Apps & Misfits

Songkick is one of those killer iPhone apps that any music fan immediately falls in love with. It’s utility is simple and straightforward: it scans the iTunes library on your phone and tells you which of the artists in your library have shows upcoming near you. It even notifies you when a new show gets added to your geographic area.

Rdio is another killer music app. It’s a beautifully designed all-you-can-eat music service that puts just about everything worth listening to into your hands. It’s sort of like Spotify, except more elegantly executed. After subscribing to Rdio, the whole ritual of purchasing, syncing and moving files around on iTunes feels utterly silly. Rdio and its ilk are clearly the future. Rdio and Songkick. I’m in digital music heaven.

Except there’s one big problem: they can’t talk to each other. Now that my iTunes library has gone stale and my Rdio collection has come alive, Songkick has gone silent. It can’t tap Rdio on the shoulder and find out the latest music I’m into. Because Songkick and Rdio are iOS apps, they’re aggressively sandboxed.

There are probably a host of reasons to sandbox apps. I suppose you don’t want any single app of “polluting” the overall experience of using the device. I’m sure there are security reasons as well. Undoubtedly, iOS is the least messy of the mobile platforms because apps are so effectively policed. The crime rate on iOS is near zero as a result.

You know what else has a very low crime rate? Police states. States where creative and innovative ideas that question the political-operating system have difficulty flourishing or even seeing the light of day. Even if the leadership is draped in benevolent intent, the voices that want to innovate across and beyond the sandboxes are silenced.

The example I’ve shared here isn’t even revolutionary. It’s a basic bridge between sandboxes. For all we know, Rdio and Songkick may talk to one another and partner up one day. What should concern us more are the revolutionaries that want to play outside the rules. Yes, innovation can happen inside the sandbox. But real innovation transcends the rules. The tinkerers – the ones that hold the ideas that have exponential potential – can’t…tinker. They can’t dismantle, reconfigure, mix and match. They can’t play around.

There are 118 known chemical elements. 118 baseline ingredients that are manipulated, matched up and configured to solve everything from curing diseases to challenges around energy. Apps may be the hot space for innovation right now, but we should be wary. We’ve stepped away from the fertile soil of the web and towards beautifully paved and rigidly constrained environments. Cleanliness and safety are virtues, but we need that strange brew to play and invent as well.

This isn’t a plea for stereotypical rebellion. This is also good business. There will be no billion dollar app. There will be no Facebook or Google on ITunes or Android Market alone. Limit mobility and you limit potential.

At first, I struggled with how to end this post. Eventually, that famous “Think Different” Apple ad began ringing in my head. Try to ignore the irony and just embrace it’s brilliance at face value:

Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. – Apple Inc.

The New Readability: Betting On The Web

After months of work, we’ve finally let loose the new Readability. Jenna Wortham has a great write-up around the launch that nicely summarizes the trends around technology and the reading experience.

We’re really excited about the new Readability. It’s a massive leap from the 150 or so lines of javascript that snuck out of the Arc90 lab almost two years ago. The response back then, both by the development community (Readability is baked into Apple’s Safari browser and the Amazon Kindle, among other places) and users in general really blew us away.

About six months ago, we were sitting around wondering what to do with this thing. We could’ve just left it alone and moved on, but the sentiment surrounding the tool and reading in general was so powerful that it just didn’t feel right to just move on. And so, we gathered to brainstorm what to do next with it. We tossed around features and various ideas around how to make the “product” better. Amidst the brainstorming banter, partner and Arc90 lead strategist Tim Meaney went ahead and dropped the proverbial bomb on the conversation. His pitch was essentially this: let people pay and give the money to the writers and publishers. The features are great, but let’s use this as an opportunity to wrap a great reading experience around the web we all know and love. No apps. No walls. No micropayments. No hardware requirements. Build it on the web and let’s put forward a mechanism that connects the money readers give us with the people who create all that great content that flows through the web every day.

I’ll be the first to admit that this approach hasn’t been without its fair share of anxiety and heated discussion. There’s not a whole lot of precedent to lean on for comfort. We’re putting out a service that asks people to pay money on the web (challenge #1), that asks people to pay more if they can afford to for the same suite of features (challenge #2) and we’re effectively providing a service that, in its current incarnation, presents no new or exclusive content of any sort (challenge #3).  There are probably other challenges, but there are also a lot of reasons to head in a new direction.

