Filtering by Category: Failure

How to define a "failure"

An interesting reaction to my talk at Lift09 last week is the one by Tim Leberecht from Frog Design:

"He presented a nonchalant history of product flops (from the picture phone to the smart fridge to location-based services), which were in his judgment all hampered by "over-optimism," "lack of knowledge," and "blind faith in the Zeitgeist." Yet I found his definition of product success flawed as it was obviously based on the principle of mass adoption – a questionable proposition in times of increasingly fragmented audiences and micro-markets. Which new product – besides maybe the iPod and the iPhone – has really gone mainstream in the past ten years? Many of the products and technologies Nova stigmatized as "failures" have found their audience in some form and created significant value both for their inventors and consumers. Yet we simply fail to recognize their success since it occurs in market niches and communities."

His main comment stems from my definition of "failures" that is flawed (or perhaps my absence of definition) because I too much relied on "mass adoption" as an indicator of success, according to what he perceived. Unfortunately, this was not my point. Some comments:

  • I fully acknowledge the importance of niches, as attested by my slide about the non-existence of the "average human". This part was about the importance of targeting products and services (as opposed to designing to a non-existing average person extracted from the masses.
  • I do agree I should have added a slide to define what is a "failure" and what I meant here. Or perhaps I should have discussed the common misconception that failures. While, the failure lies in how a certain vision (a "smart fridge") is turned into a certain product (a certain model of smart fridge), I did not meant that the vision failed. It's indeed true that lots of failed products have resurfaced in other contexts, with new and original usages (videophone vs skype).
  • Although video-communication is a bit used (to convey sign language for example) OR in certain cultures, it's above all a failure in lots of markets.
  • Perhaps my selection of "failures" (videophone, smart fridge, multi-user LBS) was a bit limited and lead him to find it "nonchalant" but I wanted to point out examples (as opposed to showing matrixes and statistics of examples).
  • Besides, unlike my speech (that I wanted more synthetic than academic), I can also use the academic trick of quoting references. That said, I was a bit reluctant to quote this sort of material (hence the nonchalant attitude?) because (1) it would take lots of time to discuss the epistemological basis of research papers, (2) it would sound patronizing in this kind of setting. The literature about failures (and successes) is quite abundant in domains such as management of innovation, marketing or foresight. See for instance Van der Panne, G., C.P. van Beers & A. Kleinknecht: 'Success and failure of innovation: A literature review' which provides an interesting overview of success factors and also points to other papers about this topic. For example, in Asplund, M. & Sandin, R. (1999) The survival of new products, the authors describes that "only one out of every five projects ever initiated proves viable". The literature about foresight is also consistent; Steven Schnaar's "Megamistakes: Forecasting and the Myths of Rapid Technological Change" discusses how forecasts are only 20% to 25% correct. In this case, what is interesting is that it's the vision that is described as a failure (not products)
  • A mistake I made (not pointed by Leberecht but I do think about it anyway) is that my perspective was certainly too occidental and that cultural variations matter. For instance, some smart fridges in Japan and Korea have succeeded.

Regarding the final comment:

"Both Nova and Gyger heralded a more pragmatic model of future-oriented thinking. But I'm not sure if I share their skepticism towards grand visions. What if the future has arrived, however – to paraphrase William Gibson – it is so widely distributed (that is, buried in fragmented micro-markets) that we don't notice it? "

I actually used the same quote from Gibson to indicate that "product failures" are interesting hints for the future. Which refers to the example I mentioned: personal communication with video has been more successfully adopted on laptops/computers compared to videophones and mobile phones. Why do I blog this? simply because critiques like Leberecht's are important as it allows to refine and precise my points. Will try to get back to my pen-and-paper thinking about come up with a deeper definition of "failure".

Exploring failed futures at Lift09

At Lift09 the other day, I gave a modified version of my earlier talk about failed products/futures. I tried to take into account the remarks I received from various attendants of Design Engaged and came up with the following script: Smart fridges, flying cars and visiophones are common examples of innovations designed by technological companies and envisioned by science-fiction writers. Devices you always see in beautiful ads and that you never buy or you stop using almost immediately after acquiring them. You often see them in pulp novels from the 20s and glossy ads from the 60s. To some extent, they can be perceived as futures that refuse to arrive; some sorts of suspended endpoints that keep luring us again and again.

