September 2010 Archives

I gave a short talk on services avatars. In the talk, I outline three trends and describe how they combine to create a deep shift in the design of devices and services.

You can download the PDF presentation, which includes a complete transcript, or check it out on slideshare:

Here's the jittery video:

Watch live streaming video from gigaomtv at

Here is the transcript:

Good afternoon! Thank you Surj and Om for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

First, let me tell you a bit about myself. I'm a user experience designer and entrepreneur. I was one of the first professional Web designers in 1993. Since then I've worked on the user experience design of hundreds of web sites. I also consult on the design of digital consumer products, and I've helped a number of consumer electronics and appliance manufacturers create better user experiences and more user centered design cultures.

In 2003 I wrote a how-to book of user research methods for technology design. It has proven to be somewhat popular, as such books go.

Around the same time as I was writing that book, I co-founded a design and consulting company called Adaptive Path.

I wanted to get more hands-on with technology development, so I founded ThingM with Tod E. Kurt.

We're a micro-OEM. We design and manufactures a range of smart LEDs for architects, industrial designers and hackers. We're also spinning off a new company that's going to apply this technology to the consumer space. I have lots to say about that, but this talk is about something else, so talk to me offline if you'd like details.

This talk is based on a chapter from my new book. It's called "Smart Things" and it came out a couple of weeks ago. In the book, I describe an approach for designing digital devices that combine software, hardware, physical and virtual components.


I want to start by talking about three trends that are combining to create a new class of digital products which are distributed through the environment and linked by cloud-based services. These devices not only create many opportunities for innovation, but they represent a new way of thinking about both products and services.


The first trend is a product of Moore's Law. Normally people think of Moore's Law in terms of processor speed, but the same technologies that makes the latest chips powerful push the price of older technology down. We have now reached a point where many powerful technologies are priced like basic commodities. For example, the Intel 486 was the processor that the Web was built for and with. It cost $1500 in 1989. Today you can get as much processing power for about 50 cents.

This new System on a Chip from Microchip has about as much processing power as that initial 486, but is also has an onboard video controller that can drive a VGA-class screen, a USB controller for peripherals, a 24-channel analog to digital converter for sensor, and a capacitive sensing driver that can drive a touch screen. It costs about $5, uses less power than a keyring LED flashlight, and fits on a chip the size of your fingernail. It's also not unusual. Almost every semiconductor maker makes similar products.

This means that you can now include powerful processing and networking in almost anything, and start rethinking the design of everything in terms of embedded digital technology. The "how" problem of creating ubiquitous computing has almost been answered. Now the questions are what to create, and why.


The answer to these is being driven by two other shifts.
First, is a shift from generic devices and software to specialized devices and software. When computing was expensive, you had one or two general purpose devices that had deal with almost every situation. This necessitated design compromises that resulted in devices and software that could do almost everything, but did none of it well. It was then up to the user to take these generic tools and making them appropriate to the current situation.

Now that processing is so cheap, you can have a combination of 10, 20, or 30 computing devices and apps for the price of that one device, and you can acquire new functionality as needed. This means that every device and software package can have a narrower purpose.


The third trend is that the lasting legacy of the Web has been a shift in the value digital technology from being primarily local to being primarily remote. The Web demonstrated that moving functionality online enables access to more compute power, continuous updates, real-time usage analytics, and (of course) social connections. It also created a shift in people's expectations. Today, most people understand that the experience you see on one device is often a part of something that's distributed throughout the world. There's no longer a need to pack everything into a single piece of software, and there's no expectation that everything will be there.

What I think is most interesting, however, is that these shifts appear to be the first part an even larger transition, one where devices are simultaneously specific AND deeply tied to online services. In this model, the service provides the majority of the value, and can be represented either as an inexpensive dedicated hardware device, an app running on a terminal, or anything in between.

It's an approach that combines the precision of appliances with the flexibility of terminals to create a fundamentally new class of products that can fill every possible niche where a service may be appropriate.

I call these devices service avatars.


As value shifts to services, the devices, software applications and websites used to access it--its avatars--become secondary. A camera becomes a really good appliance for taking photos for Flickr, while a TV becomes a nice Flickr display that you don't have to log into every time, and a phone becomes a convenient way to take your Flickr pictures on the road.

Hardware becomes simultaneously more specialized and devalued as users see "through" each device to the service it represents.


For example, you can now get Netflix on virtually any terminal that has a screen and a network connection. You can pause a Netflix movie on one terminal and then upause it on another. This may feel a bit novel, but it also seems natural. Why?

Because to the Netflix customer, any device used to watch a movie on Netflix is just a hole in space to the Netflix service. It's a short-term manifestation of a single service. The value, the brand loyalty, and the focus is on the service, not the frame around it. The technology exists to enable the service, not as an end to itself.

