Innovation: Not a Purple Pencil

Companies today are obsessed with innovation. As they should be. Call it a “paradigm shift,” “disruption,” or simply a “new age.” It’s all the same. If publish or perish is the mantra of academics, then smart companies should be preaching “disrupt or die.”

Marketing efforts prevail, however. Middle class consumers are continually told that the companies from which they purchase goods and services are innovative. But innovation isn’t a #2 pencil on which a company slaps a coat of purple instead of yellow paint. Innovation is a mechanical pencil you can re-use forever, simply purchasing new lead (especially when we’re running out of trees).

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Innovation isn’t a slightly better something, it’s a new something. True innovation from companies is customer-centric. It isn’t the Chevy Volt, with a battery pack cozying up to an internal combustion engine. It’s a fully electric Tesla Model S or a Nissan Leaf, with zero engine noise, more storage space, and connectivity to your smartphone. Disruption isn’t Comcast or Time Warner Cable offering on-demand video streaming or more digital channels. It’s Netflix and Vudu turning the industry upside down and encouraging cord cutting. Improving things for consumers isn’t Hewlett-Packard or Dell cranking out laptops with faster chips and higher resolution screens. It’s Apple, Samsung, and Google producing leading-edge mobile devices and wearables—and making them interactive with our homes and vehicles.

Innovation comes from companies like Netflix, Tesla Motors, Apple, and USAA. It was USAA, the financial services company serving primarily military customers, that introduced taking a photo of a cheque to deposit it. Why was it the little guy, USAA, that developed this consumer-friendly and extremely practical “technology”? Where were Bank of America and Citibank, with their voluminous resources? Probably on the golf course or lobbying in D.C., not forming research labs to produce such consumer-friendly and competition-smashing tech.

In a recent blog post, I discussed the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The proof? Nearly all cars seem the same. Most people I know can ride to lunch with a friend and, after returning, not be able to tell you the brand of car in which they were transported. Yet we can identify an iPad from across the street. While standardization is important, especially for safety, this reflects laziness among the executive ranks of so many companies. For the auto industry specifically, it seems they’d rather play copy cat than focus on real innovation. Innovation isn’t marketing BS. It’s customers and owners telling their co-workers and neighbors “You gotta get one of these!” When was the last time someone told you that regarding their car, lawn mower, or laptop computer?

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The Fremont, California manufacturing facility now occupied by Tesla Motors was previously a GM/Toyota partnership. This is wonderfully symbolic of the changes we’re about to witness in the auto industry. If you think disruption is just Pandora and Snapchat, think again. Let competitors partner on bland products that motivate consumers to say meh and dread the experience of a visit to their local car dealership or Best Buy. Meanwhile, companies like Tesla Motors, Netflix, Apple, and Google will build the new world atop the boneyard of the old dinosaurs. It’s the phoenix from the ashes, and it’s happening right in front of us.

Don’t partner with your competitors—defeat them. Innovate, disrupt, and blow the other guys away. Yes, there are valid opportunities for “coopetition.” Industry consortiums and standards groups are sometimes essential to progress in the marketplace and the interoperability of products and services from different companies. But allowing the accountants to navigate the ship, relying on economies of scale and rationalized partnerships with your enemies is short-term, borderline desperate thinking.

In today’s world, true innovation is disruptive, sustainable, and genuinely enticing to consumers. The only reason most of us aren’t parking a Tesla Model S in our garage is because of the relatively high cost (a topic about which co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has been very honest). But what about 2017, when Tesla introduces it’s roughly $35,000 Model 3? What about when Nissan gets the Leaf to crank out more than 200 miles from a single charge? What? You don’t want a car that produces virtually no sound, features more storage, produces no harmful exhaust, is super-sporty and fast, and costs a fraction of what’s required for gas-powered vehicles to fuel and maintain? Please forgive my cavalier attitude, but I’d say you’re freaking nuts.

If the company for which you work desires to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it must embrace this spirit of ultra-competitive and reality-based innovation. If it doesn’t, the new guys are going to be purchasing your office building or manufacturing facility to produce what middle class consumers really want—and your company will be relegated to nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation

It’s the time of year in America when our kids are back in school and the auto industry has released next year’s models, so let’s talk about consumer tech in cars. It’s nice that even some entry-level automobiles feature cool tech like Bluetooth, backup cameras (mandatory in all cars sold in the United States by 2018), and in-built wireless technologies like 4G. But why do I always get the feeling that the auto industry is continually dragging its heels, always playing catch up with mobile devices and all the wireless tech with which we’re surrounded on a daily basis?