(Visual representation of my talk by Martin Kuipers)   Most of the time, they are not isolated examples: there is not just one model of intelligent fridge, nor one type of flying car. Failures are often repeated; they are recurring till the happy end where a convenient instantiation of the future can be found. This is what happened with visiophones. For forty years, plenty of phone boxes with videos and pictures have been designed and have always failed. Personal communication with pictures finally works out with desktop PCs and laptops using software such as Skype. The idea was correct, the instantiations were wrong as explained by Chris Heathcote in a blogpost commenting my talk at Design Engaged.   Personally, failed products fascinate me. My work is to carry out studies of how people use technologies to help designers refine their products. From this point of view, I cannot help being mesmerized by artifacts, which are not appropriated. Is it useful? I do think it is. First, failures often result in more detailed critiques than successes. The documentation of inadequate products offers a rich material to help learn from mistakes. Second, as the example above has shown, failures are simply good ideas that came before their time. As William Gibson, the science-fiction author, says “the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed". Spotting failures is therefore a good way to understand possible avenues for the future. Finally, understanding why something failed is a good input for design, perhaps even a “design strategy” where mistakes from the past are just seen as iterations towards a success.   What are the reasons for failed products? In general, there are three issues:

  1. Innovation is not just technical: a technological breakthrough is not enough to design a product. A product must fulfill a need and fit with people’s habits. For example, it’s nice to have a fridge that can scan your food and display the time limit. However, you need RFID tags or barcodes on every food item to work this out. It’s tough to ask people to tag their own food for so little benefit. A good understanding of future users is important and often missing. It simply means that a product should not be designed for the “average human” but for a target with specific needs and behavior.
  2. The big picture is often ignored: the technology is fine but the world is not ready to accept it. Think about flying cars, even if technology was ready, it would be tremendously difficult to have new regulations and signposts adapted to 3D navigation!
  3. The way we perceive change is flawed: we often think change is linear and that the future will be based on the past. But it is not the case, big changes occur: the arrival of digital cameras was quite a surprise for companies such as Kodak. Moreover, we tend to over-estimate the speed of short-term adoption and under-estimate the dissemination of technology as pointed out by futurist Roy Amara.

Ubiquitous computing naming issue

There's an interesting discussion of the term "ubiquitous computing"by Mike Kuniavsky at Orange Cone. Mike basically explains the ambiguity of terms and deconstruct the very notion of ubicomp:

""Lately, I've been thinking about why "ubiquitous computing" has such problems as a name. When I talk about it, people either dismiss it as a far-future pipe-dream, or an Orwellian vision of panoptic control and dominance. I don't see it as either. I've never seen it as an end point, but as the name of a thing to examine and participate (...) Why don't others see it the same? I think it's because the term is fundamentally different because it has an implied infinity in it. Specifically, the word "ubiquitous" implies an end state, something to strive for, something that's the implicit goal of the whole project. That's of course not how most people in the industry look at it, but that's how outsiders see it (...) As a side effect, the infinity in the term means that it simultaneously describes a state that practitioners cannot possibly attain ("ubiquitous" is like "omniscient"--it's an absolute that is impossible to achieve) and an utopia that others can easily dismiss."

The problem is then that "Anything that purports to be a ubiquitous computing project can never be ubiquitous enough"! Then, what shall be done? As Mike points out, other terms such as "artificial intelligence" also had the same issues.

"Do we need to rename "ubicomp" something like "embedded computing product design," something that promises less so that it can deliver more? Maybe. I still like the implicit promise in the term and its historical roots, but I recognize that as long as it has an infinity in part of its term, there will always be misunderstandings"

Why do I blog this? preparing my Lift talk about failures I am interested in the difference between the imagined futures (endpoints such as ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence or flying cars) and the reality as it is experienced by people (users?). Mike Kuniavsky makes interesting points about this issue here by looking at the how naming research domains/trends can be misleading.