We believe the time is right to try something bold and innovative on the web. And “on the web” is what this service is all about. Our goal is to create a platform that embraces the web without compromising it. It’s rare that you find an opportunity to create something that embraces the openness, the fragmentation, the mayhem of the web. We believe Readability has that chance.

We also believe that quality content is worth paying for. The rat race for page views and impressions has not only led to an oftentimes painful experience on the web, but also to a diminishing of quality content on the web. Today’s reality isn’t anyone’s fault but ours. We won’t hesitate to spend $4.00 for our daily cup of coffee (that’s $80.00 a month if it’s part of your daily routine) but we’ll balk at even a modest attempt at supporting the volumes of content we consume on the web. Readability represents an opportunity to show all the great publications, writers and bloggers out there that we care about quality and we’re willing to pay for it.

We’ve got some amazing plans and announcements lined up for Readability. Be sure to follow @readability on Twitter to stay in the loop. If you have thoughts or feedback on the service, don’t hesitate to contact us.

The Automated Web & Us

Isn’t technology great? It lets us do all these magical things that we couldn’t do five, ten, fifteen years ago. It not only brings convenience but new possibilities into our lives. How else would we connect with our friend from high school who now lives 3,000 miles away? How else could I actually see the person I’m talking to on the phone? Technology represent new experiences that we didn’t have yesterday.

Continue reading

Innovation’s Collateral Damage

Innovation kills. When we talk about innovation (and a lot of people are talking about it these days) we mainly focus on what it creates. When something new and innovative is embraced, new behaviors and patterns replace old ones. Often, we lose something when the old ways of doing things go away.

Let’s take an example: the digital camera. The idea of taking film to your local pharmacy and waiting a few days for photos to develop seems silly today. On your typical $100 camera (or phone for that matter), you can take hundreds of photos and enjoy them instantly. In minutes, people around the world can enjoy them as well. Many smartphone apps bake in Twitter, Facebook or Flickr integration.

We undoubtedly gained some amazing new capabilities which lead to new possibilities, but we also lost some things:

  • The moment. Rather than being somewhere and enjoying an experience, we feel compelled to stop experiencing that moment to document it. We’re so motivated to share beyond the current company, we forget the moment itself as we momentarily depart. When others witness this, it’s disorienting. It’s as if you momentarily disappeared and returned soon after.
  • The need for judgment. A $15 smart card can hold hundreds, possibly even thousands of photos. There is no need to weigh and consider whether that next photo is worth taking. We just snap away. The real work comes later as we glare at photos that all look alike. All that abundance steers us to lazily snap away without much care or concern. Scarcity motivates and sometimes inspires. 
  • Anticipation. At the tail end of my teenage years, it was still necessary to go develop film. It usually took 2-3 days until the 24-hour development shops kicked in. By wedging some time between the experience itself and getting the pictures, the photos became so much more satisfying. It was a new moment to enjoy and talk around. Today, we’ll take a photo, pause real life, stare at that LCD and edit on the spot, then move on. There is no distance. It’s a gimmicky pausing of the live experience.
  • Exclusivity. Growing up, my aunt amassed a bigger collection of photos of my own family than we ever had. She loved sharing them with us but warned us never to take any for ourselves. They were hers. She cherished the time we’d spend sifting through them together and she didn’t want to lose that. Today, we share with everybody everywhere. Nobody is special enough to afford exclusivity. Everyone is special, which means no one is special. By “publishing” we forego the intimacy that can come from sharing something with someone else.

This all may sound a bit quaint and nostalgic. It isn’t meant to be. I’m a designer and technologist myself. I love the possibilities of technology. Still, I think we will seek out what we lose in other ways. We still want to look forward to things. We still want to make others feel special when we share something with them. Hopefully, we’ll continue to think about the human context as we innovate, and be wary of what’s lost as much as what’s gained.

Negotiation And Speculation: The Risk Of Selling Low

Happy Cog’s Greg Hoy posted a must-read post that covers a profoundly important topic for consultancies: how to avoid the apocalyptic scenario of not charging enough. Or as Greg coyly phrases it: “What’s your budget?” If you sell your time and services to anyone you don’t want to miss it. Greg shares some great tips.