With consumers habituated to fast upgrade cycles for items like smartphones and personal computers, why is the auto industry so bloody slow when it comes to jumping on the same bandwagon? Just like the consumer electronics industry, car companies release new models every year, so they certainly have the opportunity.

tesla model s replacement for blogI can almost understand a conspiracy theorist who might insist that auto manufacturers are colluding in their seeming refusal to embrace new tech and interoperability between our mobile devices and their products. Yes, there was Microsoft Sync in Ford’s automobiles (RIP) and Apple has introduced CarPlay, which began rolling out in a few 2014 models (and works only with Apple’s products; this isn’t an industry standard). But this still feels more like a push from tech titans like Apple and Microsoft than true innovation from the auto industry itself. Simply connecting to our existing mobile devices is part of the equation, but where’s the “gee whiz” stuff?

Where is the Angry Birds or Snapchat of automobiles?

Yes, I do like “new” technologies like LED taillights, adaptive cruise control, and computer-controlled suspension systems. But we’re talking innovation here. While uber-cool, these are tech that have been around for a long time. In fact, it’s a sign of how slow the automobile industry is not only to innovate, but simply to roll out existing technologies based on past innovations. While LED lights are finally beginning to trickle down to even entry-level cars, nice tricks like laser-based adaptive cruise control and sci-fi-inspired head-up displays are still the territory of luxury vehicles.

We expect a culture of affordable innovation from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung. It’s the foundation of their existence. But the fact that they have to push their tech on the auto industry is sad. Yes, really cool technology is expensive and auto manufacturers don’t want to reduce their already sometimes razor-thin profit margins. I get it. But we also know that truly innovative tech becomes considerably less expensive as more consumers jump on the bandwagon. Any manufacturer that decides to roll out a given technology (LED taillights, for example) across it’s entire catalog will experience such per-unit price discounts that the cost of this tech should not be its primary concern. What should be? Beating the competition by satisfying the tech lust of middle class consumers. But if recession-strapped Americans gobbling up $600 iPads at unheard of rates isn’t enough to convince auto execs of this, what is?

Where are the advanced sound systems that use basic acoustic science to drown out road noise and vastly improve our listening experience? Where is the uttered “down window” that prevents me from taking my hands off the wheel? Just the fact that so many cars manufactured today lack auto-on headlamps is enough to make you cry. Unfortunately, auto industry executives just don’t seem to get it. At least not when it comes to innovations that satisfy consumer demand and recognize dominant social trends.

It’s nice to know that if you were frozen in a cryogenic chamber 35 years ago and awoke today, you could capably drive a 2014 or 2015 model car. Yes, we need standardization. But when I jump in a friend’s sedan and we cruise down the road and I can’t even tell who manufactured the vehicle without looking at its badging, I think we have a problem.

nissan leaf for linkedinWith the distinct exception of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF, and anything from Tesla, cars seem to totally lack differentiation. Sometimes it feels like they’re all manufactured by one huge World Car Corp. and they simply offer a wide range of shapes, sizes, luxury levels, and prices. This is especially painful given the price of automobiles. Really, Buick and Kia, the best you can do is Bluetooth, LED lights, and a crappy, difficult-to-navigate touch screen on the dashboard?

Voice navigation and head-up displays are probably the most promising uses of new-tech we’ve seen in a while. Both improve driver attention where it matters: At the road. And both are way-cool and enticing features. But while many of us actually have Bluetooth or backup cameras in our vehicles, how many can control the music or air conditioning in our cars with our voice?

Exactly.

This is probably one of my lousiest blog posts in terms of educating readers or making a good point (like me, chances are you’re simply angrier now). I’m basically just whining. But at $20,000 to $60,000, the value proposition for tech in cars is among the lowest of any consumer purchase. Considering how much we spend on personal transportation, I think we’re all entitled to a bit of whining—whether you drive a Toyota Yaris or a BMW M5.

I sincerely love that Google, Ford, and Volvo are doing some incredible things with advanced perimeter sensing, collision avoidance, and automated parking in their quest for better safety and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars make for great headlines in the media. But while we salivate over this future tech, the cars actually sitting in our driveways aren’t that much different from models from ten or even fifteen years ago—and none of us would use a cell phone or computer from 15 years ago, would we?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Time for Tesla and Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think.]


