Email will Be Mostly Mobile

When the Blackberry first came out, it was quickly dubbed the “crackberry” because mobile email access was so addictive.  Now with ubiquitous smart phones, we’re all email addicts to some extent.

So it’s no surprise that now over 40% of email opens are on mobile devices, and mobile is on track overtake the PC this year.  It’s pretty amazing when you consider the smartphone, as we know it, was launched less than 6 years ago.

Mobile and Web are blurring together, slowly ceasing to be distinct “things” (I’ve written before about a mobile strategy for Web sites).  This trend suggests some best practices for emails:

  • Format emails for mobile.  This is basic stuff that a lot of designers seem to mess up.  Make sure emails open and render well on mobile devices.
  • Mobile-optimize email click-through landing pages and flows.  If users are reading emails on mobile devices, they’re also clicking through links on mobile devices.  Check your Web usage stats:  you might find that a significant percentage of your site usage by mobile users is coming from email click through paths.  Nothing kills the user experience like a landing page that hasn’t been mobile formatted.

It’s the Software, Stupid!

I recently got Kellie a new all-in-one printer/scanner/copier for her office.  After years of buying HP printers, I got tired of their crappy software.  I have no idea why they insist on a multi-hundred megabyte distribution just to support a printer:  they install a bunch of stuff I don’t want/need, and the software I do need isn’t that good.

This time, we bought an Epson (WorkForce 635), and it’s a refreshing difference.  The build quality seems comparable to HP, but the software is much, much more streamlined.

The whole experience underscores something interesting:  the overall usability, quality, and capability of many hardware devices is increasingly defined by software.  Yet many hardware companies fail to prioritize their software design.

Consider this thought experiment:  would you rather have an Android phone running iOS, or an Apple phone running Android?

The Coming Bits and Atoms Disruption

I’ve written recently about the entrepreneurial lottery, and the long odds for many pure-software Internet/consumer/mobile projects.  For the reasons outlined, I’ve been shifting my entrepreneurial energy away from these projects.

Instead, I’ve been working on “bits and atoms”, or as I think about it:  the intersection of mechanical design/fabrication with the Internet ecosystem and Moore’s Law advances. The space includes:  CNC, digital fabrication, the “maker” culture, 3D printing, robotics, sensing, and automation.

I think we’re on the cusp (e.g. next 2-5 years) of some major disruption happening in the mechanical & electromechanical worlds, driven by the convergence of three things:

Internet-enabled collaboration.  Growing up in West Virginia, my technology sources were Popular Electronics and Digi-Key mail-order.  It took forever to build anything, and if someone else did an  interesting project, I was lucky to hear about it years after the fact.  Now, I can surf videos of cool CNC shop projects, and easily contact other makers to share project information.

It’s amazing how fast things can advance when information flows quickly and freely, and when it is easy to build on the work of others.  Consider how, in the span of only about a dozen years, we’ve transitioned from an expensive & proprietary software stack (OS, database, dev tools, etc.), to one that’s completely free, open, higher quality, and much more capable.  That only happened because of the collaboration the Internet enables.

Now, the tools & techniques pioneered by the software community are spilling into the mechanical world:  “open source” designs, version control and configuration management, and collaborative projects.  GrabCAD is one example of a company working in this area. (Disclaimer:  I am an investor).

Moore’s Law advances in computing, storage, and sensors.  The aluminum and screws in a robot arm haven’t changed much in 10 years, but the control computer sure has.  At the top end, a modern Intel/AMD processor has a lot of horsepower for real time image processing, geometry modeling, and control and planning.  At the low end, a Roomba has more CPU capacity than the first desktop computers.  The same advances are happening with storage and sensors:  1TB now costs only $60, and video sensors are getting very cheap.

Many things that were “computationally hard” 10 years ago are now possible.

Modern 3D design tools.   I recently helped a friend rebuild his computing infrastructure after a flood:  $1,200 today buys a very powerful CAD workstation.   Add some parametric 3D design software like SolidWorks, and it’s absolutely amazing what you can prototype, design, test, refine, and stress entirely at your desktop.  When you mix in collaboration:  the ability to take someone else’s model, make your own improvements, and contribute it back, things really start to take off.

I don’t know where it all leads, but it certainly feels like something’s brewing.

Incremental vs Big Bang

Is it me, or does Twitter seem to do big feature upgrades (e.g. New Twitter) while Google/Amazon/Facebook do things more incrementally?  I know the big guys occasionally do big updates, but I always notice new little features here and there.  Some become permanent, others go away after a while.

The main advantage of the incremental approach is the ability to make corrections mid-stream.  It also makes it easier to abandon the (inevitable) ideas that don’t pan out:  small things are easier to walk away from than big things.

You can see this difference in approach between Facebook and Twitter with the design of status updates.  In early 2009, Facebook redesigned to be more Twitter-like, and since then, they’ve out-innovated on many aspects of the status update model:  “likes”, “likes” of comments, rich data types, presentation/aggregation techniques in the news feed, etc.  Meanwhile, Twitter still hasn’t figure out a good comment design for tweets!