As a partner at a consulting firm myself, I’d add one more thought: the cost of your time is speculative. Yes, your competitors and your prior work will steer the conversation towards a particular range, but don’t be fooled, those factors are hardly reliable.

Near the end of his post, Greg finally gets to the dance that inevitably ensues:

The prospect says, “We’re accustomed to firms charging $75/hour”. That’s fine. I’m accustomed to my martinis slightly dirty. Just because you’re accustomed to something doesn’t make it a rule. Explain why your services cost what they do. Explain what truly differentiates you from your competition.

Let’s translate:

“You’re not that beautiful.”

“What? Of course I am. Look at me.”

“I mean…you’re moderately attractive, but not beautiful.”

“Well I don’t agree. I think you’re wrong. Look! Look at my eyes! My lips!”

“Yeh. I don’t know.”

That prospective client isn’t negotiating pricing. He’s telling you, in a not-so-roundabout way, that you aren’t worth what you think you’re worth. It’s a perception tug-of-war.

So what to do?

Here’s what you do: move everything else around except what you believe you’re really worth. Maybe they get less. Maybe they don’t get your senior people. Maybe it’s six components instead of nine. All those variables can change except your worth. That can’t change. It’s an undeniable fact beyond subjectivity and beyond the reality-bending rhetoric of your client-to-be. You are worth what you are worth and unless you’re feeling charitable something else has to give.

Now, I realize competition can get heated and this may be the marquee client you’ve been dying to work with. If that’s the case just understand that perception hasn’t just been shifted for pricing but for who you are, what you deliver and most importantly, what you are worth. In a sort of automatic process, perception leads to real, objective valuation. You may sell low now, but know that the market is listening and pricing accordingly.

I Want a New iPod Nano and I Feel Stupid About It: A Frivolous Meditation on iPods and Immortality

Youth is to all the glad reason of life; but often only by what it hopes, not by what it attains, or what it escapes.

- Thomas Carlyle

I want a new iPod Nano.

I saw an ad for it. I’m not really sure where. It might’ve just been a billboard or a bus stop or something. Soon after, I decided I wanted one.

I don’t need one. Not only do I not need one, I can’t even put together a case for how I would even make use of one. I already own an iPhone 4 with tons of memory. My entire music collection is already in my pocket. The iPhone 4 is a far better experience for listening to music.

So why do I want one?

I wanted one because it’s new. Amazon lists it precisely as:

Apple iPod nano 16 GB Graphite (6th Generation) NEWEST MODEL

Generations of iPod nanos have lived before this one. They’ve all died before this generation. They paved the way. This sixth generation will die soon as well, probably in about a year.

I want this new nano because it represents something beyond storage size and sound quality. iPods flattened out in terms of core features years ago. It would be nothing more than a burden for me.

So why do I want one?

I want one because it’s newness represents new life. We are willing to spend money on useless, frivolous objects because they represent immortality and renewal. They represent youth and freshness. They are our own feeble attempts to defy time and find new hope and possibility.

In a warped sense we’re all grandparents, clamoring for our sons and daughters to get on with it and get us some grandkids already. As we face the inevitable march of time, we crave these opportunities for renewal.

iPods. Cars. TV’s. They all tap into our basic primal desire to live forever. We don’t want a rugged, upgradeable iPod. We want the illusion of starting over.

Talking About Reading at the Web 2.0 Expo

If you’re in New York City at the Web 2.0 Expo and you’ve got twenty minutes to spare this Thursday the 30th, then join us for a brief talk on the reading experience and the Web. I’ll be joined by Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper and former tech lead at Tumblr.

Since time is short, we’ll share some thoughts for a few minutes then open it up to questions. We’ll also probably hang around to chat afterwards. If you’re at the conference, try to stop by.

Lab Experiments, The Web & Death: Our SXSW Proposals

There are two SXSW talks that I’d like you to vote for, not because I’m asking you to but because they will be awesome.

