Innovation

Skype’s Incredibly Confusing Product Mix

Since 2005 I’ve been an avid Skype user and enjoy its use for phone calls, international calling, screensharing, and even for podcasting and interviews. The quality of its audio is fantastic and I love having my contacts available everywhere. I have the unlimited subscription plan for $3/month so I can call landline and mobile phones in the U.S. and Canada, and usually leave a few extra dollars in the account so I can easily call my wife when she is traveling abroad.

To illustrate how embedded Skype is in my work and personal life, I even purchased a phone number some years ago so I could easily route calls to Skype. I then subsequently bought a Skype cordless phone so my account could be always-on and always-connected. Of course, I use the Skype apps on my iPhone and iPad too.

The #1 drawback with Skype, however, is how unbelievably confusing it is to give them my money and it’s even tougher to recommend to someone else how they can get set up initially. Some other issues include:

  • I’d like to add group video calling. This requires an additional subscription, separately managed, instead of an upgrade to my current account
  • For my business I set up Skype Business — mainly so I could allocate Skype Credit to others in my office — but I couldn’t “take over” my Skype account and manage it within the Business dashboard…I could only add additional credit. 
  • A friend wanted to get set up with Skype and emulate my account type. I had to screenshare with him in order to see what was on the screen since he had to buy a subscription.

It goes on and on. Now I have two sisters-in-law getting setup on Skype since one is traveling with an iPad and one is home. They needed to sit with me to figure out what to buy and why. I’d hoped that Microsoft buying Skype last year would have helped with making it easier to give Skype our money, but it’s worse. Just go to the Skype website and try to figure out what to buy and you’ll see what I mean. 

Fail. Fail. Fail. Learn.

Can the lessons learned from video games point the way to a new fail, fail, fail and learn model for K-12 education?

Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, parent or teacher, employer or employee, trainer or trainee, one thing is clear: traditional models of learning are being attacked from all corners as broken, virtually unchanged since the 1890s, and desperately in need of fundamental reform.

You’ve seen or heard the statistics about India’s top 10% of K-12 students being more in number than all the students in the U.S., and that the Asia Pacific region graduates more PhDs in one year than the U.S. does in 10. 

Questions abound about how to fix it:

  • With the world’s information increasingly at our fingertips with an internet we’re connected to with computers, smartphones and tablets — at home and mobile — how much information do we need to pack in to our brains like traditional K-12 models emphasize?
  • Now that cognitive scientists, psychologists and education-oriented startups are gaining new insights in to ways in which students can learn and do so quickly, what are the right models?
  • With gaming and game theory being viewed by many experts as the best way to move in to a model of fail, fail, fail and learn…what works? Will all our kids be taught with Halo3 or other off-the-shelf games?

What’s the fix? This is a complex question and I’ve watched several talks, by experts in the field, and a new Minnesota startup (CogCubed) has compiled several videos on one page here that you should watch if interested. What’s pretty clear after watching them all (which I’ve done over the last few years) is that there are some great ideas out there but few ‘platforms’ upon which people can build fail, fail, fail, learn applications.

Let’s face it: without platforms (e.g., computers, the internet, desktop & now ebook publishing) and higher level tools and approaches, new innovations and industries struggle to emerge, even with great ideas and directions!

What was a big surprise this morning was discovering just such a platform company for new ways of enabling students to engage in learning that encourages play, manipulation, failing and ultimately learning. Sifteo is a “…venture-backed startup based in San Francisco, California. We make Sifteo cubes, an interactive game system designed for hands-on fun and Intelligent Play. We also make a growing number of unique and exclusive games for Sifteo cubes.

Rather than me telling you more, go view those compiled videos above and then watch this very short introduction by David Merrill about Sifteo. If you don’t come away with interest, intrigue and the ability to visualize new emergent models of learning, I’ll be even more surprised:

To learn more, here is David Merrill’s talk at a recent TED conference or just go to their website.

3D Printing: Manufacturing’s “Big Bang”

Visualizing the future for me is so easy that I get very impatient waiting for it. Way back in 2005 I wrote a post called, Print 3D Objects on Demand which talked about a breakthrough in 3D printing technology that promised to turn computer aided design in to end-products in an instant. 

Since then we have come a long way but I’m still impatiently waiting for mainstreaming, even though I’m about to jump in to MakerBot, “…a company founded in January 2009 by Bre Pettis, Adam Mayer, and Zach Smith producing an open source 3D printer to democratize manufacturing. You order it, build it, and you have a machine that can make you almost anything!

But is mainstreaming close? Yep. The New York Times “Bits” column about “The Business of Technology” had a brief post on Sunday by Nick Bilton about 3D printing called, Disruptions: The 3D Printing Free for All which said, in part:

It won’t be long before people have a 3-D printer sitting at home alongside its old inkjet counterpart. These 3-D printers, some already costing less than a computer did in 1999, can print objects by spraying layers of plastic, metal or ceramics into shapes. People can download plans for an object, hit print, and a few minutes later have it in their hands.