But doing things incrementally isn’t easy.  You not only need an incremental culture and mindset within product leadership, but you need an implementation architecture that supports it:  modularity, good APIs, excellent release engineering (and an ability to un-release features), and measurement tools.

iPad Quirks

For all the hype, the iPad still has a few quirks/drawbacks.  My list:

  • No camera. What doesn’t have a camera these days?
  • Can’t charge from most USB ports. They don’t put out enough power, you have to use a wall-charger.  This means that you’ve got to manage two distinct things:  syncing and charging.
  • iTunes umbilical cord. The iPad is nearly a laptop; why do I need to tether it to iTunes to do key operations (like unbox it)?  Also, why can’t I sync with iTunes via Wifi?
  • No printing.  (built-in support, anyway)
  • Limited app selection. Expected, but improving.  iPad apps can be much more complex, so the ramp may be slower than it was for the iPhone.

Given how Apple iterated on the first iPhone, I’d expect the same thing to happen here.  I love my iPad, but I’d expect iPad 3.0 to be even more impressive.

Your on-line presence is more than your Web site

Five or ten years ago, your Web site was your entire on-line presence, simply because there wasn’t any other place to deploy content and functionality.

Today, that’s not the case at all: with the proliferation of platforms (Google, Yahoo, Amazon, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, etc.), embeddable content, widgets (video, Flash, etc.) and access methods (desktop, mobile, game system, large screens) your on-line presence is much more than just what’s on the Web site. In extreme cases, there’s no site at all: a company’s presence may be entirely embodied in a Facebook app, for example.

Moral: don’t think of the Web site as the only place to focus development efforts. Treat the off-site stuff as first-class features and prioritize them against the Web site investments. Specifically consider:

  • Widgets
  • iPhone app (or an iPhone version of your site)
  • Google widget
  • Facebook & MySpace app
  • Twitter integration

Email, Evolved

I have a long-running discussion with a number of friends:  what’s next for email?

After all, email hasn’t changed much in the past few decades.  Email readers have gotten slightly better over the years, with improved multimedia handling, searching, threading, calendar integration, etc.  In a lot of ways, email clients have been just good enough (e.g. Outlook) there haven’t been huge incentive for breakthroughs.

Also, instant messaging has overlapped with email.  How many times have you had a quick email exchange, then opened IM/chat to finish the discussion?  Some exchanges are interactive, and don’t lend themselves to an email message format.

I’m not sure if Google Wave will “catch”, but it’s the first thing I’ve seen in a long time that could be the evolution of email.

Who’s obsessed about your product details?

Great products rarely come about through committee design.  I’ve never seen it myself — behind every great product, there’s always been one or two obsessed people.

And it’s not enough just to be obsessed, you’ve got to be obsessed about details.  Most people can’t or won’t get into the details.

 From time to time, I send feedback to friends about their products and Web sites, some of it really really specific.  One recent one was about date selection from a calendar:  on a two-month-wide pop-up, they could have optimized the “end” date selection a bit better based on a chosen “start” date, when the start date was at or near a month boundary.

Are you rolling your eyes yet? 

This is how great products happen, one little bit of obsessed detail at a time. 

Amazon Kindle: how’s this all going to come together?

I currently lug around:  a phone, a MacBook laptop, an iPod, a small camera, and way too many cables and power supplies.  Amazon’s Kindle is interesting, but adding an eBook reader to my pile doesn’t help.  This is really about convergence:  why do I need to buy something new to read eBooks?

What I really want:  a Small Device that I always carry in a pocket, and a Big Device that I carry in my laptop case or in my backpackingmall luggage.

The Small Device is a telephone, video phone, content reader, audio player, video player, Web surfer, digital camera, etc.  It’s dominated by the screen (e.g. as large as possible), and it uses a high-quality touch and gesture interface.  It has great wireless connectivity.  The iPhone is the closest current offering.

The Big Device is nearly identical, but with a much larger screen.  It may also have a keyboard, or may clamshell like a laptop but with two screens, allowing you to touch type (or use other gestures) on the bottom screen.  It has an “always on” UI — it doesn’t boot like a laptop, it’s just there.

Big and Small are totally synced.   If I take a picture on Small, I can immediately view it on Big.  If I stop reading a book on Big, I can resume reading at the same spot on Small.  They both have great displays, tons of storage, and long battery life.

(And eventually, Big may go away, because I’ll have a big screen display in all of the places I live and work.)

Phones and MP3 players have already converged — how long until we get to this milestone?

Amazon Kindle’s “simple power”

I haven’t (yet) played with Kindle, Amazon’s new book reader. But it looks like they made a brilliant design decision: instead of connecting to the Internet through a host PC, the Kindle includes built-in wireless network access through Sprint’s EV-DO network.

This is a great example of “simple power” that I wrote about earlier. By eliminating the host PC, the designers removed an entire layer of complexity. There’s no Windows, Mac, or Linux desktop software to install and manage. Users don’t even need a PC, and there is no monthly account for wireless network access (charges are built into the cost of the device and content).

With the simplicity, users get more power: they can browse and purchase new content from anywhere, at any time. This is a dramatic upgrade from the typical iPod download-n-sync experience.

This suggests a design challenge: is there some element of your software or system that you can totally eliminate, making things both simpler and more powerful?