It’s that time of the year when the major tech companies try to flex their “innovation” muscles. Samsung tried kicking off the season early but it literally blew up in their face so they’re kicked to the curb for now. Let’s hope they get their shit together.

Google put its Fiber plans on hold and laid off more than half of its team in addition to firing off its CEO (he wrote a nice blogpost full of MBA jargon but call that Google’s exit interview). We are slated to get Fiber installed in our home very soon now but my enthusiasm is somewhat muted because you want to be assured that your utilities company is going to stick around. It’s not like your every other photo storage startup that abruptly shuts down and offers a zip file of your uploads.

Apple announced its ‘same old’ iPhone and ‘nearly same as before’ Macs minus the ports [1]. But they added a ‘Touch Bar’ that added a smidgeon of touch interface to their vaunted Mac lineup. Everyone else has skipped straight to making their screens touch-based but Apple has (rightfully, in my opinion) so far resisted. Keep the touch controls where your hands always are, I say. In fact, many of the touchpad controls are located on the Touch Bar. E.g. no longer using the trackpad to select a menu item when it’s right there on your contextual touch bar. Apple is more likely to replace its hardware keyboard with a touch interface with oodles of haptic feedback before it makes the screen with touch interface. So if you want a touch screen laptop, you’re better off jumping ship right now but empirical evidence suggests no one is in a hurry.

Microsoft, on the other hand, egged on by its new young CEO is upping the ante on innovation. It launched the admittedly cool looking Microsoft Studio, a virtual drawing board with a hinge. The video looks great and it definitely seems great to use. But…you knew a ‘but’ was coming…it suffers from the Google Glass problem. Everyone you know says they are definitely not going to buy coz it’s not for them but they definitely see the use for ‘creative professionals’. Yup, that’s what they said about Google Glass and turns out only dorks ended up buying it.

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  1. Removal of the ports always causes consternation but within a year no one even remembers their anger []

Making the Next Movie for the Internet Generation

An excellent initiative by Amazon to encourage budding filmmakers; something that Netflix, Hulu, or even YouTube should’ve been doing. I’ve stopped expecting traditional production studios in Hollywood to innovate. Perhaps we should simply kill Hollywood.

The 8 Best Innovation Ideas From Around the World

Some of the answers to our innovation challenge will come from within the U.S. We remain in many ways the most dynamic country in the world, with more top universities and multinational corporations than any other nation. But it's foolish to imagine that the best innovation ideas in the world already have a home in policies coming from Washington, D.C. Here is a world-wide tour of the best ideas that our government should import to jump-start innovation.

Several lessons for the U.S. to continue reigning atop the world but sadly no one in Washington is listening and the squabbles continue.

[Link to The 8 Best Innovation Ideas From Around the World]

Secrets of Innovation

China and India are likely to produce many rigorous analytical thinkers and knowledgeable technologists. But smart and educated people don’t always spawn innovation. America’s advantage, if it continues to have one, will be that it can produce people who are also more creative and imaginative, those who know how to stand at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. That is the formula for true innovation, as Steve Jobs’s career showed.

[Source: Steve Jobs’s Genius – NYTimes.com]

Walter Isaacson, biographer for Steve Jobs, ends his op-ed in the New York Times with this gem of wisdom that is often neglected by countries. India and China graduate millions of engineers every year but very few of them end up entrepreneurs and the United States is starting to make the same mistake to make up for tepid economic growth. Humanities and liberal art programs across universities in the U.S. are being defunded and eliminated because they are thought of as ‘useless’. Little do they understand that reading the classics, cultivating good writing skills or understanding basic statistics makes for a better engineer who is more likely to have better foresight and understand his consumers better. You can be a simple engineer and get by in life but to be a real creative genius like Steve Jobs or even Bill Gates, you’ve to possess a well-rounded education.

Stephen Fry on Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs « The New Adventures of Stephen Fry:

It was on a NeXt machine that the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote the protocols, procedures and languages that added up to the World Wide Web, http, HTML, browsers, hyperlinks … in other words the way forward for the internet, the most significant computer program ever written was done on a NeXt computer. That is a feather in Steve Jobs’s cap that is not often celebrated and indeed one that he himself signally failed to know about for some time.

After having written www, Berners-Lee noticed that there was a NeXt developers conference in Paris at which Steve Jobs would be present. Tim packed up his black cube, complete with the optical disk which contained arguably the most influential and important code ever written and took a train to Paris.

