Hugh's Page

Blog RelationsHugh Fraser is an outside blogger who has been given full access to Exbiblio and invited to watch it either grow into something big and significant, or crash gloriously in flames. His background is as a journalist and he is is now one half of a company based in London called Blog Relations. He will be spending about one week a month with Exbiblio in Seattle as a "fly on the wall" observing what goes on.

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Demonstration of scanner pen

October 17th, 2006

It was a morale boosting morning meeting this morning. The prototype for the oPen (Exbiblio scanner pen) was dragged across some text, and lo and behold, after about 15 to 20 seconds, the text appeared on a big projection screen. Yeah! The wait has to be reduced to one or two seconds, of course, but it’s a step in the right direction. The whole process of integrating the hardware and software has been taking rather longer than planned.

The hope is that when mark II is ready towards the end of the year, it won’t have these integration problems, as most of the software kinks will have been ironed out.

Initial Launch Ambitions

October 17th, 2006

A recurring theme centers on the ambitions of the product launch, scheduled for next spring. Exbiblio hasn’t set aside big resources for marketing, so what would be considered a success?

Increasingly I’m hearing that this product launch is really about proof-of-concept to raise capital to go onto the next stage. It might, for instance, prove market acceptance among a well-defined, local group – perhaps among students in the North West of America. This might be enough to find partners who would help Exbiblio with achieving is ambitions, which are, of course, far greater than this.

More or less?

October 16th, 2006

A meeting that I’ve just attended (with a presentation by Adam) really boiled down to this question: should Exbiblio start by doing a small number of things incredibly well, and to clearly communicate those things to a well-defined first-user group? Or should it be more feature-rich, and even have an open platform to develop third party applications?

It boils down partly to practicality – what can be achieved given time and money – and partly to the best way to market it. Exbiblio, and in particular Martin, keeps coming back to the notion that you have to put the product in users hands, and see what they do with it, and only then can you reach a decision. It means that the feature list will be finally decided on rather late in the day.

Crisis can be good for you

October 16th, 2006

I’ve been away from Exbiblio for about three weeks, and I’ve come back to find what seems like a different company. It’s organised, and focused, and people meet frequently in person and know what each other are doing. I am, quite frankly, amazed.

While I’ve been away, I get the feeling that there has been a bit of a mini-crisis. There have been more little things wrong with the first prototype of the scanner pen than had been expected. This crisis seems to have been a shot in the arm.

Read the rest of this entry »

Time and Money

October 16th, 2006

As we all know, time is money. When a business has run out of one, it’s also run out of the other. So timing is crucial.

The thing that concerns me most about Exbiblio is time. It all seems so tight to me, that there doesn’t seem to be any margin for unpleasant surprises. And it’s already behind schedule. I would think that an ordinary business would be looking very actively for investors to buy it more time, and a strategic partners to help it get its product to the customers. Exbiblio doesn’t seem to be doing either of those things – at least, not in full gear. But then it isn’t an ordinary business.

I put my concerns to Martin, and he responds that he wants to hand a product to investors and partners, not just a “vision” with hypothetical sales projections. Exbiblio won’t have a product until early next year. So actively approaching partners is on hold.

Read the rest of this entry »

If you build, customers will come….

October 13th, 2006

Let me remind you of one of the supposed “Geek Business Myths” that I referred to recently.

If you build, they will come (i.e. customers).

This is Exbiblio’s position.

If you build a product that creates real value in the world, then you can’t go far wrong.

But still, I wonder, how is Exbiblio going to sell that product? Here are the main points of the marketing “plan” that I know about.

  • The first “target market” will almost certainly be students.
  • The primary method for spreading the word will be “viral” – i.e. those who try it will love it and tell their friends.
  • Beta testing the product among 1000 people early next year will create buzz.
  • The main selling point will be the Exbiblio website.
  • Independent bookshops fit in well with Exbiblio’s values, and could help sell its oPen.
  • Online bookshops are also potential partners for selling the oPen. They will see the value in linking the paper world to the online world, and so stimulating online book sales.
  • There are some publishers who have online versions of their books, and similarly, they will see the value in linking paper with digital, and help sell the oPen.

In the initial months, following the launch of the oPen next Spring, the goals for sales will be fairly modest. All Exbiblio wants to do is prove that there is demand in the market. But are these plans concrete enough for this stage?

Exbiblio and Openness

October 13th, 2006

I trust that this blog is evidence of Exbiblio’s openness. I’d just like to point out that the policy goes even deeper at the company. The design agency JMK told us that usually their clients would insist on complete confidentiality: we couldn’t walk around their office and see their designs-in-progress on the wall. Exbiblio is different. There is no insistence on confidentiality. JMK doesn’t have to cover up any Exbiblio materials for anybody. It seems that people who work with Exbiblio really like that policy. Secrecy can be a burden – and it’s over-rated. After all, imitation is flattery, so why fear it?

