Still waiting for the #TextBlade?

Back in January 2016, I wrote a supply chain case study about a company called WayTools and their ‘TextBlade’ miniature keyboard. Since the case study is essentially about the non-appearance of a product, at that time about a year late, I thought that I might be able to use the case study once or twice before events overtook me, with WayTools silencing all the doubters by bringing their product to market at last.

Some customers, having paid $99 for a product that was supposed to be out within a month, have now been waiting almost two years. They weren’t signing up to a kickstarter project: the gadget was presented as a finished design, ready for volume production.

The various problems that WayTools reported (via their corporate blog, and in a user community forum) made it very useful as a case study showing some of the things that can go wrong, both internally and in the supply chain. It became the subject of a couple of our exam papers, but I never expected that I’d still be talking about WayTools’ failure to deliver the product as 2017 rolled in.

Detail from the TextBlade case study

You can download a copy of the case study here.

Two years is a long time in the technology sphere: mobile devices and the way we use them might have changed a lot in that time. WayTools have been fortunate that there have been no really big advances. For the most part, Apple users still contend with the woeful Siri, which means that natural speech isn’t about to replace the keyboard anytime soon… but there are newer and better kids on the block. Cortana, Google Now, Assistant.ai, and Viv all want to help users to get things done without typing. Meanwhile, the iPad pro has appeared, with a pretty good keyboard of its own – essentially copying that found on Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Since these are built into the protective screen cover, they don’t occupy much space. Is there still a market for a tiny-teeny keyboard, nowadays? WayTools think so, and (as far as we know) they’re still doggedly plugging away at refining their product.

An urge to make the best keyboard they possibly can appears to be the main problem. In May 2015, they reported that they’d replaced the nylon ‘butterflies’ under each key with liquid crystal polymer, improving the feel and durability of the keyboard. That’s commendable, except that people who had ordered one had expected to receive it months before. What was wrong with simply making in quantity the product that the tech journalists had enthused about, back in January 2015? Why not hold off on any improvements until the “mark 1” product had been delivered, generating a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue?

Typing with the TextBlade

TextBlade should haven taken the world by storm… two years back.

The new, stronger ‘butterflies’ were found to cause defects during the assembly stage, and a new fixture had to be designed as a work-around… and so on, and so on. Right up until the present, as far as I can tell. A few customers have been invited to join the Test Release Group (‘TREG’) and they have received sample units, but there’s still no sign of order fulfilment being achieved.

I think we can all agree that introducing a two-year delay while you take something that works and ‘improve’ it until it doesn’t is a distinctly unusual business practice.

TextBlade product packaging

Some customers may have been waiting for this for almost two years. [image: mcttrainingconsultant]

I have no axe to grind: I’m not out of pocket by $99. I wanted a TextBlade, sure enough… but I decided to wait and see. Thus far, it’s been all waiting and no seeing, but that’s actually a good thing. I wanted a TextBlade… but I didn’t really need one. It would have been fun to pose with one in meetings and on flights, but I can’t point to any particular job that didn’t get done in 2016 and say that’s because I didn’t have a miniature keyboard to use with my iPad.

When I write about the sustainable supply chain, perhaps I focus too much on the supply side. A big part of being ‘green’ isn’t about shopping for products that are made from sustainable materials, or products with low energy consumption: it’s about doing without. It’s about recognising that what you have will do, and perhaps paying off your debts instead of buying more stuff that you don’t really need. It’s taken me two years to realise it, but WayTools and I won’t be doing business, even if they were to announce tomorrow that they’ve just landed a container-load of TextBlades at Felixstowe, with all quality problems finally addressed and next-day delivery guaranteed. I’ve coped perfectly well without, and I know that I can continue to do so.

You may think that $99 is a bit pricey for a keyboard, nowadays, but one school of thought holds that buying expensive things can actually be quite ‘green’ (unless precious metals are involved). Better that you should buy a single, high-priced item than buy a whole bundle of less expensive items, embodying more materials, requiring more logistics, perhaps being less durable, and ultimately representing more waste at the end-of-life. Smart consumption requires that we understand that cheap stuff isn’t necessarily good for us.

My TextBlade journey has turned out to be very inexpensive and very ‘green’ indeed. If it had really existed when it was first launched, I think I would have bought one. By now, the novelty would have worn off, and indeed the product might even have worn out… and even if it still worked just fine, the industrial design of the TextBlade is starting to look just a little bit long in the tooth, now. But instead of being a disillusioned customer, I still have my $99, no resources have been wasted (other than whatever is consumed in web browsing) and I’ve reached an endpoint where I no longer feel that I lack a little keyboard.

TextBlade customers have been remarkably patient, considering. Their good-natured humour at each delay has been kinder than the manufacturer really deserves at this point. Even the Twitter bot called @Failtools that sends out a regular ‘status update’ in the style of WayTools’ own news bulletins has a certain bitter humour about it – and delivers a salutary lesson on the subject of public relations in the Internet era.

Some good things are worth waiting for, without a doubt. Glowforge comes to mind: a desktop laser cutter/engraver that’s been delayed more than once. Consider me very interested, but not enough to actually bankroll the development process. Sometimes, the expectation is simply greater than the reality. That’s a consequence of the science that we call marketing, but perhaps virtual products that never arrive offer a new form of gratification, where you get all the excitement and expectation, and never face the disappointment that comes with actual ownership.

It’s certainly worked for me.

(Also, I got a case study out of this. Thank you, WayTools.)

As Cute as a Button

I wanted to like Amazon’s ‘Dash’ Button. I wanted to be able to report on it as a manifestation of the long-anticipated Internet of Things, where everyday objects are networked, and can send and receive useful data.

