When mention of magnets emerge, it’s hard for me not to think of the infamous ICP track ‘Miracles’ “F-ing magnets, how do they work?” There’s just so much magic up in this bitch.
Obviously magnets are not purely here to confound us, but in all seriousness, magnetization is the reason why many of our modern-day conveniences exist. That’s right, no vacuums, dryers, blenders, washers or mixers. All of these items are produced from a magnet propelled electric motor. Other items that use electric motors like MRI machines, microphones and batteries would be extinct and defunct.
Even going beyond that, there wouldn’t be any electricity to harness! All of our power plants, regardless of variety use magnets. Even going back into the pre-industrial age, there wouldn’t have been compasses for early explorers! But when thinking about that, compasses work by reading the magnetization fields surrounding Earth. So in this hypothetical world of sans-magnetization, Earth would not be safely floating through space right now. You see, the interior heat of the Earth creates a magnetic field around Earth (not unlike a battery). This Magnetosphere creates a protective bubble around Earth and deflects most of the charged particles from the Sun around our planet! So give it up for Magnetism!
For a baseline, let’s look at 1830–largely before the advent of the passenger train. It would take you more than six weeks to get anywhere west of Chicago. Even just getting to Boston from New York took two days. But by the mid-1930s, railroads were being chartered to connect cities all along the East Coast.
By 1857, you can see how the spread of eastern railroads has connected much of New England and the mid-Atlantic. With enough money for a train ticket, you could now easily get from New York to Boston in a day. Chicago is a mere two days from the East Coast. But this is before the first transcontinental railroad was completed (that wouldn’t happen until 1869), so travel times west of the Mississippi are still incredibly lengthy.
What a difference a coast-to-coast train makes. By 1930, you can traverse the entire country in just three days by rail. Here is where these maps stop becoming historical artifacts and start becoming damning pronouncements about our current state of affairs.
Not so long ago, young women pinned their hopes on getting married and forming a nuclear family. But recent statistics–and a bevy of essays championing singlehood–point to a different reality: More and more people are opting to live alone. Every year, the number of singles grows, as financially independent women refuse to compromise when choosing partners and well-to-do men realize they needn’t get hitched to procreate (at least, that’s my reductive take on it).
So will all this have an impact on furniture design? Looking at Matali Crasset’s new table-bed combo for Campeggi, that doesn’t seem like an outlandish question. The keenest designers know how to tap into (and sometimes even shape) burgeoning lifestyle trends, and we’re guessing that the growing number of singles may have informed the French designer’s Sweet Talk and Dream–a tiny TV table surrounded by foam-cushion seating that can unfold into a bed for one. So now you can eat dinner while comfortably watching “The Modern Family,” before stretching out and taking a snooze. Hey, you can leave the dirty dishes and brush your teeth in the morning. Who’s going to nag you?
Apple should do more than just pay off stockholders with a dividend. It should take the opportunity to redefine what it means to be a corporation.
It’s hard to imagine how big a billion is. Now try with $97.6 billion (call it an even $100 billion), the wad of cash Apple has
squirreled away. One hundred billion one-dollar bills weigh about 200 million pounds (or 100,000
tons, give or take) and if you laid them end-to-end they’d circle the earth 40
times at its widest point, the equator.
HOLLISTER, California — Mike Corbin fiddles with his coffee cup as he sits in his ’50s-style diner, a bit of kitsch he added to his warehouse on the outskirts of town. This is not the Hollister you see advertised on the shirts and sweatpants worn by teenagers. It’s industrial, gritty, a little run down. But for Corbin it is heaven, a place where his dreams once came true.
And might yet again.
Corbin built this diner so customers could grab a bite after wheeling their motorcycles into his garage for a new saddle. This is what he’s famous for, what got him inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame more than a decade ago. Corbin, 68, made his name stitching custom motorcycle saddles and selling custom motorcycle parts.
But for about 10 minutes a long time ago, Corbin was famous for something else: The Sparrow, a funky, futuristic electric car that he hopes to see fly once again.
Photo: Courtesy Corbin Motors
Corbin was in the right place at the right time with the Sparrow. The place was the San Francisco Auto Show. The time was 1996. Corbin, who by this time had amassed a fortune selling motorcycle seats, showed up with the Sparrow. It was an odd little car, not unlike an Ugg on wheels. Three wheels, to be exact. It looked like something you might see in The Smurfs. Corbin was pretty sure he would be laughed out of the show. The exact opposite happened.
“We took a million dollars worth of orders,” Corbin says, smiling. The years melt from his face as he tells the story for what must be the 10,000th time. You get the impression he never grows tired of this tale.
It was the car enviros had been dreaming of. Small. Electric. Relatively affordable. So what if it could seat just one person and was ugly as hell? Those who loved it saw only the beauty of a car that didn’t burn gasoline. General Motors had just introduced the EV1, whetting greenies’ appetites for an electric car.
“It looked like the world was going to change,” well-known EV advocate Chelsea Sexton said of the mood at the time. And here was Corbin, one of the first entrepreneurs with a plan to feed them.
Corbin had done what his father had told him he should never do. He had built a car, a dream he’d chased since he was a teenager. Here was his golden opportunity. Battery electric vehicles were in their infancy. Bay Area “treehuggers” (Corbin’s word) were ready, willing and able to plunk down almost 14 grand to drive an electric bean. It was emissions-free, after all.
