Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The 20th WebInno Packs The House

I drove the length of the Mass Pike to Cambridge yesterday to attend the latest Web Innovators Group, "an informal gathering of people interested in internet and mobile innovation in the Boston area." (Legally speaking, The People's Republic of Cambridge is part of Boston, but don't try to tell the people there that. This was not an event for the comrades, though; the host hotel just so happens to be down the street from MIT.)

David Beisel of Venrock, a venture capital firm, started the WebInno meetings in late 2005, I believe. I'm estimating that by the little post about WebInno #7 that I put in here in July '06; they're held every two or three months. The next one is scheduled for March 2009.

David was rightfully proud to greet the crowd of 600 by briefly reflecting on the event's modest start in contrast to what he saw, when, "tonight we've filled the entire grand ballroom." WebInno's long been an acknowledged hotspot for the area's technorati.

The focus is on early-stage startups, and the format's always been three "main dish" presentations to the assembled group, followed by open networking time when another number of "side dish" presentations by other hopefuls are set up in simple tabletop convention style.

With three main dishes and a half dozen sides, there's really far too much to say to do justice to any of them. So, with that caveat in mind, a quick pass through some highlights.

Trip Chill is putting into practice a widely desired service: a full-service digital travel agent and concierge. Plan and book your trip through their site, then get updates and automatic Plan B's directed to your iPhone or any mobile device. If your flight is delayed, for instance, it'll book you on another one, according to any preferences you originally entered on the website.

I was very keen on the prompts they'll send to remind you where you parked your car when you land back at your home airport. (Sign me up!)

Presentation-wise, too, these guys really had the right idea: presenters always have two people at the podium, one doing the talking and the other running the slide show. So Trip Chill's two speakers acted out their story, and with low key comedy. "How was your flight?"
"Oh, brutal. My flight was cancelled, I was stuck at O'Hare," etc.
"That's too bad -- I used Trip Chill(!), and it notified me, booked me on another flight," etc., etc. Host Beisel then conferred on them the spur-of-the-moment award for "best acting in a WebInno presentation." They had the crowd's full attention, laughing and engaged.

Don't just tell your story; whenever possible, Show it.

Next we had the exotically named Crimson Hexagon, promised a service to "make sense of the massive amount of information on the Internet." That turned out to be basically a digital clipping service for anyone who's written about more often than they can keep track of in Google Alerts; which they estimated at more than 25 a day. It's sold as an annual subscription, or, for now, by the month.

Crimson Hexagon (the name is a construct from Argentinian magical realism author, Jorge Luis Borges,) tracks, "reads" and summarizes everything that's being said about your company on the Web. They demonstrated the kind of intelligence gathering this makes possible by revealing that, in aggregate, the biggest attraction to the iPhone is the App Store, and that 14% of people who drink Gatorade do so for a hangover cure. (Note: this statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are solely the opinions of 14% of the sport-drink buying Internet population.)

Local Motors was the last and somewhat curious main dish, since the definition of "mobile innovation" was stretched perhaps beyond recognition to include a custom car company. But no, they belonged there because the design of their cars is crowdsourced. People post car designs, who the Local Motors man emphasized are paid if their design is selected (good for them! There's a practice conspicuously missing from most Web ventures).

Then the community comments, adds and critiques, and the company gets to hear "what people think of it real-time." At the point that, I suppose, that input plateaus, the company says, "this is the car we'll build here," since they'll create versions most appropriate for various locales; Boston and Hawaii were mentioned as examples. They'll build a hydrogen powered car for states that have that kind of "gas" station; they economize overall by using off-the-shelf power plants and components (although no sticker price was mentioned in the main pitch).

A very intriguing idea, especially on the umpteenth day that Washington-in-transition told us they just about had a bailout in place for the old Big Three carmakers. And they had some very sexy, European racing car designs that, together with their man's strong presentation, earned them the designation of Tastiest Dish of the.. . no, excuse me, that was "Audience Choice Award."

Web Innovators Group

Photo on Flickr by BostonDave (as of this writing, pix from WebInno 18)


When I got off the road and into the hotel where the event's usually been held, having already decided that I wanted to do a little report, I was confronted with one of pressing questions of our time. Should I "live" blog the affair, or go by the traditional, Old Media approach of taking notes and putting it up tomorrow?

(I remember at one of the earlier WebInno's, around three years back, when blogging was still the breathlessly hot new thing, there was some pride in the room that it was being reported live by at least a couple different speed typists.)

I decided to go for the latter, because I knew that today I'd cringe at what I threw up here without review; but mostly because if I get as focused as one needs to be to write and post a entry, I wouldn't have really been there. You know, the way it is with cameras: either you're documenting it, OR you're really there.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

You Can Only See It If You Stand Right Here

Here's a visual/conceptual treat, a little eye and brain candy, containing the ever useful reminder that sometimes your perspective is all about where you're standing.

