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How many keys are there on a keyboard?

Longtime readers of this blog might have noticed my interest in computer keyboards. Most people today just use the keyboard that comes on their laptop, or the virtual one on their tablet. The basic layout of the keyboard dates back over a hundred years to early typewriters, but the more modern layout of the keyboard dates back to 1986 and the emergence of the IBM Enhanced Keyboard for the Personal Computer, which debuted the 101-key layout which has become the standard full-size keyboard layout to this day. Microsoft bumped the layout to 104 keys with the addition of Windows keys and a Menu key a bit later, but the layout is essentially the same. This is a rule-of-thumb, as no two keyboards are exactly the same. The number of keys on a full size keyboard varies, some having media keys, etc. The layout, more or less, is the following:

Full-Size Keyboard Layout
Full-Size 104-Key Keyboard Layout

It’s worth pointing out that the 101/104 layout is the standard layout in the US, called ANSI (American National Standards Institute), while in Europe there is slightly different 102/105 key layout called ISO (International Organization for Standardization). The ISO layout has an extra key (to the right of the left-side Shift key), but also changes some of the layout, using an L-shaped Enter key instead of the  straight ANSI Enter key (as above), as well as changing the function of the right-side Alt key (called Alt Graph) to allow for simpler access to more characters (i.e. Left-Alt and a key will produce one character, while Right-Alt and the same key will produce another character). This simplifies the generation of accented characters that are not generally used in the US.

Key Blocks

In the above diagram I’ve broken down the layout into four blocks – Basic, Function Key, Navigation and Number Pad. When all four blocks are present, you have a standard full-size keyboard. Remove the Number Pad block on the right side, and you have an 87/88 key layout (87 in ANSI, 88 in ISO). Keyboard enthusiasts refer to this as Tenkeyless (TKL). Why Tenkeyless? I have no idea. There are actually 17 keys in a standard number pad. I suppose there are ten number keys in a number pad. In any case, most physical keyboards conform to either the 87/88 or 104/105 layout. Laptops of course, throw out most of these standards in an effort to fit the keys they need into a much more constricted space. Usually a laptop will include the Basic Block, the Function Block (although with smaller keys), and jam the 4 arrow keys of the Navigation Block somewhere into the keyboard (for example, by shrinking the spacebar, removing a control key from the right, and sticking small arrow keys in the bottom right corner). We’ll get back to that in a minute.

Gaming Keyboards

While most keyboards not bundled by computer manufacturers are still probably produced by big companies like Microsoft and Logitech, there are many keyboard companies that try to reach smaller niche markets. One very large niche market is the gaming market, where keyboards that allow gamers to more easily press many buttons at once, allow programming the keyboard to optimize it for specific games, and where they can pimp out their keyboard with backlighting and special keys to look cool when competing. The largest company to target this particular market niche is California-based Razer, which was valued at $1 Billion in a recent investment round led by Intel. Razor has expanded from its original pointer devices and keyboards to produce gaming laptops, wearables, and other consumer electronics devices.

Big companies like Logitech manufacture keyboards targeting gamers, but there are also many smaller companies that sell primary to the gamer market. Besides Razer, other companies include Cooler MasterCorsairRoccatSteelSeries, and Tt eSports.

Programmer Keyboards

The next large keyboard niche is computer programmers. Programmers, by dint of the amount of time they spend in front of a keyboard, have more requirements in general than the average user, and are also more willing to use more technical solutions to keyboard problems. These technical solutions can include keyboard layers, where the user can switch the entire layout of the keyboard on the fly, chording, where users use combinations of key presses to output what they want instead of using single key presses, and programmable keys and macros. The first keyboard I’m aware of that targeted programmers was the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB), which was introduced by a division of Fujitsu in 1996. The HHKB reduced the key count to just 60 keys, leaving just the Base Block from the above diagram, and overlaying the Function Block and the Navigation Block onto existing keys, using a special function key to access those keys (and printing the function-enabled key labels on the front of the keycap in addition to its standard label on the top – see below).

Happy Hacking Keyboard Professional2 Type-S
Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) Professional2

Another milestone keyboard targeting programmers was the Das Keyboard, introduced by open source software company Metadot Corporation in 2005. The original Das Keyboard introduced, or at least popularized, keyboards with blank keys. The idea for the keyboard was conceived by the CEO of Metadot, who realized that looking at the keyboard when typing was a crutch, and slowed down one’s typing. The idea is that by using blank keys, one could force themselves to touch-type and increase your typing speed dramatically. Other keyboards that target programmers include the CODE Keyboard, the Humble Hacker Keyboard, and the upcoming Ultimate Hacking Keyboard.

The Overlap

While gamers and programmers have different needs, there is a lot of overlap between the specs for gaming and programming keyboards. For example, programmability is very common for both types of keyboards, although for slightly different reasons. Gamers need to optimize the keys for specific games and create macros for common key-combos. Programmers optimize for the languages they use, and for their particular coding style. Gamers tend toward larger keyboards with lots of buttons that insure they can control all aspects of the game they are playing, while many programmers actually use smaller keyboards to keep their range of movement to a minimum. Both groups of keyboards tend towards using mechanical switches such as Cherry MX switches (and their many clones such as Gaote, Greetech and Kaihl), and in some cases there is overlap where keyboards are used both for programming and for gaming. On the other hand, it’s unlikely you’ll find a gamer using a small keyboard with blank keys. What is a ‘small’ keyboard?

75% Keyboards

As mentioned, there are keyboards referred to as Full-Size (101/102/104/105 keys) and there are keyboards called Tenkeyless (87/88) where the number pad is dropped. What if you drop the navigation block as well (sometimes arrow keys are kept)? Then you get just the Base Block and the Function Key Block. This is a configuration frequently used in laptop keyboards. Here’s an example of the keyboard layout on an Apple MacBook Pro:

MacBook Pro Keyboard Layout
MacBook Pro Keyboard Layout

Note that the function keys are smaller than the other keys, and that the arrow keys have been squeezed into the bottom right corner (by removing some of the right-side modifier keys and keeping the arrow keys small. This is a 75% Layout, where there are roughly 75% of the keys found on a full-size keyboard. This kind of layout is unusual for a separate keyboard, but it does exist. Some examples of non-laptop 75% keyboards are the Matias Mini TactilePro, the Keycool 84, the KBC Race II which was developed by the KBtalking keyboard community in Taiwan and manufactured by Vortex, and the BL82 keyboard manufactured by TG3 Electronics.

60% Keyboards

If we keep going, what happens if we drop the Function Key Block as well, so it’s just the Base Block? We have roughly 60% of the keys of a Full-Size layout, and thus a 60% Layout (which usually has somewhere between 60-66 keys). Some keyboards that use a 60% Layout also figure out ways to cram in arrow keys. Some versions of the Happy Hacking Keyboard (HHKB) for example, squeeze in arrow keys in the bottom right corner, even while dropping the whole top row of function keys. What happens if you need the function keys you ask? or even the arrow keys if they’re not there? Most of the keys that are removed in the 60% keyboard are mapped to other keys, and accessible by holding down a modifier key. Thus, F1 through F12 are usually mapped to the number row (F1 to 1, F2 to 2, etc.). 60% Keyboards are popular in keyboard enthusiast groups, as a kind of minimalist keyboard. They are also popular with some programmers who prefer the minimal design which reduces the distance they hands must move to reach the entire keyboard, and the distance to reach an external pointing device such as a mouse (on a full-size keyboard, for example, reaching over the navigation block and the number pad block to get to a mouse is far).

