technology

Insanely Great Products

It looks to me as if Steve Jobs’ laser-like focus has become the buzzword business paradigm in the world. I must admit: the way the zen CEO axed the majority of Apple’s product lines in 1997 to save the company from bankruptcy was super impressive. Focus matters.

But the big question is: when is it the right time to focus? Because so many businesses are shooting themselves in the foot, trying to follow Jobs’ example.

The gist of the problem is this. If you have an insanely great product, you should go all in with focus. You should do what Jim Collins or Al Ries tell you to do. Get the right people on the bus. Identify your unique market and run with it.

This is all perfect advice, if you have a winner in your hands. But in the world that is changing as fast as it is, the odds are you don’t.

Your insanely great product might have been great in 2010. Now it’s just insane. Instead of putting all of your eggs in that basket, you should nix the damn thing altogether.

So what to do?

Creative process is an oscillation between two extremes: divergence and convergence.

Divergence means generating as much as you can, probably testing it with an audience and killing 99% of what you got early. It’s fail often, fail fast. Convergence means focus.

In a world like today’s, you cannot know what flies before you playtest it. In addition to failing often, failing fast, you should ship often. Then use a proper metric, see what sticks, and kill what doesn’t.

There is even a tried and tested fully divergent business model. Zen and Steve Jobs are not the only ways to generate a wicked profit. Just ask Richard Branson or Jack Welch. Both Virgin and GE rely on divergence: on shipping a massive offering, and sticking to what works. In a fast changing world, that’s often a smart strategy.

Most of the Steve Jobs wannabes don’t have a product that would resemble anything like what Apple’s got to offer. And I’m not talking about the iPhone here, not even the iMac that saved the company from disaster in the late 1990’s. Most of the Steve Jobs wannabes don’t even have an Apple II in their hands.

But if you do enough outings, enough playtesting, you might just have something in your hands. And when you do, THAT’S the time when you need to focus.

The beauty of the creative process is that it’s not one thing, but many. Like Linus Pauling said, the best way to get a great idea is to get many ideas.

First, do many things. Often you won’t get the right idea straight off the bat.

But when you know you have something that really lights up your eyes, focus.

After all, the world needs lots more insanely great products.

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technology

Preparing for Launch

For the past 8 months that the Extended Mind app has been in public beta, our team has been fully focused on implementing the remaining core features and ironing out bugs. So no news has meant good news.

We’ve been making steady progress and a really nice version 1.7.4 is now available on the App Store and Google Play.

We’ve received plenty of valuable feedback from our users and have improved every area of the app as a result. Thank you everyone for your help so far!

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. We’ve had to experiment quite a bit with different designs, throw out features and completely rewrite others to find the most elegant solution for each use case. As we found out:

Simple is really hard to do.

It’s much easier to just add new features on top of old ones, than it is to stay true to our mission of building simple, fast and focused software.

The good news is that things are finally coming together and we’re now preparing for the end of beta with version 2.0 in the pipeline. For the remainder of the public beta we will focus on new user experience and implementing premium features.

Exciting times ahead.

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technology

The Next Web Europe 2014

We participated in The Next Web Europe conference’s Boost startup programme last week. The conference and the programme were both outstanding. Certainly the best startup experience I have had so far.

There were really interesting talks by awesome tech gurus. Luis von Ahn, notorious for inventing the CAPtCHA, talked about distributing intelligence by harnessing human mental energy. The slightly less annoying variant of CAPtCHA, ReCAPtCHA uses your image recognition skills to actually convert scanned books to text.

A more recent development in von Ahn’s microtasking portfolio is the hit language app DuoLingo, which not only helps millions of people learn a new language, but translates content at the same time.

If this wasn’t enough, DuoLingo also manages to pursue a very humanistic mission, with providing affordable language learning to poor countries. With people like this pushing the boundaries of the tech industry further, the world looks better day by day.

Another awesome talk was given by James McQuivey, the author of the book Digital Disruption. In my mind quite correctly, McQuivey argued that disruption itself is being disrupted. This is well in line with the exponential growth and internal feedback loop of technological development, as well as the law of accelerating returns.

The faster we go, the faster we can go. This in turn changes the very structure of how we go. Although, see here for a really interesting counterpoint.

Another top analyst, Brian Solis, gave his take on the future of business. Entertaining us by demolishing misattributed quotes, like Henry Ford’s “faster horse” and Gandhi’s “be the change”, he went on to show that the future of business is not just about being a visionary. It’s being a visionary in a relevant sense to your customer.

While the stevejobsian idea of averting from market analysis may have a point in a market that keeps changing faster and faster, you still have to have an idea of who’s your customer and what’s the problem you are solving. Otherwise, no matter how awesome your vision is, it’s not going to be much of a business.

