Archive for September, 2012


Lenovo and the Informal Economy

by David Wynne

Lemonade Stall

A few months back I attended a talk at @fluxXstudios by Ted on the Informal Economy.  Wikipedia defines the informal economy as “a broad term that refers to that part of an economy that is not taxed, monitored by any form of government, or included in any gross national product (GNP)”.  Many of the examples Ted gave were of developing economies where practical people see practical opportunities to improve something and, as a by-product, make money.  The appealing nature of these examples is how simple and direct the solutions often are.  In townships where roads are nothing but mud tracks and moving stuff around in hard, innovation means creating a wheelbarrow with a larger tire that makes it easier to move in muddy conditions.

The informal economy is far from the preserve of the developing world however and can easy be observed on sites such as eBay and Etsy.  A group of people making their livings by dealing directly with their customers, generally without the assistance or interference of government regulation (or tax) and who live or die on the demand for, and the quality of, their product.  As with the innovation in the developing world, the rules of the game are ultimately the same – find demand that is being unfulfilled and fill it, the difference however is that the demand in the developed world is often born out of inefficiencies in large corporates.

Official bay left, custom bay right.My ThinkPad has a swappable expansion bay into which you throw an extra hard-drive.  I’ve ordered 2 different “official” drive bays direct from Lenovo over the last year, waiting weeks for delivery each time.  The first didn’t fit properly, the second doesn’t securely hold the drive without additional fittings that you can’t order.  Hop onto eBay however and you’ll find a whole industry of people manufacturing their own bespoke drive bays that cost a 5th of the price, ship quickly and fit perfectly.  Mine arrived from China this morning and has already replaced it’s inefficient counterpart.

There are rather satisfying parallels in the informal economy with the start-up philosophy.  Build something, give it to people, assess demand, get feedback, improve, repeat.  Out here in the real world, real economics applies – if you’re producing a crap product, no-one will buy it, you’ll get bad reviews and eventually you have to adapt or die.  The quicker you can adapt, the quicker you satisfy the latest demand and more successful you are.

In the developed, regulated/corporate, world we’ve been extremely effective at building in so much process to our decision making that innovation and passion are often trampled out of existence by the time an idea might get to the point of being implemented.  The biggest limiting factor to success is not starting something.  I think this is something I’ve learnt over the years – if you’ve got an idea that you think fulfils a demand, then prove it.  If it turns out you were wrong, no worries you’ll have other ideas.  If however you were right then you can figure out how to make the idea better, more efficient more profitable after you’ve first proved the demand exists.  And fulfilled demand = win.


How to build and launch a rocket in one night

by Sari Griffiths

We recently launched a competition ‘Windows Azure Media Challenge’ with Fluxx. The prize is to win an event called RapidStart. In the 11th hour* before the competition was introduced, I was asked to make a flyer to support it. 

It ended up with a stop motion animated Lego rocket. And this is a blog about it. If you’re interested in the competition, take a look at Fluxx’s Paul Dawson’s blog.


*It was 11th hour because I had forgotten that I had Paralympic tickets on the day I planned to work on this. My fault. 

What’s RapidStart?

It’s a few extremely intense days of creative workshop and rapid prototyping. We all gather, come up with loads of ideas, and produce something tangible by the end of the event. We provided UX/Design and Dev support for some of these events organised by Fluxx. 

It’s a bit of a whirlwind experience even for those of us who have taken party in a number of these events. New set of people, new set of problem solving and new set of challenges all the time. But it’s always a very creative and productive few days, and it’s fun. 

Rocket & launch pad

My task was to illustrate the nature of these events. Quick prototyping in the way everyone understands. I was trying to explain this to my husband (a graphic designer and not-very-techie), and I was talking about sketches, origamis and Lego.

Wouldn’t it be great to build something bigger with these bits? Something that starts things off. Something that launches stuff. Did you say launch? What about a rocket launch pad?

As it was a flyer accompanying the presentation, I had a vague idea of creating an animation as well as having a few static visual ready for the flyer. A Lego rocket launch pad was perfect for it. I could take photos to make a stop motion animation!

Luckily both Paul (Fluxx) and David (Red Badger) who were creating the presentation loved the idea and got a go ahead immediately.

A stop motion fun

I started the whole thing after my little boy (2.5 years old who was way too eager to help) went to bed. 

As I only had a night (and was quite keen on the idea of sleep), I did quite a bit of planning before I started. I wrote down a list of shots for single pages to be used in the presentation. I downloaded a video of Saturn V rocket launch and created a mock up version so that I knew exactly how many frames were required and the compositions of each frame. I worked out the order of these shots to be most efficient.

I hung a sheet of paper over the kitchen table to create a back drop. I set up a tripod with my not-so-brilliant SLR and a bunch of masking tape to keep everything steady. The lighting was not brilliant, but there was nothing much I could do. And luckily, it looked quite stylish when I took a test shot. I was ready to go.

First, I took a series of shots for the launch. Looking at the edited Saturn V video, I added some smoke using white and yellow pieces. Then took a series of shots for building the rocket and the launch pad – backwards. I was removing one piece per shot. 

