Friday, 12 October 2012

NABS Fast Forward

I've been thoroughly enjoying helping out at NABS as a Fast Forward mentor this year.

NABS is the National Advertising Benevolent Society, founded in 1913 to support the marketing and advertising industry. They offer unbeatable courses for fast-tracking industry newcomers, and they offer support for everyone who works in the industry. We are lucky to have such a useful and well-run organisation.

We're half way through the Fast Forward course 2012, mentoring some of the brightest minds in the industry. Here's my commentary on the most recent session.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Slower is better

An ideal communication method?
How many emails have you written today, and how many have you read? How many tweets? How many status updates? How many articles?

And how many of them can you actually remember? How many of them still matter, now that a whole hour or two has passed?

The pressure to communicate in quantity and right up-to-the-minute is extreme. We all check in continuously to assuage the vague fear that we might be missing something. But it doesn't contribute significantly to our happiness.

In fact, one can argue that slower communication is straightforwardly better communication.

I wrote this article on Huffington Post:

Friday, 20 July 2012

BBC covers the startup scene at Google Campus

The 'tech startup' scene is starting to feel like the birth of a new movement. OK, so it's not new. But it's being noticed. And that in itself is progress.

Compared to the industry that Adam and I came from, the new scene is fledgling. It's very clear that it's early days. And it's exciting too.

We're very glad we've joined a bunch of like-minded people at Google Campus, anyhow. Congratulations to everyone featured in this video and to those who have made it past the first hurdles early. And good luck to the rest of us!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Cookies WTF?

The EU Cookie Law, which came into force in May 2012 is patently absurd. It's amazing it was ever passed into law.

Cookies are a necessary functional part of the majority of functional websites - especially those that have a persistent or customised state, or an account that you log in to, or an e-commerce element. So that's almost every site you want to visit, right?

The EU's insistence that every single one of those websites needs to uniquely flag up the fact that they use cookies is insanely inefficient. How many websites are there that need to comply? Millions. How many hours does it take to plan, organise and develop a unique version of the message "We have cookies, and we're obliged to own up about that"? Several. So let's work that out for a moment. That's several million hours spent dealing with this law.

It's like issuing a warning on every single document saying "We are obliged to warn you that this paper has edges." Or perhaps on every tree patiently explaining that air may be found in the vicinity. As Douglas Adams once said, we don't need a special word for people with one head. Anyone who needs to learn such a basic fact needs to learn it at the outset, not during every single encounter that they make.

A major EU report on the Digital Agenda For Europe found that Europe is surprisingly weak in Internet revenues compared to other comparably developed nations (i.e. America). Lack of understanding, infrastructure and shared standards are cited as the most likely causes. Hmm... and now they roll out a law like this one. I can only imagine that these are old old men who have never visited an Internet in their lives. With that kind of leadership, what hope have we got?

Hopefully, we'll all forget about it soon. I'd like to see someone taken to court over not issuing an adequate warning about their usage of a very standard technology. It'd be mayhem.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Can you hurry up and bring out the iWatch please?

Apple needs to bring out the iWatch. It's clearly time.

A recent visualisation from Cult of Mac.

I posted a question on Quora to see if other people agree that wristwatches would benefit from an iPhone-like makeover. It's a bit random whether your question gets picked up on Quora, but there was a surprisingly resounding silence. And a few comments saying "no that would be a silly idea".

I disagree. I think it would be great. Here's why:

It's the perfect notification centre

You wouldn't want to do much with your iWatch. You certainly wouldn't want to input data on it. But it would be great for quick notifications: 'Your next appointment is...'; 'Here's the first few lines of a new message from…'. It could even tell the time and date.

It's hard to lose

A watch is harder to mislay than a phone or anything else since it is literally strapped to your arm. You carry it everywhere, and it's pretty unobtrusive too.

It knows your location

Since it goes where you go, it would be a great device to be able to provide location awareness to your network of devices. Once someone's invented an acceptable way of doing so, you could ping your location to your friend, or keep track of your child's location. Of course, it would also be perfect for mapping your run and that kind of thing.

It could function as a key to unlock your other devices or services

Better than a password or a keycode, using your watch to quickly swipe through any security barriers would be great. Your phone or your computer would never need unlocking when you're wearing your watch. And you'd know they could be securely locked when you're not present. No more website passwords when you can swipe through them on your watch.

It could help you keep track of your other devices

Since your shiny new watch lives in a connected world, it could help manage your other devices too. Of course all devices would be synced by then, so everything is available everywhere. But your watch could also show where another device is, as well as what it's doing. "Your phone is 25 metres away, in that direction."