Netflix appliances are created for a single reason: to make it easier to access Netflix. That's what Roku does. It turns every terminal that's not already Netflix enabled into a Netflix terminal. The Boxee box does that for the Boxee service. The new Apple TV does it for iTunes.


Let me give you another example. This is Vitality's Glowcap, which is a wireless network-connected pill bottle appliance that's an avatar to Vitality's service for increasing compliance to medicine prescriptions. When you close the cap, it sends a packet of information through a mobile phone-based base station to a central server and it starts counting down to when you next need to take your medicine. When it's time, it lights up the LED on the top of the bottle.

However, the real power is in the packet of data it sends. That packet opens a door to the full power of an Internet-based service. Now Vitality can create sophisticated experiences that transcend a single piece of software or a single device.

For example, another avatar of the Vitality service is an online progress report that can be used interactively or delivered by email. It's like Google Analytics for your medicine.

Health care practitioners get yet another avatar that gives them long-term and longitudinal analytics about compliance across medications and time.

To me, this kind of conversation between devices and net services is where the real power of The Internet of Things begins.

Vitality has developed a complete system around this service that includes a social component, and different avatars for patients, patients families, health care practitioners and pharmacies. Each avatar looks different and has different functionality, but they're perceived, and designed as a single system.

I think it's a model of how many everyday things are going to be designed in the future.

Soon designing objects that have significant social lives in the cloud will become just how everything is made.

In preparation, I recommend a shift in thinking away from whether to make an app, a mobile web site, a platform, or a dedicated device, and to start thinking about how you design your service, and what avatars will best facilitate that service.

Thank you.

I just gave a lightning talk at the 2010 Open Hardware Summit. In it I tried to describe three situations where openness and business practice have intersected in our running of ThingM. Here's the transcript:

Hi. Thank you very much Alicia and Ayah for organizing this event. Since this is a lightning talk, let me cut to the chase.

I'm Mike, co-founder of ThingM with Tod E. Kurt. We design and manufacture ubiquitous computing products. Our current product line consists of BlinkM smart LEDs. These are ultrabright RGB LEDs that have an integrated driver that runs firmware that abstracts away the complexity of creating light effects. Someone with no experience with electronics, programming or color theory can use our stuff to make a smoothly fading, blinking light effect in a relatively short time without an additional microcontroller or any other hardware. Our smart LEDs even have their own input pins to change behavior on the fly and they're used in everything from car dashboard prototypes to (as we have been told) Lady Gaga's stage show.

The vast majority of our code and designs are open, but not everything, and I'll explain why in a minute.

First, let me preface by saying that ThingM is our day job. In the four years since we started it, we've always treated it as a profit-making business that needs to sustain itself and us. So, just as any small business, we're always thinking about money, and that frames my perspective on the value of Open Hardware as part of a larger business strategy.

I want to describe three situations where ideas of Open Hardware intersected with our business decisions. I haven't been watching the summit, so excuse me if this has been covered already.

Case 1
We sell a product called the MaxM. It's a two-part smart LED. There's a controller and an LED cluster. When we first came out with it, one of our distributors asked if they could sell the LED cluster alone. With thought, "Why not?" and made some extras. They sold pretty well, but we made very little money on each one, maybe $1, because they were cheap. After the first run sold run, I ran the numbers and realized that for every cluster we sold instead of a MaxM, we lost somewhere around $5 in potential profits, and our customers got a product that wasn't nearly as interesting as a MaxM. Thus we would have to sell five clusters to make up for every potential lost MaxM sale. Was that actually happening? I don't know for sure, but the numbers didn't imply it, and there were indications that we were in fact hurting MaxM sales.

We decided to cancel the LED cluster, and we told the distributor. They said "OK, but if you don't mind, we'll just make our own. It won't look like yours, but it'll basically be the same thing." They didn't have our Gerber files or our LED supplier, but we share the schematic and it can be replicated very easily. Of course I said yes, since they're good friends of ours, but I felt like we had developed a product that cannibalized our primary market, while giving someone with better marketing and distribution resources than we had another opportunity to compete with us.

What did we learn? Well, we kind of screwed ourselves twice, and if our hardware wasn't as open, we may have only screwed ourselves once. Would we do things differently? Probably not.

Case 2
A couple of months ago I was having a really good conversation with a big electronics catalog, trying to talk them into carrying our products. I thought things were going pretty well and they were going to pick up our product line, when their buyer casually said "Can you send over your UL certification? We can't carry your product unless it's been UL certified." I said, "uh, let me look into that." So I did. It costs between $10,000 and $20,000 for our type of lighting product. To do all of our products would cost us around $100K. If we want to get all of the other certifications that are applicable, it would probably cost us another $100K. First of all, we can't afford that. Moreover, conforming to the standards would require us to change our designs in specific ways, which would be great, because there's probably a reason those standards exist, but it's a pretty expensive design rev. If we make our revised designs open, we will be giving potential competitors the product of that standards conforming process, of that improved design that cost us $200K, putting us at an immediate financial disadvantage.