Content, the Web and Death

The first is a panel called The Content Economy and the Web’s Rumored Demise. I’m joined by an amazing group of people: Jeff MacIntyre, content strategist and freelance journalist, and principal of Predicate LLC, the infinitely entertaining Paul Ford, contributing editor to Harper’s and consultant for Predicate (and the man behind Ftrain), Marco Arment, creator of Instapaper and finally TED alum Jennifer 8 Lee, former journalist for the New York Times.

We’re going to talk about content, reading, and the presumed death of the Web. If this talk makes it through, I think it could be one of the better panels at SXSW, and I’m not just saying that because I’m involved.

SXSW Talk = Laboratory Experiment

The other proposed talk is a bit out of left field. We’re going to use one of the presentation slots at SXSW to debut our next Arc90 Lab experiment. It should be interesting (or catastrophic, depending on how things go). The talk is entitled: Toss the Projector: Redefining the Presenter/Audience Dynamic. We’re going to build a service that attempts upend the way presenters and the audience interact. You can get a sense of what we’re going after by reading this blog post on the Arc90 blog. Also, don’t miss Tim Meaney’s post on attention for a great background.

So if you can find it in your heart, please take a minute to vote:

</endOfShamelessSXSWPanelPitch>

Incredibly Good Non-Technology Related Deliciousness: Sam’s Bakery is Open for Business!

Disclaimer: I am woefully and helplessly biased in the following endorsement:

I’m a big fan of the Family Owned Business. I’d personally jump on any chance to experience the distillation of years of experience, knowledge and just that indefinable family-ness of a business. You can manufacture history, nostalgia and authenticity or it can be real.

And it doesn’t get any more real than Sam’s Bakery. The Cafe at Sam’s Bakery is located in Brooklyn, New York. Sam is my mom, short for Samia and…how do I say this subtly:

SHE MAKES THE MOST INSANE BAKLAVA YOU WILL EVER TASTE.

low_angle_sheet_large I’m no food critic, but you really have to experience it to fully appreciate why Sam’s baklava is so special. It isn’t soppy or doused in honey. It’s a subtle, rose water-infused flavor that plays between flaky, crunchy and moist. It’s an old family recipe that is under 24 hour lockdown in my mama’s mind.

If you care about eating awesome things, go order some. As a special promotion to my loyal baklava-loving readers, enter coupon code BASEMENTBAKLAVA to get 30% off any order. There’s other tasty stuff on there as well. It makes for a great gift too. We’re talking marriage-saving gift here folks.

To all the Brooklynites (which seems to be just about everyone I meet these days), I highly recommend visiting the cafe in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It has amazing wood roasted coffee from  Millar’s Coffee, shipped all the way from Washington state, a communal table for making friends and of course, free organic wifi.

If you order some or visit, I’d love to hear your feedback. In fact, you can email my mom directly. She’d love to hear your feedback too. Just be warned, she’ll email you back…every day…forever.

The New Clutter

There’s a new kind of clutter littering Web pages. It’s not just the obnoxious “Refinance your mortgage” ads plastered atop and alongside articles. It’s also not just the animated nonsense that floats by as you’re trying to read.

It’s the article itself.

In the never-ending quest to get page views, the choices writers and editors are making to attract eyeballs and drive traffic are creating a new breed of low-brow, gimmicky disposable content.  At its best it adds little insight and at its worst amounts to a slimy bait-and-switch (catchy headline, nothing to say in the article).

It’s the new clutter. The article itself has devolved into a flashing, animated pile of fluff. The casualty of the rat race towards ad impressions isn’t just crappy layout and thoughtless art direction. It’s awful and useless content. The formula is pretty straightforward: catchy headline, hot topic of the day, add a dash of controversy, stir into a gooey mixture and bake for ten minutes. Even better: take a jab at someone who’s on top: Apple, Facebook, etc. People love to shoot Goliath (or at least shoot in his general direction).

So where’s the good writing on the Web? It’s everywhere else. The interesting new perspectives and provocative thinking isn’t coming from Gizmodo and Silicon Alley. It’s the blogger I’ve never heard of that is blowing me out of my chair these days. They’re not writing with a hidden agenda. They’re not following a Gawker Media Formula For Success (internal guidelines that must exist).

This type of clutter only goes away if business models change and the mechanisms for determining success change along with them. There are too many good writers producing clutter on the Web today.