Below is the Happy Hacking Keyboard Lite 2 layout (a variation on the original layout shown above in the photo, which adds four arrow keys). It shows which characters are accessed via a function key in red:

Happy Hacker Keyboard Lite 2 Key Layout
Happy Hacker Keyboard Lite 2 Key Layout

You can buy 60% keyboards such as the Ducky Mini, the Filco Minila, the Happy Hacking Keyboard, and the Leopold FC660M. There are also community-designed company-manfactured 60% keyboards, such as the Vortex (the company) KBC (the community) Pok3r II (soon to be the Pok3r III) and the KB Paradise V60 Mini. In addition, there are several 60% keyboards available in kit form for those who are willing to assemble them by themselves. Some of these kits are community-designed, such as the GH60 and the Massdrop Infiniti, and some are individually designed, such as the Atomic and the Lepton.

40% Keyboards

While many consider the 60% to be minimalist in design, there are some people designing even smaller keyboards that drop the entire number row and other keys, forcing the use of a modifier key to access numbers and other keys that are dropped from the keyboard. There are no commercially produced 40% keyboards that I’m aware of, although there are some community and individual-designed keyboards available. Some kits are available, such as the Planck (the 40% sibling of the 60% Atomic above), the Terminus Mini, the Atreus, and the SmallFry (aka the JD40).

At first glance, you might think it’s crazy to get rid of the numbers and require one to hold down a modifier key to type a number. However, if you think about it, we already use a modified – the Shift Key – to reach all the characters currently mapped to the number keys, which are !, @, #, $, %, ^, &, *, ( and ). Why is that different to use a second modifier key to reach the numbers from existing letter keys? One problem that emerges is the keycaps. If you’re using blank keycaps, I guess you’re fine. Otherwise, how are you going to get keycaps that show you the modifier-layout that you require to access the keys you lost? Those Shift-modified characters (above) also need a place on the keyboard, either on the same keys you move the numbers to (add the Shift) or somewhere else, but either way, you need to know where they are. Are you going to put three characters on a single keycap (i.e. Q, 1 and !)? Besides being difficult to source such keycaps, they would most likely be expensive. In all the builds I’ve seen of these keyboards, they either use blank keycaps, or they just use the letters and leave out the numbers. The numbers are of course easy enough to guess (there are 10 letters across the top), so I guess that works in a way, but if you rely on printed keycaps, figuring out the location of other characters can’t be easy. This is something that a commercial 40% keyboard might be able to fix, although for the moment, these seem to be strictly hobbyist-made.

Can there be a 20%?

If you follow the above trend, you might wonder if there could be a 20% keyboard. Strictly speaking, sure. You’d need to do a lot of chording (pressing multiple keys at once to get the correct character). In general, if a keyboard has 20% of the keys of a full-size keyboard, you’re talking about a one-handed keyboard. They exist, to be sure, but they are niche products. One one-handed keyboard I always liked was the FrogPad, created by Linda Marroquin, based on the design of a Japanese translator who wanted to be able to hold a page in one hand and type using the other hand. If you take a close look at the layout of the FrogPad, it has 20 keys and they have up to seven different characters or functions related to them.

Right-Handed FrogPad
Right-Handed FrogPad

Take a look at the top right key. If you press it by itself, it’s P (top side, upper left in white). If you hold down the Space (which has a green square on it) it’s J (top side, bottom left in green). If you hold down the Shift key, it’s a semi-colon (top side, upper right in white). If you hold down the Space and the Shift, it’s a number sign (top side, lower right in green). It can also be Page Up (front left in orange), minus (front right in white), and Number Lock (left side in yellow) depending on what other keys you press.

A later iteration of the keyboard added another 11 keys, which included function keys and others, although I’m not sure that ever made it to market. It seems there are lawsuits involved as Marroquin had licensed the design to a third-party company, and that third party took money for pre-orders that were never delivered. Marroquin now seems to be trying to rejuvenate the product.

One enthusiast-developed 20% keyboard is called the OneHand, designed by Deskauthority forum user PJE. It has just 18 keys, and similar uses chording to achieve the full number of characters and functions needed.

One other thing about the FrogPad which is worth pointing out is that the layout is not staggered. In keyboard design it’s called ortho-linear, or matrix layout. In other words, the keys are in a grid, not staggered like most keyboards. It’s not unique to the FrogPad. Indeed the Maltron and Kinesis Advantage ergonomic keyboard have been using matrix layouts for years (see all three in my earlier article Why haven’t there been any keyboard innovations in decades?), as well as the ErgoDox, Keyboardio, and King’s Assembly keyboards (all mentioned in my earlier article A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence…).

Conclusion

I suspect most people don’t think much about any of the above when buying a keyboard. In fact, most people don’t buy keyboards at all anymore. That said, for those interested in a higher quality keyboard than what is available on their notebook or tablet, want a specialized keyboard for gaming or other niche pursuits, or need a more ergonomic keyboard, these issues are important. Perhaps next time you look at a keyboard, you’ll understand what keys it has, and what was left out – and why.

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Teaching Computer Science (in Saudi Arabia)

Recently I came across two computer programming products, whose creators have mentioned they’re being used in the high school curricula of Saudi Arabia. The reasons I was looking at the these two products were not connected, so I thought it an interesting coincidence that I came across similar stories twice in about a week.

The first product was a learning program called PythonTurtle, created by Israeli developer Ram Rachum.

PythonTurtle
PythonTurtle

Python, for those who don’t know, is a popular computer programming language. Turtle is a reference to the ‘turtle’ used in the Logo programming language, which is an icon or point that shows the current position of the cursor on the screen when drawing using Logo. Logo is an early computer language developed specifically as an educational tool for teaching programming (and one of the test schools where it was used was my elementary school in Brookline, MA). The goal of PythonTurtle was to create a learning environment similar to Logo, but using the modern (and more useful) programming language Python.

Ram Rachum developed PythonTurtle six years ago and released it as open-source software. Last year he started noticing a large number of traffic to his site from Saudi Arabia, although he didn’t know why. He also noticed that the traffic peaked in January – both in 2014 and 2015. A few weeks ago he received an answer to his question, when a teacher from Saudi Arabia explained that PythonTurtle has been integrated into the high-school curricula of Saudi Arabia, and is being using in thousands of schools by hundreds of thousands of students.

