Business General Technology

Chasing waterfalls

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the launch of two highly anticipated consumer technology products, The Humane AI Pin and the Rabbit R1, and the response has been underwhelmingto say the least.

But these failures could have been predicted and avoided and weren’t. I believe their failures say a lot about what’s wrong with the tech industry today and demonstrate a concerning trend that has been creeping up for some time.

In the field of product development, there is a concept of an ‘MVP’ aka a ‘Minimum Viable Product.’ The idea — derived from the Agile software development practices and popularized by Eric Ries’ book ‘The Lean Startup’ — proposes that the correct way to bring a new product to market is to focus on creating and releasing the simplest version of the product you can that adds value quickly, and getting it into the hands of stakeholders early. This concept allows a company to minimize upfront risk while taking advantage of customer feedback to inform its roadmap, ostensibly leading to products that will be more likely to secure a foothold in a market.

On paper, and in practice generally, this is a sound methodology to operate within, and the folks at Humane and Rabbit would argue they are following this. So what went wrong?

Arguably, among other things, they’ve missed the most essential word in the ‘MVP’ initialism: Viable.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. 

When the iPhone was announced, the product was filling a noticeable gap in the market. Most consumers had clunky feature phones, and the ‘smart’ phones of the day were bulky and complex. Steve Jobs’ famous keynote presentation sold a vision of something better, and incredibly, the product that ultimately shipped to consumers met or exceeded the expectations of the product set by this demo.

While Humane and Rabbit both draw a lot of inspiration from Apple with marketing and design aesthetics, they seem to be missing the key promise that every product Steve pitched lived up to:

Under promise and over deliver.

Steve sweat the details because he knew they mattered. As boastful and braggadocious as he might have come off in that presentation, he knew he had a product that could back it up. One that would blow people away.

Both Rabbit and Humane have spent a lot of time and money marketing the idea of their products and their vision of how they will change consumers’ lives.

However, as many reviews have bluntly demonstrated, in many cases, the features the products ship with today barely work. Much of the visions these companies have sold depend on integrations, features, and experiences that do not currently exist. It seems that neither product, in its current state, does enough today to warrant its existence, especially compared to what a smartphone can already do.

They inevitably knew this. They knew the products would not fulfill those promises on day one, but they launched anyway. 

There is nothing agile about launching a product on the back of a roadmap.

Neither Humane nor Rabbit have set themselves up to succeed.

Agile development aims to prove viability through continuous discovery and iteration, and lean methodology seeks to reduce waste.

The benefit of an MVP is that it allows a company to quickly discover new opportunities and shortcomings, adapt, and change course as necessary. 

By promising functionality unavailable at launch, they’ve released products that cannot, and possibly will never, meet consumer expectations.

By launching to disappointing reviews, many would-be early adopters will likely choose to pass on these products. This essentially negates the value of their marketing efforts thereby squandering most of the value the company would get from an early launch. Had expectations been set lower, this might not be the case.

These companies now face some tough choices: 

  1. They can spend their resources fulfilling their promised roadmap, potentially ‘baking in’ their core mistakes and gaining nothing from the process.
  2. Or they can delay or dispense with their promised roadmaps, go back, challenge their initial assumptions, and rework their products to fix core mistakes identified by the early launch.

Either path is a recipe for disappointment. There is a reason Apple rarely discusses future products or features.

So why is this happening? And why now?

The truth is, we were living in a tech speculation bubble for the last decade or so.

With interest rates near zero percent, entrepreneurs had easy access to capital with few strings attached. This also meant that there was little pressure for a company to deliver a profit. Instead, the metric du jour was user growth. If a company could demonstrate massive user numbers by disrupting a pre-existing industry (like taxis with ridesharing, for example), the prospect of eventual profitability was enough to keep the funding coming in and the company valuation going up. With valuations continuing to skyrocket, early investors were able to cash out with an amazing return. As such, a frequent recipe for “success” was to spend a ton of money to disrupt an industry, get massive user adoption, create public hype, take the company public, cash out, and leave retail investors holding the bag. 

However, this formula came to a screeching halt in early 2022, when companies realized that the pandemic era ‘pivot to digital’ would not produce perpetually sustainable growth numbers (something else that should have been obvious), and inflation started to skyrocket. Investors turned to more conservative investments as the US Federal Reserve Bank raised interest rates to tamp down on inflation, shifting the focus back towards profitability.