Things disclose a world, also when they break

In "What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, And Design", Peter-Paul Verbeek writes that:

"Things, in short, disclose a world. (...) But that this is so, according to Heidegger, generally appears only when a handy or ready to hand tool or piece of equipment breaks down. When this happens, the tool suddenly demands attention for itself. The reliable dealings we are used to having with the tool are ruptured, and instead of withdrawing from our attention the tool suddenly forces itself upon us. Someone sits at a word processor focused on the text at hand and all of a sudden the computer freezes. The trustworthy world that developed around the computer – the open book, the keyboard, the screen, the cup of coffee; in short, the entire mutually referring network that Heidegger calls a world – is abruptly destroyed. The computer changes from being one of the handy or ready-to-hand that shape this world to what Heidegger calls something vorhanden: ‘objectively present’ in the newer translation, or ‘present-at-hand’ in the older. Its transparency is transformed into opacity. (...) Only when it starts up again and everything works without a hitch is the world that was destroyed again restored."

Why do I blog this? accumulating notes and insights about issues regarding people's experience of infrastructure for a project about electricity and the internet of things. The topic of breakings and failures is of course a long-time favorite, somehow linked to my fascination towards breakdowns. Beyond this, what I find important here is how to take that sort of unexpected issue into account in the design process, as well as investigating the range of people's reaction. Having a sort of typology (failures reactions) can be a good start.

Latour on Anthropomorphism

Read in "Aramis, or the Love of Technology" by Bruno Latour:

""Anthropomorphism purports to establish a list of the capabilities that define humans and that it can then project through metaphors onto other beings - whales, gorillas, robots, a Macintosh, an Aramis, chips or bugs. The word anthropomorphism always implies that such a projection remains inappropriate, as if it were clear to everyone that the actants on which feelings are projected were actually acting in terms of different competences. If we say that whales are ‘touching’, that a gorilla is ‘macho’, that robots are ‘intelligent’, that Macintosh computers are ‘user-friendly’, that Aramis has ‘the right’ to bump [etc.] ... , we are still supposing that ‘in reality’, of course, all this fauna remains brute and completely devoid of human feelings. Now, how could one describe what they are truly are, independently of any ‘projection’? By using another list taken from a different repertory that is projected surreptitiously onto the actants? For example, technomorphisms: the whale is an ‘automaton’, a simple ‘animal-machine’; the robot, too, is merely a simple machine. Man [sic] himself, after all, far from having feelings to project, is only a biochemical automaton. We give the impression, then, not that there are two lists, one of human capabilities and one of mechanical competencies, but that legitimate reductionism has taken place of inappropriate anthropomorphism. Underneath projections of feeling, in this view, there is matter. ...

But what can be said of the following projection: ‘The chips are bugged’? Here is a zoomorphism - bugs - projected onto a technology. Or this one: ‘The gorilla is obeying a simple stimulus-response’? Here a technobiologism - the creation of neurologists - is reprojected on to an animal. ...

... Let us [therefore] say that ... there is never any projection onto real behaviour, the capabilities to be distributed form an open and potentially infinite list, and that is better to speak of (x)-morphism instead of becoming indignant when humans are treated as nonhumans or vice versa. The human form is as unknown to us as the nonhuman"

Why do I blog this? some inspiring quote by (again, no surprise) Bruno Latour about the relation we have/built/construct with technical artifacts. Some elements certainly brought into the discussion during the preparation of LIFT Asia/. Besides, I'll post my notes about that book later on, there's a lot to draw for my project about "technological failures".