Dash is an electronic doohickey with a single button, about the size of a human thumb. Each Dash button displays the logo of one particular brand, and is configured such that a single press causes a consignment of the corresponding item to be dispatched by Amazon. You’re supposed to use the gadget’s adhesive backing to place it somewhere relevant, such as where you store your supply of dishwasher tablets, or your, uh… Play-Doh.

Just

Wait, what? Just how many households need a streamlined way to obtain Play-Doh on a regular basis? (“D’oh!”)

This is amazing, on some levels. It demonstrates that Internet-enabled devices have become so inexpensive that they can be given away – and so very simple to set up. It wasn’t so long ago that I was blogging about the near-impossibility of getting my Raspberry Pi on a wireless network, but now anybody can get an even cheaper gadget to work. Setting up a Dash button is simplicity itself, although I was dismayed at first to find that I needed to install an Amazon app on my ’phone and turn its Bluetooth on. Was Dash merely some dumb Bluetooth remote clicker? That wasn’t what I wanted: I wanted my household to be wirelessly, remorselessly efficient even when my phone (and I) are many miles away from the cabinet where we keep the dishwasher tablets, or whatever.

I needn’t have worried, as the Bluetooth phase is only for setup. After your ’phone and Dash button have exchanged a handshake and you’ve divulged your wifi password, the only thing you need to do with your ’phone is choose exactly what it will order.

And here comes the first problem: only a very limited range of products can be ordered at the push of a button. CNET journalist Bridget Carey pointed out that the Gillette-branded button didn’t offer any way to order supplies from the women’s range, Gillette Venus. Another reviewer grumbled that only the more expensive blades such as the Fusion type could be ordered, and not the (relatively) cheapo Mach 3.

These aren’t massive problems because they aren’t a fault with the Dash button itself: it’s a question of what Amazon choose to make available, and this can be fixed at any time. So can the idea of button-clicking replenishment in the home be made to work?

It’s at the delivery stage where things go wrong. Amazon simply can’t afford to make good on the small consignments that ordinary families would want to order at the push of a button. Consider tissues: I normally buy a twin-pack of Kleenex Mansize. When we’re running low they are recorded on the shopping list, for my weekly trip to Tesco. If somebody in the house has a cold and we run out mid-week, they can probably find more tissues in the guest room, or they can use toilet roll, or go and buy their own damn tissues at the pharmacy in the village.

As an Amazon Prime customer, you have a new option: you can push the Dash button. This still leaves you blowing your nose on scratchy toilet roll for a day or two (logistics and economics being what they are) but then a harried-looking van driver with a Polish accent arrives on your doorstep, asking if he’s found the right house and carrying a box of Kleenex.

A huge box of Kleenex.

As a paid-up Prime customer (the only kind who can obtain a Dash button) you’re entitled to free, next-day delivery, but Amazon aren’t going to haemorrhage profits on the delivery of small consignments of cheap, bulky paper tissues. Instead, all they offer with a Dash button is delivery in wholesale quantities.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the Kleenex Mansize tissues that I wanted… twenty-four boxes at a time.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the tissues that I want… twenty-four boxes at a time.

In smaller homes, storage space is going to be an issue. Some people might find that Dash introduces a cash flow issue, too. Basically, in the name of convenience, you’ve become your own warehouse… and it’s not all that convenient.

I don’t find this to be very ‘green’, either. My bulk order of 1,200 tissues were very over-packaged, featuring twenty-four individual boxes, each comprised of both cardboard and a plastic film (here at Capacify, we don’t like monstrous hybrids)… all in a plastic bag, in a big cardboard box. I accept that Amazon can only sell what manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark sell them, but the economics of this are all wrong. On a per-sneeze basis this over-packaged offering was the most economical, for me, but there was probably more cellulose used to make cardboard boxes than to make tissues.

Another big fail for the Amazon Dash button is that human beings like pressing buttons… but how often do you actually get to enjoy your button-related activity if one press delivers a four-month supply? Also, we Salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the positive feedback of instant gratification… but Amazon can’t compress the shipping time for our stuff to anything that feels as if the push of a button is really connected to the delivery of the goods. What you get is a brief green glow to show that the request is acknowledged, and then a notification on your smartphone, giving the person who’s actually paying for the items the chance to opt out.

It’s official: romance is dead.

It’s official: romance is dead.

In our house, the neat industrial design of the Dash button is somewhat wasted because I had to hide it in the cupboard with the controls for the central heating. My young son would be fascinated by the idea that there’s a magic button that can be pressed to make stuff appear on our doorstep. (Especially if that stuff were Play-Doh… although even just to make the green light come on would probably be reason enough. Over, and over, and over…)

Instead of criticising Amazon for being a big, bad corporation that has taken over our lives, take a moment to feel some sympathy for them. They’re actually in a bit of a pickle. When they arrived on the scene, many people were still reluctant to use a credit card online for anything at all. Through innovation and sheer hard work, Jeff Bezos has built a vast commercial empire, but in the process he’s trained people to use the Internet to buy stuff – and Internet-enabled customers are fickle. They’ve been conditioned to use price comparison websites when buying new, branded goods; to expect free delivery; to cut out middle-men; to perform free returns with no quibbles; to get next-day or even same-day delivery. There is no buyer loyalty anymore, and profit margins are thin, because there’s always going to be somebody out there who is prepared to work for next-to-nothing in the hope of building market share. (And for many years, that somebody was Amazon themselves, ploughing profits back in and going for growth rather than money, as such. Consider their dividend history.)

Amazon’s efforts to put the genie of free, next-day delivery back in the bottle include the failed Amazon Pantry – where Amazon sought to persuade ‘Prime’ customers (those who already pay an annual fee for their free delivery) that they ought to pay a fee for each box of goods that were delivered. “There’s Something Rotten in Amazon’s Pantry” quipped Seamus Condron, who commented:

“Why on Earth would I, an Amazon Prime member, pay Amazon to ship me something that I won’t get for 1-4 business days? That is not an Amazon Prime service, that is a snake oil operation at its finest.”