So, the pressure is on for companies like Rabbit and Humane. They have grand, long-term visions of industry disruption and transformation, but their investors expect more immediate returns than they did of companies of the recent past.

Because making your own hardware device and accompanying software platform is expensive, the inclination to ship a product as soon as the hardware is ready with a barebones version of the platform is operational is understandable.

Consumers are not investors. They do not buy products based on pitch decks; they buy products based on what they do. If a company sets expectations high, and the product fails to meet these expectations, consumers will walk away, and the odds that they’ll come back are slim. 

In their current form these products are not viable, maybe the idea they laid out one day could be, but because they jumped the gun and launched too soon, they may never get the chance to discover their ‘MVP.’

Business General Technology

Low Hanging Fruits: Apple in 2016 and Beyond

Between the Apple Watch, the iPhone 6S, the new Apple TV, and Apple Music, by all accounts, 2015 was a banner year for Apple Inc.

Apple is a company of patterns and progression. As a former retail employee, we often knew what was coming next, not due to any insider knowledge, but just due to an understanding of how Apple works.

Of course, we’ll also get new iPads (spring), iPhones (fall), and Macs (throughout) at some point, but I figured those are foregone conclusions.  Sometimes the company will throw a curveball, but based on the way things are going, here are some things I expect to see from Apple in 2016 and beyond.

Beats by Apple

The first product Beats launched after the Apple purchase was the Beats Solo 2 Wireless Headphones, but it was clearly well into development before the purchase took place. Shortly after that launch, Apple began releasing new colors of everything to match their iOS devices.

The Beats Pill+, however, is different; it seems it’s the first true hardware child of this merger. It still has the look of the Beats brand but taken to another level of polish that feels quite Apple-like. This polish should be unsurprising since Apple ended the company’s relationship with Ammunition, the design agency responsible for their headphones and the original Beats Pill. There should be little doubt that this product was, at least partially worked on in house by Apple’s teams. Right down to the Lighting port. Little surprise that it’s only available in black and white (for now.)

I expect this trend to continue with new headphone designs in 2016.

Lightning Everywhere

Lighting ports are not just for iOS devices anymore. Almost as an afterthought, Apple launched new peripherals before the end of the year. The Magic Mouse 2, Magic Trackpad 2, and Magic Keyboard. Each of these devices is equipped with an internal rechargeable battery and charges via USB via Lightning cables.  However, these were not the first new devices to pull this trick. The new Beats Pill+ speaker launched quietly a few weeks earlier with this feature already in place.

Expect this to continue throughout Apple’s product lines and pop up in some surprising places we haven’t thought of yet, like new Beats headphones.  Most of their products today include Micro-USB charging, no doubt Apple will do everything it can to phase that out over the next year.

Refined Apple Watch

To some, this may be a foregone conclusion, but there are those who have their doubts. While how much of a success the Apple Watch has been is up for debate, make no mistake, this is no iPod Hi-Fi.  Apple is committed to the Apple Watch and, by association, the fashion world.

Apple Watch users tend to tell people how much they love theirs (myself included); however many of us like it for different reasons. When people ask about why we love the Watch, it’s hard to point to one thing. It’s a platform without a killer app, which makes it hard to sell. Expect Apple to work on changing that both through marketing and continued iteration.

I anticipate that by the roll-out spring fashion lines, Apple will announce a revised Apple Watch. It won’t be radically different, but it will be noticeably more responsive for third-party apps and will likely contain new sensors to track health and fitness.

Smarter Maps

Apple took a beating when it launched new Maps in iOS 6 without transit directions. Now Apple has a lot of trust to regain in this field. If the company wishes to succeed in this area, it needs to iterate rapidly. The company’s health and fitness focus will likely help it here as well as its ‘proactive’ initiatives. Something we could see is “smart” time estimations on walks from place to place based on our own pacing.

Another area of focus could include bike directions in Apple Maps, which will be especially handy for Apple Watch users who will be able to accurately navigate to their destination via haptics alone without looking at their screen.

New Transit Innovations

Apple wants to be much more involved in how you get from place to place. Sure, we’ve all heard rumors about a car, but if that is coming, it’s not going to be in the short term.

The expansion of ApplePay, and with it, NFC chips, raises some interesting possibilities about how you get around town. Chicago, Tokyo, London, and other cities already use some form of radio frequencies for mass transit payment systems. All of which have moved towards NFC as their technological solution. With New York City also planning to switch to a similar system, this is good news for all involved.