The second product I came across was AppStudio by NS Basic.

appstudio
AppStudio

AppStudio is a commercial development environment that can use either the BASIC or Javascript programming languages to develop application for Android and iOS smartphones. I came across it in a promotional link. I was looking for something else, but glanced at a list of discounted apps and noticed AppStudio. Curious about it, I took a look at the web site, and noticed several posts about Saudi Arabia – two press releases from December and an article published on the web site edSurge from February – titled How We Taught Computer Science to 225,000 Students in Saudi Arabia.

From the article, it appears that in the case of AppStudio, they were contacted directly by the Saudi Ministry of Education. The company sent at least one person to Saudi Arabia to train teachers and help develop the curriculum. Over the period of five months, from January to May 2014, a 150-page programming curriculum was developed, and thousands of teachers were trained. One line gave me pause in the article:

“The simple, top down organization of the Ministry means they have the ability to quickly accomplish what would take years in western school systems.”

Top-down is one way to describe Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the top-down nature is what also allowed the Israeli-developed program PythonTurtle to be used in its curricula, when Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel and doesn’t allow anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport to visit the country (let alone someone with an Israeli passport). It seems clear Ram Rachum was not invited to train teachers on the use of PythonTurtle, but at least it’s being used, right?

The article also explains that there are two semesters of computer programming in the Saudi curriculum, both in tenth grade, the first covering basic programming skills, and the second covering mobile development. It would seem likely that PythonTurtle is being used in the first semester and AppStudio is being used in the second semester.

I think it’s great that Saudi Arabia is integrating computer programming into its nationwide curricula. More countries and school systems should be doing similar things. I would suggest that schools look to integrate it earlier than tenth grade though, as it might not make as great of an impression at that point. I learned to program Logo in third grade, because my public elementary school took part in an experimental program to teach programming to children from MIT. I think third grade is probably a good time to start learning programming. Not just because I learned it then, but because my oldest child is currently in second grade, and I can see her being ready to learn programming next year. At the very least, however, I think children should learn to program while still in elementary school (primary school for those who use that term).

Not everyone will be a computer programmer (nor should they be) but early recognition of those who have natural skills for programming would be useful in encouraging those children to take more advanced courses in high school and beyond. Computer programming is an important skill in a whole slew of fields beyond high-tech, from science and mathematics, to finance and engineering. Even for those student who never program anything again, it teaches important skills like logic and analytical thinking.

Congratulations to Saudi Arabia for having the foresight to teach computer programming to all of its students. I hope Saudi Arabia will be tracking the influence of this new policy and publishing analysis of this new program, so other countries and school systems can learn from their experience.

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From bibles to web sites, the century-long trek of one font

I appreciate a good font, and I certainly appreciate good typography. Reading badly laid out books can be painful (although my threshold is much higher than my friends who are typographers by trade). The over-use of Comic Sans or Papyrus fonts is not something that just bothers me.

Part of the first page of the Doves Press edition of the Bible
Part of the first page of the Doves Press edition of the Bible

Recently I read about the resurrection of a font last used over a century ago. The story is quite incredible. Two men founded a publishing company, one bringing the creative side (Thomas Cobden-Sanderson) and the other the money (Emery Walker). The company, Doves Press, created a new font (new, although based on a font from the 15th century) to be used in their publications, which included an edition of the Bible, as well as books by well-known authors such as John Milton, whose Paradise Lost published by Doves is nothing less than a masterpiece of bindery, before even getting to the contents.

paradiselost
Paradise Lost, published by Doves Press (The Met)

Trouble Begins

When the publishing company ran into financial trouble, the partners fought over the single remaining asset of the company – the typeface. Today we think of fonts as digital files on a computer. We don’t think about how much time goes into designing them, especially since anyone who wants to can open up a computer program and create their own font. Not so with fonts a century ago. Fonts such as that used at Doves Press took years of planning and production time to create. A single font consisted of thousands of pounds of metal characters on small plates used to form the words that were printed.

The Doves Press typeface was owned by both partners equally, but that created a big problem. One partner wanted to sell the typeface (Walker), the other wanted to prevent it from being used in a mechanical press (Cobden-Sanderson). Instead, they came to a different agreement. Cobden-Sanderson would retain full control of the font during his lifetime, and after he died Walker would gain complete control of it. While that sounds reasonable, it wasn’t enough for Cobden-Sanderson that his font would never be mechanized in his lifetime. He decided to, frankly, screw his business partner out of his end of the deal. Over a period of years, he carried small amounts of the type to the Thames River and dumped them into the water. After hundreds of such trips, he managed to dispose of the entire typeface, leaving nothing for his partner upon his death.  Nothing, that is, except the story.

The Legend and The Resurrection

The story became legend, and after a century, one designer, Robert Green, decided to try to resurrect the lost typeface. Starting with copies of books published by Doves Press, reading the journals left behind by Cobden-Sanderson, and using research done by others on the topic, Green attempted to piece together a full copy of the typeface, as well as find the location of the lost original. Figuring out where Cobden-Sanderson likely dropped the metal pieces into the river, he actually was able to find three pieces of the typeface himself on the water’s edge. After that discovery, he was able to get professional divers to search for the rest, where over 150 pieces were discovered. The rest are likely encased in concrete, as the bridge the typeface was thrown over was bombed multiple times by the IRA, as far back as 1939 and as recently as 2000, and the bridge had to be repaired each time.

The pieces recovered from the river do not constitute the full range of characters from the typeface, but they do help provide more information about the typeface, and that information has been used by Green to enhance his digital version (he calls it a ‘digital facsimile’) of the font, named The Doves Type, which is available for sale online.

Digital Embedding License?

Looking at the new font online, I noticed something interesting about the pricing. The font is sold for £40 for a single user, £50 for 2-5 users (it’s reasonable that someone working on a book would need a license for more than one person), and the third option is £40 for 10,000 page views per month on a web site. All of that seemed fairly standard to me, although I’m not an expert on fonts and I always thought it was a bit strange to price fonts for online use based on page views. What I found really interesting was that they ask to be contacted directly if you want a larger online license or a ‘digital embedding license’. The examples given for the digital embedding license are apps and eBooks.

dovestype-contactus

Think about that for a second. For £40 I can install the font on my computer and print a million books using it, but if I want to issue an eBook of the exact same book, with the same layout, etc. I need to negotiate some kind of separate license. How does that make sense? Is it because the font is embedded in the document and thus has the potential to be extracted and used without permission? What kind of extra payment would cover that exactly? Font licensing has always seemed a bit arcane to me, but this seems particularly bizarre.

What would Cobden-Sanderson think now?

There is a certain amount of irony that Cobden-Sanderson went to such extreme measures to prevent his typeface from being used in the mechanical presses of the day, only to have it resurrected today in such a way that anyone in the world can use it. There’s no doubt that Robert Green has a tremendous amount of respect for the typeface and its creator, yet he is still responsible for releasing the font into the wild in a way Cobden-Sanderson would never have imagined possible (and probably would have been horrified by). John Milton once said that innocence once lost can never be regained. Cobden-Sanderson’s typeface is out now, and to use more colloquial terminology, that genie can never be put back in the bottle.