And now, of course, the Dash button. They first appeared in limited numbers in late March of 2015, which was a bit of a blunder as many Internet denizens believed them to be a joke for April Fool’s day. But no: Amazon were sincere about Dash.

I was curious, because any study of supply chain trends ought to be all about new methods of ordering and fulfilment. It turns out that the ordering mechanism is novel, but the same old fulfilment process is used and it simply doesn’t keep pace… but then, Dash was never meant to empower the consumer. Consumers are empowered when they have access to the Internet, but that means price comparisons, shopping around… disloyalty.

For £4.99 (refunded when first used) Amazon and I entered into a relationship where I no longer have to type amazon.co.uk into a web browser, while in return Amazon get to ensure I do business only with them, that I order more than I need, that I choose from a limited range of products, and that I display the logo of a brand in my home.

Bad bargain!

The technology is interesting. That a reliable and non-nerdy wifi and bluetooth-enabled device can be built for well under £5 is interesting, too… and I look forward to seeing what else might be done with similar technology by other suppliers, or other innovators.

I’ve been monitoring the price for the consignment of tissues that I ordered, and at times they’ve been available for as little as half what I paid, although Amazon’s price fluctuates with no apparent logic. That’s fair enough if you’re a web-browser customer, but a Dash button customer runs the risk of feeling like a chump for buying things without checking the price. (Having “more money than sense,” is how we would describe this, where I come from.)

Now, I don’t mind paying top dollar once for the sake of an experiment. I got this article for Capacify out of it, after all… but I don’t intend to leave myself on the hook this way. I was going to take the Dash button out of range of my wifi network and then dismantle it, pinching the battery or batteries inside for my own use before I condem the rest of it as e-waste… but it appears that others are way ahead of me: actually hacking the Dash button to make it do something that they find to be much more useful than Amazon intended.

Consider me impressed.

Almost as Good as New

I broke my iPad a little while ago. I wouldn’t have broken it if I hadn’t been trying so hard to protect it: I put it in the boot (some say, ‘trunk’) of the car, so it wouldn’t be seen by an opportunist thief, and I didn’t want it to get battered by sliding around in there, so I wrapped it in a jumper… and that’s how I came to drop it: it slipped out of the folds of the jumper when I picked it up. It only fell about two feet, but onto concrete that was enough. The case didn’t protect it sufficiently (thanks, Belkin…) and I was left with an iPad with an ugly dent on one corner, and cracks in the glass surface.

iPad screen with damage at the corner

I didn’t take a picture of the damage to mine, but it looked something like this. Ouch!

 

This caused me to experience at first hand some of the best remanufacturing I’ve seen.

If you want an example of a product with no user-serviceable parts, look no further than the iPad: the whole thing is about as seamless as the mysterious black slab in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (Only thinner, of course: Sir Jony Ive and his obsession with thinness…)

I’d never needed to put Apple’s service department to the test before, and it had been a long, long time since I visited an Apple Centre. The experience was a bit confusing because the shop was crowded with people and there didn’t seem to be anything resembling a queue. (Who are all these people? I was an Apple user before it was cool…) Eventually I managed to seize a member of staff, who briefly patronised me because I’d mistakenly said I needed to get my iPad repaired. No, no, no… I could swap it for an exchange unit, I was told. This was what I meant (I can read) but to do that, it seemed I had to make an appointment with a “genius”.

Does anybody else find this immodest term a bit ridiculous, or is it just me? (A quick Google search reveals an ITworld article entitled ‘Does anyone else want to punch the “Apple Genius” guy in the face?’ so perhaps it’s not just me being a curmudgeon, on this occasion.) Perhaps Apple’s corporate-speak just doesn’t translate very well into English. Either that or accepting a broken iPad from a customer, recording their personal details and putting it into a padded envelope is something that only their finest can do.

The “genius” in question would be free in a little over an hour, it appeared: I decided not to wait.

At the weekend, I visited an authorised reseller (thanks, KRCS) and had a much better experience. No wait required, and nobody feeling sufficiently like Oscar Wild as to declare their genius. It turned out there was some moderately clever work to be done as we had to go through the process by which the “find my iPad” functionality is switched off, since I would otherwise be tracking the location of an iPad I no longer owned. I also did a factory reset that wiped all my personal information from the device.

And so, goodbye DLXM31CVFH12 … we hardly knew you.

Now here’s the interesting thing: you might well worry that your exchanged iPad will be swapped with one that’s had a hard life. The reseller said my iPad was probably in the best condition he’d ever seen (give or take a single brief bounce on a piece of South East London pavement). What if the ‘new’ one hadn’t led such a pampered existence? No problem: the device gets not only a new screen, but a new back casing, and Apple replace all the parts that are subjected to wear and tear as well. All the buttons are replaced with new components, and the battery too.

You never really notice the memory effect in rechargeable batteries, until you replace them. The gradual decline in capacity that is inevitable with virtually every battery technology had affected my iPad, too, despite only occasional usage. At £179, my “screen replacement” really gave my mini iPad a whole new lease of life. Not only was the battery much better than I remembered, but the unit came wrapped in protective film, just as it had when it left the factory the first time. No blemishes at all; not so much as a fingerprint on it. The ‘new gadget experience’ and even the ‘new gadget’ smell, all over again. This is what remanufacturing should be: a process yielding products that are as good as new, with a guarantee to prove it.

The hardware side of the experience was superb; the software side, less so. The replacement iPad came with firmware in place that I couldn’t dislodge with a full restore. Thus, I am forced to live with iOS 9 from now on. I’d kept my iPad on iOS7 because I don’t like Apple’s more recent efforts at user interface design. I find the new, minimalist graphics rather childish.

