Monthly Archives: November 2010

Products that are features are going away

Sometime in the year 2014 the number of people using mobile Internet devices will surpass those using desktops, at about 1.6 billion, or 22% of the world’s population. Because most humans are unlike office workers in U.S. metros and spend their days actually moving around, handheld devices are the future of communications. To meet this peripatetic need, device interfaces are getting smaller and simpler.

Which means convergence is coming.

TomTom, Garmin and other GPS makers will be the first victims. Berg Insight reports that global shipments of “personal navigation devices” will crest in 2011, and then slump as GPS map functionality becomes a feature, and not a product, of handsets and car dashboards everywhere. The destruction of once-cool products is nothing new. Google Maps chewed up businesses tied to online directions. Microsoft erased Netscape by making a web browser part of its operating system. iPhones and the Droid are cannibalizing the camera industry by making photography a feature of a mobile handset. The list of once-hot products that really were attributes to be absorbed elsewhere is long: Kodak film, portable game players, Word processing programs, snow tires, home-cooked meals.

Now consider the list of current products that are likely to fade into broader systems. USB drives. Camcorders. Radios. Web browsers. Netflix envelopes. The United States Postal Service. Eyeglasses. Twitter. Each business seems insurmountable for a given time, until one of two things happens: A market entrant arrives with a better product that swallows the old one (Facebook being the one to watch here, communications subspecialists); or a new service ecosystem is born that spreads its branches over old products (the Internet digesting letter mail and bill presentment).

This is all a natural evolution, because products have to go through a period of rapid innovation and experimentation to be born and adopted before they settle down to common interfaces, which in turn are swallowed by a few leaders. The next victims are likely Foursquare and its LBS kindred, clever systems that help you find people in real space that are really just a feature waiting to be tacked on to a better network (hi again, Facebook). Yet even massive players face the same threats; Microsoft reigned over computers for three decades, but cloud computing may kill its software core. Facebook could rule for a decade more, but if your social graph becomes truly portable and owned by you, you’ll no longer need its portal. Businesses defend themselves with several shields, including innovation (hello, 3-D disc players), entanglement (damn you, wireless termination fees), or ensnarement (hmm, a Facebook Like button all over our favorite websites). Similar to vitamins, these tactics help companies live longer, but never forever.

Shrinking visual inventory is giving Darwinian consolidation a push. We look at products with our eyes; products are becoming mobile; mobility diminishes space. As billions of consumers connect more frequently through small mobile devices, they will want a convergence of services that fit in their hand. These same people have limits in their minds of how many products they can learn and use daily, so the power laws that apply in adoption of any product (how many watch brands can you name?) will drive consolidation into a handful of leaders. Why would you want to learn, as good as its financial-house-in-order help is, if Facebook Banking could make your finances as easy as chatting with Sis?

The great irony of our age is that after two decades of massive digital experimentation, we may end up with simplified glass tablets that do everything, accessed via a few monopolistic services. The web is fragmenting into a million devices, but those gadgets in turn are consolidating into a few major systems. Click and tap. We want it all, especially if one button will suffice.

Image: Frans Persoon

Wikipedia says you’re not testing enough

If you run online campaigns you really must read Wikipedia’s detailed description of how it tests creative for its fund-raising drive. Since August, every Thursday for one hour the encyclopedia tests either a range of banner ads or landing pages, typically 4-6 elements run against each other. As Information is Beautiful summarizes in the graphic above, winners beat losers by a mile.

Call it a challenge for creative agencies focused on building the single great idea. Your concept may be good, but if you’re not testing 40 components against each other, you’ll likely miss the big result.

Social net Path limits your relationships

We’re incredibly excited about Path, a new iPhone app that limits your social network to just 50 people. Not because it will beat Facebook or Twitter (good luck with that), but rather it’s the first social media platform we’ve seen in a while that recognizes we all want boundaries on how we share.

The issue, you see, is anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested humans could maintain about 150 relationships comfortably, yet social nets have been pushing those numbers higher. If you’ve spent any time on social media, you know that once you begin to scale your connections, and, say, your Mom and Aunt Millie and that guy you met at a conference a year ago join Facebook, the utility begins to diminish. Some critics, such as Malcolm Gladwell, have suggested our new collections of “weak ties” really aren’t effective relationships at all. As the Chris Brogans and Robert Scobles of the world scale to hundreds of thousands of online followers, we’ve wondered, what is the upper limit? What happens when we’re so overconnected that sharing and listening become as cacophonous as a mall on Christmas Eve?

God-like powers, with God tuning out?

We joked at lunch with Darryl Ohrt yesterday that perhaps this is why God no longer appears to answer prayers — the burgeoning human population has cluttered his stream. Path is part of a new trend, including TweetDeck columns and Facebook Groups, of tools that help limit your sharing. Relationships require opening up, and raw, honest transparency is perhaps something you don’t want to give to the entire world. These network limits may not be good for marketers who hope to influence the masses through free limitless earned-media connections, and they could also put brakes on how Path grows itself.

Which is why we love Path’s idea. A network with restraint. That’s so brave. We’re downloading the app now.