But it's not here yet. In the meantime, here's some pictures of some of the visualisations of the iWatch that are floating about on the net.

An actual iPod Nano wristwatch there. Is it wrong for something to be both?

Really bad copywriting. Mmm, it's tame time. Yay!

This visualisation has been around for a while. Looks uncomfortable.

My personal favourite

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Ideas are the easy part - bootstrapping for beginners

"Invention on the Internet, eh?" said a friend of mine as we slid into our third pint. "I've got an idea, actually. I'll tell you it if you promise you won't nick it."

An idea that you promise not to nick. Hmm… what's the value of that these days? I'm not sure it's worth the paper it isn't even printed on.

Ideas are 1% of the work. A very important 1% for sure, but a tiny proportion of what matters.

Getting ideas made isn't even the remainder. That's just the next 49%.

Then the real work starts.

1% inspiration, 99% perspiration. True enough. Though I strongly suspect there should be more than 100% in there.

It's a common mistake to think that great ideas are what distinguish great inventors from all the rest of us who never did. We've been at the invention game for a few short months now, and it's interesting to see how little of invention is actually about inventing things.

First: if you don't understand how to make it yourself, you probably shouldn't even bother having the idea.

Let's say I have an amazing idea for the next social network. It's kind of like Facebook, and it sort of borrows from Twitter, but here's the twist: it's way better than both of them. Great! Am I a billionaire yet? If I can hook up with a few clever (and cheap) programmers, then surely Bob's your Friend and Fanny's your Tweeting auntie.

It doesn't work like that. Any digital product needs painstaking hours, days, weeks and months of meticulous crafting for it to do justice to its original concept. You need to be able to look after that craft work somehow - at painstakingly close range. Either you have the skills to do it yourself, or you can manage and direct other people doing it. But either way, you need to fully understand it. Fully. Double fully. More than that.

There's nothing worse than a box-ticking exercise masquerading as a good solution.

Can you mark someone as your friend? Yes. Can you share your interests? Oh yes. Can you visit other people's pages and leave a comment? Absolutely. As a bonus, can you make your own page look like Mariah Carey's wardrobe after she's had a big night out and fallen into a hedge? Yay! You've made MySpace… oh hang on, it's 2012.

Ticking boxes is not how good stuff gets done. You can't make a list and leave it with someone. That's no way to treat them and they won't care as much as you. Good stuff gets done through an ongoing process of observing, responding, refinement, adaptation and staying true to a clear vision.

Second: when you've built it, they probably won't come.

So you climb the mountain. You commit to the idea. You work your butt off building whatever needs to be built. You adapt. You think on your feet. You stick with it. You get to a point where there's finally no excuse not to put it live. You flick the switch, equally scared and excited to see what real people will do with - and say about - your new product.

And your reward for climbing the mountain? A flag planted reverentially at the summit, perhaps? The pure clear air of achievement? Umm… actually no. That'll be the dawning realisation that you've merely climbed Snowdon, and K2 is right there in front of you.

The bigger mountain is encouraging people to use your new invention. At least 50% of the work of invention on the Internet is persuading people that your invention is worth a second glance. Sales. Marketing. Driving traffic. Grabbing attention. Persuasion. Evangelism. Confidence. Boastfulness. Doggedness. Relentlessness. Unshakeable determination. Air kissing.

For inventors, this can be more than a little off-putting. The qualities required, and the objectives to be achieved, are not comfortable ground for your average mad scientist. This is salesman territory.

Suddenly, you're not in your comfort zone. And it's all the more of a shock since you've recently been comfortably buried under a tonne of development work.

Third: be prepared to reinvent your invention at the drop of a hat.

The Internet is a hyper-evolving medium. Things changing makes other things change twice as fast. Everything is whizzing about and switching direction faster than a school of pilchards in the midst of a dolphin frenzy. No-one is waiting for your idea to be dropped into the water.

So once you're in, if you don't start whizzing about too, then… just to follow the metaphor through… you'll be dead in the water in as short a time as you can hold your breath.

You need to be gathering feedback and looking with wide open eyes at exactly what's happening. There's no room for thinking "they're idiots - they'll come round eventually", and there's no room for thinking "I should've known it would never work". Leave the ego out, it'll only slow you down, and observe all like Buddha's favourite little monkey. Every single movement is evidence of the physics at play, and you need to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can to have a hope of spotting a useful pattern.

Adapting and learning are probably the only really reasonable goals to set yourself. That's certainly crucial for keeping up, and beneficial for whatever you do next.