"Future overwhelmed"

Starting with a discussion of Disney's Tomorrowland, Joel Garreau has a good piece in the Washington Post concerning how americans feel very little connection to the future anymore. Unlike the past, especially in the 50s (till the 80s), he describes how people are "future overwhelmed" using the term employed by Danny Hillis. According to Garreau, Disney's Tomorrowland seems to be a reassuring future aspiration as its "focus is on what doesn't change": ranging from intact nuclear family to "vigorous grandparents" and "the sound of crickets". Garreau examines why this is not the future we have in the research pipeline and what the disconnection between this representation of the future and current research says about us. Some excerpts:

"The '60s and '70s were not good to the original Disney vision of the future. The Vietnam War, the assassinations, the revolt against anything square, the idea that big corporate computers only served to mangle individuality and imagination, the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the women's movement -- all challenged the notion that every day, in every way, things were getting better and better.

Even more profoundly, the 2,000-year-old idea of the inevitability of "progress" was taking holes beneath the waterline. As Robert Nisbet notes in "History of the Idea of Progress," across every ideology, people stopped believing one or more of the major premises that were its underpinnings -- that reason alone, and the scientific method, was inherently worthy of faith; that economic and technological flowering was unquestionably worthwhile; that Western civilization was noble and even superior to its alternatives. The theme of the Jimmy Carter years was "malaise." (...) The damage to the idea of a benevolent future, however, had been done. The punk rock Sex Pistols, in their anthem "God Save the Queen," sang: "No future for you no future for me/No future no future for you." (...) Sometimes it takes guts, trying to dazzle people with the current future. (...) "It's much harder to astound people today, " says Marty Sklar, the former principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, who in 2001 was named a "Disney Legend" for his work going all the way back to Walt's era in the '50s. "They see the speed of change all around them.""

And the best part is certainly these quotes from Danny Hillis:

""Americans feel very little connection to the future anymore," says Danny Hillis. (...) "It was very surprising to me, getting to the future, that nobody was all that interested. Things just started to happen so fast, we were overwhelmed. (...) "We are future overwhelmed. I don't think people try to imagine the year 2050 the way we imagined 2001 in 1960. Because they can't imagine it. Because technology is happening so fast, we can't extrapolate. And if they do, it's not a very positive thing to imagine. It's about a lot of the unwanted side effects catching up to us -- like global ecological disaster. The future views are kind of negative. "What I think it says is that we are nostalgic for a time when we believed in the future. People miss the future. There's a yearning for it. Disney does know what people want. People want to feel some connectedness to the future. The way Disney delivers that is to reach back in time a little bit to the past when they did feel connected. "It's a bit of a cop-out. There was a time when the future was streamlined jet cars. Rather than create a new sense of the future, they say, 'Ah, remember when we believed that the future was streamlined jet cars?' It's a feeling of connection to the future, rather than connection to the future."

Why do I blog this? still gathering stuff about failed and deflated futures for my project.

Failure of business on-line communities

A recent study conducted by Deloitte on more than 100 businesses with online communities reported by Josh Catone deals why these platforms often fail or don't meet the expectations:

  • "Businesses are being enticed by fancy technology. Mesmerized by bells and whistles, many business are foolishly blowing their entire budgets on technology
  • Lack of proper management. The Deloitte study found that 30% of online communities have just part-time employees in charge, and most have just a single PR person running the show. (...) Managed communities are a lot less likely to grow organically the way general mainstream social networks do, so you need someone who knows how to build one in charge.
  • The wrong measurement metrics. Moran noticed that most businesses are measuring the success of their communities in the wrong way. Though their stated goals are usually to create viral, word-of-mouth marketing and increase brand loyalty, the metric they use to gauge success is unique visitors. If all you’re after is growing visits to the site, then you’re missing the point. You’re not trying to compete with mainstream social networks, so you don’t need to chase eyeballs. Rather you need to build interaction and create a level of comfort"

Why do I blog this? not really a surprise IMO but since I am documenting failures for a project, I add this to my list of common problems. There would also be a lot to draw about the over-expectations that concerns 3D.

Bruce Sterling about failed futures

In his talk at Frontiers of Interaction in Torino, Italy last week, Bruce Sterling dealt with the failure of technology and why we don't have jetpacks or flying cars:

"to say a word is not the same as engineer a thing (...) we/people think it's a smooth and practical process but it's not (...) they don't fail because of science they fail because of political frontiers between groups that we don't know how to cross (...) the real frontiers are no longer engineers' law like Moore's law or Metcalfe's law but social and legal practices"

Why do I blog this? this echoes with the list of failing factors I am trying to write-up for a project.

