"History is just people doing things"
THE ABQ CORRESPONDENT
ISSN 1087-2302 Online Edition Number 282......June 2019
Published since 1985 for clients and contacts
Back in the ‘60s when Walter Landor Associates was one of the top three or so industrial design firms in the world. Their office building was the former ferryboat Klamath, moored at Pier 5 in San Francisco, and it was unsettling to watch the Ferry Building moving up and down outside their conference room window. it was said that they got fees on the order of $50k for designing letterheads. Of course, the fee covered more than the letterhead, might even include logo design…and their clients were outfits like Bank of America and Kellogg’s, who took such expenses in stride. Still, it pretty much boiled down to a thousand dollars worth of artwork and forty-nine thousand dollars worth of assurance that everything that could be taken into consideration had been considered.
In contrast, I was recently the writer on a committee that included an attorney, and accountant, and an engineer tasked with coming up with a logo for a family of useful devices of different capacities. None of us had documentable talent along these lines, but we didn’t need it. The organizer of the activity went online to www.99designs.com,* and signed us up to sponsor a four-day contest inviting designers worldwide to submit ideas for a logo fitting the general description and the function we provided. When we completed this first step, our organizer went to make a pot of coffee. By the time he was enjoying a cup of it, four suggested designs had come in. Over the four days, we received something like 170 design submissions from 40 different designers. most of them relevant and interesting. We didn’t have to take them as-is, but could suggest changes, tinkering with the concepts through the 99Designs contact. One supposes that the artist submitting the “winning design” gets some modest part of the fee…which may seem like a lot if he/she is living in poverty in some desperate place (with power and a computer).
It’s hard to go completely wrong on this, because even if the judging committee has no design skills, the people submitting designs are skilled and imaginative. Nothing is really dreadful. It’s easy to select a tolerable, possibly very good design. The process is inexpensive and astonishingly fast. Remarkable.
The Correspo has commented in the past that no activity we can think of has been more affected by digital technology than the graphics business. The process of creating the materials necessary for printing has changed utterly. Any unskilled fool can now lay out copy on a page…what used to involve typesetting…and many fools do. More, we don’t print company literature as we used to; most of what we show people is online. Someone commented recently that the business that had made his family wealthy, financial printing, is almost gone; there are now few frantic, last-second efforts to print at great expense the SEC-approved documents required for selling stock.
It’s not likely that most of the material we’re producing is as beguiling to the eye and effective as we’d wish. Talent, training, and experience are as necessary as ever to produce good stuff, but the talent is distributed differently now, and accessible through different channels at different cost.
Landor (no longer Walter Landor Associates) is still doing great work... presenting themselves online, of course. Their headquarters have not for many years been on the ferryboat (one wonders what happened to Fran Mair’s marvelous Museum of Packaging Antiquities up in the pilothouse), but the image of the Klamath is still their logo. That’s nice.
*Apparently the 99Design folks started a few years ago with a basic price of $99, but like Motel 6, they have been swept along by inflation, so their basic fee is now $299.
ANOTHER TIP OF THE HAT
At one point in our nice chat when I was visiting old friend Merl Miller in hospice last week he was trying to persuade a nurse that I was an important figure in the Personal Computing Revolution, Well, no. I was just an outsider wandering among the computerati, commenting ignorantly on what they were doing. The personal computer, a new appliance, was moving digital power out of the hands of protective institutions into the hands of the undisciplined masses. The effects of that have proved to be profound, and we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
In fact, Merl with his wife Patti had a big influence on the form and pace of that revolution. Merl was a Wyoming ranch kid who became a Marine fighter pilot. Shot down by a SAM over Vietnam, he ditched at sea, was rescued, and spent a long time recuperating from injuries. He was gregarious, extremely funny, an enthusiastic salesman, and extraordinarily intelligent. When personal computers came on the scene in 1975, he saw opportunity, and he and Patti cranked up dilithium press (the lowercase d and p made for a good logo “dp” as well as some typographical awkwardness), It was the first publishing imprint dedicated to personal computing. Over a few years dilithium published a bunch of books, not all by distinguished, highly credentialed computer experts, but by anybody who had something useful to say…about hardware, software, whatever. There were no experts in personal computing. We were all just making it up as we went along. Some of dilithium’s titles, like My Computer Likes me when I Speak in BASIC, Nailing Jelly to a Tree, and Computers for Everybody became best sellers, if you go by number of copies sold instead of trade hype. These weren’t high-priced textbooks; they were popular paperbacks full of information and commentary that people wanted. They were available in regular retail bookstores, because Merl got in his car and drove sixty thousand miles, calling on booksellers, persuading them that there was enough market for this stuff to merit their shelf space.
We met at a computer show (maybe the NCC) where dilithium had a booth about 1976. I talked about a book I had written in which no publisher was interested, and Merl said “We’ll publish that.” They did…and a couple of others. During those first formative years, dilithium largely set the tone of the movement, in selecting authors, topics, and style. They didn’t intend to do that, but it happened because they participated so energetically. Merl pointed out that informational books needed “support” just as equipment and software do, so the company made a point of dealing helpfully with callers about the content of the books. They went to a zillion shows, gave talks, wrote articles, hobnobbed, and hustled all over the world. Times changed as an industry grew up, and dilithium finally folded. Patti once commented “If someone had offered me a job that would take me around the world, let me meet all kinds of interesting and important people, and be part of an exciting change in society, but the job would last only a few years, then end abruptly…would I have taken it? Absolutely.” Resourceful and interesting as ever, they went on to other things, and became dear friends of our family. Merl died this morning as I write this on May 16, 2019. Hardly anybody will notice, but he was important to us all.