You can't afford to be precious about your product. If it doesn't need to change, that probably means it's broken.

There shouldn't be anything off-putting in any of this. It's exciting, and it's endlessly challenging. You learn, you learn, you fall over, you learn some more. That's the Internet imitating life, which it does very well these days.

We will certainly keep trying. And so should you. Grab your idea by it's scruffy bits, down your pint... maybe have another one. And then let's go.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Google Drive... says "me too!"

So, I've got my Google Drive now. And so far, it does what you'd expect. EXACTLY what you'd expect.

Similar featureset to Dropbox? Check. New Googley icon? Check. Crash while installing? Check. Syncs a whole load of Google Docs I forgot I had which are now cluttering my hard drive? Check.

I think a lot of users will take one look at the inevitable residue of Google Docs that get shoved onto your hard disk on first sync, and think "Oh, this a special folder for special Googley things. I won't put anything else in there. Except maybe Googley things... If I ever work out what they are and what they might be for."

Some people still find Dropbox a little hard to understand. But at least the stuff in your Dropbox folder looks like your stuff. The stuff in my Google Drive folder doesn't even look like my stuff. (And it doesn't like it when you rename the folder either, by the way. It's like the rest of your stuff being called "Apple Documents" or "Microsoft Music". That's right, Google, really ram that branding home!)

Oops. This sounds a little unencouraging. Cloud storage is great. And it's great that Google are giving some away for free, alongside their amazing free email, and a whole load of other fantastic free products. But I've currently got 12GB of storage for free from Dropbox, and I'm not using all of that. I don't think I'll be splitting my stuff between the two services.

So far, I'm wondering if Google Drive is following the me-too pattern of Google Plus - which isn't the greatest credit to such a significant technology company.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012 - Nearly there… now what?

The Internet may not have particularly noticed or cared, but I've been inattentive recently. I've been, as they say, not all there. Physically I've continued to exist, but mentally I've been off in the Big Elsewhere.

That's right, I've been to Code Heaven - there and back again. All I've been doing for the last couple of weeks is code code code. HTML5? Yes please. CSS3 and CSS 3D? You betcha! MVC Javascript? Ooooh, yeah! Responsive design? Is there any other way? JQuery? Umm… yes, OK, that too admittedly. Let's keep a fairly low profile about that one though.

Anyhow. We're soooo nearly there. I've built a version of the front end that (so far) runs faultlessly as a browser app, allowing users to make as many personalised postcards as they like before checking out with Paypal so we can print them and pop them in the post. And Adam is tirelessly refining and tweaking his awesome Symfony2 engine for managing all this server side and submitting to the Docmail print engine. We just need to sew the two together and we're basically done.

Dev version of the site... and no, cards will not cost £33.97!

So now what?

Well, the weird thing is that the bit we've neglected so far is how to market this lovely little machine that we've built. Given that Adam and I have pretty heavyweight marketing backgrounds, it's refreshingly odd that we've not given much thought about marketing for Cards… yet.

We need a brand (not just a logo - we've got one of them). And we need a campaign. And in order to get those things right, we need to understand what people are likely to want to do with

With you can make and send a real postcard in the real post. You can upload a photo (or any jpeg, gif or png), you can write a message and you can add an addressee. And you can repeat until you've got all the cards you could possibly want, and then pay with Paypal. The cards are great quality, and they're posted anywhere in the world first class and Airmail.

That's it. Dead simple.

But what might people want to do with
  • It's an easy and super quick way to send a postcard back from holiday.
  • It's a great way to send out a party invite, thank you card, or any other personalised announcement.
  • It could be ideal for small businesses to promote themselves to prospective clients.
  • And we love the idea of letting holiday companies create their own skin on our service, providing a kiosk for sending out cards from their resort or hotel.
We reckon we'll have a fully working version in the next few days. And we'd love to get some feedback. So if you'd like to have a go with the site - maybe send a card or two, maybe let us know what you think - then we would love to hear from you.

Any comments welcome... or Tweet us @elecmal, or on our new Cards Twitter @cardsinthepost… or get in touch any other way (maybe send us a postcard?)

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Compressing JSS and CSS: results on our new web app

Our new app (not yet released) relies heavily on modern techniques such as AJAX. Specifically it does a lot of Javascript and requires a lot of libraries. We're in the process of reducing the number and size of those, but today we wanted to see what could be done using automated techniques.

Using separate, uncompressed files

In debug mode, our app brings in each JS and CSS file seperately, uncompressed.