Within a certain range, a small slice of the pie, the words are easily read. Presumably, that's at the physical point where you need it, because good design is primarily about usefulness, carefully refined functionality.

From anywhere outside the sweet spot, it's decorative; it's "Ahhht." But since a particular message isn't needed from that location, or even could be confusing and darnright counter-productive, there's no reason that space can't be used just for expression. In a case like this, any more interesting message than "parking garage" would be a welcome experiential improvement for the parkers, and the parkees.
Funny, it didn't occurr to me until now, a couple paragraphs into this, that maybe the reason I'm so drawn to a lively paint job for a parking garage is that I worked in one for a year or so, when still a very young feller. Fortunately my booth was on the street, just inside a very wide mouth of the building, so the air wasn't that awfully bad, either.
So, by all means, buy some paint! (And get those emissions checked, please.)

Here's Axel Peemoeller's home page, which I am disappointed to report is an all visual, unnavigable "artistic" mess -- no text clues on where to click for what. We're invited to "drag and drop and click on items," but mousing over the goobley graphics only offers invitations to "double click." So besides that the garage is in "Melbourne," I can't tell you anything else about him or the project, because I gave up trying to find out more. A fine model of usefulness, indeed.
So how did I come across this? The pictures above and below originally came to me via the traditional email full of non-attributed photos, which I found in this case to be sparky stuff. So I sleuthed it down, using the mighty Internet, and found the originator, in observance of our personal motto (and tag) here, "Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due."

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Epson's Built-In Cheating Mechanism

(A little righteously indignant background music, there, maestro... just a bit lower? Thank you, that's perfect.)
I turned on my printer yesterday, and it informed me that the ink was out in three of the six cartridges. Okay, these things happen. But then there are these puzzling occurrences, and a rather troubling number of them, in fact.

This is a printer series that is infamous for shutting down and not letting you print once it decides any one of the cartridges is "out" of ink. (You can guess there's more to this subject, and I'll get to it in turn.) I didn't realize when I bought this thing that Epson was withholding the right I'd enjoyed with every printer I ever owned or used to that point, to print a faded copy of something I needed right then.

First of all, even though I'm supposedly out of a color ink, it refuses to print even a purely black-and-white page. There is really no reasonable justification for this, except to hasten the hapless owner's purchase of more of "the Barbie clothes." (Would prefer to use "razors and blades," but that one is so over.)

Secondly, while "the paperless office" is an absolute that is still beyond reach, I certainly live and function in the "much-less-paper office," and as such wind up printing very little. I use this machine much more often for its scanning.

So it was obvious to me when I turned the machine on several weeks ago and it informed me that the ink was getting low on those three cartridges, that I hadn't printed anything between the last time the device was on and then. Some timer had clicked over a notch, and the ink in half the cartridges was duly reported as having evaporated below the sensor lines or escaped or something.

But Wait, There's More: yesterday I turned the machine on for the first time since the last time, still not having printed anything, and was informed that I was completely out of ink in all three of those cartridges.

It turns out that in 2005, Epson, the maker of my Stylus Photo RX620, settled a a class action suit against them for exactly this behavior. According to a PC World article when legal actions were filed in, oops, 2003,
"…chips are used to monitor the amount of ink inside the ink jet cartridge. Cartridges actually contain up to 38 percent more usable ink after the chip cuts them off, according to research cited in the suits.
"The chip does not measure the real volume; instead, it estimates the amount of ink used and predicts when the cartridge will be empty. The chip transmits estimated ink levels to the printer, which alerts the user with a screen message."
The gist of that message: "You're Gist Out Of Luck!"

In the settlement, any owner of an Epson printer manufactured and bought within some period of time, and who heard about this in time (it wasn't referenced on their home page when the settlement was in force), got a $45 dollar certificate from Epson's own online store, as I recall. Since you pay full retail there, that's not even three cartridges. And, critically, Epson was not required to change the programming in the chips or offer a download to correct the cheating calculations, and give an accurate reading of the ink levels. Bad settlement.

It's a shame, and an insult to the engineers who put this printer scanner copier together, because they did a really nice job. It prints beautiful photos, the scanner works fine and has very good, well integrated software. But somewhere between the various departments with input on this design, the dark directive came down to operate on its brain to turn it against its owner. (Hm, sounds like a great sci-fi movie concept.. .)

Good grief, I think I just released my first real, full-out rant. !, even. My apologies; but these skunks should be aired out appropriately. And I feel a little better now.

Epson Faces Consumer Suits - PC World (10/24/03)

Epson ink cartridge controversy - Wikipedia