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Time for some Pi

The Raspberry Pi is a single-board credit-card-sized computer introduced in 2012. The computer was designed for use in teaching computer science to a new generation whose cell phones and modern computers had reduced the number of children who knew how computers actually worked. Used in education as well as by hobbyists, the Raspberry Pi has been incredibly successful and has sold over four million units. New versions of the Raspberry Pi are designed by the non-profit Raspberry Pi Foundation, and then built by multiple partner manufacturers.

The Raspberry Pi 2 Model B
The Raspberry Pi 2 Model B

This week the Raspberry Pi Foundation announced the availability of their second-generation board, the Raspberry Pi 2 Model B. It’s not the second board (there has been the Model A, Model A+, Model B, and Model B+ before, as well as the Pi Compute Module for embedded applications), but rather it is the first board since introduction to use a new processor, the Broadcom BCM2836. The new processor is roughly six times as fast as the previous processor, going from a single-core ARM11 to a quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor, as well doubling the RAM to 1GB (shared with the GPU). Despite those changes, the board remains backwards-compatible with previous Raspberry Pi software, the hardware is pin-compatible with the previous Model B+ board, and the cost is still $35.

The significance of this new generation of Raspberry Pi can be illustrated by the fact that Microsoft has announced that they will be giving away copies of Windows 10 that run on the Raspberry Pi 2 to anyone who signs up to it’s Internet of Things developer program. Think about that for a second – a $35 computer running Windows (ok, strictly speaking that’s not true – you still need a power supply, keyboard, mouse, and monitor).

Perhaps the most important change, besides the extra power, is that the new chip moves from the older ARMv6 instruction set to the newer ARMv7 set. That change will allow a lot of software the previously could not run on the Raspberry Pi to now be ported. This includes other operating systems, such as the previous mentioned Windows 10, and Snappy Ubuntu Core, a version of the popular Linux distribution Ubuntu geared for devices (and the cloud). Other operating systems that already supported the older Raspberry Pi are also being updated for the new chip, such as Raspbian (a version of Debian Linux for the Raspberry Pi), and the media-focused OpenELEC and OSMC.

In addition to introducing the new product, the Raspberry Pi Foundation has made another change recently – they’ve hired their first US employee. In January they added Matt Richardson, based in San Francisco, to their staff as an evangelist. While it’s certain that a large chunk of the 4 million plus boards sold already were sold to people in the US, as the goal of Raspberry Pi is to encourage computer science education among children, Richardson will no doubt be pushing to get the Raspberry Pi used in schools across the country, like they are in the UK where the Raspberry Pi originated.

While there are other small single-board computers out there (such as the BeagleBone Black), one of the great things about the Raspberry Pi is the large number of makers and other enthusiasts that have created products that supplement the Raspberry Pi. Take, for example, that there are over 150 Kickstarter campaigns that are related to the Raspberry Pi. One of my favorite campaigns was the Kano computer, a kit that allows you to assemble a computer using a Raspberry Pi Model B as its core, adding WiFi support, a speaker, a plastic case, and a wireless keyboard. Beside the hardware additions, the Kano also comes with its own operating system which is geared towards teaching children how to program, and a community for sharing software projects and code.

The Kano Computer Kit
The Kano Computer Kit

I got to play with a Kano at a tech event in Tel Aviv last year, a bit before the launch last fall. While it was tempting to pre-order one to teach my oldest child to code, she was 6 at the time, so I figured it was worth waiting a bit. My plan is to try teaching her next year when she’s 8, and by then I imagine the Kano kit will be upgraded to include the new Pi 2 board.

It’s great to see innovation and success with products like the Raspberry Pi, that create opportunities for computer education that are available to anyone. It’s great to see a computer available for $35 that has more power than most computers I used in my lifetime. I hope the Raspberry Pi, and the ecosystem built around it, continues to be successful and grow.

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Privacy in the age of technology

The recent kerfuffle over Uber and Lyft employees being able to track the locations that individual customers get picked up and dropped off at reminded me of an incident back when I worked at WebTV Networks in 1996.

Uber, Lyft & WebTV Logos

WebTV, for those who don’t remember, was a set-top box that allowed users to surf the web and send e-mail using a wireless keyboard and their television. It was truly a revolutionary device, and it was put together by some of the smartest people in Silicon Valley. It launched with devices manufactured by Sony and Philips, with the service run by WebTV. This was the early days of the Internet – the first mainstream browser Netscape was only introduced in late 1994, and Internet Explorer about a year earlier in 1995. These were dial-up days, when most people were not yet on the Internet, and those that were mostly accessed it via their telephone lines (at university were were able to access it via AppleTalk). The WebTV box had a modem inside and would dial-up to the WebTV Networks service, which was an ISP.

Dial-up ISP Business Model

The business model of dial-up ISPs was interesting in that they did not have the ability to allow all of their customers to connect at once, since that would be cost-prohibitive. Having a modem for every customer would be crazy. Most people spent less than 20 minutes online at a time. Surf a few web sites, send a few e-mails, that was it. ISPs would bank, literally, on this fact, and only have enough modems available to handle the average number of users, not the total number of users. It was possible during peak moments that you’d get a busy signal. In order to lower the possibility of this, WebTV’s box would automatically disconnect users if they were idle for more than 20 minutes. That’s an important point (the 20 minutes part) to what we discovered in the early days of the service.

The Launch of WebTV

WebTV launched their service on September 18, 1996. In the first couple of weeks there were only about 200 users who had gone to their local electronics store, bought the box, and signed up for the service. Keep in mind Amazon was only selling books back then, so people had to actually hear about WebTV through traditional advertising and go to a physical store to buy it.

WebTV had a developer whose job was, at least partly, to generate statistics on usage patterns. This was critical to WebTV at a time when many websites didn’t work on both Netscape and IE, let alone on the WebTV browser. Figuring out which sites were the most popular, and which types of sites people were most likely to visit, focused the QA team to check sites and report problems to the software team to improve the browser so more sites would look good on the WebTV browser.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

In those early weeks I happened to be visiting the developer working on stats and we were reviewing the basic stats like how long the average user stayed online, how long the shortest and longest sessions were, which where the most popular websites, which sites failed the most, what technologies sites used, etc. One of the stats was a list of users ranked by the amount of time they had been online that day. The top few users were always expected to be WebTV developers themselves of course. At the time WebTV kept a two-bedroom apartment down the block from the offices and had the keys hanging from the wall in the office in case a developer didn’t want to drive all the way home to sleep, but would rather crash in the apartment and return in a few hours. Developers literally were working 24 hours a day in the office, and parking spaces needed to be painted to reflect the 24-hour nature of them as we were in downtown Palo Alto, and people would try to park in the company lot at night as it was next to a city lot.

What surprised us as we looked at the stats that day was that there were several actual paying customers in the top rankings who were staying online in excess of 15 hours a day. Keep in mind that the WebTV box would automatically log you off if you were idle for 20 minutes. These users were actively using the WebTV box for 15 hours a day. From an dial-up ISP point of view, these were the users you lose a lot of money on. In a business built on averages, these users were way at the right side of the bell curve. Just like the fact that the Internet itself was new then, so were the emerging concepts of privacy in this new emerging world. It was difficult to see that out of 200 users there were a few that were using the box for 15 hours, and not wonder what the heck they were doing. There were no restrictions on accessing the logs, so we took a look.