The window was wide open. All Corbin Motors had to do was shove some electric cars through it.
There was just one problem.
“We had no possibility of delivering a second car,” says Corbin. “We had no employees.”
Corbin Motors had no factory, no parts, no assembly line and no idea how to mass-produce cars.
Standing in his warehouse now, his voice trailing off, Corbin is obliged to continue his rags-to-riches-to-rags tale. It’s the only way to get to the latest chapter, about the rebirth, or re-hatching, if you will, of the Sparrow. He lovingly, if not ironically, calls it Sparrow 2. But we’re getting ahead of the story.
After the unexpected and overwhelming response to the Sparrow, it took Corbin another year to deliver four more cars. “We painted them all a different color to make it seem like we were a big deal,” he says.
Meanwhile, the phone was ringing. And ringing. And ringing. At one point Corbin Motors had $40 millions in orders. People were rabid to get their piece of the green dream. But Corbin couldn’t deliver.
“We bit off more apple than we could chew,” said Corbin. “We were under-capitalized from day one. Our single biggest problem was everybody loved the car, but then we didn’t give to them.”
Production slowly ramped up, and Corbin started delivering cars in 1998. They cost $13,999. Chad Wells fell in love.
“I first saw them for sale on the cover of the Gadget Universe catalog that came to my house in 1999,” said Wells, who now owns not one but two Sparrows. “I wanted to buy one.”
Buyers loved them. But problems at the factory piled up almost immediately. First and foremost was the battery technology. In a word, it sucked. A lot of people found themselves stranded on the side of the road.
Remember, this was long before lithium-ion batteries, smartphone-enabled battery management systems and public charging stations. The EV1 and Toyota RAV4 EV had only recently hit the road. Corbin was using lead-acid batteries, the same kind under the hood of your hoopty right now. They’re heavy, they don’t offer much range and they aren’t very durable in an EV application. When one battery in the pack goes down, the whole system goes haywire and you’re left with a zero-emissions paperweight.
Photo: Courtesy Corbin Motors
Mechanical issues, particularly with the motor controllers, didn’t help things any. And then there were management issues, complicated by the fact Mike Corbin wasn’t actually an officer in Corbin Motors. The way Corbin tells it, Corbin Motors was a separate entity from the motorcycle accessories company, and it licensed the Sparrow from Mike Corbin. It’s all very confusing, but suffice to say it wasn’t a good way to run a business.
“I think the fairest thing to say is they weren’t able to figure out how to take a good idea to market and make it profitable,” Corbin said. “They were in over their heads.”
Throw in an economic downturn and you can see where the story leads even before Corbin mentions the 2003 bankruptcy that finally killed Corbin Motors.
“We lost our personal wealth” said Corbin, pointing to his longtime business partner and current CEO of Corbin Motors Anthony Luzi. “We lost everything.”
All told, Corbin Motors delivered 289 cars before it all went bad. Another 75 were in various stages of completion. But even as the company was crashing and burning, people were lining up for cars. Wells finally got his first Sparrow in 2004.
“The attention was ridiculous,” he said of the reaction he got to the car. “It was almost dangerous. Then, and still now, people would do anything to get a picture of it. That includes anything from being cut off and forced to stop to having other drivers taking photos while they drive next to you, while not paying attention to the road and almost killing both of us.”
It is interesting to note the company with which ended up with the remnants of the Sparrow, Myers Motors, claims it will have a an electric three-wheeler ready for delivery this year.
Fast forward to the modern day. Selling motorcycle seats made Corbin a very wealthy man, but he remains equally proud of the Sparrow. He thinks its time has come. Again.
He isn’t entirely wrong. Electric vehicles, once on the fringe, are now, well, at least approaching mainstream with cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Tesla Motors has proven that commodity lithium-ion cells can make a damn fine battery pack. Hell — even Aptera Motors almost made a run at it with a teardrop-shaped electric three-wheeler that looked more like a Cessna than a Civic.
If they can do it, Corbin reasons, so can he.
“The Sparrow was my best idea,” he said. “And all of sudden the world is ready. What are we gonna do, let it pass us by? We have proven we can sell a three-wheel electric car, and now the technology is there.”
Corbin is serious. But not everyone sees the Sparrow flying again. And it’s hard to see who’d buy one when you can get an electric car with four doors, five seats and a warranty backed by a company that actually knows how to build cars.
“It remains to be seen whether the public is ready for a three-wheeled vehicle, let alone a one-seater,” Sexton said. “I can go get a new Mitsubishi iMiev that seats five for $19,000 after incentives. I want to root for them all, but there is a bit of a reality check involved.”
Corbin is not deterred. He hopes to have the Sparrow ready to roll by the end of the year. Never mind that he doesn’t have the final specs or even a drawing to show us, let alone a running prototype. But no matter — he’s got a website!
We’ve seen this before, of course. History is littered with the shattered dreams of automotive entrepreneurs who thought they had A Great Idea. More than a few of those entrepreneurs thought they could sell electric vehicles. Corbin knows this. Yet he insists he will succeed.
The way he sees it, he doesn’t have to start over. He just has to pick up where he left off.
