Noted: Your coffee maker. Running Windows. Again.

From Ars Technica, “Microsoft’s new vision: a computer in every… coffee maker?”:

If you need your alarm clock to do double-duty as secretary for your day’s appointments, or you want a coffee maker that knows you’re grinding the beans too fine, Microsoft and Fugoo want to talk to you later this year. The two companies are working on “the next generation” of household appliances, gadgets, and accessories that are not only connected to the Internet, but also utilize a standard API for communicating with each other.

Microsoft touts a few fictional devices in its announcement of this technology and was showing off two concept products at its CES booth. The first is a “net clock” that can display stock information, local traffic, and weather reports in addition to, you know, actually telling time. Another is a digital photo frame that goes far beyond slideshows to display news headlines, sports scores, or full-length movies.

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Fugoo interface:

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One of the reactions to the announcement, mac the naïf:

An x86 seems like a rediculous CPU to use in a coffee maker, unless Windows is a requirement.

Plausible scenarios:

Coffee machines come with a mandatory exclusive 2-year contract with Starbucks, which tracks your coffee consumption and sells the information to your health insurer.

Hackers break into your coffee machine and substitute 0xdecaf.

Your coffee machine tries to upgrade its software and fails, flooding the kitchen with packets and taking down the refrigerator and microwave in the process.

The milk in your refrigerator spoils, and it responds by ordering 65536 gallons, with the attached side-of-0xdeadbeef upgrade.

In Why Apple doesn’t do “Concept Products” I tried to explain why removing real-world constraints from (prototype) design often results in marketplace failure. Of course, only if Microsoft could actually learn from failure. Remember Microsoft’s Smart Personal Objects Technology (SPOT)? Hint, hint. Not even the Fossil Microsoft Wrist Net MSNDirect SPOT Watch from half a decade ago?

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Daily question: The Ripley Scroll

A small section from the amazing Ripley Scroll at Bibliodyssey:

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The remarkable Ripley Scroll is, in simple terms, an alchemical manuscript that shows in pictorial cryptograms the production of the philosopher’s stone (the elusive ingredient that produces incorruptible gold out of lesser metals; and/or the elixir of life).

Part of the upcoming exhibition “Book of Secrets: Alchemy and the European Imagination, 1500-2000″ at the Yale Beinecke Library, from January 20 to April 18, 2009.

When the modern alchemy of Enrons, Satyams, Madoffs, Ponzi schemes, opaque derivates, VC exit strategies and the like are captured someday in a long stroll, will it be as masterfully depicted?

Strategic shortcomings of Pre in the post-iPhone era

In Who can beat iPhone 2.0? we explored what it would take to compete against the now-iconic device months before the 3G version was introduced. Those 10 factors that specifically defined the strength of the iPhone then remain virtually the same today…to the dismay of its competitors.

In platform battles the victory depends not only on the disruptive prowess of the challenger but also on the ineptitude of the contenders. So it was for Microsoft whose competitors on the desktop from IBM to Apple to Novell made one strategic blunder after another for a decade. The same goes for Apple which established its dominance in digital music in just five years when all its competitors thought their feature-laden gadgets without an ecosystem would turn into iPod-killers.

By capturing nearly a quarter of the market share, a third of the revenue and most of the mind share in less than two years, Apple is well on its way to dominate the smartphone space. Apple’s competitors have shown a remarkable degree of ineptitude so far by copying disjointed aspects of the iPhone’s industrial engineering, multi-touch UI, media handling and App Store.

Until, that is, Apple’s former iPod division boss Jon Rubinstein, now the Executive Chairman of Palm, introduced the Pre at CES last week:

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Pre’s introduction, website, technology packaging, industrial design, UI, product naming and positioning…down to the flow of its CES presentation were pointedly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Apple-like. Of all the current iPhone competitors, Pre clearly captures the “soul” of the iPhone as much as any product not-from-Cupertino can. Whatever Pre “borrows” from the iPhone, it does so not with the brazen indifference of recent iPhone-killers, but with care and purpose.

The Pre challenge

As much as can be gleaned from a presentation, Pre does two things better than all the other iPhone competitors so far: attack Apple’s weak points and advance the art of mobile device design in its own right. There are the obvious ones iPhone naysayers have been quick to highlight: physical keyboard, pervasive multitasking, background processing, removable battery, Bluetooth stereo, camera flash and, of course, copy & paste.