15. Hours. A. Day. Straight.

Have you guessed yet what those users were doing? They were, of course, surfing porn websites. For. 15. Hours. A. Day. Straight. We didn’t know the users’ names, nor would we have cared to look them up, but the potential for abuse once we realized what we had discovered was very clear. If I remember correctly, I contacted the late Phil Goldman (one of the founders of WebTV), and suggested we put together privacy policies and make sure user data could only be accessed in aggregate. The idea that individual user logs could be accessed and what could be found was horrifying. A privacy council was established, and of course there were active discussions as to what restrictions should be put in place. The divide was largely between the sales/marketing folk who understood the potential for targeted advertising, and the developers who were mostly against any invasion of an individual’s privacy.

It was agreed that individual logs should not be accessible by anyone, and only aggregate data should be used. This means we could know that the sites people spent the most time on were porn web sites, but not know who were the people doing the surfing on those sites.

Family Friendly?

From the other side, interestingly enough, there were efforts by organizations like Penthouse who understood what the Internet meant to their business, to offer content through WebTV. There were many more people with TVs than computers at that time, so it was a simple numbers game. That too was a debate within the company as to whether there should be a way to offer enhanced content for companies like Penthouse, or whether the company should remain strictly family-friendly. In the end, those decisions were taken out of the company’s hands when they were bought not long after by Microsoft, and re-branded as MSN TV. The service itself would be operated until just last year, when it was shut down on September 30, 2013, almost exactly 17 years after it launched.

Irony?

I owed my job at WebTV to porn surfing as well (bear with me). I had met a VP at WebTV while in an internship at @Home Network, the cable industry joint-venture to provide Internet via cable lines instead of television (something that had just become legal a few month earlier), and had inquired about working at the recently-out-of-stealth WebTV. There wasn’t an opening at the time I had asked, but a couple of weeks later I received a call to come in for an interview. I remember signing an NDA in the reception area, being walked around the company during the interview, and really liking what the company was doing. It wasn’t until after I had started there that I found out the reason a job had opened up was that the worker whose spot I had taken was fired for surfing porn all day at work. He was in QA, but apparently they were not checking porn sites in QA at the time (or ever as far as I know). There’s some irony there somewhere, considering I discovered that the users who used WebTV the most were also surfing porn sites.

Developers vs. Sales and Marketing

Looking at the internal debates over access to personal data, I wonder how almost twenty years later these same debates have played out in tech companies up until today. Presumably these discussions didn’t happen, or at least were not taken seriously, at companies like Uber and Lyft. Perhaps it has to do with company culture, and who runs the companies. WebTV was a company founded and dominated by developers. That’s not to say it didn’t have strong sales and marketing teams, it did, but the culture was created by developers, not by sales people.

One wonders when a company culture can produce ads like Uber’s Avon campaign, which allowed users to order a ride from a hot female driver (but only up to 20 minutes – perhaps the most damning fact), what kind of concern they have for personal privacy. Perhaps that’s too far a stretch to make, but I do think that company culture has a lot to do with how these issues are dealt with when they arise. At WebTV we were horrified at the possible abuses of access to personal data and worked quickly to make that impossible. At some companies does access to this data look like an opportunity instead?

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ETA A07-211 Movement
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What if Apple made watch movements instead of watches?

I’ve written what features I think future all-in-one wearables will have, took a second look at that on the eve of the Apple Watch launch, and had some questions about what Apple left out of their presentation after they launched. All things considered, if you look at what features I think need to be in a smart watch, and what Apple delivered, there are some gaps. Most important to me are the following:

  • Battery life needs to last longer.
  • Battery charging needs to be simpler.
  • Real water resistance would be nice.
  • More health sensors are needed to replace the need for a separate fitness band.
  • There are definitely improvements possible in the looks department.

Let’s take a look at these in turn:

Battery Life

Until the watch launches early next year we won’t know for sure, but it seems clear the battery life of the Apple Watch is not particularly good. Apple reps have mentioned charging overnight, meaning the battery likely doesn’t last more than 24 hours (and possibly not even that long). Considering fitness bands generally last a week or more, and that some people want to monitor their sleep patterns, this is particularly annoying.

Weloop Tommy
Weloop Tommy

Not that one can compare these watches directly, but just days after the Apple announcement a new smart watch out of China launched called the Weloop Tommy. It doesn’t have a color screen, nor even a touchscreen. It doesn’t have a heart rate monitor. It doesn’t have the metal case of the Apple Watch. It does, however, last up to 3 weeks on a charge. It can operate up to 50m (that’s 164ft) under water. It can control the music and camera on your iPhone (or Android phone). It can track your steps and sync to fitness apps on your phone. The kicker – it costs $75 including shipping anywhere in the world. It’s probably more of a problem for Pebble than for Apple, but still – water-proof and three weeks of battery life is a good deal at this price. I wish Apple had been able to squeeze out some more juice.

Charging the Battery

Apple’s magnetic charging dongle is cute, but also quite annoying considering you need to remove your watch to charge it. Maybe there’s no getting around removing one’s watch to charge it, but coupled with having to do it every day, this is annoying. Lots of rumors swirled around what Apple was going to do with alternative charging methods, from solar to kinetic to wireless, etc. It’s a shame that none of those came to fruition.

Water Resistance

Plenty of watches are not water-resistant, but Apple is actually pitching one of the three models of their watch as a Sports model and yet you can’t go swimming with it? or take a shower after playing a round of tennis? Apple didn’t add water resistance to their iPhone this round either, when both Samsung and Sony offer that with their flagship phones, but this is a watch, and I think a watch should be water resistant, especially one that focuses on fitness and health – which brings us to the next issue…

Health Sensors

Apple has hired a slew of health and medical experts over the past few years gearing up for the launch of wearable devices. Apple has developed a framework, HealthKit, to act as a single hub for sharing health data. Apple can use this expertise to develop new ways to analyze and present health data to users and their doctors. In order to do that, however, they need to have sensors in their wearable device that can collect that data. Right now they can track movement and heart-rate. Since the wearable is supposed to be charged at night, there’s no way for it to be used as a sleep tracker. Other sensors that people guessed at include body temperature, blood oxygen, and glucose sensors. Glucose might not yet be possible in a consumer device, but certainly temperature (useful for detecting fevers, but also useful for fertility tracking) seems within Apple’s reach. It’s possible that the Battery Life is again the culprit here, forcing Apple to cut back on the number of sensors due to their effect on battery life.

