The end of the CrunchPad, the beginning of something else

Tiny CrunchPad

I’ve always thought people drawn to creating content should probably steer clear of producing hardware on which to distribute that content. But from Edison to Sony (and Conde Nast, perhaps), there seems to be this belief that vertical integration of content creation, distribution and out-put device is supposed to be the natural progression of things. I could throw in Steve Jobs, but when he was simultaneously, the CEO of a hardware company (Apple) and a content company (Pixar), he kept the two companies far apart and even realized that the two companies should be managed in a radically different manner.

So when Michael Arrington, creator of TechCrunch, announced that he was developing what seemed like a pretty cool concept, the CrunchPad, I was a skeptic for historic reasons. And, well, add to that, that he was up against the deepest of deep-dollar pockets, who, when they come out with their version of what he was developing, will spend more money on advertising in a week than he could spend in a decade, no matter how much venture funding he could raise — and, no doubt, he could raise plenty.

However, I admire anyone who tunes out his or her detractors and puts their resources (including time and money) where their heart is. I love people who push forward against the odds for things they believe in — even when that thing is a little gizmo. Like I said, I thought the concept was great: a low-cost alternative to the long-rumored Apple iPad (or whatever it will be called).

But the longer it takes for Apple to get their product to market — if, indeed there is such a product — they seem to be saying, there is something at the core of the concept that can’t past muster with Jobs. There’s some inherent challenge in the device that Apple — with all of its engineering prowess and work-flow mastery — can’t solve, yet. And therefore, it seems hard to believe that Michael Arrington and the band of co-creators he’d assembled, can crack the code on such a device that could be anything more than, say, a Rio MP3 player about three months before the release of the iPod.

And so, I guess I’m not terribly surprised to read his public proclamation today that the CrunchPad is dead. The essay is worth reading — especially by any young, hopeful entrepreneur — for the detail in which Michael spells out his side of what, as he even points out, is surely a two-sided story. (Frankly, if the people he writes about can actually pull-off the maneuver they seem to be attempting, he’ll be thanking his lucky stars one day that this fell apart now, rather than later.)

It is also worth noting that for many young tech developers, there is a belief that a mention on the website TechCrunch is some sort of ticket to success. Yet Michael Arrington, with his control of a contemporary version of “ink by the barrel,” (eyeballs by the millions, perhaps) can’t even turn owning TechCrunch into success for his own technology startup — not when a few of all the things that can go wrong, start going wrong.

And as with this case, those things that start going wrong, are the ones you could never imagine — or believe.

Funny, despite my early doubts about the project, I greatly admire and respect Michael Arrington far more today for having tried and failed than I ever would had he never tried.

Some gimmicky magazine technology that may be cool one day

The Wall Street Journal this morning reports (paywall protected) that the December issue of Esquire will include some “augmented reality” features that, when held up to a video camera, will trigger some video. While the phrase “augmented reality” is about to become one of those terms you’ll get sick of hearing because it will soon mean anything, so therefore nothing, the “idea” holds some promise unlike the incredibly awful blinking cover technology Esquire tried last year.

While I have not seen the issue of Esquire and don’t know exactly what they’ll be doing, last year a German automotive magazine and Mini Cooper joined up to create something that may give you a taste of what can happen when you link up new media and old in ways that create something completely new (unlike when you try to replicate old media with new media and you end up with something stupid). I’ve embedded a video below that demonstrates how it was done.

Warning: Early iterations of these approaches will be expensive, gimmicky, silly and only-for-nerds. But somewhere down the road, they will make sense and will be used to do things we haven’t even thought of yet. Stay tuned.

A brief video about an “augmented reality” ad appearing “in” a German automotive magazine in 2008.

Facebook goes River of News

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For a few people who are obsessed with the way content flows from creator to consumer (to use a food metaphor), today is a rather interesting day. It’s the day when a concept that started out being called an RSS news reader — and specifically, a concept called “River of News” — goes as mainstream as anything can go in contemporary culture — the concept became the default front page a user sees when logging onto Facebook. Today, however, few people will use the term RSS news reader to describe what’s taking place. And “River of News” will not be discussed — unless it’s by people who like to argue over such things.