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

The Efficiency of Flipboard

flipboard logoWhen I got my first iPad, the third iteration and first model sporting a high-resolution “Retina” display, there was an app I was really psyched to install: Flipboard. Flipboard is a highly customizable news aggregator, or “newsreading” app, that has become an indispensable part of my daily news gathering, reading, and social media consumption. This media aggregator can also be leveraged for targeted research (which I commonly do for my consumer tech books). Flipboard is the pinnacle “go to” app for tens of millions of mobile technology consumers. I’m obviously a big fan.

Flipboard is one of those great apps/media services that is not only super-easy to configure and use, but could even become a part of your obsessive daily regiment of screen tapping. With more than 100 million users, it’s one of the most popular news aggregators to land on a smartphone or tablet (you can now also access it from its website). You can connect your Twitter, Instagram, Google+, and Facebook feeds to the service, keeping you uber up-to-date and embracing the one-stop shopping philosophy and efficiency that top-shelf news aggregators so capably deliver.

Minimal, Attractive Ads

I don’t typically like advertising-supported apps, but Flipboard features professionally designed national ads sprinkled on just lightly enough that they never seem to get in the way. However, this volume will surely increase; Flipboard’s ad burden could become unacceptable, especially to overly sensitive fans of ad-free subscription pricing models (like me).

Now you know why Netflix is so popular; it’s not the semi-stale selection of movies, but rather the lack of commercials. It’s currently impossible to rid your Flipboard feed of ads. Unfortunately, paid subscriptions aren’t available. It would be nice if, in the future, the service offered both a free, ad-supported version and also a feature-enhanced, ad-free paid variety (like the Pandora music streaming service).

I rely on Flipboard to such a great extend that I began using one of the neater features of this service, its magazines. A “magazine” is basically just a collection of articles found via any Flipboard media source. Magazines are available to everyone on Flipboard. You simply tag an article for inclusion in one of your magazines (you can maintain several) and it instantaneously appears within its pages, or boards (thus the name of the company).

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Even nicer, there’s a few Flipboard extensions for the Chrome browser that allow you to add virtually any web-based article or content to a magazine (I use + Flip It; also check out Add to Flipboard). Simply click the Flipboard icon on the Chrome toolbar, choose the destination magazine, and viola! It’s there until you choose to remove it. This can be done from both the desktop and mobile devices, like your iPad.

Magazines Are Great

A Flipboard magazine can be updated as frequently—or infrequently—as the owner prefers. Magazines don’t cost anything to create or maintain and provide a wonderful service to the Flipboard community: Member-curated content. Articles found in magazines often touch on eccentric niche interests and major trending topics alike, providing a very filtered view of the millions of highly dynamic articles offered by Flipboard.

We get enough content curated by corporations; it’s a refreshing change to consume what a peer of mine, i.e. another member of Flipboard and probably just some middle class shlep like me, has collected. One of my Flipboard magazines, Middle Class Tech, is a collection of a few hundred articles from news sources like Ars TechnicaThe Atlantic, Transport Evolved, GigaOM, CarNewsCafeEngadget, Teslarati, and many others. It focuses on affordable technology that touches the lives of middle class consumers, especially early adopters and cord cutting nuclear families.

Check It Out

If you’re not familiar with Flipboard, but a user of mobile tech, I recommend checking it out. Then again, I’m a Netflix-addicted cord cutter who doesn’t watch the local newscast or read a newspaper (I want it all on my tablet or smartphone). Beyond the basic ability to choose the media outlets from which you want to receive articles, Flipboard’s magazines provide you with a look inside the hobbies, interests, and passions of fellow users of this service. This is the next generation of the RSS reader, and so slick you’ll never look back.

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I even use Flipboard for article and book research. In fact, I’ve created six different Flipboard magazines for topics ranging from SpaceX to hydrogen fuel cell cars. It allows me to easily collect and archive articles about these topics so I can conveniently access them on any mobile device in the future—like when I’m writing a freelance article or developing a book related to those topics. You may find similar uses for magazines that you, or others, create.

Be Self-Centered

Typically, Flipboard  promotes its magazines as a way to act as a curator and make your collections available to others. Which is certainly true and the primary purpose. However, these magazines are so easy to create and maintain, you should seriously consider creating some soley for your own use. The fact that others can check them out is just icing on the cake.

Regardless of whether you latch onto Flipboard’s magazines as either a curator or consumer, I encourage you to check out this 21st century method for collecting up-to-the-minute news from dozens of media sources, including long-form articles and your social media accounts.

[This article was originally published on August 27, 2014 and updated on September 18, 2015.]

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his automotive articles on CarNewsCafe, his AV-related posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.