Regardless of my wishes in this regard, that era is over for me: I have no choice but to accept the results of Apple’s fanatical yet curiously selective war on skeuomorphism. Worst of all, an iPad with an up-to-date operating system demanded an up-to-date installation of iTunes on my computer, a piece of software that has steadily deteriorated in usability as it’s been made to do more and more over the last fifteen years. Perhaps I expect too much: perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect smooth scrolling through a list of tunes when you’ve only got four processor cores and 16GB of RAM? It seems so, but if discovering the answer involves asking a “genius”, I think I’ll pass.

In ‘White Suit Economics’ I discussed how products can now be designed so as to perform well for a known period of time, but then be made to degrade artificially, so as to force the user to replace them at a time chosen by the manufacturer and not the owner. I now have an iPad that responds only sluggishly when I start typing out a message, and it informs me daily that a still newer version of its operating system is now available. Newer software is designed to run on newer hardware, of course, and this is progress: if it ain’t broke, keep on fixing it until it is.

Daily Apple update message.

A daily hard sell: install now, or later… “no thanks” is not an option.

In a world where artificial intelligence is a hot topic, Apple’s software doesn’t display much in the way of smarts. It seems incapable of recognising that when I refuse to upgrade my software fifty days in a row, I’m unlikely to have changed my mind on day 51. Or day 52.

But how about day 53?

Perhaps this is artificial intelligence after all, and Apple has reincarnated Talkie Toaster.

The Gaseous State

The question that I’ve been pondering this week: what if existing models of the supply chain are outdated, and a whole new dimension is required? We speak of workflow, liquidity, pooling of resources… but what if commerce no longer resembles a liquid, but a gas?

A liquid sloshes about, and finds its lowest possible level. We’ve seen that: work gravitates to the place where it’s cheapest (and where regulation and taxation are the least onerous)… but that’s only half the story. A gas expands until it fills every nook and cranny: and it keeps on pushing until the pressure is equal throughout the system.

This is the evolutionary change in the modern-day supply chain. From solid (we expect things to stay put, and we expect to do things the way we’ve always done them) to liquid (everything takes the path of least resistance and flows downhill) to gas, and the ‘new normal’ that everything is everywhere. Instant gratification, same-day delivery, and so on.

The future is... more energetic.

The future is… more energetic.

The change isn’t just a new challenge wrought by new expectations on the demand side, though: the fulfilment paradigm has also changed. New actors participate in the supply chain now, while old ones take on different and expanded roles.

The service sector is being shaken up by disruptive changes. People with a spare room in their home now use Airbnb to compete directly with the conventional providers of short-stay accommodation. People with a vehicle and time on their hands sign up with Uber, offering a service comparable to taxis, on a casual basis.

Manufacturing businesses aren’t safe from disruption of this kind. What’s to stop a manufacturer from selling idle machine time to anybody that can benefit from it? Twenty-five years ago, Prestige Garden Furniture of Bolton were making parts for the Jaguar cars that competed at Le Mans… with good data exchange formats and a growing list of successful collaborations, this sort of thing is only going to increase. Add in ‘the cloud’ and the notion that businesses can tender for work on a case-by-case basis, and the commercial landscape begins to look very different.

On the retail side, who’s to say that the next thing you buy will come from a conventional source? In some applications, a ‘previously enjoyed’ product might be just what the customer needs, simultaneously shielding them from tax and depreciation, and allowing them to feel better about their environmental impact… and in eBay citizens (and businesses) have an excellent marketplace in which to buy or sell with some confidence that prices are fair.

Finance has gone crowdsourced, too. Where entrepreneurs once had to meet with the bank manager, Kickstarter offers a way to fund everything from movies to gadgets, while peer-to-peer loans allow borrowers access to credit and give savers a decent return on investment… with no high street bank in sight.

This is the all-pervasive commerce of the future: where a vastly expanded pool of casual or unconventional actors provide additional capability. Ignore them all and go with old-style formal relationships if you must, but understand that there are a whole lot of other people out there who want to get involved – and might end up working for the opposition. Done well, the coordination of a set of such contributions could be a powerful strategic differentiator because there’s an army of people who could play a part, in every city.

What triggered the change that turned the liquid of old-style commerce into an all-pervasive gas?

Microwaves.

The cellphone changed everything. The Internet made a big change, for sure, but it was mobile that really let the genie out of the bottle. Once calls were make to a person rather than a place, a plumber no longer needed a relative staying at home to take calls and make appointments. Cutting out the ‘receptionist-at-home’ role (and there must have been many thousands of such people) meant they could take on paid work elsewhere. Mobile ’phones also meant a farmer would know if today was the right day to harvest his vegetable crop – and could perhaps secure a price with a buyer, instead of being at the mercy of a middleman. That same mobile telephone allows ride-sharing, live translation services, paperless ticketing and much more.

In my family, when we send holiday postcards, we don’t start by buying a postcard: we use our own photo, uploaded with an accompanying message to a print-on-demand firm who create the card and put it straight into the post. In effect we have become actors in our own supply chain, replacing the professional photographer who formerly earned royalties on their images. We’ve eliminated the foreign leg of the postal service, too: never again will we queue in the bureau de poste and request “un timbre pour l’Angleterre”… and the likelihood that the resulting card will be delivered by the Royal Mail is declining, too: there are so many others who could bid for the contract.

The world has changed, and the lesson to be learned here is not to be the old-style incumbent, selling pre-printed postcards in a digital age. Like any paradigm shift, there will be winners and losers, and the first step towards becoming a winner is to be aware that the shift is underway. The future is digital, no doubt, but it’s also amorphous, chaotic… and gaseous.

Social Marketing

I’ve been reading ‘Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World’ by Kristen Lamb, as recommended to me by Pip Marks after I wrote a few weeks ago about my efforts to build a “personal brand” in cyberspace. It’s been a real eye-opener, because although I’ve been dabbling in social media (very cautiously) for a couple of years now, I still have a lot to learn.