I expect that Apple will start making deals that allow the company to make future iPhones and Apple Watches work as your monthly transit pass, furthering its strategic goal of replacing our wallets with digital solutions.

I do not expect all of these things to happen in 2016, but I do believe they’re all inevitable. I look forward to what the future has in store.


Steve Jobs on Speech Technology as Transcribed by an iPhone 4S

In 2003 Steve Jobs sat down with Walt Mossberg at the first-ever D: All Things Digital conference. The end of the session included a rare open Q&A with Jobs by audience members in which the following question was asked:

“You talk about handwriting and keyboard, how about speech as a human interface?”

Here is Steve’s answer transcribed by an iPhone 4S using iOS 5’s Dictation feature:

“You know that the last part of that question is is exactly right I I I’ve been almost 30 years and it’s speech is always been five years away because I’m trying to completions
But it went most of the really smart people of speech I know have gotten out of Beelitz it’s like nuclear fusion a lot of bright people went into it and and and people now think it’s a ways away you can do what you can do adequate speech today to meet your correcting a lot of stuff if you just have to know even 1% area try cannot as it turns out you can speak a lot of words in a few terrible so it’s got to be very accurate and so far no one’s come up with the technology Apple’s got a very we got to speak working on stuff Microsoft has a group you want GreatWorks be done in academia but it doesn’t look like it’s been a be real anytime soon I wish it was different”

Here is what he actually said:

“Ya know, the last part of that question is exactly right. I’ve been in this industry almost 30 years and speech has always been five years away. It’s been constant time to completion, just moving along 5 years away. Most of the really smart people in speech I know have gotten out of the field. It’s like nuclear fusion a lot of bright people went into it and people now think it’s a ways away. You can do you can do adequate speech today but it means you’re correcting a lot of stuff. If you just have even 1% error it drives you nuts. Because it turns out you can speak a lot of words in a five minute interval. So, it’s gotta be very accurate and so far no ones come up with the technology. Apple’s got a speech group working on stuff. Microsoft has a group. A lot of great work is being done in academia but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be real any time soon. I wish it was different.”

Looks like Steve was right.

General Pop culture Technology

Thoughts on Steve

On April 1st, 2011, I walked out of the doors of The North Michigan Avenue Apple store as an employee for the last time.

My fellow employees were lined up from the glass staircase to the doorway, leaving me no choice but to walk down the middle between them. As I approached, they began to clap and cheer at full intensity. I had been a part of this ritual countless times in my six and a half years with the company, so I knew it was coming. Still, it took every fiber of my being to stay composed. I bolted for the door, and when I finally got there, I turned around, looked back at my friends, and threw my arms in the air to wave goodbye one last time.

Seconds later, I turned the corner. Once I knew I was out of the view of my colleagues, I let loose and full-on wept.

I couldn’t hold it back. Working for Apple was more than a job; Apple was a family. Apple still is my family. I have met some of the most important people in my life through Apple. Mentors, friends, lovers… you name it.

Apple allowed me to put my creative energies to use. It enabled me to move halfway across the country to start over and inspired me to strike out on my own.

I learned more working for Apple than I did through all of college and high school combined. I grew more as a person than I could have possibly imagined. Apple filled me with memories and experiences I will cherish until I die. Those people and memories are a part of me; many of them mean more than anything else ever will. I wouldn’t trade any of it, the good or the bad, for anything.

I woke up in a hostel in Bruges this morning and heard the news. I looked at Twitter, and it was filled with loving, thoughtful comments, and not a single one in poor taste. I then looked through Instagram, and it was flooded with photo tributes. Every news outlet was filled with articles and comments regarding his passing.

And I wept.

I never met the man, I never even saw him in person (though I apparently stood right next to him and didn’t know it), and yet there I was, standing on a picturesque bridge in the middle of Bruges on a dreary, cold day openly weeping.

My friend Nick put up a post on Facebook regarding Steve’s death. He mused how people feel like they know someone in the public eye when they don’t know their internal person. He said that he hoped Jobs was as good in person as we all like to think he was. I want to counter that point.

That man who Nick claims I didn’t know, whom I never met — who probably didn’t even know I existed — profoundly changed my life for the better. For that, I am eternally grateful.

When I heard of his retirement, I did something I swore I would never do as an employee.

I emailed him.

It was just a simple thank you, basically saying many of the things I’m saying here. I have no idea if he read it, and I never will. And that’s okay. I didn’t need anything from him. I didn’t need to know him personally. The Steve I knew, the Apple I knew… it gave me more than enough.