Critical Utility

October 11th, 2006

“Critical Utility” is a phrase that I’ve heard a good deal around Exbiblio. Last time I was in the office, I asked for a definition of this phrase in relation to Exbiblio’s first product, the oPen pocket scanner. Here were two tests that I was told it had to pass:

  • If you are reading a book at night, and your oPen is downstares on your desk, will you get out of bed to fetch it?
  • If you leave home in the morning, and realise that you don’t have your oPen with you, will you go back into the house to get it?

There are certainly some things I can’t leave the house without – my wallet, my credit card, my specticals, my keys, my mobile. Some people might add their MP3 player to the list. The oPen will be in elite company if it work its way into the exclusive club of the can’t-do-withouts.

Departure: Damon Lanphear

October 6th, 2006

After visiting Exbiblio three times, I’m starting to get to know the crew – and I’m really sorry to hear the news that Damon is moving on, and that today is his last day. That was rather sudden, Damon! I wish you the best of luck in your next job.

Damon joined Exbiblio in June, as I mentioned in my profile of him.

Damon is an extremely nice chap, and I know that his colleagues have a very high opinion of his intellect and abilities. It’s a pity Exbiblio couldn’t hang on to somebody of his caliber for longer.

Exbiblio seems to have a high turnover: Jannine in July, Noah in August, and now Damon in October.

Visit to Synapse

October 4th, 2006

SANY0019Adam has posted an email from Brian (pictured left), an electrical engineer at Synapse, the consultants working for Exbiblio on its first product, the oPen (pocket scanner). Adam mentions hitting some “challenges” . Over here in England, we still call those “problems”, but you can get a sharp rebuke for uttering that word around Exbiblio.

Exbiblio, once again, is to be commended on its openness – but on this occasion, Synapse deserves credit too. As it happens, I was planning to write an account of my visit to Synapse.

Synapse is based in a former tram depot in a suburb of Seattle. Immediately I walk in, I get a different feel from Exbiblio – it’s open-plan, chatty, but business-like. The depot makes me think of the Google Garage. It has some of the make-shift romance of a start-up, though Synapse was founded in 2001 and employs around 40 people. Exbiblio, as I have mentioned before, is in the center of town, and has a bookish, intellectual feel, with the workers dispersed in offices along corridors, where they beaver feverishly away at their projects.

On its website, Synapse says it does technology- intensive product development. Since June, it has been working with Exbiblio to develop the oPen. Its other clients come from all over the world and include Microsoft, Samsung, Philips, Intel, Logitech, General Electric – well you name it.

SANY0026The five-strong engineering team working on the oPen is managed by Dave Zucker (holding the notepad in the picture). You will often see Dave and other Synapse people around Exbiblio. Exbiblio’s Ian MacDuff (in the middle of the picture) is often at Synapse. It all seems very well integrated. They seem like a happy team, though I hope Ian won’t mind me saying that he looks a little stressed now that the project is behind its ambitious schedule.

I’ve heard Dave say a couple of times that the Synapse way is to “fail early, and fail often” – in other words to go all out for rapid development of prototypes, see what works, what doesn’t, and then quickly do another one, and then, if necessary, another one.

That is what has NOT happened with the oPen. Dave told me:

“We had said at the beginning that this was a two month project.”

I interject, “Was that possible?”

“It was possible. But Martin and I had discussions along the way where we made conscious decisions to push out the schedule in return for something – either we learned more, or got a design that we liked better. When you shoot for a prototype in two months, you definitely are going to make some compromises. You certainly couldn’t design something for production that was exactly for final version in two months.”

And so the deadline slipped, partly as a trade-off for more features and knowledge, and partly just because it slipped a bit.

The first prototype - videoed last week – is about one and a half times bigger than the desired size of the final version (this was planned). The idea of this prototype is to learn about memory, processor, and battery-life requirements. The engineers are also looking for ways to cut the size down.

Falstaff is Alive!Dave told me about one of the problems – er, challenges – already uncovered. When the first circuit boards came back from the factory they noticed some funny behaviour. Some diagnostics showed that two pins on the layout had been connected by a mistake in the design. It sounded as if this could be fixed quite easily.

I don’t really understand all the technicalities of Brian’s email but it doesn’t sound like the end of the world to me. I’m sure these glitches can be put right. But as we used to say back in my school days, Tempus Fugit.

It would have been nice to have a perfect prototype first time, but I think we all live in the real world and realise that “right first time” would require a lot of good fortune. It’s not really what Synapse promise (“Fail early and fail often”).

Tactless as ever, I asked Dave who pays for any delays. The answer is Exbiblio.