Appearance

The Apple Watch looks nice, but if one compares how it looks to the watches made by the companies Apple SVP Marketing Phil Schiller follows on Twitter, such as Patek Phillipe and Panerai, it doesn’t really compare. Jean-Claude Biver, who heads LVMH’s watch division (which includes the brands Tag Heuer and Hublot among others), says about the Apple Watch that it “has no sex appeal. It’s too feminine and looks too much like the smartwatches already on the market.” Just to make sure he wasn’t misunderstood, he added “To be totally honest, it looks like it was designed by a student in their first trimester.” For some more from Biver, check out this Forbes interview.

Patek 5140 Watch
Patek 5140 Watch, Front and Back

Sure, he’s a competitor (of sorts). He has an agenda in making those statements. That doesn’t mean, however, that everything he says is wrong. Compared to a Patek Philippe or a Panerai, the appearance of the Apple Watch is boring. Compared to a Tag Heuer or Hublot, there is no question the Apple Watch is more feminine. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but when appealing to an early-adopter group that is undoubtedly skewed male, it does have an effect.

Watch Movements

Which brings us to the topic of this article. What if Apple didn’t manufacture their watches? Rather, what if they didn’t exclusively manufacturer their own watches. Let’s not get distracted by the ancient Mac Clone experience that Apple went through, those were desktop computers. In the world of watches, it’s very common for a watch manufacturer to use a movement (the core of the watch) that was manufactured by a separate company. Swatch Group owns the largest watch movement manufacturer, ETA SA, which has existed in some form since 1793.

Certainly some watch companies design and manufacture their own movements. That gives them a competitive advantage, especially in the world of ‘complications’ which unlike the negative connotation usually associated with the word, are advanced features that become increasingly difficult to add as the number of complications increases. Complications in watches are anything beyond standard seconds, minutes and hours, and can include day, date, month, moon phrase, perpetual calendar, chronograph, alarm, etc.

ETA A07-211 Movement
Front and Back of ETA A07-211 Movement

What if Apple decided to design the core movement, but allow other watch manufacturers to manufacture the actual watches? This would have several advantages:

  • The cheapest Apple Watch is slated to cost $399. If Apple sold their movement for $399 to other companies, they would actually get a larger margin on the movement (since they would not need to include the watch body, strap, battery, etc. Even at that cost, there’s plenty of margin for a high-end watch manufacturer to design a a profitable watch. Of course, larger companies would get cheaper costs in volume, so it’s possible to get the cost of Apple-core watches down to the same prices as Apple Watches themselves.
  • If another watch company made the watch bigger to accommodate a bigger battery or extra sensors, that doesn’t reflect badly on Apple, but still allows Apple to have watches using its technology with more sensors and longer battery life.
  • Most watch companies don’t want to be technology companies. Watch companies know design. They know how to make watches rugged and water-resistant. Plenty of watch companies would be happy to outsource the tech to Apple.
  • Even if the Apple Watch has more design variations than any smart watch that came before it, it can’t compare to the variety of watch designs that come out of traditional watch companies.

There are certainly some disadvantages to this approach for Apple:

  • While Apple gets more of a markup at the lower-end, it probably loses out on the high-end watches which probably brought in a higher profit-margin.
  • Apple loses total design control, not something Apple really has ever done. This is probably the biggest obstacle.
  • While a bad review of an Apple-core watch should probably reflect more on the watch manufacturer than Apple, Apple will still get some of the blame when bad reviews inevitably come in for some partner watches.

One of the biggest problems is actually how to integrate the touchscreen. If Apple includes the crystal with their integrated touchscreen technology, that will limit the designs possible by watch manufacturers. If Apple doesn’t integrate their screens, then there could be all kinds of integration issues. If Apple does include their screen it will make it harder for the watch companies to waterproof and ruggedize the devices, another important issue.

This is really just a thought experiment. Letting other companies make watches with an Apple movement could solve all the initial problems I mentioned above, but it’s not likely to happen in a world where Apple has total control over their designs. I would hope Apple would realize watches are a totally different type of device than they’re used to manufacturing, but I suspect that won’t move Apple much in the direction of partnering with watch companies.

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What was not said about the Apple Watch

Apple Watches

So the keynote just ended. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus were about as expected. Other than the obvious screen resolution and battery differences, it seems the only functional difference between the two is Optical Stabilization for photography in the 6 Plus. Apple Pay is a great solution for payments that Apple has already gotten many large retailers on board for, something it seems they are uniquely capable of doing. I don’t remember other companies getting that kind of traction from the stay with a new payment method. The real announcement of the event was, however, the Apple Watch.

Some things about the watch which are interesting:

  • The Digital Crown is a great user interface coup for Apple. Being able to navigate through some features without ones fingers blocking the screen is important for such a small screen.
  • There is some intelligence in the messaging app that allows it to suggest answers to texts which is really interesting if it works. i.e. if You receive a text asking ‘Do you want to get Sushi or Burgers for lunch?’ it should be able to suggest Sushi and Burgers as quick-response options.
  • Apple is clearly leading in physical options for their watch. They offer two screen sizes (38mm and 42mm), three materials in two finishes each (Stainless Steel, Space Black Stainless Steel, Aluminum, Space Grey Aluminum, 18K Yellow Gold, and 18K Rose Gold), and numerous watch bands. Pebble’s Steel bracelet, or Samsung’s recent offering of a Swarovski crystal band for their Gear S smart watch, seem amateur in comparison.

Apple Watch Finishes

  • Apple did not offer a round screen. I didn’t really expect they would, as it is a very inefficient use of screen real estate, even if it does look good. There are plenty of traditional watches that are rectangular, not round.
  • The watch seems to have a fairly sophisticated heart rate sensor on the back on the watch, and very good integration with their Health app, and through that all HealthKit-connected apps.
  • The reliance on other sensors in a connected iPhone, and the requirement to have an iPhone, are disappointing.

The presentation does leave some gaping holes it the description of the watch and its capabilities. Here are a few, in no particular order:

  • Will the watch support connecting to Bluetooth devices such as headphones?
  • How does the watch connect to the iPhone? WiFi? Bluetooth?
  • The Maps app was heavily shown in the presentation, but does the watch need to get GPS from the iPhone?
  • Unlike some competitors, the watch band connection is non-standard. Will Apple be allowing third-party manufacturers to make watch bands?
  • Apple showed the watch being used to make a payment with Apple Pay at an NFC terminal. When paying with an iPhone the user needs to authenticate using TouchID. How does the user authenticate on the watch? HeartID? or is the watch nearby the phone, both which are registered with Apple, considered a form of authentication?
  • How long is the battery life? If the watch needs to be charged with a magnetic dongle stuck to the back of the watch, how long does that take? I guess you’re not tracking your health, or sleep, while that is going on…
  • Is the watch water-resistant? Enough to take it into the shower? To go swimming?
  • Which sports can be tracked using the new Fitness app?

Overall, there are some very impressive things about the watch, and a few disappointing things. We don’t know everything yet, as the watch won’t be out for several months, but it seems a few downsides are clear:

  • You will need an iPhone to use the watch. Presumably to use GPS features like maps, and also for Apple Pay.
  • There are not many health sensors in the watch, or at least they were not discussed. Angel doesn’t need to close up shop before their launch.
  • Charging the watch is going to be an issue. They haven’t said how long the battery lasts, but it seems if you want this to replace a fitness band that can track your sleep, it probably won’t be able to do that while it charges.