Maybe I’m thick, but I needed it spelled out for me… just like I found ‘Great Answers to Tough Interview Questions’ to be a revelation. (I used to just bumble into job interviews and try to answer ‘live’ when asked a question. Can you imagine? It never occurred to me that other people in interviews are less than entirely honest, and are prepared to game the system with techniques they learned out of a book.)

In the same way, I used to think that I was too busy writing to spend time on llllarch engine optimisation or promotion… which may be a more honest approach to self-publishing, but is kind of dumb if you write in the hope that people are actually going to read your output, someday.

Social media wordcloud

The simplest plans are the best ones…

Social media has involved a steep learning curve for me, not so much technically as personally. When I left school, I went straight into a job where I had to sign the Official Secrets Act. Thus, I became accustomed to a “need to know” culture that continues to affect my thinking to this day. My Facebook page is set to ‘private’ and has a very small number of friends on it. I seldom post there anyway. I shudder when my son’s nursery puts out photos and they’re geotagged, not so much because I believe that there are paedophiles or kidnappers lurking everywhere, as simply because unknown people on the Internet don’t need to know. You might have seen my son’s leg appearing at the edge of a picture on ‘A Logistically Challenged Holiday’, but you won’t find his face on this blog. Need to know.

I wouldn’t fare at all well if I were a character in ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers. His dystopian future features a thinly-veiled Google-like entity that dominates the whole Internet, demanding that people share everything about their lives. The book (love it or loathe it: opinion is divided) introduced several wonderfully Orwellian pronouncements, such as “Privacy is Theft”, and “Secrets are Lies.”

Trouble is, Kristen Lamb argues that we need to be real people in order to reach out to our audience. Acting as a real, social human being breaks down the barriers that everyone has in place: the unconscious filtering out of sidebars, pop-ups, and everything else that we didn’t request. Like the way that everyone ignores the second item on their LinkedIn feed, because that’s the spam slot… you tune it out. The things that you don’t tune out typically come to you from people who appeal to you on a social level: your 21st century ‘tribe’ vet and validate content for you. That’s why your own personal brand is so important, and shouldn’t be diluted by endorsing any old thing.

It seems that in trying to ‘sell’ a blog about the sustainable supply chain, I’ve neglected the personal aspect. Capacify puts out a tweet automatically each time I publish a new post, but (as Kristen has made plain) that isn’t social. Why should I expect strangers to care about my tweets, if I’m not a real person to them?

I’m going to try to do better, but it’s hard for a person who used to keep secrets for a living. It’s also prompted some interesting discussions with colleagues about the extent to which an educator should be ‘accessible’ to his or her students, and communicating in a medium where they don’t have control. Most of us feel that it would be unwise to go out on the town with our students, so why would we mix it up with them on Facebook?

I’m unconvinced by claims that social media enhances learner retention (which is teacherspeak for “saves the ones who are in danger of failing and finishing”) because boring old messages from educators must inevitably be drowned out by diversions such as the Jedi Chipmunk Lightsaber Battle. We try to make our teaching interesting, but Jedi chipmunks will always be more fun than exam revision tips… so I tend not to expect miracles from social media.

There are exceptions, inevitably. When Salman Khan was providing tuition for friends and relatives, he used YouTube, and inadvertently acquired a mass following, leading eventually to the establishment of Khan Academy, a major force in online education since 2009.

I learned something about the unpredictable power of the social Internet on a rainy day last year. We were disembarking from a train and I struggled to carry my son and a share of the paraphernalia of parenting, which is to say a changing mat, baby wipes, spare nappies, nappy bags, changes of clothing, push chair, toys, etc. To achieve this I stuffed his toy cat down the front of my coat.

We made it onto the platform and as the train pulled away with a cloud of diesel smoke we set about opening up the pushchair, putting its waterproof cover on, and stowing the aforementioned bits and pieces. Then I had to say the thing that every parent dreads most:

“Uh… where’s [favourite soft toy]?”

A quick search of the the immediate vicinity and ourselves revealed that I’d messed up. The cat must have dropped out of my coat while I wrestled with everything else.

We hurried back to our holiday cottage, and started making inquiries, such as telephoning the lost property office. Inevitably, it was closed for the evening, but while I frantically searched the Internet to see if a replacement could be bought, Mrs. F. hit upon the idea of tweeting an appeal for assistance.

As Dillie Keane of Fascinating Aïda likes to say, it “went fungal”. Everybody wanted to help… and they all wanted news of the missing cat. Many people will sympathise with a child who’s crying because he’s lost one of his favourite toys, and everybody wants to hear a happy ending… but there was tangible assistance as well. An off-duty member of staff for the rail company sent us messages of advice… and a short while later we heard from The White Company, from whom the stuffed cat had originally come. Unfortunately they couldn’t find us another cat as the product was discontinued, but they sent my son a free ‘Harry Hippo’ instead. How’s that for customer service?

Have you seen this Jellycat?

Lost: one Jellycat ‘Maddy Cat’. (Also, another partial view of my son. Knee and elbow: still no face.)

Sadly, we never did get the cat back. She was still quite clean and new-looking (unlike so many really well-loved Kuscheltiere) so perhaps somebody decided to re-gift the lost cat. Or maybe a member of railway staff just found it quicker to stuff the cat in a binsack than to hand it in as lost properly. We’ll never know… but even though we were unsuccessful I was astounded by the support we received from strangers all over the country.

Pardon me while I try to save the planet with my writing on green manufacturing, where a new article probably gets 25 hits in the first few days. If you report a lost soft toy you pick up several hundred new followers within hours…

For a more up-to-date example of the unpredictable Internet, consider the Natural Environment Research Council, who recently invited suggestions and votes for the name of their new research vessel, currently being built at Cammell Laird on Merseyside. When James Hand flippantly suggested that ‘Boaty McBoatface’ would be a good name, he had no idea that it would attract 27,000 votes, and that the surge in interest would crash the NERC website.