The relevance of "past futures"

"Technological Landscapes" by Richard Rogers is an essay about "relevant past futures", i.e the "past roads not taken", in which he invites us to re-read the history of technological culture "to inform the selection of the technological landscapes of our day":

"Historical comparison with imagery of previous technological landscapes fires the imagination. It is also the stuff of argument and defence for an idea or a project (...) The rationale to looking closely into the early history of current dominant systems relates (...) to challenging the commonplace idea that the marketplace sorts out the 'best' technology and that the consumer and society are the beneficiaries. (...) the 'alternatives paths' or 'roads not taken' historians examine the effects on society (and increasingly the environment) of having lost a potentially viable system - technology opportunity cost.

After mentioning some examples such as FM radio, Rogers goes on with:

"When new and 'better' technological systems are trumpeted, it is worth recalling these and other specific examples of lost battles, from the level of abstractions of craft versus mass production down to that of keyboard layout. In confronting better technologies of the future, the question always remains 'better for whom'?"

And then some more elaborate thoughts about how past futures are used or can be relevant:

"The Nineties [case for space exploration] also shows us how earlier models (relevant pasts) are employed as 'guides' to make current futuristic cases more compelling. To make a case for a futuristic technological project, the promoter often must finds 'usable pasts' or indeed 'usable past futures'. (...) We learn the past futures for at least two reason. They aid us in thinking through the ideals, principles and social relations which have been and could be reflected in and designed into our technologies, bringing within our grasp the ability to 'imagine alternative technological designs' and act accordingly. Secondly, comparison is the stuff of case building. Drawing the right parallel (or spotting the spurious analogy) is one step in proposing or opposing particular cases to be made for new technology and new forms of decision-making on technology."

Why do I blog this? collecting material for a project about technological failures. I am interested in the role of failures in foresight and design. Rogers describes some pertinent ideas about how failed futures can frame design, and the intrinsically political imaginary realm of this practice.

J.K. Rowling about failure

J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter's author) about the importance of failure in her Commencement Address at Harvard:

"What I feared most for myself at your age was not poverty, but failure. (...) Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. (...) So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. (...) Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. (...) The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity."

There are also some great parts about to confront oneself to others and other cultures ("How much more are you, Harvard graduates of 2008, likely to touch other people’s lives?). Why do I blog this? collecting resources about failures for a book project.

"Lost futures" as traps

Still gathering stuff about "failed futures" for a project, I ran across this interview of Matt Jones by Adaptive Path peeps that is very insightful. Some excerpts I found relevant for my project:

"RF: You’ve mentioned the danger of “lost futures,” based on the success of a given device. One model becomes wildly popular, and other, more interesting ways of looking at the problem get cast aside… or at least ignored when they could be doing the most good.

MJ: Exactly - the gravity well of the iPhone is going to be hard for anyone developing innovative UIs to escape for the next few years. In hardware, you’re subject to the determinism of sourcing components.

RF: Our friends the cognitive anthropologists have warned us about the implications of subscribing to the wrong cognitive artifacts…

MJ: So everyone for the last 2/3 years has been offered the same touchscreen components more or less by a few suppliers. And we all (more or less) have similar dimensions we can work within in a touch UI.

RF: So thinking in hardware becomes even more constrained?

MJ: To an extent. UIs will not be so diverse in the next few years… inside a BigDeviceCo you’re going to find it hard to justify the investment in the out-there stuff (as always). But there’s still innovation a plenty to come, its just that for the next few years it’ll be all 16:9 touchscreens, I guess. And then… hopefully someone will Wii on their parade and breakthrough with something as different as the iPhone was to the existing crop of smartphones. That’s my hope anyway. And I think it might be in the area of physical/gestural interfaces, matched with ambient/visualisation tech to give us more natural ‘Everyware‘."