That doesn’t mean they won’t sell a gazillion of these things (or that I won’t be one of the people buying one), but it does mean that there are definitely niches available to other companies, and definitely room for other companies to innovate. Wearables that track fitness and sleep and whose batteries last a week have a place. Wearables with multiple sensors like Angel have a place. Certainly companies that can solve the charging problem will have a strong differentiator.

The game, it seems, is still afoot.

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Asus ZenWatch and Sony SmartWatch 3
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On the brink of an Apple wearable

Moto 360 and LG G Watch R
Moto 360 and LG G Watch R

Back in April I wrote a post titled One Wearable to Rule Them All? Not likely. predicting where I thought the wearable market was heading. My basic idea was that there are essentially three types of wearables – the all-in-one, the single-purpose, and the multi-position.

The all-in-one is where the smart watch category is headed. These wearables will look like watches, have sensors to track many different health issues (steps, motion, heart rate, temperature, blood oxygen, etc.), and be able to assist in authentication and commerce. This is in addition to an array of information-realted apps, and an optional link to your smart phone.

The single-purpose is best represented by fitness bands that track health data or bands like the nymi that can be used for security applications. These bands are almost always worn on the wrist, and are focused on a single application. These wearables can be wholly replaced by an all-in-one wearable.

The multi-position is a variation on the single-purpose, is usually focused on health, but can be worn in several positions, such as your wrist, your ankle, etc. and be used for many sports such as running, biking, swimming, etc. The best example of this is the Moov, although wearables like the Sony Core and the Fitbit Force are moving in a similar direction. These wearables can’t be easily replaced by a wrist-worn wearable such as a smart watch, although some aspects of what they might be done better by an all-in-one.

In April the first Android Wear watches had already been announced, but had not all shipped yet. The flagship of the early announcement was clearly the Moto 360, Motorola’s round-screen smart watch. That only shipped in the past week or so, and immediately sold out online. Selling out sounds great, but I suspect it is more about constrained manufacturing than success in selling their wearable.

In the intervening months other Android Wear watches have been announced, several in the past couple of weeks in the lead-up to Apple’s presumed announcement of their entry to the wearable space (in just a couple of hours as I write this).

Asus ZenWatch and Sony SmartWatch 3
Asus ZenWatch and Sony SmartWatch 3

Sony released the SmartWatch 3, now based on Android Wear. Samsung seems to have rushed the announcement of their Gear S watch, which has a curved screen and health functions, but has no release date in the US any time soon. Asus announced their ZenWatch which has one of the most refined looks of any of the Android Wear watches. Perhaps the most interesting is the LG G Watch R, which competes directly with the Moto 360 as a round-faced watch. The LG G Watch R is a major improvement on LG’s earlier announced G Watch from April, with the round face, metal bezel, water resistance, health tracking, etc.

Interestingly, the G Watch R is the first Android Wear watch to have a completely round face, as the Moto 360 has a small portion of the bottom of the round face that has no screen. Motorola has argued that in order to have a fully round face, you need to add a bezel around the edge. LG indeed did need a bezel, but turned lemons into lemonade and made the bezel similar to those on metal sports watches, giving it a traditional look that no other smart watch currently matches.

Google has been hard at work trying to add features to Android Wear, the operating system all of these watches are based on (except the Samsung Gear S, which runs Tizen). Future releases of the OS will support connecting to other Bluetooth devices such as headphones, support GPS (although I don’t think any current hardware has a GPS chip), and will amusingly support easier-to-build watch faces. Even so, there are some gaping holes across the Android Wear ecosystem such as a unified health tracking system and commerce/authentication features.

The Elephant in the Room

The_Elephant_in_the_Room_Banksy-Barely_legal-2006
Elephant in the Room, from the Banksy Barely Legal art exhibit in 2006

Apple of course is strongly suspected to be launching its entry into the wearable space, and even when leaks surround the next iPhone have been more numerous than for any Apple product I can remember, there has been almost nothing leaked concerning Apple’s wearable, generally called the iWatch, but for which even the name remains unknown.

It is suspected, however, that Apple will tick off almost all, if not all, of the features I predicted back in April in their wearable. In particular, it is expected that the Apple wearable will support commerce applications, and will introduce NFC-support in order to do so. Apple already announce their HealthKit framework for supporting health sensors and applications, and it is expected that the Apple device will contain many sensors to drive HealthKit applications. It goes without saying that Apple has taken on the issue of the user wanting the wear their device, and if LG currently holds the title for most refined-looking smart watch briefly, that is likely to be lost quite soon.

So here is us, at the raggedy edge, waiting for Apple to announce their entry. If they support gps, payments, health and authentication, will all current smart watches be immediately obsolete? Perhaps not, but the elephant in the room will be stepping on a lot of current contenders for the smart watch throne.

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Uber Search on Product Hunt
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Uber meets Pretty Woman

Robert Altman’s The Player, a 1992 crime drama that at the same time skewers Hollywood as an industry (the main character is a Hollywood producer), famously opens with a long shot listening to several people talking, including screenwriters pitching their movie to the main character, played by Tim Robbins. After trying to describe their film, one pair of screenwriters finally summarize it as “Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman”. This type of summary, called a high-concept pitch, is a short easily-understood summary, usually based on a comparison to something well-known.

Some people credit Barry Diller (later CEO of Paramount, Fox, and IAC/InterActiveCorp) and Michael Eisner (later CEO of Disney) with coming up with the high-concept pitch, when they both worked at ABC in the 1960s, and needed a way to draw attention to their programs from the brief descriptions allowed in TV Guide. This carries over not only to the description of movie or TV show, but the very concept – i.e. that the movie or show’s concept be simple and easy to summarize quickly. The high-concept pitch is the sound-bite of the entertainment world.

Ash Maurya in his Running Lean book, suggests using the high-concept pitch to distill one’s company down to a similar sound-bite. This high-concept pitch isn’t supposed to be used to market one’s company, but rather to help explain the idea quickly to potential customers when doing customer interviews during the build-measure-learn process that is central to Lean Startup.

Using the high-concept pitch in the tech world is not limited to Lean Startup, but is actually rather widespread, especially in the tech media. It is perhaps a crutch for a tech reporter to describe one company in reference to another existing company. In the early 1990s, after there release of Pretty Woman, there were probably hundreds if not thousands of pitches by screenwriters to Hollywood producers that compared their movies to Pretty Woman. In a similar vein, whatever is popular in the tech world right now is likely to be the basis of comparison when new startups and products are pitched. In light of the recent sale of WhatsApp to Facebook for $19B, and the even more recent investment of $1.2B into Uber (at a $17B valuation), it is not surprising that these companies are ones that people reference when trying to pitch their companies.