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More significantly, however, Pre goes beyond the iPhone in some interesting ways. Its TI OMAP 3430 processor is the highest performance, most power-efficient processor available from the ARM family. Pre is the first major phone with an optional back that can magnetically attach to a conductive device for charging wirelessly. Optimized for on-the-go, one-hand operation, it incorporates a “gesture bar” at the bottom that stands apart visually from the screen but is integral to it in being able to initiate a number of device-wide gestures. But what really separates Pre from all other iPhone-killers is the uniquely Apple-like systems thinking that has resulted in what Palm calls Cards and Synergy, as parts of its new Web OS.

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Cards is like Mac OS X Exposé in that, with a gesture, all running apps/windows are scaled down as a horizontal strip of small “cards.” Users can not only drag, re-arrange and flick these apps/windows off the screen, but also interact with them as they continue to be active.

Synergy, on the other hand, exposes Apple’s hitherto weak spot in social computing. Pre can seamlessly integrate multiple email, SMS, IM and social network accounts by keeping data separate but presentation unified. This also allows users to branch off into any of those services from within any entry point, without having to switch accounts or applications.

System-wide as well as cloud-based live search, local storage via HTML5, visual WebKit bookmarks, unified calendaring, unobtrusive notifications and a number of other software features indicate that, unlike other iPhone-killers, Palm has thought through a variety of pain points currently besetting the iPhone. Pre’s interface consistency goes much deeper than the few splashy touch-based screens we’ve come to expect from the recent crop of iPhone-killers that fall back to WIMP ugliness as soon as users navigate one or two levels down into an app.

So can Pre beat iPhone?

It turns out Pre’s most formidable challenge is not the iPhone, but its parent company Palm and exclusive carrier Sprint.

Palm (whose CEO famously dismissed the iPhone with “PC guys are not going to just figure this out. They’re not going to just walk in”) is beleaguered, to recycle an epitaph once attached to Apple of the mid ’90s. Prior to the Pre introduction most analysts had already left Palm for dead, and without the Elevation Partners’ recent $100 million investment it likely would have been. This is further compounded by the fact that by introducing the Pre six months ahead, Palm may have handicapped the current sales of the rest of its lackluster product line. Assuming it can stay solvent until revenues from Pre can resuscitate it, Palm has lost so much mind and market share, along with customers and developers, that erasing that “beleaguered” label will be a monumental undertaking.

Palm is clearly late to iPhone’s party. By the time the first Pre is sold, the iPhone will likely have 30 million users in 70+ countries, 15,000 apps, a huge developer and peripherals ecosystem, perhaps a third of the market share and 40% of smartphone revenues. And that’s before the next generation iPhone device and OS are introduced.

Too little, too late?

Pre already has a number of shortcomings. Its enterprise story (corporate mail, security, vertical apps, deployment ease, etc.) remain largely unknown. As is its JavaScript-HTML-CSS based development platform Mojo. Is it powerful, fast, flexible and extensible enough? Can it compete with SDKs from Apple or Android? What about Palm’s app store regulation strategy? Not much has been explained about Pre’s graphics, animation, 3D or gaming capabilities either.

Being exclusively tied to Sprint can also be problematic for Pre. Having emerged as one of the casualties of the new smartphone wars and lost a significant number of customers and revenue, Sprint too is a beleaguered company. Its debt has been lowered to “junk” status by Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s last year. Sprint is considerably smaller than either AT&T or Verizon. Pre’s most likely would-be early adopters who can appreciate its design smarts are already tied up with multi-year contracts with other carriers and would be hard to switch. Finally, can two beleaguered companies properly price, subsidize and market the Pre in the middle of a recession?

Prejudging Pre’s prospects

Unfortunately for Palm, most markets generally coalesce around two, and at best three, players. By all accounts the iPhone is geared to claim one of those spots. The challenge for Palm then is to carve out an online-savvy demographic than can best exploit Pre’s social-computing Synergy focus with a beyond-iPhone strategy. Pre goes into this battle without Apple’s superior brand recognition, iTunes empire and mobile games franchise, or RIM’s business clout, Nokia’s volume, Microsoft’s corporate connections and Android’s openness banner. Trouble is, all these players are also in hot pursuit of that same 18-34 year-old, highly lucrative demographic segment. The notion that Palm may not have the wherewithal to successfully pursue that demographic and execute with uncharacteristic precision is perhaps why some regard the Pre as an attempt by Palm to finally get acquired by a player with deeper pockets.