It was a large and popular conference and Tim was pretty much at the end of the line of black NeXt boxes. Each developer showed Steve Jobs their new word-processor, graphic programme and utility and he slowly walked along the line, like the judge at a flower show nodding his approval or frowning his distaste. Just before he reached Tim and the world wide web at the end of the row, an aide nudged Jobs and told him that they should go or he’d be in danger of missing his flight back to America. So Steve turned away and never saw the programme that Tim Berners-Lee had written which would change the world as completely as Gutenberg had in 1450. It was a meeting of the two most influential men of their time that never took place. Chatting to the newly knighted Sir Tim a few years ago he told me that he had still never actually met Steve Jobs.

(Via Shared by Roshni Mohapatra)

So very awesome anecdote and the far-reaching influence of his innovations that sometimes even he (Steve Jobs) wasn’t aware of.

iMac Touch from Apple?

iMac Touch Patent.jpg

Behold the allegedly new iMac Touch purported to be in works at Apple. The OS changes as you change the angle at which you operate the computer. But of course, this is just a patent application so no dates on production yet.

[Source: Patently Apple]

Wait till the fat lady sings

Consider the iPod. It debuted in the fall of 2001 as a Mac-only, FireWire-only $399 digital audio player with a tiny black-and-white display and 5 GB hard disk. The iTunes Store didn’t exist until April 2003. The Windows version of iTunes didn’t appear until October 2003—two years after the iPod debuted! Two years before it truly supported Windows! Think about that. If Apple released an iPod today that sold only as many units as the iPod sold in 2002, that product would be considered an enormous flop.

[Source: Macworld] In describing Apple’s style in innovating and developing consumer products, John Gruber highlights this fact of prematurely dismissing the success or lack thereof of any product. Of course, it doesn’t mean that any product launched by Apple will be a roaring success (pssst, Apple TV) but it might be worth it to wait a while before having a Nomad moment. Real-world consumers have this uncanny ability of making any pundit eat crow.

Will HP Slate move beyond the slick promo video?

Apple’s iPad launch and subsequent sale of 300,000 WiFi-only tablets spurred HP to tease us about a tablet of their own called the Slate. Shown in this slick 30-second promo, it does everything that the iPad doesn’t – take photos, video Skype chats, and USB and SD card dock. But HP provides no launch date or even price points. So simply this is a prototype promo video aimed at dangling the carrot in front of PC consumers. Microsoft purportedly also has a ‘secret’ tablet called the Courier which when I first saw also via promo video, I was highly impressed. Microsoft in fact has been promising us a tablet since 2001 and has yet to deliver. In fact when a real-world live prototype called the JooJoo (formerly known as the CrunchPad; what? No jokes?) created by a startup no less, is released for review to an industry blog, it doesn’t even live up to its early promises.

The process is becoming rather tiresome. Release a fancy promo promising the sky in order to compete with a product already in the market and then promptly disappear. Honestly for the sake of competition, I would love for HP and Microsoft to release great tablets so we the consumers have more choices that will in effect keep the prices competitive and avoid the need for closed systems that most tech pundits accuse Apple of. I vehemently disagree with Apple’s handling of the App Store but hey, they make sexy products and take ease of use and convenience to a new high. If other companies offer similar if not higher levels of satisfaction and user friendly technology while being all that open source wants us to be, consumers will not hesitate. But do not do one thing definitely – promise the sky and deliver rocks – like Nokia N97 did:

Update: Dave Winer, father of RSS, who didn’t exactly like the iPad has this on a post discussing reactions to his iPad review post:

While we’re at it, a lot of people seem to think you have to be either for or against something like the iPad. This is very wrong thinking. People should find out what they think by having experiences, and then reflect on them and try new things out, always feeling you have the right to change your mind.

Exactly. Which is what I was trying to convey in this post. Supremus and his wife used the iPad and found that it wasn’t for them and that’s fine. Perhaps if they have a need for a tablet, HP’s Slate or Microsoft’s Courier may interest them. If they ever release with their promises they make in the promo. That is the reason I called my iPad post a ‘first impressions’ and not a ‘cast in stone’ review. I’m already seeing some shortcomings which I hope Apple fixes in future iterations.

Unfulfiled Promises of Open Source Innovation

This was the weekend those of us with high standards lost their remaining residue of patience for ideologues who hyperbolize about open systems without actually creating something people want to use.

