Sometimes a car is not just a car

Ever since Liz Gannes reported about Google’s new self driving car, I have been actively thinking about its impact on the auto-business, economics of mobility and the idea of car ownership in a world full of sensors, networks and automation. I scribbled some of thoughts on a piece of paper and turned this into a column for the upcoming issue of FastCompany. “The Model T may have been fairly unexciting from an aesthetic design perspective (much like this first Google car), but it changed human potential forever.” I hope you find some time to read the full column.

Photo of Google Driverless Car courtesy of Recode.

Irony of “takes” and rushed laziness

Annie Lowrey in a provocative post for the New York magazine — Why disruptors are always white guys — points out that in “today’s media economy, we’re facing the “think entrepreneur, think white dude” problem.” She was responding to a gushing piece in the bible of vapidity Vanity Fair, which resides in a very monochromatic and antiquated society. Lowrey further writes that “there’s the problem of white dudes disproportionately being encouraged to and supported in founding businesses, a phenomenon that feeds into the first problem — of there simply being more white-dude founders, full stop.”  The piece is ironic in more ways than one.

By repeating the “band of brothers” narrative perpetuated by the “brothers” she is inadvertently reinforcing the same charges she levies on others can be applied to Lowrey and this very piece. She safely ignored some minority media disrupters including two guys who arguably set the template for the Internet-native media company. Rafat Ali with PaidContent was the first to breakout and set-up shop. In 2006, I started my company. And two of us were not the only one.

There are other female media pioneers — my good friend Lisa Sugar (who along side hubby Brian Sugar) started PopSugar. Maggie Mason was working on Mighty Girl long before many could even spell blog! Sugar has established a business that rivals Code Nast in many ways — and yet, there is hardly a mention.  A simple Google search should have surfaced these details. Perhaps, old establishments like New York magazine still have the good old Lexis Nexis for historical research. Hell, even a Wikipedia search would have done the job.

To be fair, I shouldn’t entirely blame Lowrey — and instead factor in the process of writing and publishing in the era if hypermedia. The rush to publish online without as much taking a deep breath and taking time to research and develop a “take” is what I believe is the core of the problem.

Before I go, the article only refreshed what has been in the back of my mind: unspoken reality of postindustrial society the color and gender divide in society is not obvious or overt. It is ambient. Like carbon monoxide it is invisible and deadly. Sadly, it is not going to change anytime soon!

7 Must Read Articles about Apple Smartwatch

It will be a long time — March 2015 perhaps — before you and your better half will be able to try out Apple’s entry into the fast-fashion business with the Apple Watch. I am in the camp of skeptics till proven otherwise — mostly because I find many flaws with the device, think of it as incomplete and behavior challenged first version. If I am wrong, the Internet will remind me — it always does have a way of making you look like a fool (or smart).

Still, that hasn’t prevented people from writing about the Apple Watch. The Apple PR machine is still as effective as ever. Here are seven articles which I think are intelligent, eloquent and worth your attention. 

  • Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of The New York Times asks the question, does the Apple Watch look good? and offers a fashion point of view. “It makes you reimagine what a watch that you might wear everyday should do. It speaks the visual language of ye olde-fashioned watches,” she writes, pointing out the irony of it all. 
  • The New York magazine’s Kevin Roose writes about the subliminal things Apple will do to make you buy its smart watch. He points out that “Apple gadgets have always been, and will always be, pure fetish objects” and that is what it has going for the Watch.
  • Nicholas Carr points out that just as clocks redefined our relationship with time, the new shiny handcuffs are going to redefine our relationship with our world. What he means — we are going to be a lot more distracted, though I wonder if it is possible to be any more distracted. 
  • The essential design of the watch makes sense to Khoi Vinh, a well known designer based in New York, and also author of one of the better blogs about design thinking. 
  • Imran Amed, editor of The Business of Fashion outlines 6 core beliefs behind the new Apple watch. Given that he was close to Angela Ahrendts former CEO of Burberry, let’s just say he must have been briefed in detail on the watch. While I find his take refreshing, I do think it fails to ask the tough questions. 
  • I hate linking to Esquire but John Hendrickson, is asking all the pertinent questions about what’s right and what’s wrong with Apple watch. 
  • And last, but not the least, here is a measured and very balanced take from KevinTofel who talks about the challenges facing Apple Watch are the same challenges facing other so called smart watches. 

Before I go, I think it is testament to Apple’s ability as “market maker” that despite the presence of many many smart watches, we are starting to see conversations in context of fashion, luxury and lifestyle. 

Invisible Design & Apple

AppleLogo

By this time tomorrow, we will all know if Apple is releasing a wearable device, a smart watch, a combination of both or some other variation that will transform it from a computing company into a lifestyle company that uses computing to create new user experiences and interactions. Apple won’t be selling computers in the conventional sense. Instead it will become the company that offers objects powered by computing and connectivity.

And whatever those objects of desire might be, one thing is clear: they will have less in common with Apple’s roots (the personal computer). Rather they are likely to be physical manifestations of what Charles Eames once said a long time ago: “Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. . . the quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” This connected future is going to bring with it the era of invisible design.