As we have seen in Who can beat iPhone 2.0? it’s the seamless integration of critical factors from volume component pricing to games, from enterprise integration to App Store, from iTunes integration to a billion-dolar ecosystem and beyond that makes the iPhone such a formidable competitor.

Pre would have been favorably competitive against the iPhone as a platform two years ago. But six months from today it will have an extremely steep hurdle in front of it erected by a company with a golden brand, thriving mobile business and $25+ billion in cash reserves. Unlike RIM, Nokia or Microsoft, however, Palm must at least be given credit for fielding a credible iPhone-alternative device — hopefully not too late for its investors.

Editor interview: Designing “Data Flow”

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Yesterday in Book review: World’s best info-design in “Data Flow” we explored an exciting new book on data visualization. Today we ask Gestalten Publisher and Editor in Chief Robert Klanten to comment on the current state of info-design and the genesis of Data Flow: Visualising Information in Graphic Design:

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• Where did the idea of creating Data Flow come from? Any influences?

Information graphics are an interesting topic we have always been following. It has always been very much tied with websites, interactive and screen design, and now we felt there was enough new material to show how much it has matured in the last couple of years.

• Most people get exposed to info-vis in a limited fashion via their daily newspaper, newsweeklies, TV and other popular media. Specialized magazines, trade books, marketing collaterals, text books, etc. where more evolved forms of info-vis might be found are not mass marketed. Have you noticed if info-vis is making more inroads into the popular culture?

First there is a growing demand for information graphics but beyond demand I feel that the aesthetics are somehow en – vogue. I think that everybody is aware of how interconnected our lives have become through media and how the sheer amount of information, references and interests have exploded.

Maybe the deeper logic is that modern people feel more comfortable seeing themselves as a part of a huge network, much rather than being a slice of a pie chart. Everyone has to find new ways of defining and locating oneself – graphic design is somehow providing this trend with adequate visuals.

• There is a vast divide between template-based info-design coupled to digital data sources that generate our daily intake of info-vis and one-off creations that require long and painstaking work by dedicated info-designers some of whose work can be seen in Data Flow. Our digital tools are not yet capable of facilitating real-time, or even reasonably rapid, creation of rich and elegant visualization. Do you foresee a day when this gap might be narrowed?

This day is much closer than we all think. There is a huge demand for visualisation in technology, medicine, science, meteorology, etc and these solutions will make it in museums, onto fairs as well as other commercial applications. Computers are fast enough to handle the huge amount of data that is needed without causing delays handling the data. This is the key.

• In collecting your samples, have you noticed any differences among American, European and Asian approaches to info-design?

There are certain “folkloristic” preferences and traditions that always exists and become visible here and there. Britons are very image driven while continental Europeans are usually working with a reduced and clear structure and favour vector graphics. Americans expect “how to” instructions to come along with the information while Asians are keen to find out on their own.

But it can generally be said that the guys who have devoted themselves to this subject are very diligently trying to avoid local habits and try to react upon the expectations and the intelligence of the viewer much rather than trying to do something which is self-servingly stylish or traditional.

• I assume that some samples were eliminated from the book as they couldn’t fulfill the “Visual metaphors are a powerful aid to human thinking” criteria. With some samples, did you have any difficulty in drawing a distinction between the purely decorative but perhaps inspirational and informative but perhaps purely instructional?

I think we tried to cover the subject in its entirety from instruction to inspiration. There are examples in the book that might use the aesthetics of information graphics without being “informative” in a classical sense. There are other examples that are trying their best to create / discuss new possibilities of visual display. It is quite subjective to determine where one thing begins and the next thing starts and in some cases we have decided to leave this decision to the reader.

We are not delivering a final verdict but try to see this book as a launch pad that provides the reader with enough knowledge and theory and open questions.

• Were there perhaps more patterns beyond the six that you focused on (datasphere, datanets, datascape, datalogy, datanoid, datablocks) that you may have found too restrictive, specialized or amorphous?

Yes, absolutely. Just like information graphics, we had to build an editorial container and include as much information (chapters, types of applications) to create consistent and instructive examples and exclude more freakish approaches for the sake of remaining legible.