Sunday, January 20, 2013

LINE and more Facebook/Twitter Asian Competition

Before you start to think Facebook will take over the world, look again at new competitors emerging in Asia, including this one originally from Japan and now boasting more than 100 million users.

LINE has everything you'd want in a mobile app: free text and voice (and probably soon, video), cross-platform versions (iPhone/Android/WinPhone, Mac/PC), and plenty of cool features like a way to sign in to your desktop using your phone (perfect for situations, like at an internet cafe, where you don't want to risk typing your password into a key logger).

Think of it like a cross-platform version of iMessage, or Path, or even Skype. There are numerous in-app purchases, including "stickers" that are apparently must-have for serious users. 

The competition, internationally, for mobile and social apps is just unbelievable, and don't expect it to lighten up any time soon.

LINE screen shot

Feel free to add my to your contacts:  my username is 'sprague'.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Great Spragues in history

Too bad that, as far as I know, I am no relation to Frank J. Sprague (1857-1934), an assistant to Thomas Edison. According to the Edison Tech Center

Edison's primary interest was in light, while Sprague was interested in power. He resigned his position after about a year and started the Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company in 1884. During the next two years, Sprague produced a number of inventions of major significance.

Eventually Edison Electric ended up using so many of Sprague's inventions that they decided to merge the two companies into one: General Electric.

How's that for imagination at work?

GE Logo

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

[book] Makers by Chris Anderson

"Hardware is the new software".  I'm not sure if that exact phrase is in Chris Anderson's new book, but it should be. It's a trend that has interested me for a while: as hardware becomes more important, it's becoming easier to build. When I first fell in love with computers a zillion years ago, they were mostly hardware -- and scary.  Poor, starving student that I was, every mistake learning or building hardware cost real money, and it wasn't until software came along that I could feel comfortable playing and learning new things at will: software was infinitely tolerant of the inevitable problems.  Software development is a fixed investment: buy a computer and start writing; worst case you just reboot and start over if something goes wrong. Well, now hardware is beginning to look the same way.

Lower costs are one driver: 3D printers go for (sometimes a lot) less than $2,000 -- which by the way is about what my first computer cost.  But even if that's too much, there are so many local shops that will lend you their equipment, either as part of Neil Gershenfeld's Center for Bits and Atoms worldwide bunch of fab labs  (none yet in China or Seattle, unfortunately) or the hackerspaces all over or techshops or in Seattle we have Metrixcreate:Space and the new Makerhaus.  Most of these places let you use this equipment on site for a reasonable cost (dozens of dollars, or maybe a hundred or two for a month), and usually have staff or other friendly people on hand to help. Chris Anderson points out that the original Square hardware was built in one of these shops. (I've been to the Seattle ones a few times -- they're great! )

But it’s more than cost. As hardware starts to imitate the flexibility of software, entire new businesses and ecosystems are possible.  There’s, by a Redmond Washington engineer who makes Lego-compatible toy weapons or OpenSprinker, a $199 lawn system that cost a total of $5,000 to invent and bring to market. Lego Digital Designer is a free CAD program that lets you design LEGO projects, then generate step-by-step instructions for how to build them. There is a huge gallery from users, and until early 2012 you could order (for a fee) complete boxed sets for whatever you created. There's even Local Motors, a street-legal car 430 horsepower custom car company.

Even biology is getting into the action with Do It Yourself (DIY) Bio like Josh Perfetto with his $599 thermocycler for cheap PCR and DremelFuge, a a 3D head you mount on a Dremel rotary tool to act like a 33Krpm centrifuge for a fraction of the price of the one used by "real" scientists.

Some of this is what Blogger Jason Kottke calls "small batch" manufacturing, how normal people are becoming empowered to become craftsmen, artisans, able to make custom products for people who know how to appreciate them.  A classic example is TCHO Chocolate, the San Francisco-based boutique food maker founded by some Wired people. 

To get started, there are great new marketplaces popping up from crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, RocketHub, FundedbyMe and more, enabling entirely new business models for funding and bootstrapping companies.

Chris Anderson, long-time journalist believes in this enough that he recently quit his job as Editor-in-Chief at Wired in order to go full-time into 3D Robotics, a new aerospace company with revenues that grew from $250K in the first year, to $3M in 2011.  He started this literally in his living room, ran it as a side project using a social networking site to attract a community of users, until it was big enough that he decided to make it his day job.

