The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management academic study uncovered careful brand custodianship.

It’s not clothing; it’s an asset class

Part of the bubble feel within the streetwear industry is due to customer behaviour. For many people, street wear is no longer a wardrobe staple. Instead it becomes an alternative investment instrument. Supreme items and tier zero Nike releases are resold for profit like a day trader on the stock market.

Many of the start-ups supported by the community play to this ‘day trader’ archetype. It is only a matter of time for the likes of Bonham’s and Sotherby’s get in on the act.

A key problem with the market is that trainers aren’t like a Swiss watch or a classic car. They become unusable in less than a decade as the soles degrade and adhesive breaks down.

There is the apocryphal story of a Wall Street stock broker getting out before the great stock market crash. The indicator to pull his money out was a taxi driver or a shoe shine boy giving stock tips.

Streetwear is at a similar stage with school-age teenagers dealing must-have items as a business. What would a reset look like in the streetwear industry? What would be the knock-on effect for the luxury sector?

More information
USA Streetwear Market Research Report 2015 | WeConnectFashion
Louis Vuitton, Supreme and the tangled relationship between streetwear and luxury brands | renaissance chambara
New Balance Super Team 33 – Elements Collection | High Snobriety
New Balance ST33 – The Fanzine Collection | High Snobriety
1400 Super Team 33 (ST33) trio | New Balance blog – the infamous fish pack
How Stüssy Became a $50 Million Global Streetwear Brand Without Selling Out | BoF (Business of Fashion)
The Evolution of Streetwear. The newfound reality of Streetwear and its luxury-like management by de Macedo & Machado, Universidade Católica Portuguesa (2015) – PDF

* in the interest of full disclosure, New Balance is a former client.