There were also more critical notes on technological development. Dadara’s performance gave an important counterpoint to the social media boom, although I felt it fell flat on banality, counterpositioning social media and “good old times” in a way we’ve already heard a thousand times.

Yes, we need more human contact, but it may well be that we in fact have more human contact owing to many of the recent developments in social media, especially such as Uber, Airbnb and Tinder. See here for an interesting take.

Another critique was given by Aral Balkan. He went on to describe the post-Snowden era fears that arose after we found out that everything we do online is copied to NSA’s data mining facilities. Balkan went also to criticize, quite rightly I believe, the open source movement for not producing visionary or functional enough software.

What he called for was open software designed from the UX point of view: “IndieTech”. It was interesting to discuss this with our CTO Timo, who felt that this was in fact precisely the direction we too want to take the technical solutions in the Extended Mind. Keep the code open source, but the customer experience in line with the vision.

The second day we spent at our Boost booth. We had an awesome time chatting with all those hundreds of people who stopped by during the day. Apart from a quick lunch break, there was practically no time to rest, owing to the many people who came to try out the beta version of Extended Mind and to talk about it.

It was great discussing the UI, technology, monetization, future avenues of development and the science behind the Extended Mind.

In addition to Uber, there was another commuting innovation I was impressed with in Amsterdam: biking. The city has the most functional biking infrastructure I’ve ever seen. And that shows in there being an entire traffic system of bicyclers dominating the streets. That was pretty great.

Both Amsterdam and TheNextWeb Europe were really an awesome experience, in terms of new insight, new connections and, of course, lots of fun.

Thank you, Amsterdam!

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technology

Neuroimplants and Augmenting the Mind

There was an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal on neuroimplanting. The authors argued that it is not a matter of whether neuroimplants will break through, but when. Already, we have EEG-based applications for directing machines directly with brain signals, and as the article points out, some motor conditions such as Parkinson’s can be treated with microelectrodes.

Neuroimplanting is, however, a technology that is slightly further down the horizon owing to a very simple obstacle that many other soon to be seen technological breakthroughs don’t suffer from: we still don’t really know that well how the brain works.

The brain, according to current knowledge, has about a hundred billion neurons, with a whopping hundred thousand billion synapses connecting them. For the last few decades, it was thought that each synapse could function as something like a transistor, either letting current through or not.

This would put the amount of controllable variables in the brain in the ballpark of a maximum of one hundred thousand billion. Controlling such a huge amount of variables with microelectrodes or even neural dust is going to be quite challenging.

But the complexity of the neural net is only the beginning. Like I said, the above has been the received view for the last few decades. Recent advents in neuroscience have, however, pointed to an even more complex picture.

In a groundbreaking Stanford imaging study, it was found out that the synapse is in fact a far more complicated structure than a simple transistor, with individual memory systems and other components more typical to a processor than a transistor.

The neural complexity is not limited to the brain either. Also the gut has about five hundred million neurons to further stir up the stew, so to speak. Add to this the more than a hundred neurotransmitters that either excite or inhibit neural signals, the complexity of variables to be controlled or analyzed by an implant is mind-blowing. I won’t even go into glia cells.

So the brain is likely to be tremendously more complex than we think. But so what? Like Marcus and Koch rightly point out in the WSJ paper, every breakthrough technology has looked at such challenges at some point.

I do believe we will have garden variety neuroimplanting in the future. But I suppose that future is slightly farther beyond than is implied in the article. That being said, I think we should not downplay the upcoming advent of HUD’s and other augmented UI devices.

After all, we do have highly sophisticated neural interfaces in place already: our eyes, ears and skin. In a classical experiment Paul Bach-y-Rita used the skin and the tongue to restore vision – yes, actual visual imagery! – to congenitally blind people. In fact the EEG devices that we now have are not that different from what Bach-y-Rita did. By picking up relevant EEG signals we can, for example, guide a robotic arm. Just like we could by hooking the electrode to a facial muscle, for example.

Before we get to the point where a memory module is hooked up directly to the brain – and we will get there, by the latest in a century or two – we can already significantly boost our mental faculties by the devices we have right now.

By being able to tap into relevant information and sorting out the wheat from the chaff, we can augment our mental capacity dramatically as we speak, with nothing fancier than a smartphone.

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technology

The Dublin Web Summit 2013 and Startup Culture

What happens when 10 000 of the brightest minds in technology gather together in Dublin? This week saw the latest installment of what has become the largest technology event in Europe, the Web Summit. Or, as it was now rebranded, simply The Summit.