This is not a scientific test because in 'debug' mode the back-end is (much) slower as well as the front-end. But note the grey bars: those are 'blocked requests' i.e. the browser has opened its max sockets to our webserver (usually 6, browser dependent) and until one of those is freed up, it can't get the next file.

Also unscientific because this was also using 'jquery-ui' already minimised, meaning the filesize difference would be more significant otherwise.


Before: JS
13 requests, 171kb, taking 13 seconds.


Before: CSS
4 requests, 10kb, taking 12 seconds (concurrent).

Note how the CSS is being blocked by the Javascript. That's a good reason to move the JS down out of the HTML head to the bottom of <body>.

Using unified, compressed files

When switched to production mode, our app combines all the Javascripts into one file and all the CSS into one file, then runs Google Closure to compress the Javascript and Yahoo's YUI Compressor to compress the CSS. It does this once during deployment and the result is normal files on the file system.


After: JS
3 requests, 115kb, taking 1.2 seconds.


After: CSS
2 requests, 9kb, taking 0.1 seconds (concurrent).


A reduction from 17 requests to 5, from 181kb to 124kb and from 13 seconds to under 1.5 seconds.


Results exported with the wonderful NetExport plugin for Firebug.

The technologies doing the magic that haven't been mentioned are Assetic and Symfony2.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Git, Capistrano and Vagrant: a new dev/deploy technique

Here's a post on some of the 'deep geek' technical aspects of our upcoming site

One of the most interesting parts of this journey for me has been seeing how much things have moved on since I last did serious web dev work 5 - 10 years ago. The first thing we put in place was Git for source code control. That saves our bacon on a near daily basis. By recording every iteration of every file and providing an easy way to move back and forward between versions, it's a refreshing change from copying the entire directory before you make a major change and deleting it once you're done. Much better.

I knew we didn't want to transfer files to the server via FTP because it's insecure, and secure FTP is a bit slow and old. For a good while we pushed to a Git repo on the server (via SSH) then used post-receive hooks on the server to deploy code for testing, but that's not great because:
  • Git doesn't know or care about file ownership or permissions
  • Git, focusing on managing files, doesn't transfer empty directories. We need some ready for things like cache data.
  • Checking out the files from the repo while quick isn't instant, which leaves our application in an unknown state during the deployment process as files are copied over
Enter 'Capistrano', or the Symfony2 port of it 'Capifony'. This Rails app runs on your local machine and scripts your deployments. It plays nicely with Git because it grabs the latest files from the repo then pushes them (via rsync) to the live server. Three things about this are the reasons to bother:
  • It doesn't push direct to the live directory. It pushes to a 'releases' directory then once everything is tested successful, it updates a single symbolic link to the new release. This is instantaneous.
  • It maintains five (or however many you like) previous releases, keeps them on the live server, and can rollback the live site to any of them at a moment's notice.
  • Once it's done, it can execute any combination of scripts to finish the deployment, as if you were SSHd into a terminal on the server.
The final piece in our dream dev/deploy setup was a tip from @Zoltrain: Vagrant. This is another Rails app that uses Oracle VirtualBox to virtualise your dev server, making it portable between developers and between your own machines.

That's a massive step forward since previously I've tried to mirror our live setup on Windows 7 (no native SSH client!), Mac OS X (MAMP and not MAMP) and Ubuntu 11.10 (which isn't quite the same as Ubuntu 10.04). In every case you get it 'almost, but not quite' the same. It's those 'not quite' bits that sap hours away from feature development until you realise 'ah, that's because X is subtly different on this machine'.

Vagrant makes that a thing of the past, and that's brilliant. Whatever machine I'm on, I transfer the 800mb dev server image and can get to work. That frees me from my home webserver, so I can now extend from your nearest Pret, woohoo! This did need a memory upgrade (to 4GB) for my Macbook - and I'm going to switch to an SSD too.

My new Crucial 128GB SSD.
Awaiting a T-6 screwdriver for installation.
I didn't expect Virtual Reality to look like this

It seems actual files on an actual server are becoming a thing of the past. We now have a series of incremental references to bits of files (the Git repo), inside a virtual machine running a virtual operating system (Vagrant), stored on a hard disk that's really memory, that publishes to a directory that's just a temporary reference (Capifony) on a server that doesn't really exist (Rackspace Cloud).

I'm already impressed with the huge library of AMIs from Amazon that provide server snapshots that you can import and fire up as your own whenever you like, like a giant server supermarket. Maybe one day there'll be an open standard for server images where you can run them locally or spin them up as 'live' via your favourite provider? That would be excellent.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

First cards arrive!