For decades now, we’ve speculated on turning tireless, good-humored robots loose in agricultural fields to serve the needs of individual plants, feeding them, discouraging bugs, and pulling weeds. A lot is going on. A San Francisco based outfit called FarmWise is demonstrating some interesting equipment along those lines, while the University of Sydney is using its RIPPA technology in a number of configurations such as this and this. My, those machines move right along…but it’s sobering to hear the farmer saying that this all very nice, but the pressing problem is harvesting. We shall see.
We hear a lot of talk about robot vehicles that will deliver pizza, prescriptions, and groceries to folks anywhere in town and country, suggesting crowds of contending small vehicles clogging the arteries of transportation, tripping pedestrians, blocking the sun, and falling on the unwary. Robert X. Cringely, who has been making predictions about technology* for some years, has an interesting take on this. He suggests a hybrid between unmanned flying pizza carriers and manned trucks. The notion is that trucks can go to neighborhoods that are the source of a lot of pizza orders. As the orders come in, drones fly from where the ovens are to where the trucks are, close to the delivery points, and land on the roofs of the trucks, not on sidewalks and front stoops, as we used to call them. Somebody from the truck grabs the boxed pizzas, and carries them swiftly to the customers. This might reduce lots of crazy delivery traffic. Then again, maybe not, with all of the pizza companies and pharmacies, not to mention grocery stores, contending for delivery space. Anyhow, it’s an intriguing idea.
*Cringely incautiously allows readers to post comments on his website in which he is routinely praised, attacked, libeled, mocked, and pilloried. Hell will freeze over before the Correspo does any such thing.
If indeed chickens and such are the modern representatives of dinosaurs, one wonders how it occurred to dinosaurs to fly, and how they went about it…intentionally or automatically in response to their situations. Some folks in Beijing have not only wondered about that, but have looked into the matter with great diligence, recruiting the help of at least one (flightless) ostrich in the process. TechCrunch has published an easy-to-read article on their work with some nice video, while the original paper indicates the extraordinary amount of work the researchers did. Interesting and fun. I’m glad I didn’t have to strap the backpack on an angry ostrich.
ITEM FROM THE PAST
This item from 2005 is brought to mind by a recent
happy experience with Microsoft Support. Really!
EBay is buying a company called Skype. Most of us Yankee types would rhyme the name with “yipe,” (or, yes, “type”) but opinions seem to vary, perhaps because the company is headquartered in Luxembourg, with major operations in London and in Tallinn, Estonia all places where opinions on pronunciation are markedly different from mine. Skype offers voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) service to anybody on the internet with better-than-worst bandwidth and a microphone and a speaker...so that participants can telephone anybody else in the world who is outfitted similarly...free...that is, without any charge above that already paid for the internet service. For just a few (starting at 2) cents a minute, a Skype user can call anybody who has a phone number, anywhere, without the callee’s needing a computer. Skype says the system consumes zero to .5k baud of bandwidth when just standing by to receive a call, and only 8-16 k baud when the user is sending or receiving a call. What especially interests eBay in this? They look forward to letting their sellers pay a small extra fee for allowing potential buyers to click on a Skype button, and phone the seller to talk about the thing that’s up for bid. People really want to talk before making a bid on a high-ticket item, and this should make transactions substantially faster and easier, increasing eBay’s sales volume, while amortizing the cost of the program. That is, while eBay is only mildly attracted to the VOIP business in general, they think three billion dollars is a modest price to pay for effectively greasing the skids of their commerce.
Dunno how well that application worked out for eBay, but
the basic Skype VOIP service has flourished, and the
enterprise has been sold in whole or in part a number of
times since 2005. Microsoft bought Skype Communications
in 2011for $8.5 billion, and made it an operating division of
the company. The service dominates the VOIP industry so
impressively that the word “Skype” is now used without
copyright attribution about as much as “Kleenex” or “Coke.”
The noteworthy positive experience with M’soft Customer
Support arose from my being unable to open the Skype
account I’ve used for some years. Typically, I find it
impossible to get help from Microsoft. It was different in
Olden Days, when one would call them on a phone (a land
line) to speak with a representative. It was sometimes
necessary to wait on line for an hour and a half, not kidding,
before speaking to anybody, because there were a lot of
callers with a lot of problems and only a few hundred service
people. Eventually a real person would come on line and
really help. That usually took the form of their reciting strings
of incomprehensible code that the caller would painstakingly
type into the computer, making many mistakes and corrections
over a period of some minutes. It was agonizing to all involved,
and the caller didn’t learn anything about dealing with the
problem next time, but it enabled the personal computing
With everybody on the internet now, Microsoft feels that
it has figured out all of the questions anybody might possibly
ask, and has listed them under various headings so you can
select the one you need, and get your answer without bothering
Except that they haven’t thought of everything.
My problem is usually one they haven’t thought of, and I
hardly ever manage to penetrate their defense system to find
a person who can help with the unprecedented question.
Some miracle that probably cannot be repeated allowed
access after a ten minute search to a real, live person via
Instant Messaging, who not only paid attention, but asked
intelligently for more information, then with permission,
took control of my computer, and fixed the problem in a
minute or two. WONDERFUL.
All easy, pleasant, and effective. If I had thought to write
down the name of that customer support agent, we would
credit him here. I didn’t and can’t, but my blessings fall
upon him and the Microsoft managers who made the
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