Today, the “news” will be about how outraged some people are going be that Facebook has its second new re-design of the year. (I haven’t seen the “outrage” stories yet, I’m just guessing based on previous coverage of any time anyone changes anything.)

More on the re-design in a minute, but first let me say something that needs to be noted: What Vint Cerf is to the Internet or Tim Berners Lee is to the World Wide Web, Dave Winer is to content “feeds.” (And please, before you start telling me that feeds have been around since 19-whatever, I’ll agree that feeds have been around since cave drawings — I’m talking here about feeds that depend on a contemporary conceptualized approach that utilizes XML protocols and standards (i.e., RSS, but not just RSS), APIs and other means to power all sorts of content syndication.)

Let me be clear: Just as I wouldn’t say Vint Cerf or Tim Berners Lee are to be credited with (or blamed) for what people have done with news feeds and the River of News concept (i.e., the ways in which it has been bastardized or attempts to “commercialize” it), I wouldn’t say Dave Winer should be credited with (or blamed) for how “feeds” are used today.

What I’m saying is this: When I look at the redesign of Facebook, I see Dave’s influence all over it, from permalinks, attached media files, to the entire concept of having content from lots of different sources flow into one “reader.” (Again, please, don’t jump in with the “there were newsreaders before RSS came along — that’s another argument for another post.)

Anything good about the new Facebook news feed, I’ll credit Dave. Anything bad, I’ll blame others.

Okay, here’s some other thoughts on the re-design of Facebook:

The last “re-design” took place earlier this year and at the time, I wrote a post called, “Users are great for helping you tweak products, but don’t ask when you want break through ideas.” At the bottom of this post, I’ve am re-posting that in full, as it’s as applicable today as it was then.

First, however, I want to review a timeline for those reading this who don’t obsess over such things (which, I hope, is most of you):

1. The FaceBook redesign of March 22 was a direct rip-off of inspired by the service FriendFeed. (FriendFeed aggregates ones creations, comments, jestures or expressions from across all the social media he or she uses and streams it into one nice flow: See my FriendFeed page for an example, or look at the widget over in the righ-hand column to see the most recent “gestures” of mine it has picked up.)

2. On August 10, FaceBook acqhired FriendFeed and I wrote, “Facebook needs the people they’ve acqhired via the acquisition of FriendFeed. Whether they’ll actually listen is another story.”

3. On October 23, the new FriendFeed people stage a coup and take over the Newsfeed page (which is the default “front page” for users).


RexBlog ReRun

Users are great for helping you tweak products,
but don’t ask when you want break through ideas

(Originally posted on March 22.)

Robert Scoble has jumped into the debate over the new interface design of Facebook. Scoble’s piece expresses an insight I believe is too often missed by those who confuse the concept of “pleasing the user” with “creating breakthrough ideas.” In his post, Scoble does a tremendous job of describing why “like” is the breakthrough idea that is the foundation of the new Facebook design. Of course, the whole “like” idea is not Facebook’s idea (more on this later), but making “like” and “comment” central to the idea of what Facebook is is (to quote a former President).

Scoble (and I) are fans of Kathy Sierra, creator of O’Reilly’s Head First book series and a presenter extraordinaire. Over the years, in evangelizing what software developers need to do to create “passionate users,” she has addressed the need to create “breakthrough ideas” instead of merely better products. Last week in Austin, I was able to catch Kathy presenting to 1,500 of her fans and was reminded once more of how she can explain in a polite, yet explicit way, that focus groups and user research has its place, but that place is not in helping you design great software. It helps you tweak software, she says, but it’s no help when you want to create breakthrough ideas.

Another incredible discussion thread that is bouncing around the tech blogosphere this week about “research-driven design decisions” vs. “break through ideas” was started with this essay by Douglas Bowman, in which he announced his departure as the lead visual designer at Google. Design, of course, is merely one aspect of breakthrough ideas, however, the process of design at Google, as Bowman describes it (and as revealed in recent profiles of Marissa Mayer), seems obsessed with research into iterative changes (as in, what shade of blue gets more clicks) rather than creating something that changes everything. Bowman admits (who wouldn’t?) it’s hard to question anything Google does, as they have the users and money to prove they’re right and everyone else is wrong. However, as someone who uses Google products to the point of considering turning everything over to them (heck, even moving this blog to Blogger.com), I’m more impressed by their ability to make products solid and simple than with their ability to come up with anything new. (And, frankly, to me making web applications solid and simple is a breakthrough idea.)