Near the end Bilton writes:

A recent research paper published by the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif., titled The Future of Open Fabrication, says 3-D printing will be manufacturing’s Big Bang as jobs in manufacturing, many overseas, and jobs shipping products around the globe are replaced by companies setting up 3-D fabrication labs in stores to print objects rather than ship them.

No question we’re a ways off from buying a 3D printer for our home to make finished goods, “Honey! Will you come here and look at these designs online so we can start printing our plates for Thanksgiving?” More likely 3D printing is going to first enable organizations to rapidly prototype new designs and shorten the cycle times for taking a great idea or innovation to manufacturing. Later on we’ll undoubtedly head over to a “Kinkos for 3D Printing” to have stuff made on industrial-strength printers, like those made by my hometown dominant player in the space, Stratasys

But who knows? Maybe breakthroughs in nano-materials will enable us to buy a 3D printer at Best Buy and crank out all sorts of finished goods right at home. Finally I’ll be able to just ‘print’ my ideas vs. taking weeks to get a production-ready prototype.

To learn more:

Elderly Need Super-Simple, Phone-like Skype

By now many of you have probably seen, and chuckled about, this delightful video that went viral of a senior couple goofin’ around with their webcam. These two are trying to figure out how to use it (and having fun in the process) but the humor obscures the reality: Using a computer, using Skype, and making certain Skype’s audio/video inputs are set correctly is befuddling to most senior citizens!

Let me tell you a story that may mirror many of your own to illustrate why we need a brain-dead-simple Skype phone that is as cheap, super-simple to operate, and as powerful as a landline phone.

It’s a few years ago and I’m in my home office on a Saturday, facing the street and my neighbors house across it. I bear witness to my elderly neighbors — he a fairly tech-savvy retired Fortune 100 executive and she a loving mother and grandmother — saying a very emotional farewell to their son, daughter-in-law, and two toddler grandsons.

The son is an executive at a different Fortune 100 company and the family was headed to Europe for two years to open a new line of business. My elderly neighbors would have only one visit during that time and I immediately thought, “Oh geez…those two boys will grow up so fast and forget them” so I had to do something.

I sent my neighbor and email clearly laying out all of the power of Skype, that it was free, that if he and his son each had a webcam that they could see one another and talk often. The biggest reason to do it was to maintain (and continue to build) grandpa and grandma’s relationship with those two little boys.

Not hearing anything for two weeks, I feared that I’d stepped WAY out of bounds as a neighbor. But what happened next surprised even me.  Read More

Huh? Pine Cones Point Toward a Brighter Future?

Pine cones near a pond by Red Rock Lake in Eden Prairie, MN

Snagged this photo with my new iPhone 4S (and its 8 megapixel camera) on my morning walk with my dog. The light was nice at that hour and I stopped to snap a photo of these pine cones…but I came away with A LOT more than just a picture!

After I took the photo I closely examined this spruce and the bunches of pine cones all over it. I was suddenly struck with the thought about how fascinating it is that pine cones like this on another form of pine, the Bishop, which require fire to drop and open up…thus spilling their seeds so a new generation can grow. I immediately thought, “What a metaphor for what we all are going through right now in the U.S. and globally.

The global economy has “burned” and, like so many of you who stay up on current events, know that many people around the world have seen their lives “scorched” with jobs lost, homes foreclosed upon, benefits reduced, and governments toppled. But ALL THE TRENDS point toward new growth and I fundamentally believe that, as the world continues to accelerate toward an internet-connected future, we will see unprecedented innovation and an increase in value created.

How? Where are all of these trends pointing to a future like that one? Like any other innovation or invention, one cannot look backwards (like many conservatives and MBAs do) or look side-to-side to see what other countries or companies are doing and then do what they’re doing only slightly better (e.g., trying to knock-off iPod with Zune; deliver ho-hum tablets to compete with iPad). The key is to strategically anticipate the future and look ahead to make the best, educated and calculated guesses you can and then go make the future happen.

In our core business (The Trend Curveâ„¢) we track trends globally for the home furnishings industry. Since so many other factors influence what happens within the home, we analyze industries like fashion, technology, manufacturing and what is happening with color, since color equals emotion and, surprisingly, echoes the mood of consumers. Color is becoming more vibrant, brighter, and dare I say, “optimistic?”

In some general trend areas as well as all of the foundational home-related industries we track, optimism abounds:

  • Small Business Optimism Picks Up: “The National Federation of Independent Business reported that it’s Small Business Optimism Index gained eight-tenths of a point to rise to 88.9. The gain snapped a six-month string of declines.”
  • The Expectation Economy (note #3 that “Copying competitors is a race to the bottom“) expects a brighter future: One site we follow is TrendWatching and their new business types site called Springwise since the latter, especially, delights us often with some of the new, disruptive and radical businesses being created around the world
  • Manufacturing is quickly embracing trends like 3D printing (great blog by Howard Smith, a U.K. technologist). 3D printing promises to accelerate the time from idea-to-prototype-to-manufacturing; at some point relatively soon to buy, as a consumer, plans online that will enable one to simply print-out an object at home; and much more.
  • Technology gadgets, the internet’s impact, ubiquitous wireless and more are transforming the world. To get up to speed quickly on what’s going on globally, look at former Morgan Stanley analyst, and now venture capitalist, Mary Meeker’s State of the Internet at Web 2.0 Summit or read this article & watch the video of her presentation.
Yep…you can argue every one of these points and counter them with a pessimistic and dark analysis that the sky is falling, the world is tumbling toward oblivion, and the only way to compete with the Chinese is to drive the American workforce toward subsistence living and a 3rd world country wage structure. So if you’re inclined to comment and tell me why everything is horrible and bad, don’t bother since I’m not placing my energy on the negative.

