Category Archives: Technology

How to design a killer app for the iWatch

iwatchThis article originally ran on on Nov. 6, 2013.

The wrist is the next frontier for technology companies. I believe this because I wear a FitBit activity tracker on my wrist; when I tap it, I am rewarded by tiny lights that blink for about two seconds, telling me how many steps I’ve walked today. While I need at least one minute to pull out my iPhone, type in my password, and open an app, I need barely three seconds to tap my FitBit and get a delightful, satisfying morsel of data.

Imagine, then, the seductive power of Apple (AAPL)’s much-rumored iWatch, which is expected to deliver not only blinking lights but also emoticons, photos, ringtones, tweets, and status updates. If you think the 140-character constraint of Twitter prodded us to be more creative, think of a future in which your watch supersedes your phone and delivers what you want in less than three seconds.

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New Surface ads herald a Microsoft strategy shift: function over style

Do you remember when Microsoft tried to make the Surface cool? First there were the ads with dancing 20-somethings, who were dressed like they worked at the hippest ad agency in Manhattan and had haircuts to match. Then there were the adorable dancing schoolgirls.

But that was sooo Q3 2013. The new ads, just launched last week, have taken a 180-degree turn. One features a chubby teacher who wears a button-down sweater-vest and a beard worthy of the Red Sox. He says, “I like chalk and erasers.” (Really, chalk and erasers? Has anyone ever said that in real life?) The other features a paramedic who is dressed as … a paramedic. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great look, but it emphasizes function over style.

And that’s precisely the point. Microsoft can’t compete with Apple for the cool factor. Instead, the company is trying to show that the Surface can be used for both work and play. “I needed a new laptop for my premed classes, something that runs office and has a keyboard,” the paramedic says. “But I wanted a tablet for me, for stuff like Twitter and Xbox. … so I can manage my crazy life, and also have a life.”

Microsoft’s new strategy just might work. The iPad fills certain consumer needs – or, as we say at Innosight, consumers “hire” the iPad to fill particular “jobs.” Some of those jobs are emotional rather than functional: Make me feel like I’m on the cutting edge. Demonstrate that I’m one of the cool kids. But Microsoft finally realized that no one was going to buy the Surface to look or feel cool. Consumers might, however, buy it to get work done.

Check out the ads below, and tell me what you think.

Dancing 20-somethings

Dancing schoolgirls




How Clay Christensen predicted Android’s ascendence (in 2003)

I’m re-reading The Innovator’s Solution, Clay Christensen’s landmark 2003 book, because I’m going to be working at Innosight, the consulting firm he founded, beginning this fall. This morning, I realized that he predicted precisely what has happened in the smartphone market: the initial success of a product like the iPhone, produced by a vertically integrated firm, followed by the ultimate ascendence of a phone with a modular architecture – components that can be made by different companies. I’ll start by summarizing his theory, and then describe what this means for the iPhone, iPad, and Apple as a whole.

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How LinkedIn just became indispensable

When it comes to staying organized, I have two big problems. Well, I used to — LinkedIn just solved one of them.

I’ve been using LinkedIn as an address book for a long time. After all, why bother loading someone’s information into Google contacts, when we can just connect on LinkedIn? But there was one issue: LinkedIn didn’t contain a history of my relationships. With many contacts, I had to dig through old emails to figure out when we last talked or whether we’ve even met in person at all.

LinkedIn just solved that with its new contacts tool, which can integrate with Google, Yahoo, Outlook, Evernote, and my phone. Now, LinkedIn knows who I’ve spoken to and even when we’ve met in person. The Contacts tab includes my daily agenda and provides suggestions of people to whom I should reach out. I already visit LinkedIn frequently, but now I have a reason to make it a daily destination.

Now, if only someone would fulfill my other major need … but I’ll write about that in a future post.

Are printed books here to stay? In a word: no.

Will e-books completely replace printed books? In the Wall Street Journal this morning, Nicholas Carr argues that they won’t. He notes that the growth of e-books slowed to 34% in 2012. Granted, some CEOs would sell their souls for a 34% growth rate. Sales of e-books, furthermore, have surpassed sales of hardcover books and are treading on the toes of paperbacks. But Carr also cites a survey that found that 59% of adults have “no interest” in buying an e-reader. His explanation:

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call ‘real books’ — the kind you can set on a shelf.