They’ve had more publicity than they could ever have dreamed of… at the cost of having to explain that they might decide to overrule the British public, and choose a more sensible name for their £200m ship.

Back in 2013, JDA.com suggested that only one percent of companies were “doing anything with social media for supply chain planning”. Perhaps this is unsurprising because it’s so hard to know which products, services or stories will “go fungal”, and which will fail to inspire action. It’s also hard to glean much information from users who use pseudonyms, choose not to reveal their location (that’s me…) and perhaps communicate on the Internet in ways that they wouldn’t do in a face-to-face situation. Call it the Boaty McBoatface Effect: it’s too good a name to waste.

Will social media enable more accurate planning and forecasting, presently? Perhaps, but our time is precious and we use a whole slew of tactics to ignore and actively rebuff those who seek to harvest our data. My web browser exterminates cookies at the end of every session. I prefer that the advertisements that manage to struggle their way onto the web pages that I view are for products and services I have no interest in, because it saves me money. I’ve got an extortionate mortgage to pay off, and a son with an expensive Lego habit as well: the last thing I need is advertisements that persuade me to buy things that hadn’t occurred to me… so I withhold information. Facebook thinks I was born in Canada, and work in China. Why? Because Facebook doesn’t need to know. It appears Dave Eggers was right: secrets are lies.

Perhaps we now value the opinions of our ‘tribe’ far more than we care about glitzy messages from professionals. I could share my opinion of the Fiat 500L we had as a hire car last week (surprisingly roomy, comfortable ride: horrendously bad satellite navigation by TomTom…), and my small social following might actually take note. They almost certainly won’t pay any heed to paid content, however nice the graphics may be.

It’s a funny old world, and it’s getting funnier all the time. Particularly the parts that involve Jedi chipmunks – and Boaty McBoatface, obviously.

How Green was my… Raspberry Pi?

A diminutive single-board computer, the Raspberry Pi evokes memories of the 1980s, when home computers were largely meant for learning to program, rather than for the consumption of ready-made content.

This is just about as ‘bare bones’ as computing can be, demanding a bring-your-own approach to input, output, and storage… but it’s astonishingly cheap.

Pi reminds me a lot of the Sinclair Spectrum. It’s infinitely superior in terms of its computing power (unsurprisingly, given the intervening decades) and build quality, but in some ways it’s very similar to the humble ‘Speccy’ that so may of us were scratching our heads over in 1982. For one thing, it’s incomplete: straight out of the box it does nothing – and although you’re getting a bargain, it’s a stripped-down system and will likely see you buying accessories in the weeks that follow. Early Raspberry Pis came with just one or two USB ports, so once your mouse and keyboard are in place, you’re stuck. I found myself having to disconnect the keyboard in order to drag files off a USB drive with the mouse… so obviously you find yourself buying a USB hub pretty quickly, and then you find that the Pi can’t support the power demands of all the ancillaries, so make that a powered hub… and then you’ll want a wifi dongle, and… and…

Pretty soon, the alleged $35 computer is weighing in at well over $100: a price point at which it’s a bit less attractive. Just like my old Spectrum that needed an interface to connect with a disk drive, and another to connect with a joystick, or a decent printer… start down this path and your piggy bank is in for a battering.

If you already have a mass of computer accessories around the house, you can get a Raspberry Pi up and running for not much money. No power supply is included with the Pi, but its creators claim that most folks already have one kicking around in a drawer, in the form of a phone charger. (If your old mobile had a micro USB connector, that is: people with iPhones will need to visit eBay.)

If I was less keen on experimenting for the sake of it, I might have noted that I have three or four ‘retired’ computers around the house of a specification at least equal to the early ‘Pi’ models. In other words, I didn’t need a low-cost computer. The last thing I need is another computer, really… but I visit developing countries for the purposes of delivering education, so I’m interested in practical, affordable hardware.

old-style 15" MacBook Pro

The greenest computer choice is probably one that you already own. After a long useful life, a failed USB port and an ailing trackpad meant that this laptop was beyond economic repair, but even in retirement it was far more capable than the first Pi that I bought.

People who donate computer hardware they’ve finished with are doing a good thing, no doubt, but have you ever stopped to think about what a difficult proposition it must be to manage a classroom full of donated computers? IT support staff are likely to have a mixture of different hardware, and are forced to choose between having the computers plod along as they attempt to run an up-to-date operating system, or leaving them vulnerable to viruses… while also coping with hardware that’s already had a hard life and is likely to have acquired a few foibles of its own. Add in the fact that few developing countries have a capability to recycle e-waste and these schemes look a bit less attractive. The “$35 computer” may be a better bet.

My experience with the original Raspberry Pi (model B) was largely positive, although I never did anything productive with it. Dr Joe and I were impressed to get OpenProject up and running on the diminutive Pi, because that was a piece of software that we were regularly using on one of our Masters programmes in Zambia and Malawi. Imagine how useful it would be if instead of giving each new student a flash drive with assorted reading materials, we were able to give them a “$35 computer”, with all the programs they’re going to use over the next 18 months preinstalled, plus documents, bookmarks and so on… even if it inevitably becomes a $100 computer by the time you’ve added the peripherals that are needed to make it function, that’s not half bad.

The 700 MHz single-core CPU of the original Pi didn’t really have enough oomph to run OpenProject. Web browsing and word processing were similarly sluggish: just not as snappy as we’ve all become used to. Once you’ve had an Intel Core i5 or better, it’s hard to go back to waiting for things to happen.

Raspberry Pi model 1 and 2, and cases.

In the early days of the Raspberry Pi, cases were overpriced, clunky things that were typically made by 3D printing. I made my own out of plywood instead… but by the time the Model 2 came along, decent polycarbonate cases were available.