I know, I know. The Ferrari is mine. Well the picture of it is. Apologies in advance to those that might have imagined our first web app Cards in the Post to send much better photographs. The good news is, you can fix that. Soon*!

* As soon as we resolve a bunch of reasonably serious bugs before providing even private beta.

These were submitted Sunday and arrived Wednesday by 'standard class' mail. Latest decision is to automatically post everything first class. Because you're worth it.

Conception cannot precede execution

Art is a process of discovery through making.

Our ability to discover is generally greater than our ability to invent.

Think of your work process as a form of travel.

Look for the things you don't know, the things that are revealed or inadvertently uncovered.

It is easier to find a world than to make one.

- Conception cannot precede execution. Emphasis mine.

From the most worthwhile '101 Things to Learn in Art School'.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

No more punctures with airless tyres

Now this isn't the sort of invention we're normally interested in. A bit too real world for our usual tastes.

But when my car got stolen a couple of weeks ago, and the really crappy courtesy car we got from our insurance company got a flat tyre a couple of days after we received it... well, I guess my level of interest in tyres changed.

So here's something clever: airless tyres.

Apparently they've been in development since 2006 or earlier. (They were originally called the "twheel"... hmm, wonder if that'll ever take off? ...OK, now stopped wondering: because, no it won't.) Car conspiracy theorists will love the reason why they've mysteriously lacked investment. Apparently the police and the military in the US have blocked investment because airless tyres can't be shot or burst at roadblocks.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Flickr - proof that anthropology beats technology

Flickr's new upload page, due March 2012
Flickr was the poster child of Web 2.0 - the read/write web where anyone can publish their stuff, with no editor or coder required.

And now, 8 years after launch, it's finally getting an upgrade.

Why's it taken so long?

Flickr's success is more about anthropology than technology. People have stuck with Flickr for a whole load of very human reasons. Some people stick with it because they don't want to undo several years of investment of their time, their photo collection and their money. Many people have friends on Flickr. And many new people join because going with a popular choice is easier, quicker and often more reliable than branching out on your own.

Whatever their reasons, Flickr tells a reassuring tale about how there's more to success than keeping up with the hyper-evolution of the Internet. People may be complex, but at least they're relatively constant.

The centrepoint for any successful project is people, not technology.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

We, the Web Kids

"The Web to us is not a technology which we had to learn and which we managed to get a grip of.

The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us.

Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web; we, communicating with one another in a way that comes naturally to us, more intense and more efficient than ever before in the history of mankind."

- An essay worth reading at

Thursday, 16 February 2012

We've got a new website... or at least a new home page!

Woo-hoo, we've now got a home page for

I used impress.js to build it, and it took a grand total of 11 hours to design and build from start to finish, all beautifully time tracked in our extremely powerful time-tracking and accountancy system Freeagent.

Saying it took basically a day to make is not an idle boast - I'm really impressed by how easy it is to work with CSS3 in 3D using impress.js.

But also, building something that quickly is a sure fire sign that it needs more work. We've included a beta swoosh, and a page asking if there's any illustrators or designers out there who might be able to help us. There's even a somewhat hastily put together brief posted up there. If you think you can help, get in touch via Twitter.

In the meantime, better live than nowhere, we figured!

We'd very much welcome any comments below. Let us know what you think of the site!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The future of imaging

Intelligent image recognition is now possible... and there's going to be a world of applications for it. Check out these two videos from Scalado... and below them, the classic vision from Photosynth, from all the way back in 2006.


The 'imaging centre of gravity' -

Scalado Remove

Intelligently delete passers-by from your photos.


Detecting the links between photos and mapping them as a 3D view... in 2006(!)

Photosynth is now available as an amazing iPhone app.

Monday, 13 February 2012 - with any image you choose

Koalas To The Max is great if you like revealing koalas. But what if you want to reveal something else? Like, for instance, a picture of your own choosing? I had a look about online and couldn't see how to do it, so - shock horror - I worked it out for myself.

It's very simple to create your own image. Just add a URL to your own image file after the site URL, with a query ("?") separating your URL from the koala's.

Like this:

Can you tell what it is yet?

Friday, 10 February 2012

Why Project Management isn't enough

Bring out the methodology fascists! Hooray for them. No matter what nut you've got to crack, they'll scrum it, and they'll risk log it, they'll stand it up and they'll document it. Is there nothing the mighty Gantt chart can't conquer?

Building a website? Agile beats PRINCE2. Got multiple stakeholders? Maybe back to stage-and-gate. Don't worry. Nobody needs to worry. We've got a methodology that'll make us all safe.