Can we afford to make that gift? I don't know. I'm still thinking about it.

Case 3
Three years ago, about a week after we had started selling and shipping the BlinkM, we got an email. The email was a very nice. The author said that he and his company thought our products were very interesting, but wanted to point out that his company had just been granted a patent on the core functionality of our product, and that he would like to have a conversation with us about it. The patent had been granted that day, so it was clear that he had been quietly following our progress as we documented it on Flickr and our blogs. I immediately called our patent attorney. He asked me to come to his office. When I came in, he had the patent printed out and the key claims highlighted. He asked me whether our product did the highlighted claims. I said, "Well, it definitely does these two things, and if I understand this third claim correctly, then it does that, too." He said "Get out of that business immediately."

Fortunately, we were lucky. I'm stubborn and optimistic. Jeff, the guy who sent us the email was the CTO of an East Coast manufacturing company, and he said that rather than sending his lawyers, he wanted to talk first. He suggested we meet the following week, since he was going to be in the Bay Area. My patent lawyer's half-joking advice was not to go alone and to not meet him in a hotel room. Jeff suggested we meet in a hotel room in Santa Clara, alone. I said OK.

Since time is limited, I'll cut to the chase. It actually went very well. Jeff was generous and I didn't do anything that I regretted in the morning. We negotiated for about six hours and came up with a licensing agreement that allowed us to use his company's IP for free, but we could not make products outside of a specifically defined market, we could not share the technology with his competitors, and that the IP was not transferrable. If someone made something with our products that crossed into his company's market, he would treat it as a patent infringement, and we would be held at least partially responsible. Thus, we could not make the core part of our product, the firmware, open, since that would violate the agreement.

That's when I realized that IP, whether it's open or controlled by patents or trade secrets has a different quality when held by small companies than patents held by large companies. Large companies think of themselves as knights in armor and treat IP like a battle axe, but for small companies, if you're dealing with someone reasonable, a patent or an open hardware design is just a letter of introduction between two companies with a mutual interest in a technology. Their interest is, or should be, to do mutually beneficial business with each other. And that's how I've treating IP ever since. We have filed some patents and trade secrets, but most of our products are open. However, we have to decide which is which on a case by case basis.

The main thing I learned from these three experiences is that there are many shades of grey in Open Hardware. I try to keep ThingM as open as possible, but every decision has an effect on the financial health of the company, in the short term and the long term. Openness is a strategy for long-term technological influence, and perhaps profit, but it carries with it both short term and long term costs that have to calculated as part of a business model.

I just spoke at Appnation's closing keynote, which is a tribute to Mark Weiser. Most of the keynote was a conversation between Drew Ianni, the organizer, Lars Erik Holmquist and Matthias Rost of the Mobile Life lab, Bo Begole of PARC, and me, but we got a couple of minutes up front to talk about how we believe Weiser's ideas were relevant today.

I decided to make myintro about how those early ideas affect user experience design today. Here are my speaking notes from that intro:

What happened between the original era of ubicomp and today is the Web.

When Weiser and PARC were developing the original ideas for ubicomp, they were working in the world of traditional office applications. In that video they're using shared versions of word processors and things like MacPaint, and we know that's not how we now understand the value of networked computers.

They gave us a vision of the hardware, but it took 15 years of success and failure on the Web to teach a generation of designers and entrepreneurs where the value in networked computing lies. Now we have a healthy body of cultural knowledge and tools for designing user experiences that deliver value to enormous numbers of people simultaneously, in a mostly device-agnostic way.

We're at the point where the technological basis of what they is finally a reality. For about five years we've had devices that are badge, tab, pad, and board size. But more than just the form factor, we now have what we learned from the Web to tell us what goes on those devices.

What we're now seeing is the combination of the two philosophies, of single experiences that are simultaneously available through multiple form factors.

For example, when you think of Netflix or Boxee you think of a single thing, even though it may be running on completely different devices. You pause a TV show on a connected TV, walk out of the house, and unpause it on your phone on the bus.

I think that kind of transparent transition between devices is the real legacy of Weiser and PARC, and it's playing out right now in experiences that transcend apps to become services.




A device studio that lives at the intersections of ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence, industrial design and materials science.

The Smart Furniture Manifesto

Giant poster, suitable for framing! (300K PDF)
Full text and explanation

Recent Photos (from Flickr)

Smart Things: Ubiquitous Computing User Experience Design

By me!
ISBN: 0123748992
Published in September 2010
Available from Amazon

Observing the User Experience: a practitioner's guide to user research

By me!
ISBN: 1558609237
Published April 2003
Available from Amazon

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