According to the Mayan calendar, 2012 will spell the end of the world. But while the Internet is playing host to various survival strategies, we at frog are thinking of other things that will shape culture this year. We surveyed frogs from across the globe and across disciplines to share their favorite tech trends that’ll crop up this year and what their impact would be on design, business, entertainment, and our daily routines. Without a doubt, this is shaping up to be a year of hyper-connected, highly personal, ultrasmart computing that, well, might just skip the computer altogether.
Here, our tech forecasters, drawing from their expertise in everything from strategy to engineering, make their predictions for 2012. Among them: moving beyond the computer interface toward voice and gesture recognition, building more intimacy into social networks, and the continued exploration of biomimicry.
Chief Creative Officer Mark Rolston
In major cities today, cameras, sensors, and networks provide literal and statistical pictures of where people are and what they are doing at any given moment. Homes and buildings are represented not just by white and yellow page entries but by a growing mountain of data in online maps, social networks, merchant reviews, location services, Wikipedia, private websites, and more. People can learn about and even experience a place before ever setting foot in it. Our Austin studio recently hired a creative director from Brooklyn who used the fly-through experience in Google maps to get a feel for a neighborhood where he was home shopping. As this mountain of data becomes more accessible, we will find ourselves more connected with information, with each other, and with the city that surrounds us.
Taking Computers Out of Computing
Senior Principal Design Technologist Jared Ficklin, Executive Technology Director Robert Tuttle, and Assistant Vice President Marketing Adam Richardson
Interactions with technology are becoming conversational: We literally talk to them and they to us. Voice recognition is a key enabler of this. Apple’s Siri is the headliner, of course, but Ford has been employing Microsoft Sync–which also uses voice control extensively–in its cars for a few years. It’s being smart about offering it not just in its high–end models or Lincoln premium brand but in less expensive cars that appeal to younger buyers. It’s a great way to get a new generation engaged with the Ford brand.
Voice recognition technology has finally hit its tipping point of capability, and the stage is being set for a generation of users to start assuming voice control, just as touch control is now assumed for any screen. But the spoken word is only a fragment of any conversation. Computer vision–especially depth-sensing cameras–will be able to pick up nonverbal cues such as gesturing or body language that complete human communication. When voice and gesture comprehension are paired, humans will be able to address technology naturally, without command jargon. The tactical steps being taken in 2012 are to “design the human” as the primary interface device in support of that.
The Reductive Social Network: Technology Finally Gets Personal
Vice President of Business Development Nathan Weyer
Today’s technologies, products, and services do not adequately serve the human need for intimacy and personal connections. Although Facebook might have initially felt personal, it’s become one of the many social networks swamping us with digital data that we can’t possibly process. Our Internet personalities have evolved into amplified personas that aren’t truly us. The current fervor around cloud computing only exacerbates the problem: Now, my 10,000 digital photos are in the ether, but am I any more emotionally connected with them and sharing them with my three closest friends in a meaningful way? This is about culling from the terabytes and sharing with the single digits. In 2012, product companies will deliver new products that begin narrowing the social circle and capturing intimacy and authenticity.
Gadget Convergence Will Lead to Specialization
Creative Director Michael DiTullo
For the past decade we have been seeing a convergence of multiple pieces of hardware into fewer generalist devices. The smartphone is the almost perfect example of the convergent digital device as Swiss Army knife. It has absorbed much of the features of portable devices, like music and video consumption, digital photo and video capturing, email and calendar, and simple things like time keeping. I read countless blog posts proclaiming that dedicated devices, like the camera and the watch, will rapidly shrivel and die. Instead, I think new technologies will provide opportunities for them to get better. When users purchase a dedicated device, they are gravitating towards products with higher quality and better design to elevate their experience. It turns out that the convergent device is killing the commodity digital product while forcing everything else to improve. This is presenting companies and brands with an opportunity to do what designers love: Make things better!
Rein in the Clouds!
Senior Vice President, Engineering Mark VandenBrink and Executive Strategy Director Abby Godee
We’re rapidly moving into a technology space where mobility is becoming less about a set of devices and more about the pervasive mist of data that we all generate with every interaction on the Internet. Managing, securing, and understanding this data will play a huge part in technology over the next few years. Moreover, making that data comprehensible to the consumer is key. The question has never really been, Is this possible? but rather, When will we have an ecosystem of compelling and useful devices and services that will integrate seamlessly into people’s lives? We think that time is finally arriving in 2012.
Reputation-Enhanced Lending and Trading Goes Mainstream
Assistant Vice President, Strategy Tim Morey
The recession, coupled with the rise of the so-called sharing economy, has the early-adopter community abuzz with notions about the end of consumption. Companies like Airbnb and Zimride, which allow people to open their homes or cars to sharing or loaning for a fee, are cited as examples of new ways of using and exchanging goods and services. But the really interesting trend here is that new forms of trust are being enabled by social networking technology. We all joined Facebook and LinkedIn to stay in touch with colleagues and friends, but the upshot of mass adoption is that we can check up on virtually everyone we come across. Individuals who have never met or interacted are using social networks to validate one another. If I’m just selling something to you on Craigslist, it doesn’t really matter to me whether you’re a good or bad person: I take the cash, you take goods, and that’s it. But if I’m renting something to you, trust becomes critical. I want to know that you are not a crook, a thief, or just a generally unpleasant person.
