Better Than New

Palm’s Folly, er…Foleo by morepete
May 30, 2007, 2:28 pm
Filed under: Failure to Innovate, Snark

By Pete Mortensen 

If we had any lingering doubts about Palm’s inability to compete with Nokia, Motorola and Apple, look no further than the Foleo, the big-deal product launch the former PDA market-leader unveiled at today’s D — All Things Digital conference.

No, go ahead. Look at it in the picture above. Can’t pick it out? It’s the generic-looking laptop next to the Treo. Yes, Jeff Hawkins, the company founder who once discovered the market opportunity for digital organizers in the early 1990s, has discovered the market opportunity for the laptop computer — only 16 years after the first PowerBooks hit the market. And it’s almost as capable as those machines were themselves!

You see, the Foleo isn’t a full computer — it’s crippled hardware that relies on owning a Palm Treo to connect to the Internet. Hawkins apparently took far too literally people saying they wanted a larger keyboard and a bigger display for their Treos and concluded that he could make an accessory that did just that. And the Ta-Da! turns into a Ta-Dull, as a co-worker of mine says.

This product is dead out of the water. It is decidedly uncapable, and it can only reach the market of Treo owners who don’t already own laptops. No one wants another laptop-sized device to put in their bag. They might want a replacement for their current laptop, but they don’t want to do it by giving up so much storage or capability.

I’m almost foaming. It’s a sad, deeply wrong-headed idea that Hawkins claims took five years to come to market. In that same five years, Apple built its iPod empire and moved on to phones, RIM emerged as a serious contender, and Windows Mobile caught and passed the Palm OS. It’s just sad.


Those Comics Sure Are Interesting! by morepete
May 29, 2007, 11:52 am
Filed under: Context for Innovation, New Needs

By Pete Mortensen 

I couldn’t agree more with Rob Walker‘s assessment of a recent spate of attention for AD, Josh Neufeld’s epic graphic novel of New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. A blog, upon learning of its existence, posited that comics might have a “new role” of chronicling serious matters in an accessible and immediate form. As if Maus weren’t published 20 years ago.

Serious comics are still far from mainstream, however. I’ve been enjoying the recent series of manga that chronicle the development of notable Japanese innovations, such as Cup Noodle or the adaptation of 7-11, but these are not bedside reading for most people in business. I know about the many uprisings of Louis Riel thanks to Drawn and Quarterly Books, but it isn’t exactly a conversation-starter, you know?

So why is this? Why do comics remain the ultimate fringe medium? I don’t think it’s any of the typical issues around the diffusion of innovations. Comics do look like real books now. Some even ship in identical formats and bindings, and a boring, weighty comic about the civil war shouldn’t be any more embarrassing to read than a boring, weighty non-fiction prose version of the same, but it is.

More interestingly, translations of Japanese manga are by far the most popular and acceptable comics in the United States at this point, and they look very different from western notions of either comics or books. To read them, in fact, people have to learn how to read panels and speech balloons from right to left. Why is manga a more readily adopted innovation than the serious graphic novel is?

Somehow, I bet it’s Batman’s fault. Or the fan culture of comics. One of the two. I’m only kind of kidding. For years, Apple faced a real challenge. It had an insanely loyal customer base who defended its practices and products against fierce critics in the darkest times, but these same loyalists scared off PC users contemplating a switch. People still rail against the lunatic fringe of Mac-dom, even though we’ve mellowed a lot. Apple overcame that stigma in part through the Switch ad campaign, but much more through the release of the iPod and consistent, good products that people could understand easily. Once it became mainstream to own a Mac, freakish behavior looked less freaky.

I wonder if this is the challenge facing publishers of western comics who really want to break out of the tiny and fiercely loyal fanbase who read superhero comics. These fans can and do buy every comic with Wolverine and Spider-Man in it (I know, I’m one of them), but their strident views are intimidating to new readers. The Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons is funny for a reason, you know? So when a company like DC Comics releases a fairly serious comic about the Reconstruction, like Loveless, it’s hard to distinguish that work from the 4-color adventures of Superman. More to the point, DC isn’t all that interested in changing the way things are done. They do very well by being a niche publishing company with a bunch of very hot media licenses.

Perhaps Manga is able to avoid the stigma simply because it looks and feels totally different from what people think of as comics. It has benefited from tremendous interest in comics over the last decade, but it doesn’t carry the same stereotypical burdens. People who don’t want to walk into a comics store full of action figures and cartoon T&A posters can walk into any bookstore and buy a Manga paperback. It’s a model that really works.