Tools Aren’t Keeping Up

A bonobo at the San Diego Zoo "fishing" for termites with his stick "tool"

Though other mammals have them, humans and our opposable thumbs have made using tools a key part of our evolutionary acceleration as a species. The higher level the tool, the more of us that can use it. Unfortunately in today’s accelerating technology world, I feel more like that chimp above than a higher level human since the tools are so incredibly immature.

Take the explosion in desktop publishing in the mid-1980’s. A Macintosh, Laserwriter printer, and software like Aldus Pagemaker made the previously manual and film prepress process in to one accessible to millions of us. In fact, my wife and I started our business 25 years ago because these technologies were available to us.

That’s why I’m somewhat taken aback at the acceleration in tablet and ereader acceptance, but realize there are a woefully inadequate number of tools available. I probably should say affordably available and accessible to normal humans vs. skilled programmers or publishers with deep pockets. If you have enough dough or people, you can afford to have your iPad magazines created, served and delivered by companies like Adobe with their Digital Publishing SuiteRead More

3D Printing is Accelerating

Captain Picard at a food replicator

A family member sent me a link to the video below about 3D printing, a space I’ve been writing about for over six years (see posts in 2005 and in 2008). Of course, I’m intrigued by the possibility of having a replicator like on Star Trek and create anything I can think of (and that the computer has a model for I’d guess).

I’d not seen this video before but, in typical fashion, it re-lit my spark about this category and I found myself with some time this morning searching on YouTube about 3D printing.That search led me to the best overview I’ve seen yet about this accelerating printing category from an industrial designer named Scott Summit (his firm: SummitID). Though it’s 50 minutes long, I’ve embedded it for you to watch when you get the time and it’s well worth it.

 

ZCorp on National Geographic

 
Scott Summit on the Future of 3D Printing

Why it’s so Hard to Shop Apple’s App Store

Often I’ll take time to browse the Apple App Store on my iPad to see what’s new and, far too often, buy an app. The frustrating thing? If I get just a few screens in and decide to view an app—and after viewing it go back to browsing—I’m taken back to the beginning of the category!

If you look at the screenshot above, there are over 4,000 apps in the Travel category. If I sort them on, say, “Most Popular” and start browsing by clicking through them, I’ll often end up several hundred deep in to the category.

If I click on one I can view it and then go back to browsing in the exact same deep-into-the-category spot I left. After viewing apps like that one or two more times, however, I’m suddenly brought back to the top of the category.

This means that I either have to start over and click through a bunch of screens to get back to the place I was, or do what I usually do: simply give up after looking at a few dozen apps. Why does Apple do this? You’d think they’d want to facilitate app purchases vs. making it such a pain to shop.

Please get your sh*t together on this Apple.

Yes, Lytro will revolutionize photography but…

Lytro, a startup funded with $51 million in venture capital, was revealed to the public Tuesday and garnered wild enthusiasm from anyone who is even semi-serious about photography.

So what is Lytro? As they state on their site, “Unlike regular digital or film cameras, which can only record a scene in two-dimensions, light field cameras captures all of the light rays traveling in every direction through a scene. This means that some aspects of a picture can be manipulated after the fact. To acquire this additional data, Lytro cameras include an innovative new light field sensor that captures the color, intensity and vector direction of light rays.

Translation: Light field cameras unleash the power of the light, so you don’t have to go through the pain of taking 50 pictures to get that really great one.

Lytro in action: Captured image allows the photographer to click on “Mom” and she’s the focus…or click on the toddler & he’s in focus. All with the same data captured.

Since I haven’t had a lot of time to discover much more than the dozens of articles written about this breakthrough, I saw Lee Stranahan’s post this morning with some great videos like the one below as well as embedded image demos which you can view several of here.

As someone reasonably adept at capturing depth-of-field like this with conventional cameras and lenses, I don’t think I’d throw out my Nikon gear and buy a new camera. If Lytro licenses this technology to Nikon, Canon, Olympus, et al, it will revolutionize photography and be quite interesting, but a startup is going to have a helluva time competing camera-to-camera even with this sort of innovation in focus.

STOP IT SEARS!

How would you like to do business with a retailer who absolutely HAMMERS on you with no way out? If you buy or get service from Sears, get ready to be a NAIL.

My wife and I haven’t purchased a major appliance (or much of anything, frankly) at Sears for many years. They do have a good selection of appliances and many more solid installers than does, say, a Best Buy, so when we were in the market for a new oven and cooktop we bought one from the local Sears store. The saleswoman was absolutely top-notch and she handled all the details…

…but that’s where the communications nightmare began with the “Sears marketing machine”.

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