The event gathered hundreds of startups together, pitching concepts, sharing ideas and creating new networks. The atmosphere at the event was simply outstanding, what with thousands of people really excited and engaged by their own passionate projects, as well those of the others’.

What struck me as one of the most interesting aspects of the event was how the entire crowd fell in place together, with practically no differentiation or evaluation of people, whether they were alpha stage startup founders or world-class serial entrepreneurs.

The explanation, I suppose, is pretty simple. The startup culture is about potential. These ten thousand people have realized that although someone may not yet have the big breakthrough in their hands, with enough hard work and enough experiments they are very likely to land one day on something valuable.

As one of the investors I met at the event – who was looking to invest from 50 million upwards – said, you never know what’s going to be the next Pinterest. To this end, even a multi-million dollar investor will meet the blazing-eyed idea cannon on equal grounds.

Another thing that I found interesting about the event was the amount of awesome ideas people were developing. It struck me that pretty much every half sound idea that I have heard somebody talk about is already being done by somebody else. What this means is that no matter how great the idea you get, someone else will be at it already.

To this end, it is superbly important to find an idea that you are truly passionate about. This was repeated again and again by the speakers at the Summit, such as Gentry Underwood of Mailbox, Drew Houston of Dropbox and Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX. Even if you have the best idea in the world, it’s worth nothing without execution. And executing ideas is some of the hardest work in the world. So you’d better love what you’re doing, or you won’t be doing it for very long.

Altogether getting a look at the European startup scene was truly exciting, coupled with the amazing talks, meetings, and, of course, the delightful Irish pubs.

If you have anything to do with the startup scene, I suggest you take a look at what is going down in Dublin at next year’s Summit. And even if you don’t, it might be worthwhile to look at how the next generation is changing the world.

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technology

So What on Earth is Extended Mind?

Extended Mind is not just a nice brand name for a task manager or another note taking app. We are very serious about the fact that certain mental operations such as workflow management and declarative memory can be externalized. This will change the way you think.

The original argument stems from Andy Clark’s and David Chalmers’ awesome 1998 paper called – that’s right – “The Extended Mind”. In that paper the philosophers Clark and Chalmers asked a simple question: if an activity, such as recollection, that is typically thought of as mental involves an external component such as a notebook, is the external bit then a part of the mental activity? Clark and Chalmers answer with a resounding yes. We agree.

We really still don’t know what exactly the mind is. But we do know a lot about how it works.

We know that the brain has a lot to do with the way the mind works. Certain areas of the brain light up with certain thoughts and actions. But the thoughts and actions are not in the brain. They just coincide with brain activity. Much like if you move your hand, the movement is not in your brain, even if the motor cortex always lights up about the same way when you move the hand.

So we can show that mental function correlates with the brain. Likewise, we can show mental function correlates with the tools you use. If you have stuff stored on your smartphone, you simply remember things better than if you didn’t have. And if you have a task list, you are simply more effective than if you didn’t have one.

But the mind is a funny thing. It’s not just one thing, but at least two.

There is the intuitive, non-conscious System 1 of your mind that does most of the hard work. And then there is the reflective, conscious System 2 that does the thinking part.

The former can process a whopping 11.2 million bits of information per second. No wonder that things just pop into your head. The latter, in turn, can only process a meager 40 bits per second, that is three or four things at a time. Again, no wonder it’s so damn hard sometimes to dig things up from your mind. You just know that you know – but you cannot for the love of it recall what is it exactly that you know.

This we want to change.

There are three development goals we have set for the Extended Mind.

We want it to be simple. The 40 bits of your reflective mind are easily distracted by whatever is on the screen. So we’ll put only what you need on the screen.

We want it to be fast. It’s not much of a substitute for mental function if it takes ages to boot. Access times to whatever is on your Extended Mind should be less than ten seconds; comparable to what it normally takes to refresh your biological memory. (We actually tested this on Trivial Pursuit.)

And we want it to be focused. Most software have so many features that the ones you most typically use get lost amidst them. We’ll include only what you most typically need. This means the Extended Mind will have only about 5% of the features the other available apps. But those 5% we’ll do really well.

Your biological mind is great at being creative, at understanding emotions, creating connections and feeling deep. But it sucks at storing and organizing things.

The digital tools in turn are not that awesome with feelings. But they are great at focusing your attention, at organizing a whopping amount of data and at storing stuff so that you can return to it ten years from now.

That is, unless the software you use gets in the way of what you want to get done.

So this is our vision:

Let’s leave the storing to the digital mind so that the biological mind can focus on the feeling and the creating. And let’s have the two work seamlessly together.

Only the essential, with no bells and whistles.

Just your mind, extended.

Sign up for beta here.

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