[Source: Personal Weblog of Joe Clark, Toronto] Quite a burn on the open source community. But the criticism is mostly accurate. I use WordPress for my blogging needs and cannot be more pleased with its ease of use and utility. If you are a WordPress.com user, you can use all of WP’s goodness without bothering about the tech geekery. At work, even using FTP brings looks of puzzlement and summons to an IT guy so you can imagine. So in that sense, Apple’s iPad dumbs it down to the average users who is not tech savvy can use the web, check email, and tweet from their couch. Those who think users are not as ‘dumb’ as we think then this ReadWriteWeb story on Facebook logins should be Evidence A (read the blockquoted paragraph in bold and initial comments on the post). This is not a knock on the people but instead on the technology that we consider dead-simple but in fact is still complex. When my parents were visiting last year, my dad opened Firefox and typed in his email ID in the Google search box to check his email. And then got ragged when I made a face.

I love open-source projects and products but none yet has come close to being convenient and easy to use. If any other company, open-source or not, makes a better tablet, I will love it. Because that’s what rational consumers in a free market do. Make choices that are optimal to them. And not just hold some open computing ideals in their mind when makign their purchasing decisions. We could wish they did but we cannot emotionally blackmail them into upholding our open-source values. After all, it all boils down to what people want and what they are willing to pay for. Fanboyism will only take a company so far; remember Apple almost went bankrupt in the 90s and only rebounded when they launched first their iMac and then the iPod that proved to be popular products for the general market.

Apologies for a flurry of posts on iPad-related stuff if it is not your thing but it extends beyond a new product into understanding consumer behavior, brand management, product promotion, marketing, supply chain efficiency, media manipulation, and oh yes, innovation.

Apple’s E-Book Reader coming Spring 2010

“At this stage Apple appears to be sizing its supply chain to support production of as many as 1M units per month.” Reiner noted that Apple would need several weeks to build up inventory for a launch, meaning we could see an Apple tablet around March or April. This agrees with previous rumors that suggested a launch in the first half of 2010.”

[Source: Analyst: Apple tablet launching in spring to crush Kindle] After plenty of rumor swirling, it is expected that Apple might be releasing a tablet version of its computers and pitching it as a e-book reader apparently to compete directly against the Kindle. Having used Apple products (MacBook Pro, iPod Touch, and the iPhone) now, I expect this latest offering from Apple to be leaps ahead of its competitors.

I’ve been putting off buying an e-book reader for months now in hopes that Apple comes up with something and thankfully, I will not be waiting too long now. But of course, given how Apple shafts early adopters of its products, it might be worth it to wait a while even after the tablet is first launched.

Update I: Apparently, Apple has reserved a stage at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco for several days in late January. Rumors are swirling that Apple might be ready to announce it’s tablet/e-book reader at this time. Also, people have unearthed that Apple owns the domain name, iSlate, which may be what they are calling the tablet. Let’s hope these rumors are true.

Update II: Apple announced its tablet computer, the iPad on January 27th, 2010 as an intermediary device between smartphones and laptops. The reviews for the iPad spanned a wide spectrum.

Where do most startup ideas fail?

Let me give you the essence of this post right away. Most startups ideas fail even before starting up. I have tried to identify the points where startup ideas fail. So far I have 3.

#1 : Holding onto the idea without action

I am one of those people who get a whole lot of ideas sitting on the toilet seat and I must confess that most of them are not that good. I am sure that there are many such people out there. But ideas alone are not enough. In my short stint as a struggling entrepreneur, I have realized that there are no unique idea. You only think that it’s unique. You will only be kidding yourself if you thought that you were the first person in this whole wide world to have thought about it first. A lot of people have good ideas but they don’t share them for the fear of someone else profiting from it. I think, having an idea is only 5% of the job done. You need to execute the idea and execute it well.

#2 : Go – No Go

Let me take back the last sentence for a moment. Even before execution comes the decision to execute the idea. According to me, Once you have decided to execute the idea, 50% of the job is done. The remaining 50% is execution. The reason I stress on the “go-no go” decision is because I strongly believe that it is at this stage where many ideas die.