Thank you Steve.

Business Technology

On Apple Rumors: A Tale of Two iPhones?

In the time I spent working for Apple Retail, I was constantly asked about rumored product releases, and more often than not, the customer asking would fail to believe that we employees didn’t have any sort of advanced knowledge. That really was the case, and even if we did know something, we couldn’t tell them anyway, so why bother asking?

I guess because that wasn’t 100% true.

The thing is, while we almost never had advanced knowledge confirming new products, we were all engrossed by the Mac news/rumor sites. Although we were contractually obligated not to contribute to them, nothing stopped us from talking and speculating to one another during lunch or at the bar after work. As an employee, you get to know Apple’s psychology pretty well, and it was often easy to tell which stories were real and which were fake.

So while we didn’t officially know what was coming down the pipeline, it was often the case that we “knew,” but we still couldn’t talk about it. There is a certain amount of buzz to rumors combined with timing and the company’s actions that would make it clear that something was up.

Recently sites have been talking about the next iPhone being only a mild upgrade and referring to it as the “iPhone 4S”. For as long as it has been around, I’ve HATED this rumor.

There seems to be an assumption that because there was an iPhone 3Gs to follow iPhone 3G that Apple is going to repeat this pattern and even call it the “iPhone 4S”. The major flaw in this conclusion is so obvious it boggles my mind that sites miss it.

The iPhone 4’s “4” in its branding is different than the 3G’s “3”. The 4 in the iPhone 4 represents it being the fourth model of iPhone, whereas the 3 in the iPhone 3G represents the 3G speed of its connection.

Apple is a company tightly fixated on branding. Even if the next upgrade were a small one they simply wouldn’t just slap an “s” on the end of the “iPhone 4” and call it a day instead of releasing an iPhone 5. Regardless of what the marketing name would be, it would still be the 5th model of the phone. They especially wouldn’t then just call the next phone the “iPhone 5” the following year as it would actually be the 6th version and so on. The logic is broken.

Branding aside, it also seems clear to me that after waiting more than a year, Apple’s going to do more than a modest bump to the iPhone. While the iPhone 4 is doing exceptionally well after 15 months on the market, the changes will need to be significant if only to keep consumers interested and competitors behind. The rumors of a larger screen, better camera, and a tapered form factor seem to gel with that.

Meanwhile, the now two-year-old iPhone 3GS is the second best selling phone on the market. It is clear Apple benefits from giving customers the choice of a lower-priced option. This one-two punch has served them well at retaining market share in the face of Android so the logical conclusion would be that an iPhone 5 will be announced this fall, and Apple will keep the iPhone 4 around discounted like they did the 3GS.

But the rumor is that the next iPhone is also now coming to Sprint and T-Mobile too, which would make sense. The problem is T-Mobile’s 3G network uses a different frequency than AT&T, so if Apple wants to support them, they need to introduce either a separate phone for their network or a phone with a chip that is compatible with both networks. Meaning they’d have to manufacture three different iPhone 5s for the 4 different carriers, and that’s not counting storage sizes or colors and this still leaves them without a low-cost option on T-Mobile’s network.

Then I start thinking about this and the fact that before the Verizon iPhone 4 was launched, there were all sorts of antenna redesigns that leaked that contained SIM card slots, which the Verizon phone does not and now suddenly similar things are showing up again.

All signs seem to be pointing at it, but no one seems to notice. My gut says that Apple is planning to launch not one, but two new iPhones this fall, and both will be available on all four major US carriers. I believe we will see a mildly revamped iPhone 4 and an “all-new” iPhone 5.

Apple will, however downplay the 4’s revamp with a comment like “the iPhone 4 has proven to be the most popular phone in history, and it’s not slowing down so today we’re making it available to T-Mobile and Sprint customers too”. No new name, and no upgraded specs, they’ll want the press to focus on the iPhone 5, not a bunch of internal changes to a 15-month-old device.

How will they do this? Instead of individual models for individual carriers, I believe that both the revised four and the new five will have both CDMA and GSM chips in them will be compatible with all four carriers right out of the box.

Externally this does away with customer confusion as most people don’t know/understand/care about the differences between cellular networks and frequencies; they simply want to buy a phone and have it work. Secondly, this dramatically simplifies their product line, inventory, and manufacturing and allows them to further leverage the economies of scale that CEO Tim Cook so masterfully does already.

Wouldn’t be half bad for his first public move as CEO either.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them in the comments.