The western publishers are trying to respond these days. DC just launched an imprint called Minx that will sell black-and-white Manga-sized comics aimed at young women, and the first book, “Plain Janes,” is fantastic. But how well Minx catches on might have less to do with the quality of the product or the shape of its package, but with whether DC can hide the product’s origins enough so that customers view it as being a safe buy like Manga, instead of a fringe buy like Batman comics.

I’m sure there’s a lesson for defining new products and services or building new businesses, but I’ve lost my way a bit. Anyone spotted my conclusion here?

Why Can P&G Only Afford 10 Homes in New Orleans? by morepete
May 26, 2007, 10:02 am
Filed under: Social Change

By Pete Mortensen 

I have to admit, I’m pretty torn about the Tide iPod (a nano, from the looks of it). It’s stylish, and the intent of a project to bring new homes to New Orleans is one I can get behind, but something about it feels a bit too much of a put-on.

Call me cynical, but the maximum output of buying Tide vintage T-shirts will be 10 houses in New Orleans. To me, this reflects something deeply wrong with a lot of corporate social responsibility efforts. Rather than making a donation of a share of profits to a cause a routine part of business or, better still, part of the business plan, companies mark a donation to charity as an extraordinary event.

In this case, it’s worse. The donation is framed up as dependent on the actions of ordinary people to buy these houses, but then an artificial limit is placed on the money that can be raised. No matter how many t-shirts get purchased, 10 houses will be built in New Orleans. Why involve outside people in that process at all. It’s a mistake Fox executives recently made on American Idol. They vowed to donate 10 cents per vote on the “Idol Gives Back” episode — up to $5 million. Well, what about the extra votes? I think they ended up with nearly 80 million phone calls, but the company grew no more generous on behalf of their eager callers.

I don’t know if this is cynical, exactly, but it implies that companies take contributions they could manage on their own anyway — we can build 10 houses, we can afford to donate $5 million — and then come up with a game so that people feel like they’re part of a social cause. I imagine, at some point, this kind of ruse will lead to a backlash. If I’m buying a shirt that will have a social impact, do I get upset and demand my dollars back if my purchase comes after the cap has been reached?

People can sense when they’re being manipulated, and this strikes me as a dangerous line to walk. When contrasted against the business model of the Product RED lines or of Tom’s Shoes, which sends a free pair of shoes to a needy child in South America every time they sell a pair to a well-off customer, it’s pretty clear that these one-offs reflect a very constrained view of the potential for social good to lead to good business.

Still, I do like the Tide iPod. Anyway to get a partnership with Apple going ala the (iPod)RED so that every purchase means dollars for New Orleans, not just up to the first 10 houses?

(Originally posted to Better Than New)

Apple v. Sony Differences Made Clear in NY Times Story by morepete
May 25, 2007, 10:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


By Pete Mortensen

Each Apple Store is intimate, friendly, educational and filled with new technologies to discover. They’re warm places, filled with helpful “geniuses,” great gift ideas and room to learn, fail and succeed. Each interaction is an opportunity for Apple to directly connect in an emotional way with its customers — a pure brand expression.
But as Apple’s influence and power as a company has grown, another electronics powerhouse, Sony, has headed straight downhill, with a mediocre retail presence reflecting its overall woes. The NY Times’s Randall Stross does an excellent job of chronicling the features that make Apple stand out and the symptoms of Sony’s disease in this feature from the Sunday Times. He does not, however, truly diagnose the patient or recommend a cure that people can actually use.
I’ll take that chance. Click through to hear what Apple is doing right, and why Sony Style stores feel so cold.

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Dissipating The Digital Shadow is an Unmet Need by morepete
May 23, 2007, 4:35 pm
Filed under: Digital Life, New Needs

By Pete Mortensen 

Jessi Hempel wonders if there are any tools for destroying defunct social network profiles available. To the best of my knowledge, there aren’t yet, and this points to a real opportunity for someone if they can figure out how to take care of it.

Someone close to me has a similar trail of profiles greater than she could manage, and an ex-boyfriend of hers who wouldn’t accept the end of their relationship managed to hack into all such profiles. In many cases, she only found out about the profiles because she got harassed by one of them.

So there’s an annoyance need, and there’s also a security need here.
Interestingly enough, Douglas Coupland talked about this when I saw him speak at Powell’s Books in Portland last summer. As is typical for Coupland, he was ostensibly there to do a reading from his new book “jPod” but he mainly ended up musing on the way technology is causing us to live now. And one thing he noticed was the digital “Shadow” all of us who have been online for a long time have — reams and reams of data about ourselves we can’t get rid of. As reported in a Time article, Coupland said:

TIME: There’s a character in the novel named Douglas Coupland. Why is he such a jerk?