By linking person-to-person transactions to social networks, we are reducing the need for cash deposits and other financial remedies to the bad-egg problem. While logging in to third-party websites using your Facebook identity is now commonplace, we are beginning to see person-to-person exchanges making use of social networks to broker trust. For example, before you stay at someone’s spare bedroom via Airbnb, you have to sign in with your profile. I recently rented someone’s house in Toronto for a few days, and between our respective social networks, we found enough friends, relatives, and colleagues in common for him to lend me the property with confidence. In 2012, this reputation-enhanced lending and trading will become mainstream. We will lease, barter, and trade with relative strangers, banking on their reputations and connections.
Low-End Mobile Innovation
Strategy Director Ravi Chhatpar
Smartphones will make significant inroads into an entirely new segment: the lower end of the mass market and the “base of the pyramid.” Huawei’s sub-$100 Android smartphone has already had significant success in Kenya, and major manufacturers are quickly following suit across Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and South America. These cellphones will not be notable for hardware innovations, as they’re stripped-down versions of their more expensive and feature-packed brethren. However, they’ll be notable for the fact that an eager population will be discovering the world of mobile technology and apps for the first time. This population is filled with experimenters, tinkerers, and developers who will unleash a new world of apps that address their own needs and pain points–those that have gone ignored by the companies catering to the top end of the market.
Interaction Becomes Gestural
Senior Principal Design Technologist Jared Ficklin
User interaction with technology is going above the glass. You no longer need an explicit tool or even direct manipulation to drive a user interface. With the ability of technology, like Microsoft Kinect, to see users’ movements in space, gestures are being added to traditional methods in new layers of interaction. Designing with this in mind requires new thinking about dexterity, ergonomics, and whether someone might feel silly or offensive with certain gestures. We are so involved in this space right now that we’ve had to move our design technologists’ desks to create enough room for all the hand-waving movements.
Flourishing Commerce in the Post-PC Era
Assistant Vice President of Financial Services, Innovation Strategy Group Toshi Mogi
The post-PC channels for commerce have come of age, and consumers will continue to migrate over to mobile, tablet, smart TVs, and game console platforms to conduct their business. Financial-services firms would be wise to ready themselves for this dramatic change in customer behavior and expectations. We will likely see firms convert their successful web experience to a more streamlined mobile and tablet capability. But as consumers’ experiences with these rapidly evolving post-PC platforms mature, they will expect much more. The post-PC platform affords mobility, portability, payment capabilities, video and collaboration, location awareness, natural language processing, gestures, and so on. Clever firms will wield this fresh and evolving palette to craft engaging experiences in the real and virtual worlds. The aim will be to drive customer delight, loyalty, and engagement.
Executive Creative Director Holger Hampf
If you do business between multiple locations via phone and video, you may have experienced your fair share of frustrations: dropped calls, poor reception, and interrupted video streams are standard. Given the demand for more connectivity between both people and places, it feels like technology is far behind in addressing the need to work efficiently and with the same “directness” of talking to a person in the same room. We are so far away from a high-def experience that we may want to reconsider sending a smoke signal. Make no mistake, technology is moving fast, as shown by the popularity of Skyping with friends and family across continents. Unfortunately, the truth is that most of our conversations across distances are far from perfect and no fun at all. We need creative collaboration between design and technology to rethink these experiences so that they are more fulfilling and “direct” activities in our lives.
Consulting Editor Reena Jana
We’ll see increasing numbers of scientists, technologists, architects, corporations, and even governments looking to biomimicry–designing objects and systems based on or inspired by patterns in nature–as an efficient innovation strategy. Why? Often, nature can provide examples of energy-saving, environmentally friendly solutions to a variety of technological challenges. These solutions have also been “tested” via billions of years of informal R&D–by animals, plants, insects, and other participants in the natural world who have come up with ways of harvesting water from fog, for example, or possess sleek forms that are more aerodynamic than traditional man-made ones. While biomimicry has been an emerging field for some time, in 2012 influential thinkers will begin to apply biomimetic principles on a larger scale, including the planning of new cities and the updating of urban infrastructures. In addition, since more case studies are now available, experts will also begin exploring the pitfalls of biomimicry and share best practices.
Reshape: Humans Are Analogue
Frog Founder Hartmut Esslinger
The way of design is only achievable via creative model-making and prototyping by the designer. Tools, both real and virtual, connect our mind with the real world. However, tools also define how we shape things: Tools’ limitations enhance our deep involvement with them and the materials, and honing our skills ultimately leads to mastership. The curse of “easy” digital tools is to become complacent after relative early “successes.” This can lead to mediocrity and a loss of creative excellence. Like the new “polystyrene slates” of many new electronic products, where excellence is defined by how well the corners are shaped (a re-run of 1950s boxy design), our modern-day digital design software is the cause for zillions of repetitive and bland products. Charlie Chaplin’s classic film of mechanized dehumanization, Modern Times, is a déjà vu of our current state.
Anyone who’s driven through a god-forsaken wasteland like, say, west Texas with young children has glimpsed a corner of hell. The road is long and the scenery boring, a combination that can have your kids pushing you to the limits of sanity.
General Motors wants to help you out with that.