I abandoned all thoughts of using the original Pi as a ‘proper computer’, and most users appear to have done the same. The Pi found its niche in hardware projects: the low cost of the unit makes it ideal for hardware hacking, since it doesn’t really matter if you manage to destroy one, and its ridiculously low power requirements made it ideal for oddball applications that see it providing the brains of amateur-built robots, or being sent up in weather balloons, etc. Some enthusiasts have racked dozens of Raspberry Pis together to make a kind of ersatz supercomputer… but as with the robots and balloons, one of the reasons it works so well is because it doesn’t really involve interfacing with a human being. Superb low-power performance is meaningless if you have to hook the Pi up to a monitor, and low cost is similarly elusive if we have to source a keyboard, mouse, etc. for every unit.

So: a great little gadget to tinker with and learn about computer hardware itself, but not a ‘full computer’ in terms of what most people actually need to do with a computer, day-to-day. Your cast-off smartphone is a more ‘complete’ computing device in some ways, since it has things like a battery, a screen, a camera and a means of data entry – all of which need to be procured if they are to be used with a Pi.

Things changed somewhat when the Raspberry Pi Foundation brought out the Raspberry Pi 2, with a quad core processor that operated at a more respectable 900 MHz – making it about six times as capable as the original. They also provided four USB ports, which reduced desktop clutter nicely. With the Mark 2, though, I found myself caught in a bizarre chicken-and-egg situation where I wanted to get it working with our wireless network, but after purchasing a wifi dongle I found that I needed to download additional software. (And if there’s one thing you can’t do until you’re on the network, it’s download software…)

Raspberry Pi 2, showing its four USB ports

Four lovely USB ports: the original Model A had just one…

Such a wrinkle would be trivial if I had a tame guru that I could persuade to solve my IT problems for me, but our IT staff have enough trouble keeping Microsoft Windows lurching along, without getting distracted by questions about non-standard hardware and software. For your Pi’s operating system you’re probably going to be using the Unix-like operating system Debian, which has the advantage of being free, but which has a few rough edges as you might expect. There will be nerd-enthusiasts out there who find it incomprehensible that I should have trouble setting up the wifi, but I’ve bought almost nothing but Macs since 1991, and despite continuing to write software I seldom feel the need to ‘pop the hood’ and tinker with my computer’s operating system.

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

The newer models of Raspberry Pi come in packaging with much more retail appeal: the Pi has gone mainstream

I never managed to get my first Raspberry Pi to make a sound under Debian. I didn’t particularly care, and I knew it wasn’t a hardware fault because if I ran a different operating system that turned it into a cheap media player then the sound worked nicely. No doubt a Pi nerd would laugh and tell me that all I needed to do was to open a hidden file called “hash dot underscore 23296” and change the 307th line to read “Expecto Petronem!” (with or without quotation marks not made clear) and all would be well.

That’s fine. Except… really? Apple (who are backsliding a bit nowadays but who were once the guiding light in producing computers for “the rest of us”) have spoiled me in the last quarter century. In the good old days Apple refused to accept that the problem was stupid users, and instead identified such problems as stupid software.

Inevitably, you get what you pay for. A computer with a price tag that goes firmly into four digits earns you the right to expect that things like sound or wifi will just work, with no arcane setup necessary.

I remember being amused when one Raspberry Pi enthusiast web page, supposedly giving clear instructions for wifi setup finished with “If this still hasn’t sorted out your wifi access, ask an adult.”

I’m 45. I have a PhD that involved a lot of computer programming. I’m no technophobe, but I’m damned if I can tell you how to get a Raspberry Pi working properly. I mean, really properly.

There are people who can do this kind of thing, of course: and good luck to them… Kudos to them, even, but there aren’t all that many of them, and (based on what I’ve seen of the output of the community) they aren’t generally very good at communicating, nor at designing user interfaces.

Getting Raspberry Pis working in a well-funded school in England where there’s a suitably skilled and enthusiastic teacher who’s prepared to put in the time to set up a school club in, say, robotics is one thing: getting them working (and keeping them working) in a school in Kenya that doesn’t have a water supply, never mind mains power… that’s the real test. And not just getting them working in a single school, but everywhere. That would be awesome.

But is that possible? Am I just being unrealistic? Maybe, but wouldn’t it be nice? I mean, how is it that there are organisations that can design computer chips that are more complex than the road network of the entire planet… but nobody has managed to deliver a computer that can actually be enjoyed by people everywhere on Earth?

The experiment begins again: I note that the Pi is now in its third incarnation, which sees the CPU improved to a 1.2 GHz, 64-bit processor… and wifi and bluetooth are now built in as standard, which ought to put an end to wifi woes of the kind I had with its predecessor. So I guess it’s time to spend another $35. (Actually £34.30 at Amazon: Raspberry Pis never quite seem to quite arrive at the quoted price point.)

I can use all the old bits and pieces that I collected for my earlier Pis: the low-power keyboard and mouse, the phone charger power supply, the old flat screen monitor, the microSD card that serves in place of a hard disk… it really won’t cost me any more than £34.30. But is that a bargain? My old Apple laptop – the retired one – cost around £1400, but I used it for ten or more hours a day, almost every day for five years.

What’s the carbon footprint for a computer? DEFRA’s Conversion Factors say office machinery including computers, in 2009 (when my old Mac was bought), worked out at 0.53 kg CO2e per pound spent. By that crude measure (no doubt disputed by Apple, who claim their products are greener than most) there’s 742 kg of greenhouse gases… but for a machine that had such a long life, the carbon embodied in its manufacture works out at a mere 40 g per hour of use, and any additional use of the ailing machine is free. If we ignore all the oddments like keyboard, mouse, screen and power supply on the grounds that users have spare ones knocking about, a new £34 Raspberry Pi weighs in at… call it 15 kg CO2e… and if I evaluate it for a grand total of perhaps 24 hours before I consign it to a drawer like its predecessors, it’s actually far less ‘green’ (625 g per hour of use) than the much more expensive Apple laptop.