It’s true, of course, that applying software business models to the world of hardware will bring about important changes in business generally and this book documents how open source and community-driven development will drive those innovations. But it will require more attention to marketing and PR than many would-be entrepreneurs appreciate. It’s one thing for the editor of a famous magazine to start a community and watch thousands of people join; it’s a much tougher proposition, at least at the beginning, for the rest of us.

There’s much more to say about this, but if you want to get started, here’s a great list of tools that Chris Anderson keeps for his own workbench:


  • Inkscape is a Mac/Win open source version of Illustrator
  • 3d scanning: Audodesk123D has a windows version
  • laser cutting: see Autdesk 123D Make

Tools in his workshop:

  • MakerBot Cupcake
  • MakerBot Cyclops 3-D scanner
  • Hitachi desktop bandsaw
  • Dremel workstation/drill press
  • Weller WES51 soldering station
  • Picoscope USB oscilloscope
  • Saleae USB logic analyzer
  • Volleman Power supply / Multimeter / Soldering station
  • Software
    • Illustrator (for laser cutting drawings)
    • Autodesk 123D
    • Cadsoft Eagle (for PCB design)
    • Arduino, Notepad++
    • TortoiseSVN and TotoiseGIT for source code control

Get going!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

[book] Daniel Pink on Selling

Daniel Pink

Business author Daniel Pink first impressed me on an Econtalk episode a few years ago with his ideas about what motivates people (the subject of his book Drive). Earlier this month he published a new book, To Sell Is Human, and I heard him talk about it today. (I always enjoy seeing an author in person!)

The central claim of the book (at least, based on what I took from his talk) is that although 9% of the American workforce works in a “sales” job (more than double the percentage that works in all forms of government, by the way), the rest of us spend a big part of our day trying to “persuade people to part with something of value, in exchange for something else”, which Pink claims is basically the same thing.  The talk (and the book) is mostly about ways to enhance our abilities to sell: “Increase your power by reducing it”, “use your head as much as your heart” and other good, practical advice.

Successful selling -- persuasion – requires a good understanding of the other person’s needs, but it turns out that high-status and “powerful” people (managers, politicians) are often pretty bad at that.  In fact, a 2006 paper by Kellogg business school profs Galinsky and Magee shows that power and self-orientation are often correlated. Conclusion: we need to be better at empathy.

But empathy – understanding the other person’s perspective – isn’t about understanding their “feelings”.  People who do best at selling are better at considering what the other side “thinks” more than what they “feel”. Interesting…and it matches my own experience and intuition.

My favorite part of the talk was Pink’s discussion of “social cartography”, and how good salespeople are instinctively able to tell who’s who in a given room, who matters for the decision-making and who doesn’t.  That’s a great skill, and Pink shows a wonderful chart to illustrate what we all know intuitively: that often the people who do the most talking are the least important.

He points to upcoming research from Adam Grant, a professor at my Alma Mater, that claims that while extroverts tend to be hired and promoted much more often in sales positions, they don’t perform that much better than introverts. Although this seems like good news for a natural introvert like me (assuming I wanted to be in sales), I take research like this with some skepticism.  Everything depends on methodology, it seems to me.

In fact, this is one of my biggest questions about Pink’s thesis. It might be possible to make claims about the art and practice of persuasion in general, but like most things, it seems to me this is highly situation- and context-dependent.

Frankly, I’m not sure it’s much of an insight to claim that everyone is selling.  I mean, even in a highly-specialized world, all jobs require some degree of just about every job.  Few people are full-time negotiators, for example, but all of us do it some of the time. Only a small percentage of people are “making stuff” in the sense that old-fashioned factory workers did, but broadly enough defined, we all make something. Saying that everyone is a salesperson seems to me to be a bit of a stretch.

That’s a quibble.  Daniel Pink provides some insight that is worth considering, but I would add that successful managers know to think like a team and that the right mix of skills, personalities, and experiences are as important as individual high performance. Though not mentioned in the book, Pink answered my comment about this with a pointer to the work of Brian Uzzi, from Kellogg.

I’m sold.