The automaker asked the dreamers and designers at Future Lab at Israel’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design to develop a futuristic suite of apps that effectively turn car windows into a tablet.
Yes, yes, we know. Many vehicles feature DVD players, rare is the child who doesn’t have an iPhone loaded with music or a smartphone loaded with games, and you can always hand Junior an iPad and tell him to play Fishdom until you hit El Paso. But GM is looking to the future, where cloud-connected cars integrate with our digital lives.
The General’s Windows of Opportunity Project was inspired by psychological studies that found passengers often feel disconnected from their environment. The goal is to create interactive displays that are, according to GM, “capable of stimulating awareness, nurturing curiosity and encouraging a stronger connection” with the world beyond your window.
“Traditionally, the use of interactive displays in cars has been limited to the driver and front passenger, but we see an opportunity to provide a technology interface designed specifically for rear seat passengers,” Tom Seder, who leads GM’s human-machine interface R&D team, said in a statement. “Advanced windows that are capable of responding to vehicle speed and location could augment real world views with interactive enhancements to provide entertainment and educational value.”
This is not so far-fetched as you might think. Everyone in the auto industry is scrambling to bring the cloud to your car, and six of the 10 major automakers were at CES this year showing the latest in cloud-connected hardware and apps. Audi, for example, let people play with a cool heads-up display that lets the front seat passenger view data with a rig not unlike what you saw in Minority Report.
Since GM, like Audi, has no plans to put this tech in production cars anytime soon, it told Future Lab to go nuts. The sky was the limit, with no real consideration to whether the ideas could be mass-produced. The lab developed four apps:
Otto, an animated character that responds to passing scenery.
Foofu, an app that lets passengers finger paint on the windows. Think of it as the modern equivalent of drawing on fogged windows.
Spindow, an app that lets you peek into other users’ windows around the globe in real time.
Pond (pictured) lets you download, stream and share music with other cars and send them messages.
To test all this tech, Future Lab created a touch- and gesture-sensitive window — essentially a tablet — using motion and optical sensor technology developed by EyeClick. And though you aren’t likely to see it in the next-gen Chevrolet Cruze or Cadillac CTS-V wagon, GM says the project could inspire technology for future models.
“Projects like WOO are invaluable, because working with designers and scholars from outside of the automotive industry brings fresh perspective to vehicle technology development,” Omer Tsimhoni, who leads the human-machine interface at GM’s Advanced Technical Center in Israel,” said in a statement. “WOO is just one of many projects underway at GM that could reinvent the passenger experience in years to come.”
And perhaps cut down on the number of times you hear “Are we there yet.”
Images and video: General Motors
Spindow, an app that lets you peek into other users’ windows around the globe in real time, is among the apps General Motors commissioned for its Windows of Opportunity project.
Big January Apple events are becoming common–perhaps as a move to distract from the messy, drawn-out gadget orgy that is CES. Tomorrow’s big reveal has a distinctly educational flavor.
Several weeks ago we learned that Apple had something to do with textbooks waiting in the wings, and it came with the blessing of none other than Steve Jobs, himself. Jobs is said to have made a big effort on this plan, as it’s something that was close to his heart, even as his health was deteriorating. That alone makes the event significant.
But what, many folks have wondered, is Apple going to do, exactly? We know the iPad is a game changer in many ways for the publishing industry, and we know that manyeducationalestablishments are leaping to embrace the device to enable much more sophisticated teaching methods (and that it’s inspired other efforts to do the same for much less money). We’ve seen companies like Kno try to bring tablet computing to schools and universities with one main selling point, amid others like cleverer note-taking: To simplify the problem of hauling many heavy and expensive textbooks around. We also know that while a plain e-version of a textbook has many benefits over a dead trees edition, there’s much scope for adding rich media and interactivity, perhaps to better illustrate difficult math equations or mediate history pop quizzes, in order to really make the lessons stick in the mind.
So some rumors suggested Apple was going to squash the existing textbook publishing paradigm–perhaps “digitally destroy” it–by releasing a new platform for powerful interactive textbook design, along with all the necessary tools to enable authors to make iPad e-textbooks truly 21st century. The new package would be a “GarageBand for textbooks,” it’s been thought, leveraging the simple and amazingly potent skills of the iPad GarageBand app to attract all sorts of people, incuding those who’d otherwise never have been interested in making music.
These rumors may have been enough to push Kno to add new technology to its tablet education platform: Kno Flashcards which automatically turning key phrases in any Kno-format textbook into a flashcard to boost student revision, and Kno Me, which is an analytics platform to keep students abreast of their learning habits and targets. Meanwhile a firm called Chegg, which has done pretty well in shaking up the textbook paradigm with a novel book-rental scheme, has just released its first piece of software aimed at the e-textbook game. It’s an HTML5-based interface, meaning it’s platform agnostic, that lets students access their e-texts whether they’re using an iPad in class or in bed, or if they’re using a school PC in the library–including all their personal annotations and reminders, and other habits more usually associated with physical books.
These are great innovations, excellent for students.
Yet other rumors say Apple’s simply going to try to shake up the textbook sales market by promoting existing publisher partners and simplifying access to their content via a dedicated e-textbook (iTextbook?) marketplace. Rather than concentrating on tools for publishing–a move that some think will be met by great resistance, not least because of the way authors tend to use Adobe tools–Apple’s learned its lesson from upsetting the music industry and will try a more measured approach.
We’re not convinced by this. Sure working on two platforms (Adobe and Apple’s) may be a pain, but if the minds behind the better textbooks are offered a powerful and superbly easy-to-use interface by Apple to create truly next-generation books that convey their educational message more potently…then our money is on them leaping to embrace it. The softly softly idea also doesn’t feel very Steve Jobs–and we know he was passionate about this topic.
The Wall Street Journallast night revealed that Apple’s put its iWork man, Roger Rosner, in control of the new educational system. Citing “people familiar with the matter,” in a manner we’ve come to suspect means the WSJ is an official leak channel for seeding Apple ideas, again mentions “tools for building digital textbooks” and suggests something new, too: The “service is expected to be a way for a broad range of schools, publishers and others to develop learning material in a digital format.” This strikes us as being a very Jobs-ian idea, and we can imagine he’d have taken the stage tomorrow and said something like: “It’s not just the textbook writers who have great ideas–teachers do too, and so do their students. So why not let everyone build some great interactive books that help their class, and perhaps other students elsewhere, understand a lesson?” iWork, you see, has both a clean interface and a cloud-storage aspect that would seem suited to an expansion into educational publishing, co-work and sharing.
If this really is the thrust of Apple’s news tomorrow, then it’s a step to bring textbooks into the modern era that seems much bigger than the moves of Apple’s peers. We’ll only know more when the chalk dust starts flying at 10 a.m. EST tomorrow.
Chat about this article with Kit Eaton on Twitter (he’s seen his fair share of higher education, and would’ve loved more interactive and lighter textbooks!) and Fast Company too.
Zooey Deschanel is getting into the web series business. She’s serving as creative consultant on season two of The Single Life, a show created and coproduced by Digital Broadcasting Group (DBG) and Real Mom Productions. The series will “live and breathe on HelloGiggles.com,” a website Deschanel cofounded with Sophia Rossi and Molly McAleer, DBG’s CEO Chris Young tells Fast Company. The deal swells DBG’s long roster of original web video content, while nudging Deschanel into a growing coterie of Hollywood starlets who moonlight as entrepreneurs.
DBG calls itself a “content production and distribution company,” and is something of a hybrid between a production company and an advertising agency. One of their highest-profile productions to date was Kiefer Sutherland’s The Confession; the company also often works with brands to build video series offering what Young terms “utilitainment” (“providing a brand utility while entertaining the consumer at the same time,” he explains). DBG also produces a lot of brief video content that it then pushes to 2,600 partner websites. The company’s “sizzle reel” lays it all out.
The trick, Young says, is to keep the branding subtle and integral to the story. “The idea is to try to figure out brand objectives, where are the natural integration points, where it works with the story arc.” To “tastefully integrate” the brand is key: “If we the beat user over the head with the brand, they’re not going to engage.” Subtlety is so key, in fact, that Young asks me not to divulge the name of the brand DBG collaborated with on the first season of The Single Life, though you could probably figure it out if you watched it.
Deschanel wasn’t available to comment for this post, but in dabbling in Internet entrepreneurialism, she is a product of her time. For the modern starlet, stardom is rarely enough; a thoroughly cultivated personal brand also involves an Internet investment or two, à la Kutcher. Each week seems to bring more news of the young and famous flexing their inner venture capitalist: Teen star Selena Gomez recently invested in a postcard app. And Jessica Alba just threw her weight behind Honest.com. A startup investment, for many, is the it accessory this season.
In Deschanel’s case, of course, her own investment is more directly in line with her persona–comic actress–since HelloGiggles bills itself as a site for “cool girls who like to laugh.” Deschanel cofounded the site in May of 2011. The site is quirky and cute, very much in Deschanel’s image, and has a lofty mission: to be “lady-friendly, so visitors need not worry about finding the standard Boys Club content that makes many entertainment sites unappealing to so many of us.”
If that’s a vanity tech investment, it’s the kind we’d like to see more of.
At age 27, Danny Meyer abandoned plans to go to law school and decided to open Union Square Cafe in New York City–a decision about which New York City’s food lovers are eternally grateful.
In the 25 years since, Meyer has opened 28 restaurants and–incredibly, given the cutthroat nature of the New York restaurant scene, where restaurants open and close more frequently than subway doors–has had only shut one down. Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, Eleven Madison Park, and Gramercy Tavern consistently appear on most major New York top restaurant lists. Eleven Madison is one of only five Michelin 3-star restaurants in the city (Michelin’s highest rating); the New York Times gives Eleven Madison its highest rating of four stars. Only six restaurants in a city with 26,000 places to eat merit such a badge of honor.
As the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Meyer oversees a large team that manages all of the restaurants and additional businesses, including the Shake Shack burger stands, which have in a few short years become a national and international brand, with locations in Miami, Washington D.C., Connecticut, Kuwait, and Dubai, among others. Demand for Shack burgers in New York is so frenzied that someone made a Shake Shack app that lets you watch live video feed of the line so you can plan your burger binge based on its (usually very long) length.
This week, he opened a Blue Smoke BBQ stand and another fine-dining restaurant, North End Grill, in New York’s Battery Park City. North End is his second collaboration with Chef Floyd Cardoz, recently the winner of Top Chef Masters.
We sat down with Meyer at North End Grill to talk about the lessons he’s learned in a famously risky industry, and the secret ingredient of his success that has stayed the same all these years.
Fast Company: You’ve been in the restaurant business for 25 years. You’ve seen a lot. What have been the biggest changes in this industry in that time?
Danny Meyer: Restaurants and chefs have become followed by such a broad swath of the public, in a way that used to be reserved for sports stars, movie stars, and theater actors. Restaurants are in the firmament of today’s common culture. It would have been unheard of when I got into the business to talk about where a particular chef was cooking and for people to know who that chef was. So now there’s a public that’s hungry for food information. There are now artisans and farmers, winemakers, bread bakers, cheese makers, people who raise pigs, and people who roast coffee who take what they do very seriously. 25 years ago you would have been ashamed to say you were going into the restaurant business or to become a pig farmer, today you are proud. We also have a media that covers food and restaurants extensively. 25 years ago we didn’t have the Internet, blogs, or the food network. We had a group of students visit us from St. Louis who are studying marketing. 25 years ago they never would have put a restaurant on their list of places to visit.
One of the other big movements in the restaurant business has been the local and organic movement. You were early to that, why has that been important to you?
I’m a big believer that you can try to change the world based on philosophy, doctrine, and belief. But I think the thing that really drives the world is hedonism, the pleasure factor. As far as I’m concerned, the best way to convert people to eating fresh local grown produce is to show them that local fresh grown produce tastes better. Our industry is hyper-competitive; there are 26,000 restaurants in New York, so each one has to give you a reason to try it as well as a reason to come back. We are constantly looking for better ingredients to cook with. So that when you come here you say “The grilled salmon I had at North End Grill was the best I’ve ever had.” We’re constantly looking for better servers so people will say “My server made me feel better.” In our industry, we can’t leave a single stone unturned; we’re always looking for what’s better. I think where our industry–or any industry–can get in trouble is when they try to invent things for invention’s sake. Sometimes early in their careers, chefs make the mistake of adding one too many things to a plate to get attention. If a chef is just coming up with wiz-bang gimmicks on their plate, that has nothing to do with bringing real pleasure to people.
Several of your places have become part of the classic New York restaurant establishment. How do you keep the “classic” elements amidst constantly needing to innovate in order to stay fresh?
You want to preserve a sense of how someone’s made to feel, even while you’re evolving your product. Your product can evolve all the time and it has to. In 1985, no one had ever seen something we called “Filet Mignon of Tuna.” It was our most popular dish at Union Square Cafe for years and years. Then after a while, it started to read like 1985. So the goal was to keep making people feel the way they want to feel when they come here, but also to figure out a way to change the tuna. What we really try to do in all of our restaurants is to find this magical harmony between allowing the guest to feel like they went out to eat and like they came home to eat. The architecture of somewhere like Union Square Cafe is very homey, but we want to give the guest enough, whether it’s the cocktails, the desserts, or the dinner, to make them say, “That’s not something I would have made at home. I’m really glad I went out.” But at a restaurant like The Modern you feel like you’re going out. What we really need to work on at The Modern is dialing up the kinds of things that make you feel like you came home. Every restaurant needs to have a point of view. But it’s like a sailing race. There’s no such thing as a straight line; you’re constantly making corrections. But the thing I’m proudest of is that our older restaurants are the more popular ones. That’s because we stay focused on where we’re going, but we also listen to our guests and our staff. We’re proud of the point of view that we start with, but we also realize that’s only a starting point.
So how do you actually go about trying to make The Modern feel more like “you’re going home?”
We identify that with a team of our leaders. You don’t do it for them, you ask them for their ideas, so that they understand the concept and they are invested in the solution. For instance, at The Modern we put in shorter tablecloths. When we opened it in 2005, we were thinking more about “going out,” so we had these long formal tablecloths, you’d never have those at home. You wouldn’t believe how a little detail like that makes a place feel more relaxed. Then one person on our team said mentioned how much they loved getting candy afterschool as a kid. So the pastry chef developed the idea of a rolling candy dessert cart with 15 kinds of chocolate on it.
As you make these changes, how do you know if they are having the intended effect?
We’re in the business of creating delight for people. My partner Michael Romano, who was the chef at Union Square Cafe for 20 years, has an old comment card on the bulletin board in his office. It’s a cartoon with three panes. In the first pane, there’s a person opening the door to Union Square Cafe with a frown on their face because they had a bad day, in the second pane they’re eating a burger at the bar, being served by one of our bartenders and their face has a straight line, in the third pane they’re walking out with a smile on their face. Whatever happened to you before you came in we can’t control. Whatever happens in pane two is our responsibility. How we do that all starts with how we hire. The people we hire have to be really good at what they do, but they also have to have a high “HQ”–which means they are people who are at their happiest when they’re making other people feel good. There are plenty of good cooks out there, but there aren’t plenty of really good cooks who are primarily cooking for your pleasure. If you look at the people who work in our restaurants, I think you’d see two things: The first is that our staff is focused on their work, the second is that they are having fun with each other. So the staff exudes that spirit which is in turn quite attractive to the patrons.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the importance of company culture in the restaurant business.
It was intuitive from the beginning but it took me 10 years to name it. I had to name it when I opened my second restaurant Gramercy Tavern. As soon as there were two, it meant that wherever I was, I wasn’t at the other one. I started to see that it was even more important how our staff treated each other than how they treated our guests. Lots of restaurants could never have an open kitchen because of all the yelling that goes on. Waiters get their head’s chopped off in the kitchen, and then they are expected to go into the dining room and be lovely. I couldn’t figure out why Gramercy Tavern didn’t feel right when we first opened, then I realized that that culture was missing.
The only restaurant you’ve closed was Tabla in 2010. You’ve called the decision to close it “excruciatingly hard.” What did you take away from that experience?
As long as there is integrity involved, there is no such thing as failure. Tabla had a 12+ year run, which is pretty extraordinary for an Indian restaurant. We probably closed it two years later than we should have. I was so proud of never having closed a restaurant in a quarter century, and I wanted it to go on for another quarter century. So there was a little bit of foolish pride there, but there was also genuine concern I had for our staff members there. I didn’t want them to lose their jobs. The recession was pretty brutal to Tabla. It was our largest restaurant–one of the many things that I learned from Tabla was scale your restaurant to the concept–Indian cooking, especially in Tabla chef and now North End Grill chef Floyd Cardoz’s hands is exquisite, but all it takes is one spouse in a group of three couples to say they don’t care for Indian food, and you’ve lost that whole group. I also realized that the cruelest thing I could have done was to keep that restaurant open. We had an incredibly loyal staff, they were so loyal that they wouldn’t leave, so that mean that for 3 or 4 years they were not getting raises. So we closed it–we closed it the right way. We had a job fair for all of our staff. We invited all of our chefs and GMs, and we also invited every chef and GM of other restaurants who had been alums of Tabla to come in and hire our team. Now all of those people are further in their careers, and a lot of them have come back work with us.
North End Grill is your 28th opening. What’s unique about opening here?
It’s a new neighborhood. One of the things we love to do is come to a neighborhood before the rest of the world does. We did that with Union Square. We did that with Gramercy Tavern in the Flatiron district. We come down here to Battery Park City, there’s a real dearth of restaurants down here. I don’t get it, because there’s a real high concentration of businesses whose employees entertain at lunch and there’s a concentration of residential buildings with residents who go out for dinner. The challenge when you go to a new neighborhood is “are you crazy or not.” And only time tells. One of the reasons we decided to open three restaurants at once in this area–Shake Shack opened here six months ago, Blue Smoke opened here five days ago, and North End Grill opened five days ago–was to try and hasten the process of creating a “there there.”
In addition to your fine dining restaurants, the Shake Shack franchise has really grown in the past few years.
The first Shake Shack was really an attempt to answer a need in Madison Square Park. Then the line kept getting longer and longer…and you can’t get more space in a park. So we opened a second one, to initially try to mitigate the line from the first one. We opened on the Upper West Side but the Madison Square Park line just got longer. Then we opened a Shake Shack at CitiField. Now we have three Shake Shacks, and it was getting to be so big that we dedicated a whole team within the business just to Shake Shack. Then we started getting invitations to open them from all over, the most surprising of which came from the Middle East.
As you expand all over the country and now globally, how do you ensure the Shake Shacks all have this same sense of hospitality?
One of the beautiful things about Shake Shack is that it becomes a mirror of the community it is in. We do the same thing everywhere we go–except for a few drinks we name after the neighborhood we’re in. But they all look different based on who goes there. The Middle East feels different because we don’t have people pulling their burka aside while they’re eating a cheeseburger while taking a picture and blogging about the burger. You wouldn’t believe the Twitter follows we got and the blogging that goes on around the Middle East Shake Shack. We have a company called Hospitality Quotient, which teaches companies who are already the best in the world at what they do to become the best in the world at how they make people feel. So we use Hospitality Quotient to train the staff in with Shake Shacks abroad. The staff in Kuwait consists mostly of Filipino kids. They’ve never been treated this way in any job, and the training we do with them is actually empowering. I think what we’re trying to say is that the spirit is just as important.
In 2011 a number of restaurants started to use iPads as menus and ordering systems. Would you ever see a day where you would use an iPad for people to order or put a live twitter feed on the wall?
I never say never, but I don’t see a role for that in a restaurant like this. We thought a few years ago about having a wine bar that was connected to the Internet. The idea was to have a dynamic list of ten wines by the glass. From anywhere in the world the guests could go online to pick the wines from our list of over 300 wines. Whatever they wanted to taste, we would open it, it would become one of our wines by the glass, and then everyone could see the top wines at that moment. We thought about something like that, it could be a ways off. We always have 3×5 cards at all of our restaurants that describe the wines and the menu, I could absolutely see having an iPad there instead so that a server could go to that information and then come back to your table. But then again, I said I wouldn’t have online reservations because I didn’t want to give up friendly encounters on the phone. Then I realized if that’s how people want to make a reservation, that’s how they want to make a reservation!
Note: This interview has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
Images: Danny Meyer portrait and The Modern photos by Ellen Silverman; Union Square Cafe, courtesy of Union Square Cafe; Shake Shack, photo by Beyond My Ken
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur, having completed his first documentary18 in ’08. He is also the founder & executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in 2012.