Why do I blog this? I am trying to collect material about what Jones calls "lost future" (in design+foresight), I quite like his stance here, not only about the example discussed (that 16:9 touchscreen device coming from Cupertino) but, rather, its possible consequence: how it eclipses other innovation. There are different consequences of failed futures, some are about traps like in this examples; others are about perpetuation of wrong ideas.

Text clothes

Back during the first internet bubble, mobile computing was already a hot thing and people start having ideas about how to connect things and people. One of them was Skim which enabled a sort of physical to digital connection through a identification number written a piece of clothes that you can text or email. To some extent, it's about sending a note to your I.D. number that will be forwarded to your e-mail address. Your t-shirt could tell others how to get in touch with you BUT they won't know you're real identity. Mobile computing circa 20th century

The whole process is summarized here:

"There is a "unique mailbox number" on every fashion piece. It is six figures long. On the T-shirts it is on the sleeve, on the jackets it is on the pocket etc. In the packaging of the product there is a card with an "access code" on it. Together the "unique mailbox number" and the "access code" give you access to the world of Your mail account is now "unique mailbox number" This is yours forever. It is private to you. See our privacy promise. You can give the email out to your friends, collegues, dates etc. To help you, some of our products come with business cards with your special number on it. To check your mail, simply log on to the website, and go to the communications section. Then it is simple: enter your "unique mailbox number" and your "access code" and you can check/send mail."

Mobile computing circa 20th century

Why do I blog this? looking for service failures for my "tech failure" project. This thing is interesting in itself but obviously failed for some reasons (I'd be glad to know more about them). I guess the project was also an enabler of social comparison ("you have it, you're part of that community")

It's also important to note the perpetuation of such ideas since reactee is a create-your-own-tshirt platform that also allows to display a code on the tshirt (to txt the person who wears it).

Thanks Luc!

The Simpsons' Monorail and innovation

The twelfth episode of The Simpsons' fourth season, called Marge vs. the Monorail is maybe one of my favorite episode and is definitely a great lesson in design. And this, not only in the conception of public transport, but also in terms of innovation as a whole. This episode focuses around the town of Springfield buying a monorail from a Lyle Lanley after earning lot of money, and instead of fixing more urgent problems like cracks on the streets. Only Marge seems to dislike the purchase but everyone in town seems to succumb to the glossy value of the Monorail. After a quick training, Homer happens to be the monorail driver. At first things run okay, but then some malfunction occur and the monorail accelerates dangerously. It's eventually stopped by Homer who launched an anchor on a big donut.

What does that say about design/innovation?

First, it's an interesting example of how a group of people puts lots of money in some sort of crazy things utterly cool that is not the most necessarily need of a community. When Marge tells Bart "Main Street's still all cracked and broken", he replies with the wisdom of the crowd motto: "Sorry, mom, the mob has spoken... Monorail! Monorail! Monorail!". As if the street, as a means of mobility, was boring, old-fashion and useless compared to the shiny representation of the future depicted by the monorail. What's funny is that even Lisa is fooled by the salesman when she tells him that such a transportation system would be useless in a low-density town such as Springfield. The promise of the value of a futuristic device such as the monorail is almost unquestionable (ah... progress), based on the common sense of the group.

Second, and surely a corollary, it also shows (and criticizes) how social pressure is important in the diffusion and acceptability of an innovation. "Ah it's not for you, it's more of a shelbyville idea" or"I've sold monorails to Brockway, Ogdenville, and North Haverbrook, and by gum, it put them on the map!" says the salesman showing a map of the US with only these cities on the map. To some extent, it follows innovation researcher from the 19th century Gabriel Tarde's laws of imitation: innovation are adopted faster when they have already been accepted elsewhere.

Why do I blog this? preparing material for a course, looking for interesting examples of failures. Reminds me of some innovations-who-became fads right? Of course every fad are not always comparable to the "springfield monorail" (scholars would say "isomorphic") but there are some good points in that episode.