Two sites that utilize the high-concept pitch are AngelList and Product Hunt. AngelList is a site that connects startups with investors, people with jobs starts, and more. When creating a profile of a startup, companies fill in a high-concept pitch so people perusing the site know quickly what the company is about. Product Hunt, which lists “the best new products, every day”, is essentially a list of products with a high-concept pitch next to each product.

In the days and weeks following the purchase of WhatsApp, it was common for other messaging companies to compare themselves to WhatsApp, explaining how they were similar (we should have a higher valuation) and how they were different (why we won’t get put out of business by the Facebook-WhatsApp behemoth). Some messaging companies continue to pitch themselves as “WhatsApp for…” and there’s a very good reason to do so – this high-concept pitch, like the pitches used in Hollywood, make a quick association (I liked that movie and understand it – I use WhatsApp and so do all my friends) and let the company ride the success of WhatsApp to help make their offering better understood.

Where these pitches really begin to inundate us is when a company succeeds with a completely new business model. Even today, 15 years after Priceline launched, one still sees pitches for companies in relation to Priceline (Priceline for Movies, Priceline for Landlords). That’s because Priceline’s Name Your Own Price model was novel, and has so many applications.

Today, popular sites like Uber and Tinder have become popular by similarly succeeding with new business models.

Uber is disrupting the transportation industry by allowing passengers to directly order cars to pick them up, and allowing anyone with the right car to become a driver, eliminating the need for human dispatchers, taxi medallions, and a whole slew of bureaucracy. This has been extended to deliveries with UberRUSH (I have a cousin who is a biker for them) and will not doubt continue into many other transportation niches over time.

Tinder took a not-so-new idea, of voting on pictures of people (think Hot-or-Not, or Facebook predecessor FaceMash), turned it into a two-way voting engine, or double opt-in, to make sure that both people showed interest in the other before connecting them. That simple twist vaulted Tinder to what is generally considered now to be a multi-billion dollar valuation. Double Opt-in, as a model, has found many other uses besides dating apps, however.

Here are recent searches for Uber and Tinder on the previously-mentioned Product Hunt:

Uber Search on Product Hunt
Uber Search on Product Hunt
Tinder Search on Product Hunt
Tinder Search on Product Hunt

Take into consideration that the idea of a high-concept pitch is that the idea is immediately understandable to the person hearing it, and that comparing to existing products (whether movies or startups) is fairly standard, and these pitches make perfect sense. Uber for Security. Uber for Cannabis Delivery. Uber for Long Commutes. Uber for Alcohol. Uber for Wellness & Medical Therapy. Uber for Laundry and Dry Cleaning. Uber for Families (I had to look this one up, it’s basically uber for children with drivers that go through more background checks than Uber). Uber for Trucking. Uber for dog walking. Uber for fun gifts. Tinder for Jobs. Snapchat meets Tinder meets Vine (going for the hat trick). Tinder for professionals nearby. Another Tinder for Jobs. Lulu meets Tinder. Tinder for Professional Networking. Tinder for Dresses (how do the dresses rate you?). Tinder for business networking. Tinder for older adults. Tinder for travel. Tinder for job hunting.

While I was writing this post, Product Hunt actually sent me an e-mail with the following inside, illustrating the same point:

Airbnb for X e-mail from Product Hunt
Airbnb for X e-mail from Product Hunt

Uber currently has a valuation of $18 Billion. Airbnb has a valuation of $10 Billion. Tinder’s valuation is not known, but was rumored to be $5 Billion recently (although likely less, it’s certainly in the Billions). If you’re going to compare your company to an existing company, comparing it to companies that have become Billion dollar companies in just a few years is probably the way to go. It’s not that the potential market sizes for these companies come near to the companies they are comparing themselves to, but the companies are well known, known to be successful, and everyone who knows them will understand what you’re doing quickly – the quintessential point of a high-concept pitch. Uber meets Pretty Woman.

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Keyboardio Model o1
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The rise of hardware startups – thank you crowdfunding

I’ve worked in both hardware and software companies over the years, and both are interesting and challenging, but there there is something special about making something you can hold in your hand, and that people will see on store shelves (even if virtual). One of the amazing things that crowdfunding sites have enabled is hardware products to come out faster and from smaller companies than was possible in the past.

I should add that almost all great hardware companies have great software behind them. Certainly with any electronic product, there is software controlling it. Sure, not all hardware needs software – my friend’s Grape Ninja product which became the OXO Tomato & Grape Cutter – doesn’t need software to operate. It did benefit from crowdfunding as part its marketing campaign, however, before moving to OXO.

I’ve touched on this, particularly in Crowdfunding hardware and Sous Vide cooking, and earlier in discussing A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence…, and I think this trend towards individuals and small teams coming out with more innovative hardware faster is only going to accelerate as more and more successful products come to market.

In A few interesting keyboards, nearly in existence… I mentioned Keyboardio, a company started by an inventor who just wanted a better keyboard. At the time the inventor had just joined an incubator focused on hardware products. The fact that such an incubator exists is, I believe, also due to the ability of these companies to raised funds through crowdfunding. Betting on many small teams to be able to make it to large-scale manufacturing before crowdfunding was an option, would have been a much bigger bet for an incubator.

In that earlier post, the prototype for Keyboardio’s keyboard looked like this:

Keyboard.io
Keyboardio Model 00 (Blog)

The incubator that Keyboardio joined, Highway1, recently held a demo day for its companies where after several months in the incubator a new version of the keyboard was shown:

Keyboardio Model o1
Keyboardio Model o1 (Blog)

Besides the aluminum construction, the keyboard is split and adjustable. In perhaps an homage to the earlier prototypes, the wrist rests are still made from real wood. The keyboard is hackable – it is Arduino-compatible and comes with a screwdriver so you can open it up and modify the hardware. Interesting in the Keyboardio keyboard? If so, sign up on their web site to get updates. I expect a crowdfunding campaign soon.

Signe Brewster at GigaOM did a nice write-up of Highway1’s recent demo day, highlighting each of the hardware startups that presented along with Keyboardio. Other products included a camera you can stick to a wall to allow easier and better selfies and group photos (I can’t call them groupies, I’m sorry), electronic textiles, connected sports bras, robotic kits, and connected blocks. As a foodie (perhaps you figured that out from my crowdfunding post that focused on Sous Vide cooking devices), the most interesting after Keyboardio to me was the PalateHome Precision Grill which cooks your food algorithmically, based on type of food and how well (as in well done, not as in a measurement of quality) you want it cooked. Sous Vide might make perfectly-cooked meat, but it takes a long time and something is definitely lost when direct contact with the heat is removed from the process. I’ll be keeping an eye on PalateHome, although I’m not sure it will be available outside the US anytime soon.

In the old days, you couldn’t start a hardware company without knowing you’d be able to raise the money to do a first manufacturing run. In today’s world, with 3D printers to help prototype faster and cheaper, and crowdfunding to help get pre-payment for products, a lot of ideas which once stayed in people’s heads or at most sketches in a notebook, are now coming into existence. It’s an exciting time for hardware startups, and I think we’re going to see a lot of innovative hardware products released that would never made made it to market in the past.

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