But of course, I’m probably doing it wrong. Stupid user.

Cyber Mischief and Cyber Attack

It’s recently been revealed that Nissan’s small electric car, the Leaf, is vulnerable to computer hackers. Not very vulnerable perhaps, but a prankster only needs the VIN number of the car (displayed clearly through the windscreen on most vehicles) to call up your vehicle and monkey with its climate control, using nothing more than a web browser. They can also access information about recent journeys.

Having your heating or air-conditioning switched on while the car is parked up doesn’t sound like much of a problem, but these are electric cars: their range is limited at the best of times, and the last thing you need is somebody running down your battery for laughs.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that a supermarket cashier was cheerfully telling me that his Leaf could be programmed so that it’s nice and warm when his shift finishes. It made me think, wow… maybe these electric cars are beginning to carve out a niche for themselves. Having the vehicle warmed up and ready to go is a nice little gimmick that my humble diesel could never manage.

It’s around a hundred years since cars first acquired circuitry. Before that, you had to make to with hot tube ignition, and later a magneto – both dependent upon enthusiastic work with a starting handle. Then along came the 1912 model Cadillac, with its electric starter. Everything changed once cars had a supply of electric current: in addition to keeping a battery topped up, electricity offered practical lights, a horn, an electric means of ignition and so on, through to electric headrest adjustment and all the bells and whistles of a modern car.

Inevitably, the economics of providing electrical (and later electronic) systems in a car improved. Electronic control systems proved to be simpler, cheaper and more reliable than their mechanical predecessors. Cars acquired systems for emissions control, and anti-lock braking – later mandated by law – and if you’re going to have all that computing power in a vehicle, it’s logical to let it work like a computer. Cars acquired diagnostic sockets that allowed a mechanic to investigate faults (and which locked drivers into paying top dollar for servicing at manufacturer-approved centres, for a time). But then, if you’ve got communications gear such as a cellular antenna and a global positioning system on-board, why not integrate it all? That allows the car manufacturer to ‘mine’ your data, and learn things such as how their vehicle performs, and how customers use it. It’s a bit of an invasion of privacy, but it’s a fabulous way to turn all your customers into unpaid test drivers. We have to assume that drivers’ data is regularly being mined today, at some level of abstraction.

Here at Capacify, we strive to accurately portray a range of business concepts. This is how data mining is done.

Here at Capacify, we strive to portray business concepts in accurate and useful terms. Here, you can see how data mining is performed.

And if you can receive data from cars, maybe it’s a good idea to be able to send data to cars, as well. Updates to the navigation system require such a capability… but it could also be handy to be able to patch a hypothetical fault in your firmware without the usual formal recall for work at an approved service centre (and all the bad press that this entails).

It’s amazing to think that all this capability comes about for free, piggybacked onto other functions that a modern car needs. Computing really has improved to the point where it’s more expensive to leave functionality out. (There’s also the question of designers mistakenly leaving in a ‘back door’ as a result of using off-the-shelf components or code segments that have other applications…)

As Nissan have found out, sooner or later, somebody figures out how to hack your system. In their case, it was security researchers Scott Helme and Troy Hunt. Hunt is said to have informed Nissan of the vulnerability, but after a month with no news of a fix he went public with a demonstration in which a Nissan Leaf in the UK was accessed from Australia.

It doesn’t exactly presage armageddon, but we can expect this kind of thing to become increasingly common as machines get ‘smarter’. Nissan aren’t software developers or security specialists: they just wanted to make a competitive car with some neat features, such as allowing drivers to ensure their car is at a comfortable temperature with a smartphone app… but they messed up. They’re not alone, either: this article reports how a 2015 Jeep Cherokee could be hacked remotely, manipulating the in-car entertainment and windscreen wipers, and even shutting the car down.

VW Beetle cutaway

No word yet on whether my other car is safe from the hackers…

More worrying is the tale of security researcher Chris Roberts, who appears to have hacked into airliners while on board as a passenger. He exploited a weakness of the in-flight entertainment systems to interface with critical systems on aircraft such as the Boeing 737-800, 737-900, 757-200 and Airbus A-320, making fifteen to twenty such incursions from 2011 to 2014. Roberts has been interviewed by the FBI, but hasn’t been charged with a crime. It appears he’s not welcome to fly with United Airlines anymore, though.

Screenshot that appears to show access to aircraft systems

The control system of a jet airliner seems somewhat… retro. [Image: Chris Roberts]

What of the supply chain, and the Internet of increasingly connected things? Lars Jensen, CEO of CyberKeel, found serious vulnerabilities in sixteen out of twenty ocean carriers surveyed. The motive and opportunity exist for theft of data, fraud and perhaps terror attacks.

“No opening is too small,” says Carole Boyle at Strategic Sourceror. Information that would once exist on a physical clipboard is now in cyberspace, and shared widely. Where businesses collaborate, the security is only as good as at its weakest point, while differences of time zone and asynchronous communications may mean that organisations are slow to notice when their security has been breached.

Citing a data breach at US retailer Target, John Mello suggests that the supply network is a particular point of vulnerability for corporations. A supplier’s credentials, normally used in legitimate business-to-business communications, can be used to gain access to much of a network… and the hackers only have to find their way into one supplier’s account to achieve this, while a large corporation will have to audit the security of hundreds of vendors.

computer screen reporting cyber attack

Remember the good old days, when all you had to worry about was the wrath of former employees?

Like Nissan, you probably didn’t think you were in the cybersecurity business… but it turns out that we all are, from now on. Next time you install a free game on your smartphone, you might be wise to ponder if it really is a bargain, or if it contains a piece of malware that will snoop on your SMS messages, and perhaps suppress or spoof a two-step verification attempt from a web-based service that you depend upon.