People interested in the diffusion of innovation can find perfect exemplifications here:

  • The monorail as the invention
  • Springfield's inhabitants as the social structure. As usual when they have to decide municipal decisions, they gather in the townhall, under the guidance of Joe Quimby (the mayor), showing a very swiss landsgemeinde way of making decisions. Innovation researchers who employ the term "authority-collective decision" to describe how this choice to buy and build a monorail is made.
  • Lyle Lanley, the salesman, as the change agent external to the system
  • Lisa and then Marge as people who are part of the social system but who have doubts.
  • The monorail value proposition is the one of an innovation: faster than other means of transport, more sexy, complex and launched with the help of a VIP: Leonard Nemoy from Star Trek.

Of course, it does not depict the whole innovation diffusion, only the recurring failure of the monorail (based on different iterations) and how the salesmen made money out of it.

Blizzard's design process and the role of failures

11 innovation lessons from creators of World of Warcraft by Colin Stewart is a very interesting discussion. I don't agree with all of them but some are important. That one struck me as relevant:

"6. THE IMPORTANCE OF FREQUENT FAILURES “One of the mantras that a large software development company uses is ‘Fail Often, Fail Fast,’ ” Wartenberg said. “As Alan Mullaly said when he led Boeing Commercial Aircraft, ‘We celebrate mistakes; bring them into the open, because we can’t help fix what we don’t know about.’ ” To show Blizzard’s devotion to this principle, CEO Morhaime and other executives listed the titles of canceled games Blizzard had worked on: Nomad, Raiko, Warcraft Adventures, Games People Play, Crixa, Shattered Nations, Pax Imperia, and Denizen. “We don’t have a 100 percent hit rate. We just cancel all the ones that aren’t going well,” Morhaime said. “Failure begets success,” intellectual property attorney St. George said. “Many successful companies and CEOs have noted that their best successes have come from failures. The lessons learned from failures will provide the stepping stones for the next innovation.”"

Why do I blog this? gathering notes about failures for a personal project. It's also interesting to see that game companies are only reaching the stage where they figure out the lessons described in that paper ("GO BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD", "MAKE CONTINUAL IMPROVEMENTS").

Delay in technological innovation: the "MS Surface" case

Glenn Derene in Popular Mechanics address the reasons why it took so long for Microsoft Surface to be "finally here":

"Microsoft's initial plan was to put a very limited number of Surface machines in stores and hotels with demonstration software just to show what the thing could do. But now AT&T has come along and leapfrogged over that demo mode to Surface on a larger scale—and in a much more useful way. (...) What struck me at the time was that the hardest part of the project seemed to be complete (...) All that was really left was for partners to design software customizing the Surface platform to their businesses. But that part of the equation seems to have taken forever. (...) What's ironic is that Microsoft has traditionally been a software company (Surface is one of the few pieces of hardware it actually makes), and it has all the necessary programming talent to build generic templates for Surface (...) it seems that Microsoft is more interested in launching what could be a breakthrough product solely with image-conscious partners who want to use the Surface as an attention-grabbing, brand-building device (...) this particular delay was probably more a result of the bureaucracy of complex business partnerships than of any defects in the design and engineering of Surface itself. But the end result is the same: Those of us who get excited about new technologies feel disappointed, and maybe even a bit embarrassed, for our own initial enthusiasm."

Why do I blog this? The article interestingly illustrated the gap between the glamorous projected at first by a technological innovation such as Microsoft Surface and where we stand one year after (" a classic example of how a lot of hoopla followed by a long delay can drain much of the excitement out of a technological innovation"). Especially when examined in the context of other interactive surface projects (also mentioned in the PM article). That's of course a common situation in the tech industry.

The Wire about design issues

Watching "The Wire - The Complete Second Season" (Ernest Dickerson), there is this interesting moment in Episode 5 (around minutes 47:00 to 47.56) where the dockers are explaining how technologies often fail. It deals with both radio-wave signals and handheld computers:

"That's cans, containers, coming off the ship, and others going back on. Now, look at the screen. Every time a can goes on or off, the computer creates a record and puts it in the permanent database.

He was saying the computer makes it hard to steal off the docks. Did our port manager tell you that right now we got 160 boxes missing off the Patapsco terminal alone? Or that last time, we inventoried the truck chassis... We came up 300 light?