OK, OK, that's an unfair caricature of Project Management. Tracking, co-ordination, collaboration, sticking to a plan, adapting that plan and good communication are all essential for stopping the lifeblood of a project from freezing to wearying sludge.

But there is something missing from that formula - without which a project will happily march into a cul de sac of frenziedly pointless activity.

Here it is: a plan should always precede methodology - and should be able to supercede it too.

What's more, plans change. That's good. They evolve. They improve. That's an advantage.

Methodology provides tools to make stuff happen. That's all: methodology is a toolset. Just because you've got a drill, you don't have to make holes in everything. Apply the right tool to the task. Be flexible.

Great Project Managers know that - of course. But it's all too easy for all of us to get lulled into a false sense of purposefulness. Surely we need to be doing stuff? And quickly too! Surely that's better than all this nebulous thinking and talking and deviating from the plan that seemed fine last week??

Project Management is about ensuring that a team of people are managed around a central purpose. That purpose is to complete a great project. That's all. Don't seek solace in anything else.

Great ideas emerge. They're not available until someone's had them. And when they do emerge, gather round everyone, let's act on them as best we can. And that, in particular, is why projects need to be managed.

"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" John Maynard Keynes (1883 - 1946)

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Is there a distinction between style and substance?

"No no no! People who say there is a distinction between style and substance couldn't be more wrong. In computing in the 21st Century, there is no distinction between style and substance. If a device is stylish, then you want to use it, and you enjoy using it more. So you simply get more substance out of it."

Stephen Fry (slightly paraphrased)

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Introducing Dropbox

The original video introducing Dropbox that Drew Houston made in his bedroom in 2007.
...Is here.

It's clearly a very well written piece of software. Drew Houston compares it to Subversion - personally I never use that feature. Sure is clever and efficient though.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Jeff Bezos on the long game

Great article on Forbes about how Amazon became such an awesome success.

"If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue. At Amazon we like things to work in five to seven years. We’re willing to plant seeds, let them grow—and we’re very stubborn. We say we’re stubborn on vision and flexible on details."

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Last night's Crunchies, condensed

The Nest thermostat
There are few 'Awards' ceremonies worth bothering with. Trust me and have a brief look across the pond: San Francisco and last night's 'Crunchies' - the awards of TechCrunch. Here's what you need to know. The short version.

Cloud services couldn't be more zeitgeisty unless they were, I don't know: German. Dropbox was the overall winner with further kudos going to onLive (cloud gaming), Spotify and Evernote.

More highlights:
  • Nest - a new thermostat. Made by the guy that led the iPod and early iPhone teams. Came out of retirement because he was building a new house and got annoyed at paying $350 for a thermostat that was ugly and hard to use. Invented a new, beautiful device using smartphone innards.
  • Fotopedia, launched by 5 ex-Apple employees, provides curated photo collections of historical or special interest. These are released in small collections as iOs apps. Currently numbering nine these include Fotopedia Heritage, Fotopedia National Parks, Fotopedia Magazine and 'National Geographic'.
  • Square is the development by Twitter co-founder and software engineer Jack Dorsey of an iPhone accessory that enables you to instantly read and take secure card payments. Now processing $11 million+ per day.
  • is a Groupon / Asos hybrid offering big daily discounts on specific fashion items. Matching up 'social media' with 'fashion' is bound to be strong since fashion itself is socially generated. 
    • Asos enjoys user-generated 'looks for him and her' where items from various designers are pinned together to provide inspiration as an online alternative to shop-window dummies. Check out their current trending 'Looks for Men'.
    • There are plenty of Pinterest boards along those lines too. Another Crunchies winner (Best Startup). Check out the 'My Style' boards.
    • Interesting that '' started as a 'gay social networking' site before doing the now mandatory 'pivot' into an entirely different business model.
  • Honourable mentions: Quora, Siri, Codecademy, Kickstarter, Github, Grindr, AirBnB and Skyrim (!)

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Race To The Cloud Is On

The cloud is a new Cambrian explosion: When the eco-system changes, a whole new set of animals emerge.

The cloud is a great idea. Devices can overflow their processing and storage requirements to the cloud. This frees them up to become better form factors. Less bulk, more ergonomics. Good news for humans.

And it's opened up a new gold rush: the gold rush to provide your cloud storage.

Let's think about why providers might want to get into that game. The first consideration is that it will be very very expensive to do so. The dominant cloud service providers for Europe (AWS and Azure for now) charge for storage per month, and they're cost model is a reasonable representation of the cost of running their giant server farms.

