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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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Sous Vide Equipment (Anova)
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Crowdfunding hardware and Sous Vide cooking

This is not a post about cooking. This is a post about crowdfunding and how it is changing how many products are coming to the market. I touched on this briefly in my post on forthcoming keyboard designs, but Sous Vide as a category gives a clearer view of what is going on in crowdfunding of new hardware.

Let’s get the cooking stuff out of the way. Sous Vide (French for ‘under vacuum‘) is an interesting intersection of technology and cooking. The basic concept is to create a water bath where the water is circulated and heated to a very precise temperature (to a tenth of a degree). Food items are vaccum-sealed in plastic bags and inserted into the water bath. Using lower than normal cooking temperatures, the foods are cooked through and can be accurately cooked to very specific degrees for different types of foods.

Sous Vide Equipment (Anova)
Sous Vide Equipment (Vacuum sealer, Anova circulator, pot)

In use since the 1970s in restaurants where the equipment costs thousands of dollars, the first widely available ‘consumer’ unit, the Sous Vide Supreme, came out in late 2009 and cost about $400. In the years since then a number of companies have come out with competing devices, both of the self-contained variety like the SousVide Supreme (called water baths), and the more common immersible device (called circulators), that are inserted into a pot or other container and heats and circulates the water within that container. One downside of Sous Vide is that any cooking effect that requires higher heat or exposure to air, such as the browning of meats, doesn’t occur. Another downside is the length of time required to cook the food, although one might compare it to slow cookers.

Sous Vide is interesting as a new cooking technology. One doesn’t see too many completely new cooking techniques introduced into the consumer kitchen. We bake, boil, braise, fry and roast. Most cooking fits into these general techniques. One might argue that pressure cooking is a different technique – although it has been commercially available for about 150 years.

More interesting to me, however, is how Sous Vide as a product category has grown in the past few years, and how crowdfunding has been largely responsible for that growth. Developing new hardware products, whether computer accessories or cooking devices, is a very difficult undertaking. One of the main reasons developing new hardware is difficult is that startup costs – the costs of getting the initial devices designed and manufactured in a factory – are very high. In the past, it was very difficult to get people to pre-pay for hardware from unknown companies. Inventors of new hardware devices instead either had to raise a lot of money, difficult in all cases, but even more so when your product is new and the market is unconfirmed, or sell their idea to a larger company who had the means to manufacture their product. Crowdfunding has allowed many hardware products to come into existence that otherwise would never have made it to market. Sous Vide cooking equipment is just one category of hardware that has been propelled by the availability of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but I think it’s an illustrative one.

Nomiku

The first crowdfunded Sous Vide device, Nomiku, was brought out on Kickstarter. It’s campaign successfully raised $586,061 (based on a $200,000 goal) with 1,880 backers on July 18, 2012. This was at the time the most successful food device crowdfunding campaign.

Nomiku Sous Vide
Nomiku Sous Vide (Instagram)

 

Codlo & Sansaire

Perhaps based on this very successful campaign, two fairly similar devices were crowd funded the following year, Codlo and Sansaire. Codlo was mildly successful, raising £128,961 (based on a £100,000 goal) with 1,139 backers in July 2013.

Sansaire did significantly better raising $823,003 (based on a $100,000 goal) with 4,084 backers in September 2013.

AquaChef Clarity & SOUSIMPLE

Two more Sous Vide devices were pitched via crowdfunding, but failed – the AquaChef Clarity and the SOUSIMPLE. The AquaChef Clarity raised less than a third of its $100,000 goal before it was cancelled in November 2013. It was a full water bath device, and while I can’t say why it failed, it could just have been bad timing coming so soon after the successful campaigns of the Codlo and the Sansaire. It could also be that the full water bath Sous Vide devices are less popular due to the amount of space they take up.

Meat diagram from AquaChef Clarity campaign
Meat diagram from AquaChef Clarity campaign

The SOUSIMPLE allowed you to adapt an existing device such as a rice cooker or a slow cooker, to do Sous Vide cooking. It was put out on Kickstarter in January 2014 but was suspended when it became clear that it would not reach its goal of $25,000. Part of the reason might be that it was revealed in the comments for the project that the whole device was essentially the repackaging of a $17 digital temperature controller with a wooden frame and cables for $85. More than just being marked up (which frankly I think is fair if they make the product more useful and easier to buy), the revelation was that the product was not innovative. People who buy from crowdfunding sites are buying innovation.

Anova & Mellow

Currently there are two interesting campaigns going on, Anova and Mellow. Anova is finishing up a campaign on Kickstarter, where it has currently raised $1,712,328 from more than 10,000 backers. The campaign ends on Tuesday. The Anova is actually a second-generation device, an upgrade from the first-gen device which came out around the same time as the Sansaire last year. The upgraded Anova is less expensive, adds control through a smartphone app, and some other convenience features.

Mellow
Mellow cooking Salmon

Mellow is not using a traditional crowdfunding service, but rather is allowing pre-ordering through its own website. This means Mellow doesn’t get any money until the product is ready to ship (different than most crowdfunding) but it is similar in that the company can gauge interest in their product well in advance of committing to manufacturing (similar to crowdfunding). The Mellow is not an immersible device like these other Sous Vide devices, but is a full water bath. The innovative feature that Mellow brings to the table is that it can not only heat the water in the bath, but can cool it too. That means you can put a steak a cold bath in the morning, and have it heat up in the evening to cook so its ready for dinner when you get home. Another interesting advantage of the cooling ability is that you can bring down the temperature of the food after cooking. Like the second-gen Anova, Mellow can be controlled via a smartphone app, and in fact must be controlled via an app as it has not screen or other way to control the device.

As an aside, Mellow is not the first cooking device to attempt both cooling and heating. An earlier crowdfunding campaign, the CoolCooker, attempted to do something very similar in the context of a slow cooker. It even offered a version that supported Sous Vide cooking. The campaign failed to raise the $25,000 it sought, and was suspended in January 2014.

Crowdfunding hardware is not easy

So what do all of these Sous Vide crowdfunding campaign teach us? A few things:

  1. New innovative devices, even if just good refinements of existing products, can find traction through crowdfunding sites
  2. When one product creates a new product category through a successful crowdfunding campaign, more products will follow in the category.
  3. Just because a category is hot, doesn’t mean every product thrown out there will be successful. Taking advantage of a popular category won’t work, as those buying through crowdfunding sites are sophisticated enough to see who is innovating and who the posers are…
  4. Companies can use crowdfunding to significantly reduce the risk involved in launching a new product, and small companies who could never afford to ramp up factory production of their products can use crowdfunding to make it possible.
  5. Crowdfunding is not just for initial products, but can be used for multiple products from the same company.
  6. Crowdfunding doesn’t need to be done through the big companies like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but can be done on one’s own site. This is more useful when you have a good way to direct traffic to one’s site.
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