Tag Archives: technology

How Tech doesn’t directly Transform Society

Many optimists believe that technology can transform society. Yet the truth is far more interesting, argues Tom Chatfield


Lecturing in late 1968, the American sociologist Harvey Sacks addressed one of the central failures of technocratic dreams. We have always hoped, Sacks argued, that “if only we introduced some fantastic new communication machine the world will be transformed.” Instead, though, even our best and brightest devices must be accommodated within existing practices and assumptions in a “world that has whatever organisation it already has.”

Low Volume and Custom Made – Opportunities

I’ve mentioned 3D printing before as an example of enabling technology. Tools that used to cost tens of thousands of dollars are now in reach of anyone with sufficient interest and from prices of less than a thousand dollars.

That’s a huge change. What fewer people pick up on is that such a change shifts what’s possible in the market, and essentially changes the rules. Things that were essentially impossible before are suddenly doable. Big companies won’t pick that up as their cost structure demands big clients. But for a correctly structured startup, it’s exactly the kind of thing you want!

A Dutch/American company called Shapeways appears to “get it” and has stepped into this market. The BBC has done an item on it (see video below) featuring a custom made shoe with an iPhone holder. The exact product is perhaps a bit tacky to some, but it makes the underlying point quite well and the guy who explains it notes exactly what it’s about. There isn’t a huge market for many of these things, but that’s fine. People often think only in terms of scaling up, and they’re missing the opportunities of essentially scaling things down. At high volumes, you can’t serve the individual.

So, it’s an enabler. When you have an idea, you can now get one or two items made – even when done commercially, with this technology that can be economical. It’s printed (additive) or cut (subtractive), rather than moulded – configuring a production line for a moulded product is expensive and the moulds themselves are actually also very costly (so it’s uneconomical for small production runs). But none of that matters with 3D printing.

3D printing is a disruptive technology in both commonly known senses:

  1. it provides a “good enough” cheaper manufacturing solution for people and companies who are already producing. Existing production methods have essentially overshot the needs of that part of the market, so their pricing is relatively high in that market segment.
  2. Things that were previously not viable now are, and that opens whole new markets. Typically clients find products, not the other way round – so it’s very important to observe and match the need, rather than come up with some static idea of what you think the market needs and go out and try to sell that. Even if you get the product right, you don’t know what the market is yet. Market research really won’t help you.

It’s good to see that Shapeways and companies like Makerbot Industries (there are many more) are exploring these new opportunities. And if you’re interested, check it out – there is plenty of space for more on the local level. These companies do things quite big, but it can also be done on a very small scale. I’m still waiting for a local “copyshop” offering a 3D printing service. That’s where it’s going – but if the local copyshops and printers don’t get it, someone else can pick it up. It could be you.

This stuff can be done with minimal investment, part online, low volume, low cost per item, quick local delivery, opportunities for assistance with design, and so on. The software tools and online resources are available, just check out OpenSCAD and Thingiverse.

If you start something like this and specifically aim local and small, the big existing companies cannot compete with you: they would not be able to do what you do at a sane price. They might not even notice you at first. If they do, they’ll laugh and dismiss – your “small fry” activity is just not of interest to them. That’s a good thing. But you can do good business and also grow.

Think about it… take the initiative. And if you do need some help developing your strategy, we’re here.

Technology chiefs investing in

Working Back From Client Experience to Technology

This is not a story about computers and operating systems, it’s about user experience. I just need to provide some background first…

I was a Mac user for some years. Why I got in to it and why out again is documented in an entry on my personal blog Running Ubuntu Linux on MacBook. It was an interesting period, in terms of user experience. And I can compare it with my experience with DOS, OS/2, Windows, Linux and other environments.

Apple gets an awful lot of things “right”. When Windows and Linux were still struggling with printers, it “just worked” on my Mac. The funny thing was, OSX uses the same underlying CUPS technology that Linux does – the difference was the user interface and ease of setting up a new printer.

Apple does slick hardware design, easy to use software, all the way through to a cool shopping experience (if you’ve ever been to an Apple store). Now, before you jump on me with counter-arguments, this is viewing things from the perspective of an “ordinary” user, someone who views their computer simply as a tool for accomplishing other things. As someone who knows more about computers (and software engineering), I reckon there’s plenty wrong “under the hood”! But that doesn’t negate the achievements on the “front end”.

In the following video, a slightly younger Steve Jobs explains how Apple develops its products: working back from the user experience towards  technology that enables it. Again, there can be criticism aplenty about how Steve Jobs operated (I may do another post on that) but I think it’s fair to also identify the positives, as we can learn from that.

I frequently meet very bright people talking excitedly about new technology they’ve developed and are (sometimes quite desperately – which in itself is telling) trying to jam it in to some product/service. The geek in me thinks “cool!”, but the user and business person in me wonders “who gives a stuff?”  I don’t want to discourage them, but I do feel they’ve got their priorities and focus in a tangle. Here’s what Jobs had to say about this, with some examples: