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 sent out a regular ‘status update’ in the style of WayTools’ own news bulletins (now suspended by Twitter, sadly) had a certain bitter humour about it – and delivered 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.)

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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.

Charged with Battery

As something of a model aircraft enthusiast, I’ve been hearing scare stories about lithium-ion batteries for over a decade – and they’re not just stories: every once in a while a model flier would leave a battery charger running in their vehicle, and suffer a fire that gutted it.

Any battery will get hot if subjected to an inappropriate regime of charging or discharging, but this kind poses additional hazards due to its chemical properties. I’m going to have to simplify quite a bit here, but basically the chemistry of the common lithium-ion cell leaves it vulnerable to a condition that is euphemistically termed “thermal runaway.”

Inside each cell is a cathode and an anode, separated by an electrolyte and a porous material called the separator.

If a component has a manufacturing defect, if it becomes damaged, if it’s short-circuited or perhaps if it’s made to work too hard, the electrolyte can catch fire – but that’s just the start. In the fire, the decomposition of the cathode and anode commonly release (among other things, if I have understood correctly) oxygen, and hydrogen. The release of oxygen in particular means that the more it burns… the more it burns. Naturally, the heat generated inside the cell means that its neighbours promptly get in on the act and the whole battery burns.

If this occurs in a confined space, such as that formed by the casing of a mobile ’phone, you get a small explosion – plus toxic gases released as the other components in the phone are subjected to extreme heat.

Oh – and lithium reacts with water. It’s not really going to be an issue by the time you notice that Samsung made you a smoke grenade instead of a telephone… but strictly speaking, you ought to use a powder extinguisher on a lithium fire.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says that “… there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But then, Lord Henry never heard of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Last time I boarded a flight, they were talking about this ’phone:

“For safety reasons we don’t permit any model of the Galaxy Note 7 to be carried on board. If you’re carrying this device, please tell a member of the cabin crew.”

There are signs at check-in. There is coverage in magazines, on websites, on TV and radio. This is the kind of publicity that even Gerald Ratner would choke on.

Detail from the Emirates airline website

Detail from the front page at Emirates.com – the wrong kind of publicity

Launched on August 19th 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 was Samsung’s flagship mobile, and its specifications were impressive. Just five days later came news of a Galaxy Note 7 exploding, in South Korea. By the end of the month they had delayed shipments to South Korean carriers, although the next day the product launched in China. (Presumably this reflects a belief that the bad batteries were all to be found in a particular batch, rather than any belief that Chinese customers are inherently more fireproof or more expendable than Korean ones.)

Just a day later, Samsung announced the global recall of 2½ million ’phones, although at this stage it was voluntary. On October 6th a Southwest Airlines flight was evacuated due to smoke from a Galaxy Note 7, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct passengers not to turn on or charge the ill-fated ’phone – nor to stow it in cargo. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission urged Galaxy Note 7 users to cease using their phones, and carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile withdrew them from sale.

After a series of fires in replacement devices – those that had been subjected to additional inspections and quality control measures – Samsung finally threw in the towel, suspending production of the product and then announcing its end. The withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 left a highly unusual gap in the market because Samsung’s rivals commonly avoid bringing out competitor products at the same time of year, so customers who received a refund had relatively few options to spend their money on. Meanwhile, Apple’s share price surged, despite a recent lukewarm reception for their latest iPhone – a device most notable for the unpopular decision to remove the headphone socket.

Part of the problem here is the very personal nature of mobile ’phones: you put a lot of personal information on them including passwords and banking details; you store photos of your loved ones; you expect people to be able to reach you; you learn your way around the quirky operating system. Nobody wants to have to delete all their personal information and preferences, and give them up. Your ’phone is closer to you, for longer, than your loved ones – and you probably sleep with it on the nightstand. The idea that it might have harmed you, and that it will be taken from you – not because you broke it or lost it but because it’s no good – that feels like a betrayal. It seems that Samsung will continue to feel the effects of this problem for a long time to come.

On Supply Chain Radio they said that the times we live in magnify Samsung’s woes, because of the perils of social media. Certainly, there have been some great jokes about Samsung’s plight (see below) but I think our interconnected age actually makes it much simpler to handle a problem of this kind. For one thing, all Galaxy Note 7 users are online, by definition: they could be reached with a message about a product recall. Contrast that with the old days, when the manufacturer of a defective car would have to take out advertisements in newspapers, to tell the world how crappy their cars were. The new approach is free, and it’s accurately targeted: it need not scare off potential customers.

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7 [twitter user Marcianotech]

There is also the option of a software patch, delivered over the airwaves, to fix problems. Samsung tried a patch that would limit charging to 60% of capacity… but their ’phones kept on melting down, all the same.

Even when a fix can’t be achieved remotely, at least the connected nature of the surviving Galaxy Note 7’s offers a way to ensure compliance with the recall: presumably it would be simple enough to send out a software update that forces a shutdown – and once your smartphone has become a novelty paperweight (warning: keeping it near paper is probably a mistake) most users will be persuaded to swap it for something that works.

So, are all those defective telephones going to be remanufactured? No. Samsung has announded they will destroy all the returned ’phones. Given that the device sold for something like US$850, that’s an awful waste, but we’re now looking at a product that must be treated as hazardous. It can no longer be transported by air, or carried in the post. This leaves returned Galaxy Note 7’s scattered, rendering remanufacture uneconomical. Presumably, some recycling can still take place, if only to  salvage some of the more valuable metals – but almost all of the effort that went into making these ingenious devices is wasted.

Samsung Galaxy S7, burnt

Nothing beats that new gadget smell…

When Apple laptops were found to have hazardous batteries in 2006, they were quick to point out that the batteries in question had been made by Sony. Samsung has no such luxury: the Korean giant’s batteries were made by a subsidiary. Also, the remedy for Apple’s older laptops was relatively simple because the battery was removable. Samsung only recently switched over to a sealed in battery – presumably for reasons of waterproofing – and this has magnified their pain.

According to Credit Suisse, Samsung will have have lost nearly US$17 billion in revenue as a result of these problems.

Efforts to pack still more energy into a smaller, lighter devices continue.

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.

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.

Digital Archaeology

The Domesday Book of 1086 was the most wide-ranging and thorough study of its time – and desperately unpopular with the people upon whom taxes would be levied on the basis of their recorded holdings. With details of 13,418 places copied onto parchment, no other piece of European medieval demography comes close, and scholars continue to find it valuable more than nine hundred years on.

Domesday Book entry

A little light reading. How’s your medieval Latin?

To mark the 9th centenary of the work’s completion back in 1986 a new, multimedia edition of Domesday was compiled over a two-year period, in which people – mostly children from more than 9,000 schools – wrote about their lives, and their part of the country. The whole nation was subdivided into 3km x 4km blocks, any of which could include photos and text, and in some cases movies. Schools and other interested parties got a BBC Master computer and a Philips VP415 “Domesday Player” so that they could access the information held on special-format LaserDiscs – a precursor to the DVD that stored a “massive” 324MB of data on each side of a 30cm disc. (There was a ‘Community’ disc and a ‘National’ disc; nowadays the whole thing could fit many times over on the cheapest USB flash drive still made.)

Big optical discs; big hair. The 1980’s

Big optical discs; big hair. The 1980s.

It’s a great little piece of history. Despite the low-resolution, amateur photographs and writing to match, it’s a snapshot in time, and it can be very interesting to look through and remember how things were.

But we nearly lost it.

The technology that had been used for the BBC Domesday Project was a snapshot in time as well. As the 21st century dawned, few people still had access to a BBC Master computer in working condition, and Philips VP415 disc readers were rarer still. Because the project had used custom formats in both software and hardware (pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved in the mid-1980s) this was no mere file format issue. Domesday had stored each image as a single frame of analogue video, with an overlaid user interface, and this was a difficult mess to untangle.

The original Domesday Book had survived nine hundred years, becoming more durable after 1861 when a scholar would most likely have worked from a photographic reproduction. The information in the new Domesday Project, for all its technological ingenuity, didn’t manage fifteen years before it was for all practical purposes inaccessible.

A heroic effort by several groups secured a more future-proofed version of the work, basically by recreating it: tracking down master copies of information held on a 1-inch videotape format, writing emulation software that allowed a modern computer to interface with a VP415 “Domesday Player” and so on. In 2011, a BBC initiative led to much (but not all) of the Community disc being published on the Internet. Copyright issues mean that the full contents of the Domesday Project are unlikely to be made available before 2090 – although perhaps one might hope for publication in 2086, in time for the 1,000th anniversary of the original.

Digital obsolescence is a terrible shame. It’s bad enough that we throw away tens of millions of computers every year; how much worse to think that we might be throwing away everything that we did with them as well! You might recall how a collection of work by Andy Warhol was found on a stash of floppy discs and ‘rescued’ last year

Digital Campbell’s soup tin, Andy Warhol

Um, yeah. Priceless. [Andy Warhol]

This isn’t just a problem affecting overlooked bits and pieces of culture: businesses are fighting an ongoing battle against digital obsolescence as well. Imagine making and supporting long-lived systems such as a ship, or a power station: the design information you might need to look up will have been through half a dozen processes of translation, from when the design was executed on a mainframe computer, and then converted for access on minis, on DOS-based machines, and then various versions of Windows. The design software, as well as the operating system, will likely have changed. Translations of 3D geometry are notoriously unreliable, particularly where bezier patches were used to define surface shape, which means it can become very difficult to manufacture new parts. Do you translate your files and hope for the best, or do you try to keep your 1970s era mainframe in working order? There are no good answers.

I’ve recently converted my PhD thesis into a modern format. (We weren’t required to provide an electronic submission, back in my day…) The process required computers of three different vintages, and quite a lot of laborious copying and pasting. The thesis had been written on a Power Macintosh 5500/275, a machine I’d bought in 1998 – the year they were discontinued. It had long since gone for recycling, but the good old 5500 had featured a SCSI port (now a long-obsolete interconnection standard) which had allowed me to make backups. After all that work, you can bet I made a lot of backups!

My word processor of choice back then was part of a suite of office tools called ClarisWorks – long since discontinued. Modern software such as Pages and Word refused to open my ClarisWorks files, but a quick search of the Internet revealed that others were using a free package called LibreOffice to open all kinds of obsolete file formats. I used this as an interim stage to get the text into my word processor of choice.

That got me the text, but not the images. These required a different approach, and had to be brought in individually, via an aged laptop that had fortunately been bundled with “AppleWorks 6”, which marked the swan song of the Claris tools before Apple killed them off. (I keep that laptop around because my latest machine doesn’t have an optical drive – another format that’s rapidly heading for the dustbin of history.)

All was well until I reached Appendix 3. In the print copy this had been a collection of images from a Powerpoint presentation, dating back to 1994. I’m nerdy enough to own a USB floppy disc drive, so accessing the physical media wasn’t a problem… but did Microsoft Powerpoint deign to open a Powerpoint presentation from twenty-one years ago? Hell, no. Nothing I still owned would touch it. Help came from Zamzar, who offer free online file conversion. Fortunately, I wasn’t trying to convert anything confidential, so I could use a web-based service. My first attempt failed, but then I managed to convert the old .ppt file to an interim format from around 1997, which was acceptable to modern Powerpoint, and Appendix 3 was rescued.

Like the BBC Domesday Project in miniature, only fifteen years had passed but my work required quite a bit of human intervention to make it accessible again. (And let’s be honest, only the author would care enough to undertake the job.) This must be happening to information all over the world, all the time – and you can be sure it’s going to keep on happening.

Five megabyte hard drive, 1956

A generous five megabytes of storage… 1956 style.

It’s alarming, quite frankly, to discover how easy it is for a piece of work that you once spent weeks or months on to disappear into oblivion. When the VIVACE Project ended in early 2008, for example, we all patted ourselves on the back, secure in the knowledge that the hosting for the project website was all paid up for the next five years and all the public project reports would continue to be available.

Five years seemed like ages; long enough, surely, for everyone to get what they need from the project. Well, apparently not; I’ve had to trawl through snapshots made by the Wayback Machine, an Internet archiving tool, in order to find copies of my own work.

A project ends, and you move to a new job. Obviously, you don’t get to take your computer with you. Meanwhile, you upgrade to a new computer at home, or maybe suffer a hard drive failure… and the next time you want to draw upon some old piece of work, you can’t find it. Or perhaps, as above, you can find it but you can’t open it. In the case of VIVACE, this was a project funded with €50m of taxpayers’ money, plus money from industry: to think that some of the things we discovered might be effectively gone less than a decade later is alarming.

Of course, they might well still exist on some obscure disk in a personal collection, as a printout on a library shelf or in a filing cabinet somewhere, but this is the 21st century and we expect our information to be only a mouse click away. If it can’t be found instantly we assume it doesn’t exist. (Students, I’m looking at you…) Also, there’s the danger that anything that’s hard to find is likely to become ever more obscured over time, as the output of still more documents buries the older information.

Piles of CDs

That file you wanted? It’s safely backed up. Somewhere. I think…

This should be of concern to those who care about sustainability. Health, clean air, decent drinking water… they’re important, but we’re not here simply to survive and raise families. Rabbits can do that. I feel that humanity ought to create something with intellectual or artistic merit. Sustainability demands doing things with an eye on the future, and building to last – but if this is the Information Age, why isn’t our information built to last?

School: where sustainability begins at home

On March 20th, sustainability coach Anthony Day presented at the Education Show in Birmingham. His topic was sustainability in schools, with three main themes; the school as a sustainable business, the role of sustainability in the curriculum, and its emergence as a career choice for young people.

You can find a podcast of the talk here.

Mr Day had a lot of good advice for schools, mentioning bodies such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, WRAP, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – any of which might provide help with making a school ‘greener’, and saving money. He also mentioned Friends of the Earth’s “run on sun” campaign.

What most interested me, though, was his take on sustainability in the curriculum. “It puts a different dimension on the pupils’ understanding of their place in the world,” he said, “and how the world is changing.”

If we want to teach sustainability, we have to teach by example.

While Mr Day gave his presentation in Birmingham, I was in Malaysia running a workshop on sustainable supply chain strategy as part of our BSc in Supply Chain Management. I’m pleased to say that our partner (the Supply Chain Management Professional Centre, SCMPC) in Kuala Lumpur also believes that we should practice what we preach.

The centre has a long history in the training of supply chain professionals, but only relatively recently has the curriculum been expanded to include ‘green’ operations. Accrediting bodies and an increasing number of employers now want graduates to be able to get to grips with ‘green’ issues, and this is reflected in recent updates to the programme. As you might expect, we address the environmental impact of manufacturing, logistics and supply chain operations, but sustainability can be pursued at many different levels, and SCMPC shows that a business in a supply chain training role doesn’t need to present only the theory.

Anthony Day’s message to schools would be entirely familiar to the management at SCMPC. It’s about ‘doing the right thing’, sure enough… but pursuing sustainability is also good business sense, as I learned during my most recent visit. Changes began, as is often the case, with the installation of low energy lightbulbs – LED types compatible with existing fittings. (I approve; I never thought much of the compact fluorescent type). Modern LED bulbs are being installed throughout the centre, with priority given to areas where the lights are switched on for most of the day.

SCMPC class photo

Director Edward Ang, and some of his students

Perhaps a more significant example was that whenever possible, faulty equipment is repaired rather than replaced. Finding a business with the skills to repair digital projectors wasn’t easy, and it’s harder still to find this at a competitive price, when compared to simply replacing electronic items outright… but again, SCMPC shows that the skills on the curriculum aren’t there just for show; procurement prevailed, and a suitable deal was struck. For a training outfit that uses digital projectors all the time, the effort paid dividends – and it has resulted in less e-Waste being produced, of course. Using a common model throughout the centre has permitted cannibalisation – something we could all think about when tempted by the latest hardware, perhaps!

Polystyrene cups have been replaced with paper ones, with a clear environmental benefit… and a sign appeals for attendees to take only one cup. Office waste goes for recycling, too. While any one of these small steps won’t make a huge difference on its own, each moves things in the right direction, and shows evidence of intent. There’s nothing wrong with picking the low-hanging fruit first! Future plans include adding motion sensors to control the lighting and save additional energy. I asked about water-saving, but such a small quantity of water is used within the centre that this isn’t being pursued at present. (Water may be somewhat less of an issue in rainy Kuala Lumpur than elsewhere in the world: there’s no ‘one size fits all’ in sustainability.)

When a course begins, students are given an information pack, and these come in a small, re-usable carrier bag. These not only promote the centre, but in their redesigned form they now give top billing to sustainability. We might take issue with the whole ‘bag for life’ thing – the UK Environment Agency seems determined to dispel a few myths – but that’s another story.

SCMPC branded carrier bag

SCMPC branded carrier bag

Meanwhile, if you really want to ‘go green’ and have a bag for life, here’s a great example of ‘upcycling’ that you might consider… Sourced make bags by hand, from old lorry curtain material. The designers make use of the logos and lettering that the material displayed in its previous life, so every bag (or laptop case) is unique. Not only can you feel good about your recycled purchase, but you can look good, too.

Anthony Day doesn’t like the term “retail therapy”… but I wonder if he’d be prepared to make an exception in this instance?

Bag by Sourced

Before Sourced, old truck tarps never looked this good – and (gasp) it’s made in Britain!