I say all this to emphasize that I agree with Scoble: What Facebook is doing is not necessarily original, but it is building on a foundation they have that will help create the opportunity for breakthrough ideas. While most of the analysis I’ve read has compared the new Facebook design to Twitter, I believe that comparison is wrong. To me, it seems obvious the benchmark for “the new Facebook design” is FriendFeed. (As those who’ve made it this far likely know, FriendFeed was created by some Google alumni and is one of many services — but the most popular among the A-List geeks — that aggregates ones creations, comments, jestures or expressions from across all the social media he or she uses (i.e., sharing a photo via Flickr, favoring a video on YouTube, reviewing a restaurant on Yelp). If you’re reading this on my blog (vs. via an RSS reader or on Facebook), over on the right you can see a sidebar box (widget) that displays the headlines from my FriendFeed account, something I call jokingly, “The River of Rex.”

While the FriendFeed creators seemed purposeful in not trying to replicate or compete head-on with Facebook (Exhibit #1: The service has no user profile page), they obviously served as a proof of concepts that didn’t go unnoticed by Zuckerberg & Co. Concept #1: You don’t need lots of complicated “invite and display” applications to get users to aggregate every social media thing they do. Concept #2: Those “like” and “comment” fields make every tidbit of content a launchpad for conversation and insight.

Unlike past attempts by Facebook to change the service in ways that violated principles of trust or privacy, I believe the new design will actually be of great benefit to Facebook users — after they get over the whinning. So put me in the 5% group: I like the new Facebook design. I believe it serves the user (rather than screws them like the previous changes). In fact, I like it a lot.

However, I think soon the word “like” will be as confusing as the word “friend” is today.

How free online tools and “social running” are helping create fanatically loyal customers

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My favorite gizmo is a 3-year old
GPS heartrate monitor that keeps
getting more valuable to me
because Garmin has recognized
the value of giving me free online
tools that keep me addicted to it.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an extremely fascinating article from Wired magazine about Nike+, one of those ideas that makes me marvel at how much brilliance is involved in making something that seems so simple and obvious.

I strongly recommend reading the article to anyone who…

(a) works in product development
(b) is in marketing
(c) runs or is into fitness
(d) is a metrics nut
(e) believes social media is “silly stuff” like Facebook and Twitter
(f) believes social media is only about sharing words and, perhpas, photos
(g) thinks an iPod is just for listening to music
(h) thinks that the key to successful products is more features
(i) doesn’t comprehend how companies can make money by giving away something free
(j) wonders why Apple and Nike are two of the most powerful brands in the world.

Here’s a sample quote from the piece:

What’s more interesting is what Nike+ isn’t. There’s no GPS that automatically tracks your routes—if you want to map your run, you have to do it manually on the Nike site. There’s no heart rate monitor, so even though you know how far and how fast you’ve traveled, you don’t know what level of cardiovascular exertion it required. “We really wanted to separate ourselves from that sort of very technical, geeky side of things,” (Michael) Tchao (a former Apple executive who now is general manager of Nike Techlab, a sports technology innovation group within Nike) says. “Everyone understands speed and distance.” In other words, Nike+ isn’t a perfect tool; it wasn’t designed to be. But it’s good enough, and more crucially, it’s simple. Nike learned a huge lesson from Apple: The iPod wasn’t a massive hit because it was the most powerful music player on the market but because it offered the easiest, most streamlined user experience…Nike has discovered that there’s a magic number for a Nike+ user: five. If someone uploads only a couple of runs to the site, they might just be trying it out. But once they hit five runs, they’re massively more likely to keep running and uploading data. At five runs, they’ve gotten hooked on what their data tells them about themselves.

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Nike+ features include ‘social running’ (although they don’t call it that).

I’ll confess: I purchased a Nike+ device when they first came out, but I never made it to “five.”

First off, my “running” is not actually “running.” In the words of Ron Burgundy, “I believe it’s jogging or yogging. It might be a soft j. I’m not sure but apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild.”