No, I suppose not.

That's management for you.

Not that all of them are stolen.

You can lose a can by accident, no problem. For one thing, these hand-helds use radio waves. With all the equipment and container stacks out there... sometimes waves get knocked down. That happens, a can don't get entered.

Or, just as easy,

A checker makes the wrong entry. Either 'cause he's lazy, he's sloppy, or he's still shitfaced from the night before. Or, simpler than that, you got fat fingers. So imagine February on the docks. You're wearing Gortex gloves, trying to punch numbers on that thing."

Why do I blog this? always intrigued to find examples of such issues.

Old technologies which are still around

Minitel Reading this piece on ZDnet that I flagged few months ago, I stumbled across interesting figures:

  • In 2007, Minitel traffic and services generated 100 Millions Euros (shared between the french provider France Telecom and third parties) through to 4000 "services" (sort of the equivalent of websites). In 1996, there were 25 000 services that generated 1 billion euros of revenues.
  • 220 millions of connections in 2007, approximately 20 millions per months.
  • Traffic dropped by 90% between 1996 and 2006 and by 35% between 2006 and 2007.
  • There are still 1 million Minitel terminals that are active but people still access Minitel services through their PCs (2 millions do, through emulators). In 1996, there were 6.5 millions.
  • Minitel terminals are still sold and - even better - manufactured by recycling old ones.
  • Most of the usage are: looking up addresses/phone numbers by the mythic "3611", reverse phone directory, astrology and bets. But "minitel rose" (sex chats) have vanished.
  • Professional services are very important mostly for logistics marketplace.
  • 25% of the revenues comes from financial services (following stock exchanges, investments etc.)

Why do I blog this? intrigued by an object of the past that still have offer some resistance to progress. The fact that people still use minitel services through the Web is very interesting: the thing work, people have their habits and keep using the media they used for a long time.

Also it's important to note that if things/invention are slow to take off, they are also slow to die!. If there's an S-curve till a mature market for any invention, the curve is reversed the other way as well. The following paper in the NYT times the other day address this issue concerning mainframe computer which were expected to disappear ten years ago:

"What are the common traits of survivor technologies? First, it seems, there is a core technology requirement: there must be some enduring advantage in the old technology that is not entirely supplanted by the new. But beyond that, it is the business decisions that matter most: investing to retool the traditional technology, adopting a new business model and nurturing a support network of loyal customers, industry partners and skilled workers. The unfulfilled predictions of demise, experts say, tend to overestimate the importance of pure technical innovation and underestimate the role of business judgment."

Sparko: the robotic Scottish Terrier

Back in the 20s, when electricity (lighting, appliances) was less common, the american company Westinghouse tried to create early robots. One of the goal was to stimulate demand and interest in their electrical products. They indeed showed at the 1939 World's Fair a prototype of two curious characters: a tall humanoid robot called Elektro and - above all - a robotic dog named Sparko:

Although much of the emphasis has been put on Elektro (7 foot tall, 300 pound, it could walk, count, see things with photoelectric cell eyes, talk using a record player and smoke cigarettes), it's Sparko that I found more intriguing. Far less complex, Sparko was more into pet stuff: situp, barking, and dog tricks. You can see some video footage here.

Created by Westinghouse engineer Joseph Barnett, these oldest US robots are very curious. As matter of fact, Sparko is reported missing: "The biggest challenge remaining to Weeks is finding one of the three robot dogs, all named Sparko, that were built as pets for Elektro. The last confirmed sighting of Sparko was in California in 1957. The dogs were light-followers and legend has it that one of the three dogs was hit by a car and destroyed when it wandered out of an open door at the Westingouse lab.".

Why do I blog this? Don't know if these two artifacts were a technological failure (it was rather meant to be a marketing demonstrator of electricity and not a real product but it's definitely part of my catalogue of insightful projects. Moreover, the man-dog "couple" as robots is also a very interesting metaphor which know lead to different product avenues: robotic pets from Sparko to Aibo (or Pleo) on one hand and robotic humanoids on the other hand.