DC: Oh, the anti-Doug. He’s evil. Getting back to Google, in this world you stand in the sun and you have your shadow that follows you everywhere. Now you stand and Google casts a “shadow you” on you. You’ve got this thing that follows you no matter where you go. It’s going to survive your real shadow long after you’re dead. It’s composed of truth, half-truth, lies, vengeance, wishful thinking, accuracy, inaccuracy. It grows and grows and gets bigger. It’s you but it’s not you. Mine’s pretty large at the moment but I think in a few years, everyone’s is going to be huge. It won’t be just people in the public light any more. The anti-Doug is my creative response to all of that.

Some of this is in the form of abandoned or forgotten social-networking profiles, but it’s also your banking details, credit reports, shopping history, browsing history, e-mails, poorly thought-out rants and photos you wish you’d kept better control over.

We’re already starting to see a demand for products that give us no footprint on the Internet — there are plenty of privacy browsing services these days — but no one has yet found a way to begin going through to not just minimize harm now but go back and fix mistakes dating from the early 1990s. I know I would be interested in such a service: I mean, Amazon still has track of every address that I have shipped a package to, including the little dorm room in the New School where I lived for three months! And I don’t even want to think of some of the words ascribed to my name that exist on various comic book message boards over the years…not to mention on my blog at Wired…

We live in an era of digital shadows. Won’t someone help us shake them?

Processor Wars Tainting OLPC Movement by morepete
May 23, 2007, 6:23 am
Filed under: Context for Innovation, Snark

By Pete Mortensen 

The always cantankerous Om Malik very insightfully exposes some chaos in the world of philanthropic computing. The One Laptop Per Child initiative hasn’t even officially started to bring $150 computers to rural Africa, and competitive territorialism that has nothing to do with education is breaking out. The innovative computer is based on an AMD chip, Intel is launching a rival device, and everybody’s getting ugly. AMD even took the occasion to release a press release about Intel’s anti-competitive practices in the U.S. and Europe.

As you know, AMD filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Intel in U.S. federal court. The European Union is also likely to share the conclusions of their exhaustive investigation of Intel’s business practices in the very near future as well.

Which is hugely relevant to the question of who has created the computer most likely to fuel the development of rural economies in Africa, I’m sure.

Om’s essential question here is still the elephant in the room when we look to technology to fix really big problems:

“What is a kid who goes to a school with rampant teacher absenteeism, no infrastructure to speak of –like desks, fans or electricity to run those fans –going to do with a laptop?”

While I do think that OLPC falls within the designing for social change principle to make capabilities accessible, but this project did assume the outcome of its research. The question remains whether it was the right problem to solve in the first place.

On a related note, Jessi Hempel at BusinessWeek writes about a contest to develop the best possible game for OLPC XO, with a prize of an XO at stake. Doesn’t that seem a bit backwards? If I won that competition, I assure you that the spoils would be headed to Africa, not my apartment….

‘Design Thinking’ Over the Hill as a Fad by morepete
May 21, 2007, 8:28 pm
Filed under: Design Thinking Fad, Snark

By Pete Mortensen 

Bruce Nussbaum highlights a quote from Diego Rodriguez at IIT’s Strategy Conference that I think is as good a measure of the health of current thought around innovation as any:

“Design thinking can be used to formulate business plans for new ventures.” Which, while true, doesn’t tell me why anyone who isn’t bought into these ideas should care.

A commenter, Rich, follows up with an even more optimistic take:

Design thinking must be used to formulate business plans to ensure successful new ventures.

Now, as excited as I am about the possibilities created when an iterative approach to creation is applied to new field after new field, I think it’s a step too far to call such an experiment a necessity that will ensure success.

On the other hand, I think Diego’s a bit behind the curve if he thinks that design thinking-driven business planning is brand new. Of course it can be used to formulate business plans for new ventures. That, in itself, doesn’t answer the most important question here: Will they be good business plans for successful new ventures?

Everyone is excited about design thinking these days, but I think we’re in for trouble if we view the innovation landscape solely through that lens. Great innovations are most likely to succeed when they are built on equal parts culture, design and business. Hybrid thinking, fluent in each of these domains, is more important when you look beyond the development of individual products. A lot of prototyping, by itself, does not a great business plan make.

If we want the current innovation boom to be more than a punchline in business courses 5 years from now, we need to see underneath the fad we’re currently a part of to discern the enduring ideas that will help promote long-term, sustainable growth in economies around the world.

Otherwise, we might as well go back to proclaiming that Six Sigma alone can secure the future of a business, or that the Internet will eliminate world poverty, or that TV will make the education of mass audiences so simple that schools will be unnecessary.

I mean, seriously. Design thinking can also be used to read the newspaper. But that doesn’t matter. Here are the questions to ask: Does it make it better? Does it look noticeably different from existing methods in the world? Does it connect with what people really need? Novelty alone is a dead end.