So providers have to pay every month and the more they store, the more that monthly payment will be. That's very different to buying your own storage outright. If I buy an external hard drive, for instance, I buy it once and it's mine. Effectively, on the cloud, I'm renting that hard drive forever and every time I put more stuff on it, the rent goes up.

Every consumer who's used to the wild and wonderful free Internet won't like that, so to buy their custom, the cloud service providers will have to either pay for it for them, or at least package it up and maybe subsidise it a little to make it buyable.

So why would a provider want to take on that endlessly inflating burden?

Because it gives them leverage. It gives them leverage to provide other profit-making services. Data is king, and the customer is his daddy. Get them into your system, and your system can start making money… somehow.

You might think that providing storage at a loss (let alone the processing that goes with it) sounds like madness. Surely it would be possible to make a tiny tiny profit per customer by marking up cloud storage? At the moment, it doesn't look like it. I'm not sure if they'll last, but Bitcasa are betting the farm on a flat fee of $10 / month for infinite cloud storage. Their model is all about clever compression and de-duplication techniques. If a million people are storing the same copy of Spiderman on the cloud, Bitcasa will store it once and satisfy everyone. But $10 / month?? It just doesn't seem to add up. Dropbox are having a tough time balancing loads of freeloaders with 2+GB against premium customers paying their lowest tier $10 / month for an account limited to 50GB. People who want cloud storage have a LOT of data. And photos, for instance, are original data and don't de-dupe so well.

So who will win?

I can only imagine that the winners of this crazy race will be the people with the largest vested interest. And I think that's not going to be the clever first-mover start-ups like Bitcasa, or even Dropbox, sadly. It'll be the people who have massive scale (deep pockets!) and who want to lock you into a wider infrastructure of services built around the cloud. So that'll be Apple, Microsoft and Google, then.

Good on them. But I am going to put SOOOO much data into their systems that they might regret winning for a few years.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Trends in reality TV gaming

"It could be you" was the original slogan of the National Lottery. But innovative new on to off-line hybrid games are taking the world by storm, delivering to that craving in bundles. Bundles of £50 notes.

The National Lottery fails to deliver because it's a mostly passive, non-interactive experience. You buy a ticket in a shop: great. Then you wait for Saturday to watch Dale Winton attempting to inject excitement into a bingo machine in a tiny studio making your ticket worthless. Yawn.

Compare to recent TV shows 'The Bank Job' and 'The Million Pound Drop Live', both:
  • Screened 'live' over a small number of days with a will to be 'event television'. Social media goes crazy for this stuff
  • Playing online allows you to apply to play for real in the studio within a day or three
  • Play along live at home via Internet or red button. A great 'second screen' application. Something like 40k people were online last night with Davina.
  • Real money on show. Everyone loves big bundles of £50 notes apparently - accompanied by serious-looking security guards.
  • Instant statistics from the online players available to the hosts
  • Live Twitter and Facebook updates from viewers available to the hosts
The Million Pound Drop partners Skype to bring in celebs to ask the questions live.

These shows then generate an additional big set of money from licensing. Beyond the traditional scratchcards, fruit machine, pub quiz machines and boardgames, today the focus is more instant interactive gratification: online real cash gaming sites such as Bet365 or Paddypower. Bet365 reports it sees a flood of new accounts every time Million Pound Drop is broadcast - and will make another set of money from those betting on the outcomes of the live show.

This is a new type of 'reality TV gameshow'. Small wonder both 'The Bank Job' and 'The Million Pound Drop Live', along with 'Deal or No Deal', are born of Endemol, the makers of Big Brother. With the increase in such shows, plus 'the Cube', 'Red or Black', late night poker sponsored by 'play now' poker sites, or the roulette sites that even mainstream channels hand over to in the early hours, this looks a strong trend.

The 'play along live' games are an essential component. A remarkable majority of the above games were developed by Clerkenwell-based agency 'Monterosa', a team of around 20.

What their MD Simon Brickle says is also true of Electric Animal,

"On our very early projects we realised that our reputation depended not just on delivering a project successfully, but the success of the project itself."
Where will this 'social TV movement' go next? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has been made in over 100 countries, one that inspired the 'Slumdog' film. Do you have a killer quizshow format ready to make everyone millions?*

*Endemol are currently £2.3 billion in debt

Friday, 20 January 2012

Clever clever isn't clever

Everyone thinks that cleverness is an advantage. No... Cleverness only has one advantage. Everything I've ever seen that's clever that matters has just one characteristic that really makes it matter: it is simple.

Clever clever is no advantage.

Clever simple is really clever.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The camera industry is smarting... because of smartphones

This year's Consumer Electronics Show is really highlighting a fork in the road for the camera industry.