Gmail goes down

Gmail’s usage goes down, that is. We’ve been reading recently about shifts in consumer media habits, some surprising (don’t miss Wired magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly’s analysis showing TV is the fastest-growing medium in the U.S., still far outpacing the Internet). And then we thought, we don’t check our personal email that often anymore, since we rely on Twitter and Facebook and messaging for intimate communications.

Here’s what Quantcast reports, based on direct cookie observations of traffic to the Gmail site. Down 50% in one year. It’s an amazing trend, and one to watch as Facebook enters the email space with its Messages.

Forget Auto-Tuning. This entire sweet singer isn’t real.

Enjoy this singer. She is Hatsune Miku, a pop star hit in Japan, and none of her is real.

A year ago we noted: Perfection of human artifice was bound to happen sooner or later. For decades, animators have struggled to overcome The Uncanny Valley effect — the disturbing vibe you get watching animated faces that don’t look quite real. German psychologist Ernst Jentsch coined the term in 1906, as as we’ve written before, most “human” animation attempts such as the Tom Hanks’ characters in 2004’s Polar Express are as eerie as walking through a wax museum at night. The eyes are dead; the faces look ghastly; we don’t believe it is real. But now, fake reality is here.

The video above shows how the evolution of artificial intelligence continues. Hatsune Miku is a projection on a transluscent screen, that looks almost like 3-D, with a voice synthesis engine by Yamaha that takes prerecorded vowel and consonant sounds from an actress and morphs them into any language or song. The illusion is a sentient being. AI, of course, may never happen, but if a machine can emulate humans enough that no one can discern the difference, Miku passes the Turing Test, and the fiction of machine intelligence will become reality.

That day will come, because it already is here. You’re reading this on a computer or tablet or handheld right now, a glowing window that gives you fake views of a world of other people and their ideas that are artificial evolutions of real speech and writing, themselves coded versions of thoughts. You do this for money, itself a system of artificial 1s and 0s that get pushed like invisible blood from the heart of commerce to the cells of your bank computer. The entire universe of communications is a series of codes that layer over each other, like growth of an onion, covering up the seed at the core. As humans learn to enhance their disguises and add additional complexity to the ideas they trade with the world, eventually machines may take those layers and play reality themselves. Who’d have thought they’d also be wearing sexy miniskirts?

Via Brandflakes.

Wired’s breasts get shaken up

Wired’s November cover features a pair of breasts. Large, looming, poke-you-in-the-eye kind of breasts. So on Nov. 10, Cindy Royal, an assistant professor at Texas State University and a Wired magazine subscriber, wrote a blog post baring the more audacious news that the tech publication rarely runs photos of women on its cover, unless they’re jokes or promoting films, and the last time Wired’s front featured a woman doing real work in technology was April 1996. Too good a story to miss, in five days the blog post has picked up more than 200 comments, including a polite response from Wired’s editor Chris Anderson, who noted women don’t tend to sell magazine covers, in fact, humans rarely do, and he’s soliciting ideas for the future. All Things D, Washington Post and The Huffington Post chimed in. Wired’s boobs are making the rounds.

We see two lessons here:

1. People remain piggish, and oinky instincts often sell. The truth, of course, is that the tech world is filled with young men and images such as this one (from inside Wired’s magazine issue) do far more to juice sales and subscriptions than Gates and Zuckerberg ever would.

Given the loving attention to detail in these photos, we suggest Wired (if we could have your attention back, please) knows exactly what it is doing. This is not to condemn Wired; visit the magazine rack at Barnes & Noble, and you’ll see most magazine covers have photos of beautiful females — at least 3 to 1 women-to-men. Greed, lust, and desire for aspirational beauty get noticed, and publishers who test every element of their covers respond with exactly what the market wants.

2. Change is possible if human communities override individual behavior. The fascinating thing about this exercise in feedback is how fast it’s moving; today is Nov. 15, less than a week since Royal published her critique of Wired’s boobs, and counterpoints have piled high. The National Center for Women & Information Technology gave Royal a link to 50 women who have excelled in IT and entrepreneurship, potentially worthy of magazine fame. Chris Anderson has moved into private email discussions with Royal over how to improve the magazine’s editorial. It may be too much to hope, but outside observers might think a real change in the magazine is possible.

If so, this is a lovely tale of how social media provides, with good writing and a touch of viral community support, a critical mass that can move society in a better direction. Royal notes that Wired is deeply influential in the tech industry; thus a series of Wired covers espousing the contributions of women to technology, and not just as gussied up sex objects, might inspire more female teens to engineering and tech college degrees, better hiring of women, more female CIOs, and future SXSW Interactive conferences filled with more than scruffy boys in T-shirts.

Unless magazine newsstand sales droop, of course; then, given human reproductive urgency and Wired’s male-skewing demo, Anderson will have to put skin back in the game.

Why Google is covering up its own ads

At first we were confused about why Google would launch a new feature in its search results that covers up the very ads that make Google money. Google’s new Instant Previews allow users (if you first click on a magnifying glass symbol) to see previews of the web pages you may click through to. It’s a very nice feature, potentially modeled after Twitter’s recent redesign, and is an obvious attempt to keep Google your main portal on the web. Google faces significant threats from mobile apps and social media referrals, and this summer Nielsen reported that U.S. total search volume had declined year over year by 16% — with Google use down 17%. So, yep, Google needs to play usability defense.