There are two reasons I believe he’s wrong.

First, it is entirely common for an old industry to last for years — sometimes decades — after the invention of a new technology that will ultimately displace it. James Utterback cites numerous examples in his classic book, Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation. The gas lighting industry hung on and even reached new peaks of innovation in the years after Edison commercialized his electric lighting system. Similarly, the original ice companies, which harvested their product from New England lakes and ponds, actually reached sales peaks after mechanical ice-makers began their ascent. In both cases, fans of the old technology likely wrote whimsical editorials about the tactile pleasures of old-fashioned methods.

Second, young people simply don’t have the same attachment to printed books. People who grew up reading printed books will naturally be reluctant to switch to e-books, particularly for serious reading. In college, I engaged with non-fiction books by writing in margins. When I wanted to refer back to an earlier page, I found it by flipping through the book, looking for a note I knew I had made in a certain corner of a certain page. As a result of this training, I learn best from printed books. But students today are learning to learn in entirely different ways. They take electronic notes, make electronic highlights, and are perfectly comfortable searching for a page instead of flipping to find it.

To be sure, there are functional benefits to traditional books, in addition to the ability to take margin notes. When a book sits on a shelf, I remember that it’s there, and I may pull it out for reference (say, once every five years). Other people will see the book, and perhaps be impressed. Furthermore, if there is a map or a cast of characters laid out in the beginning, and I need to flip back frequently (as with the great novel Wolf Hall), a printed book is superior to an e-book. These functional benefits will keep printed books in existence for a few extra years, even after superficial tactile pleasures have become passe.

Printed books may be here to stay as a collector’s item, much like records today. Ultimately, however, the benefits of e-books far outweigh those of traditional books. E-books are less expensive to publish, less expensive to buy, and easy to obtain in minutes from almost any location. An entire library can painlessly fit in your pocket or purse. And I love the sample function. Reading a sample gives me a much better sense of a book than I could get by flipping through pages at my local bookstore. If I’m not compelled to keep reading by the end of the sample, I’ve learned to abandon the book.

This presents a major societal challenge: right now, anyone can check out a book at the local library for free, and used books can be bought for a few dollars or even a quarter. A transition to e-books will make it harder for low-income people to find books to read. We will need to manage this problem, perhaps by creating inexpensive e-readers that libraries can rent out to patrons instead of physical books.

Is the “15-foot test” a good predictor of an innovation’s success?

Today, FastCompany wrote about the “secret yardstick driving innovation” at tech companies like AOL and Microsoft: the 15-foot test. It’s no longer enough to pack a gadget or web service with tons of features. Instead, companies are seeking to design products that look dramatically different from the competition, even from 15 feet away.  The prime example is AOL’s new email service, Alto.

The inbox of AOL's new email service, Alto

The inbox of AOL’s new email service, Alto

Alto certainly looks different from other email clients — it caught my eye immediately when I first spotted my husband using it. But I would argue that one feature of Alto’s design — the font — may actually hinder adoption. By using all caps, AOL violated one of the basic tenets of readability. (So do the headlines on this blog, but I’m limited by WordPress’s free templates.)

Alto’s features, on the other hand, are hugely appealing. I love the stacks, which separate daily deals, social network notifications, and commercial emails from the regular inbox. I’m particularly partial to the stack that includes all the attachments you’ve received, so you no longer have to search your inbox to find them. Over the holidays, I browsed through the attachment stack to find family photos.

AOL’s smartest move was creating an email client, rather than another new email service. It would have been tough to induce consumers to abandon their Gmail addresses, but Alto can be used to view Gmail, Yahoo, or AOL email accounts. This is a classic strategy when introducing a new innovation to the mass market. The majority of consumers, those that aren’t early adopters, don’t want to transition to something new. Dallas Kachan recently summarized this nicely: “[Most consumers] want evolution, not revolution. They want technology to enhance, not overthrow, established ways of doing business.” Alto does just that.