#3 : Lack of skill

So now let’s say you have an idea and you also have the guts to execute it but many times, you just don’t have the right skill set to execute the entire idea. The first thought that comes to ones mind is to search for those skills within your friend circle. If you find that person in your friend circle then it’s great. There is nothing like working with a friend in a start-up. Most successful companies were started by friends – Microsoft, Google, Apple, Infosys and Baazee.com. There are chances that the friendship might suffer but that rarely holds back the enterpreneurs who have reached this far in the start-up process. But what does one do when you don’t find the required skill set within your friend circle. Earlier people would give out ads in newspapers saying “Associate required”. But then that requires money. Now there is a solution for that as well. I recently read about a service called Partnerup. Partnerup is a service that helps you find people how are willing to work on start up ideas. I like the whole concept but the service still “US-only”. Its only a matter of time that they go global. Businesspundit has a review of the service on its blog.

This post is not intended to be preachy but just an insight. I might have missed out on other points of failure. Please feel free to add them in the comments.

Talking Shuffle

It may be a tad creepy and scary that such a tiny thing can now be your voice. If you are the shy sort, then probably you should let your Shuffle do the talking for you. Perhaps it will make an offer even you can’t refuse.

Dropouts in R&D Lab

I always crib about India calling itself a technology superpower without being proactive for research and development. More backend business processes are done in Bangalore and Hyderabad than actual R&D although things are changing. Putting your nose to the research grindstone requires patience and belief in long-term gains. MIT has set up a fabrication laboratory at Pabal, Maharashtra that employs the least likely demographic to conduct basic research — school dropouts and underprivileged.

Far from India’s tech hubs — Pune at 80 km, is the closest — Pabal is home to one of six worldwide MIT Fab Labs, or fabrication laboratories that try to build ”everything from anything”. Manned today by school dropouts and underprivileged children, the Fab Lab is a collection of high-tech tools that can be used to fabricate instruments of any utility and configuration.

MIT first set up a small lab in 1992, at Pabal’s Vigyan Ashram — an organization that provides vocational and informal education to underprivileged and school dropouts. On March 18 this year, MIT upgraded it to a full-fledged Fab Lab at a cost of $200,000.

Manu Prakash, a research student at MIT’s Centre for Bits and Atoms, explained that Vigyan Ashram was chosen because it used ”innovative techniques” and underprivileged students in solving problems of the rural population. Prakash has been training the ashram students — the ashram has set up 23 internet kiosks across Pabal — using machines and software developed by his colleagues back in the US. ”The focus area of this laboratory will be agriculture instrumentation, sensors and tools using electronic and mechanical technology,” Prakash said.

The Fab Lab’s objective is to take tech to the masses of the developing world to solve local problems. So it comes with computer-controlled fabrication tools, open source computer-aided design and manufacturing software, associated electronic components and test equipment. [Source: Indian Express]

This FabLab has succeeded in not only encouraging basic manufacturing research that spurs innovation in the region but also employed and instilled confidence in the oft-neglected section of youth — the dropouts and underprivileged. The benefits of this lab have given an efficient and cost-effective alternative to the primarily rural population of the region. I bet the local people are more than supportive of this “foreign intrusion”. Benefits of this FabLab — “800 dropouts turned into entrepreneurs”, says Vigyan Ashram’s Yogesh Kulkarni. The best $200,000 MIT has spent, I say.

In order to spur innovation among children, MIT also is working on a $100 laptop, which it hopes will help give access to all children. Often access is the biggest hurdle to bridge the digital divide and this move by MIT, if successful will go a long way. If you wonder what how simplistic access can be made available to people in rural parts of India, you must check out this computer-enabled bus at Baramati, Maharashtra [Quicktime link].

Historical Tidbit: Pabal was gifted by Peshwa Bajirao I to his mistress, Mastani — soon to be featured on the silver screen by Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Volcano Stadium

Josh Rubin at Cool Hunting points us to Paris based designers Jean-Marie Massaud and Daniel Pouzet of Studio Massaud. Designers who have jumped in a bigger than “2001 Space Odyssey cinematic jump” from luxury products to stadium design. The designers recently won a competition for a stadium designed to look like a Mexican volcano. The cloud-like structure on the top is made of stretched fabric to protect the spectators from the elements. It will also serve as a projection screen for advertisements. WMMNA adds: “The rest of the stadium disappear into a hollowed-out hill — or a volcano. The duo also plans to hide the parking inside the volcano. This way, when there is no match, the outside of the stadium becomes a big grassy park where families can picnic and players can train.” In an interview for Interior Design, the designers had a gem of a statement to describe their underlying inspiration:

“These days, architects and engineers tend to feel you must be able to see how a building works. For us, it’s the opposite — it’s better if you can’t understand how everything holds together. That’s the magic.”

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