But back to dollars — why would Google block the ads that make it money with such a graphics feature? The preview window pops up to the right, covering all the CPC ads at the right of your browser window. Blocked view, no clicks, no Google ad revenue … right?

And then we thought, perhaps Google is being even more clever. Remember, it costs you most to bid on the No. 1 ad spot at the top of the search results, with every subsequent spot on a Google results page costing less. The new preview interface covers up only ads in positions 5 or higher — while the top 4 sponsored links, the most expensive and thus the most lucrative to Google, are still visible up top, uncovered by Instant Previews. So Google has now created an incentive for advertisers to bid higher on CPC ads to achieve positions 1 through 4, and to avoid the lower positions 5+ in paid search results, which could be hidden and thus achieve worse click-through rates.

Smart. Google has added a clever new feature to attract more users, while pushing advertisers to pay more to avoid being blocked on search results pages. Google has maximized consumer utility and advertising spending. Wow, Google. It’s almost like you’re optimizing us instead of search results.

The great RockMelt social disintermediation

Remember how newspapers once held your attention and then Google lifted links to the articles, pulling you away from the newspaper advertising? And then how social media portals such as Twitter and Facebook used links from your friends to pull you away from Google as your main news feed?

Ah, the irony. Now RockMelt — a new “social media” web browser — may pull you away from social media, or at least the portals trying to keep your eyeballs for ad revenue. (Do you think Twitter’s recent site redesign was a gift, or a ploy to get you back to instead of TweetDeck so it can begin monetizing your corneas?) RockMelt integrates social functionality such as images of friends online, Twitter and Facebook links, Foursquare location updates, and your favorite blog posts, all in the borders of what appears to be a standard web browser. It mirrors numerous RSS-type feeds from social media (Feedly,, Flipboard) with a browser hook, but the implication is the same — RockMelt pulls just the content you want away from services such as Twitter who are busy defending their audiences by trying to make their own portals your gateway online.

The process is called disintermediation, an unstoppable evolution in communications in which content producers first try to protect their audiences by locking them in to as much ad inventory as possible, only to have audiences find ways to escape with the juicy content bits elsewhere. We like your idea, RockMelt. The irony is with your modern social functionality, you’re doing what emerging content scrapers have always done — remonetizing someone else’s audience.

Charlene Li called this back in March 2008 with her famous blog post, “Social networks will be like air.” Social net functionality, she suggested, will become ubiquitous as consumers learn to take their identities, relationships and activities everywhere, a plug-in to any communication system. Business models will try to follow, but as social plug-ins become standard wall outlets, it will grow more difficult for any single player to defend its walled commercial garden. The only possible defense is for a business to turn its social platform into such a pervasive, open operating system that everyone else must use it, the apparent strategy of Facebook. But like the mechanics that now power everything from the watch on your wrist to the engine in your car, social dynamics may become the motors of the future, insertable into any device and as wired as the electricity in your walls. Good luck, RockMelt. We’ll give you a run, but your point of differentiation may not be defendable for much longer.

Hat tip Brandflakes.

Lazy rules

Consumers don’t want the best; they just want good enough.

Thus suggests Jordan Julien in “Designing for the Lazy,” where he addresses the tension between marketers wanting to offer nuanced interfaces and customers just trying to get by. “The fact of the matter is,” Julien writes, “most people don’t want to optimize their decision-making process. They want to satisfy their current need and move on. This time-saving mentality is what the majority of UX architects & strategists have to consider when creating online experiences.”

A classic example is the online lead form. Consumers are asked to input information, but if they have any uncertainty at all about what will happen during or after the process, they will retreat. The main reason prospects fail to interact with you, Julien suggests, is not lack of trust, but simply they don’t want to waste time. Web usability guru Steve Krug has suggested the same in his classic 2000 book “Don’t Make Me Think.” The history of marketing is cluttered with complex failures than didn’t meet customers’ simple expectations: The Ford Edsel. The :CueCat. And today, dare we say it, soon-to-be-replaced Foursquare, QR Codes, and cable-television interfaces.

How to respond? Julien says design as if you want to help lazy people be even lazier. Don’t believe us; if you want to see simplicity succeed, check Google.

The ghostly GPS-enabled, invisible pop-up store

This is a bit complicated and yet snap-crazy brilliant. Take one part augmented reality — the ability to overlay digital views of the world on reality, such as by using a GPS-enabled iPhone that gives you graphics on a screen based on your specific location. Add a second part pop-up store — a retail location that only exists for a brief period of time. Now, take away any bricks and mortar from the store. Result: A virtual retail ghost that doesn’t exist, but one you can visit if you point your smartphones at air at the right location at exactly the right time.

We’re not sure if this William Gibsonesque fake-reality will ever take off, but Airwalk is getting buzz for its reissued 1990s JIM shoes by building virtual pop-up stores in New York and California. Since you have to be in-the-know to find the invisible location, the buzz around this marketing is almost a secret.