“As computing becomes even more immersed in our lives, embedded in our homes, and worn on our bodies, these user interfaces will become even more invisible, operating through gestures, voices, and even expressions,” we wrote earlier this year, when we announced our Roadmap conference. This idea of invisible design has been somewhat of an obsession for me and Katie Fehrenbacher, who is co-chair of the 2014 Roadmap conference.

One of our Roadmap 2014 speakers K.K. Barrett, the production designer for Spike Jonze’ movie, Her, in a recent interview pointed out that Her is “all about someone falling in love through a window of technology, but the technology does not stand in the way. The technology is an enabler, or a comfort.” The future of design is to make technology invisible and become an enabler.

Technologies today touch our lives deeply in ways we don’t even know. Facebook can influence our state of happiness. Twitter makes us angry. The whoosh of a message interrupts our dinner. A rough count of every step we took today can make us feel good or bad about ourselves. That invisible experience of emotions is the future of design.

Apple, the company that gave us the Mac, iPod, iPhone and iPad, has often redefined our expectations and ideas of what something means. The Mac redefined our expectation of a PC. The iPod changed our relationship with music. The iPhone shattered the old keyboard-driven idea of a phone. And the iPad has shown us the future of personal computing — touch sensitive, unshackled by keyboards or wires, free to roam. Sure, it isn’t the perfect replacement for your PC, but imagine a five-year old growing up with this tablet of imagination.

So perhaps, when Jonny Ive says that “Switzerland is in trouble,” what he really means is that Apple is going to come up with products that will fight for the same real-estate — the wrist. Apple’s challenge is not in making great hardware — we know they can do that — but instead it will be in creating a high level of emotional quotient for the data streams that emerge from wearables.

I don’t care as much about the hardware as I care about the software and the experience of these wearables. Why? Because I want to see if Apple can retain the Jobsian philosophy of omission as the ultimate enabler of wonder. I want to see if Cupertino’s software can move beyond icons, apps, flat design or something equally fashionable — something where perfection can emerge from the invisible.

Till tomorrow!

Some design related posts from my archives:

What you can learn from Christian Louboutin

ChristianLoubitan

“I remember my father cutting wood. If you sculpt in vein, it’s beautiful. If you go against the grain, it breaks. Same is with business. If you go with the flow, it grows naturally. But if you grow your company in an unnatural way, it breaks. I did not do a company to make money. I made shoes and it became a company.” — Christian Louboutin, shoe designer/fashion entrepreneur.  

I came across this quote from Christian Louboutin over the summer, when reading Dana Thomas’ Deluxe. The context of his comment was why he chooses to do a certain way — which are in conflict with more mercantile and mercenary approaches of say LVMH — and why he refuses to sell his company to the richest bidder. His comment resonated with me mostly because, like him I didn’t start out with Gigaom to either make money or even become a company. Instead, I started it to scratch my own itch, and a deep desire to write every day about technology. It became a company.

Louboutin’s story was a good reminder — we all need to scratch our own itch, and who knows what might follow.

Fresh Air

After four days of being laid-up nursing the worse kind of summer flu, I finally dragged myself out of the apartment today. I was desperate for an espresso and really needed to remove the cobwebs of the mind.  Also, I had a morning meeting with a fantastic startup founder whose boundless enthusiasm helped give an energy boost. Later in the day, after we wrapped up a board meeting, I got a chance to sit with my pal Bijan at a sidewalk cafe, grab a coffee and talk about everything but technology. Bijan’s conversation skills are like a young brook – sometimes frenetic but mostly mellifluous. We discussed the joys of film, the warmth of Hasselblad photos, growing up, future and of course the languid pace of summer. And before he left, he told me to check out the blog of an Australian blogger and photographer. Reflecting on my day, I realize that there is no better medicine than an opportunity to interact with good people and of course, fresh air.  

Wanna Nuzzel?

Surveys say that people download apps on their phones, try them out and very rarely go back to them and move on to the next shiny thing. This paradox of plenty has come to the app-economy and is basically making second chances virtually impossible. And that’s why when some app manages to breakthrough and become part of your daily habits, you can feel why it is different.

About two months ago, I downloaded an app that has become part of my daily life and in fact has earned a place on the first screen of my iPhone. It is not the prettiest app. It doesn’t have the sexiest swipes. Its colors are monastery chic. Instead, it is simply useful. It is called Nuzzel, a social reader that leaves out complexity and makes reading things people share on the social Internet easier and smarter.

It is one of the many new services that have popped up (or will come to fore) as we all struggle with “too much” content on social sharing platforms. Think of these as mods on top of existing social networks — they are needed to scratch every itch, though their commercial prospects remained to be ascertained. (Instagram lovers should check out Chicago-based developer Nicholas Eby’s Dscvry app for iOS, which doesn’t seem to have any reviews.) Smarter algorithms, better design or just plain simple uncomplicated human-powered social discovery — we need it all. 

Read the rest of this entry »

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