Second, I don’t typically like music with jogging (or yogging). For me, jogging is, more often than not, a quiet thing — a thought sorting-out activity, a cob-web clearing time. Once in a while, I get an urge for a jogging soundtrack, but not often enough to make an iPod a part of my routine. (I know there are devices now that use Nike+ without an iPod, but those came after my experience with it.)

Third, and this is the real reason: Back up there where Michael Tchao says, “we really wanted to separate ourselves from that sort of very technical, geeky side of things….” Well, I don’t. In fact, the technical, geeky side of things often gets me motivated to start back exercising when I go through periods of “letting it slide.”

My “gadget” in this case, is a GPS/heart rate monitor device, the Garmin Forerunner 301, one of several Garmin running devices. When I received the device a few years back (as a gift from some wonderful people I work with), my ability to even upload data to my computer was limited as Garmin was not then supporting the Mac OS. At the time, a third-party web application called Motion Based was the state of the art web platform for organizing and displaying data from the device. Soon thereafter, however, Garmin purchased Motion Based and tweaked it along for a couple of years.

Recently — and I assume because of the success of Nike+ — Garmin rebranded and rebuilt Motion Based into something that is actually rather remarkable, a web application that’s like Nike+ for the metric-obsessed: Garmin Connect.

I won’t go into a full review of Garmin Connect because, frankly, I’m neither geeky enough or a fanatical enough runner to understand all the features. However, below, I’ve posted a screen grab of one of many pages on the site — one that displays some of its “Wow!” factor. For instance, you can see on this page how it lets you “replay” your run — a push-pin moves along the route you ran and you can see the fluctuations in heart rate, speed, elevation. (It also displays other things that are over my head and perhaps are beyond the grasp of those who don’t work at NASA or the Olympic Training Center.)

Did I mention the web application is free? In fact, it’s a great example of that whole “power of free” thing working.

In this case the “free” model works because Garmin is a hardware company (like Nike and Apple). They (Nike+ and Apple were good teachers) realize that “content” (personal metrics) and “social media” (tracking all this data and sharing it with others) are things that add value to their products and motivates people to join a community with other customers who share a passion — motivating them to participate more (and buy more stuff). As with Nike+, I can share my running data with others (but, in my case, I choose not to).

Because of the free services Garmin provides me via Garmin Connect, I come in contact with the company almost daily in a way that provides me a valuable service — while proving them direct access to me in a welcome way where they can introduce me to new “pay” products and services. (Apple and Nike do the same — new shoes or special training programs from Nike or iTunes workout mixes and iPhone apps from Apple.)

One day, I’m sure Garmin Connect will make me want to purchase the next generation of device that will track even more data.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep letting them help me enjoy the product of theirs I already own.

(Note: I realize that some privacy advocates are wary of web applications that encourage individuals to share data that could hypothetically be used by insurance companies or other entities. Frankly, I find that aspect of this a little creepy myself — but that’s because I watched the movie Gattaca back in the day.)

One of the features of Garmin Connect allows the user to “replay” a run,
an animated review of the route and metrics related to elevation, speed, heartrate and other data.

Nick Bradbury says goodbye to the old Homesite.

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Nick Bradbury
(credit: Will Pate)

My friend, Nick Bradbury, writes about the discontinuation of HomeSite, an HTML editing software he developed before most people ever heard of HTML. He created the software in 1995 and sold it in 1997, so it has been a while since he’s been involved with the product. (After a few sales and corporate consolidations, the software ended up at Adobe.) Nonetheless, the announcement by Adobe provided Nick with the opportunity to reflect on the early days of the software’s development and how he depended greatly on the users of the product to shape it — something else he helped pioneer.

I especially like this quote:

“Sometimes in this blog I’ve made disparaging remarks about HomeSite, but that’s not because I disliked it. It’s just that it’s hard to look at something you created so long ago without seeing all the mistakes that you’ve learned not to make since then. I’m actually very proud of HomeSite, and very thankful that it enabled me to quit my job and work at home. And, funny enough, HomeSite is also what paid for the home I’m living in now.

I’ve never used HomeSite. Heck, I’ve never even used Windows. But I’m grateful for the software. Why? Because when Nick quit his job and started working at home, he decided that home would be in Nashville — making him the Jack White of web software developers.