The traditional camera (which has only recently become the digital camera) is being forced to evolve or die… and fast.

Smartphone sales are not destroying traditional camera sales, as this graph shows, but they sure are dwarfing it. Smartphones are the biggest spur for change that the camera industry has seen.

Source: The Telegraph

At time of writing, Kodak has nearly gone bust. Kodak, the brand that popular culture used to recognise as the one that matters in photography. Also, interesting to see that Kodak is now suing Apple for patent infringement, as it flails around resisting liquidation.

Among camera manufacturers, opinion varies as to how they should deal with this growing tide of phones with lenses. Basically, there's two schools of thought.

Route 1 - parity

"We need to make cameras that offer parity with smartphone's technological functions. Cameras need GPS, and wi-fi. Maybe even direct Internet connectivity."

This route seems to be Samsung's track.

Route 2 - distinction

"We should leverage our greater expertise in high quality imaging - smartphones can't offer anything like the same quality of image, in terms of lenses and sensors. Also, the emerging area in imaging is lower cost high quality video. Let's focus there."

This route seems to be Canon's track.

Both routes are interesting. Which puts greater distance between the camera industry and the smartphone industry? And which one gets the best customer approval and revenue?

Monday, 9 January 2012

Games that break the mould in 2012

It's great to see games that aren't just designed to pump up the average American teenage gamer with adrenalin and bullets.

Here's some new games that are either out this year or recently released. These are games that refreshingly break the mould from all that Modern Warfare same-same.

The Last Guardian

Sony/Team Ico, PS3

Following on from the same team that created Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus, we can expect haunting visuals and themes in this game about a boy exploring a citadel with a huge feathered beast. Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus were great games, but they were also explorations of mood and story-telling. It's been promised for ages, but The Last Guardian is now slated for release in 2012.


Sony/thatgamecompany, PS3

From the same company, Flow and Flower are amazing artistic games that turn your PS3 into a beautiful and calming hallucination. Journey looks set to do the same, but perhaps with more of an adventuring theme.

Escape Plan

Sony/Fun Bits, PlayStation Vita

More amazing black and white rich visuals (seems to be the Art Direction thing right now, no?) in a charming and funny lateral-thinking adventure for the new PS Vita.

Rayman Origins

Ubisoft, Wii, PS3, Xbox

No more 3d for Rayman. Instead, experience the most gorgeously animated and varied slap-stick adventure you've ever played. The themes are juvenile, but this is a very mature approach to gaming animation and graphics.


Playdead, PS3

Black and white simple visuals in a story about a boy finding his way out of… who knows where. Don't be deceived though - the simplicity is a rarified sort of perfection. It's tremendously atmospheric, very smooth, and it draws you in only in order to trap you in its devious puzzles.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

London needs to get off regular office hours. Fact.

First day back in town for the New Year.

The commute back home - even just a short distance - was really really not nice. I went into town by tube at 10ish, missing the rush hour, and it was fine. But I came back shortly after 6, right in the middle of a wad of disgruntled Londoners. And it was dreadful. Angry people feeling downtrodden and space-invaded. Full of bah-humbug. Not one person on the carriage was evil (probably) but the agitation levels were rising brutally fast.

The solution has got to be a fairly simple one, right? It's this: Where possible, encourage the commuting workforce to use working hours that are not rigidly structured 9am to 6pm.

I know it's not very traditional British - not very umbrellas and bowler hats - but in these days of Internet-enabled working and fast-rising populations, well, surely it has to happen anyway. It's the best way. And it's the only way when the city's infrastructure can't really support any other.

There's lots of ways the humble Internet can help with the change London needs:
  • Time tracking is easy on decent web-based systems. You don't need to police your workforce by stamping time cards any more.
  • Lots of jobs work better on the workers' own time anyway, and they don't need to be in the office to get the stuff they need. You get worse work out of people if you force them to use hours that don't suit them.
  • People can work remotely, and still be in easy reach via the Internet. You don't need to see their face to know they're there.
  • Always-on Internet means people are far more used to the need to personally manage their work-time versus non-work-time. I'm not saying they're good at it, but the need is there!
  • With better and better global collaboration, there is an increasing need to communicate across time zones, and that alone breaks the rigidity of 9-6 GMT.
The Internet has changed a lot of things, but it's time Londoners started to act on some of those changes.

Maybe it's a New Year's resolution for London. Let's dig ourselves out of the old patterns of working, and simply make better use of the Internet.

Alternatively, let's spend the whole of 2012 ripping up London's transport infrastructure and design a new one. Should be ready shortly after the Olympics.