Then took a few more shots for other uses to finish the photoshoot. Like a bunch of Lego pieces to represent little bits of ideas at the beginning of the event.

Rapid idea2

And lots of different ideas.

Rapid idea1

All images for animations were put together in Flash for the presentation. Not sure if it was the best solution, but it did a job. Phew!

And here is the final animation that I stitched together later in iMovie. (In the presentation, it was separated to building bit and launch bit.)

Rapid Start Rocket Build & Launch from Sari Griffiths on Vimeo.

It was good fun making this. And yes, I did get some sleep too!


Windows Phone 7 – Two Years On

by David Wynne

It’s that time of the year again, when all the big players and related hardware manufacturers try to out do each other with product launches and roadmap announcements.  Amazon has announced a new range of tablets/Kindles, Nokia a couple of new Windows Phone 8 handsets, Microsoft has finished Windows 8, announced its own tablet hardware and has Windows Phone 8 announcements yet to come.  Apple meanwhile are expected to make some iPhone/iPad announcements this week that will likely create the biggest buzz of all.

Windows Phone 8

Back in March 2010 I was at Mix in Las Vegas to take my first look at Windows Phone 7 I wrote a couple of blogs on my first impressions of what I’d seen and what it meant in the wake of the iPhone 4 announcement.  I summed up my feelings at the time by saying; if they manage to get “it’s a really good device, but not quite an iPhone” status – that would be a good result.  Two years on I think we have to say “it’s a decent device, but it’s certainly not an iPhone” and that that isn’t really good enough, as results have shown.

Microsoft made some good decisions; they went their own way with the UX (we won’t call it Metro anymore) for which they’ve earned well deserved plaudits. They provided a good developer experience – whilst a lot of Microsoft framework decisions are far from prefect, the emulator is excellent and if were a developer coming from a SL/WPF background you can be up and running really quickly.

Unfortunately they also made some bad decisions; the hardware is not up to scratch – outside of the core OS apps, performance isn’t good enough.  Add into the mix some of low-end hardware that ships with WP7 on it and a users experience and impression can vary wildly.  Over the last 2 years, I’ve used a WP7 everyday switching between 3 different handsets (HTC HD7, Samsung Omnia and a LG Something).  I didn’t really enjoy the HD7 (and it broke), I really liked the Omnia (but it broke) and I genuinely hated the LG (which I purposefully broke… I didn’t).  On one end of the scale the experience was positively awful and on the other, whilst is was good, it still wasn’t as good as it should’ve been.

After my Omnia broke and I gave up on the LG, I decided to switch back to my iPhone 3GS – a device which is now 3 years old.  I suddenly realised that over the last 2 years, I had worked out all the websites that provided the best mobile experience of their services (Facebook, Guardian, BBC and IMDB all do a good job!) because either the app for that service didn’t exist on WP7 or was a 3rd world experience behind it’s Android and iOS counterpart.  Unfortunately the WP7 eco-system is literally years behind that of iOS which largely set the template for smart devices and the “app” market.

Some decisions also got made on Microsoft’s behalf – their choice of technology in Silverlight could be seen as a misstep.  Prior the WP7 announcement I predicated that they would go Silverlight, it made so much sense at the time.  I was a fan of Silverlight, because I was a developer and it was a great development experience.  Silverlight never really got a foothold and then HTML 5 came along, and with a little help from Microsoft itself, really put the nail in the coffin.  Now that Microsoft really are pinning their HTML5 colours to the mast with Windows 8 and whilst it’s not really being fully announced yet, if Windows Phone 8 doesn’t follow the Windows 8 development model, I think we’d all be a little surprised at this point.

Even if switching the development mode is the “right” decision, it’s not likely to be a popular decision with WP7 developers, few of whom have really seen a return on their investment in the platform to-date in any case, so might not be willing to invest again when everything changes yet again.  There’s also a growing sense that WP7 was really a sticking plaster and WP8 will start again… again, which could mean Windows Phone 8 is less WP7 3.0 and more W8 1.0.  And with a 1.0 release comes inevitable bugs and wrinkles.

At the end of the day the only way to win in the consumer market is to provide users with a great experience – that’s all that matters.  Experience is everything.  Gimmicks, add-ons and short lived promises mean nothing in the end.  Most people who live outside the tech bubble that I, and most people reading this inhabit, are more concerned about whether the music they’ve already bought will work on it, will they loose all their contacts and can they play angry birds or watch the BBC iPlayer on it?  Almost more importantly, if the answer to any of the previous questions is yes – then they will expect a smooth and slick experience.  Users don’t know when they’ve had a great experience, but they certainly know when they’ve had a bad one.  So if the hardware is slow and apps stutter, aren’t responsive, miss features, are always behind other platforms or just plain don’t exist – users will turn elsewhere.

As I was 2 years ago, I remain hopeful that the platform can find it’s audience.  Microsoft have struggled a little in their new role as follower and really need bring some clarity to proceedings if they’re to make up ground on the leaders.