Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Reckless Innovative Minds?

Apparently we are once again in the realm of reckless innovation-is-the-only-thing thinking, although this is probably also a the-classroom-is-not-the-real-world story. The classroom in this case actually has a name. It is called Launch Pad, and it is one of the classes offered by Stanford University’s Institute of Design. Since the students in question, Akshay Kothari, 23, and Ankit Gupta, 22, were named by Brad Stone in a post to his Bits blog for The New York Times, it seems fair enough to do the same here. Stone summarized the story as follows:

Mr. Kothari said the project was inspired by “a personal frustration at the whole news reading experience” on mobile devices.

Pulse is a stylish and easy-to-use news aggregator. Users select which news sources to follow and the latest articles are presented in a grid of texts and photos. Users can finger-swipe back and forth across various articles from a single news source, or up and down through up to 20 news sources.

The app allows users to see text-only versions of articles, which are basically cleaned-up versions of a news site’s RSS feeds, or to see the full articles as they are presented on the Web. It also lets people easily share articles through Twitter and Facebook – bypassing the individual sharing tools presented by each news site.

In terms of the motivation, this seems to have turned out to be a rather successful design project.

The problem is that our innovation-hungry culture takes as "a truth universally acknowledged" that any successful design project must be in want of a rapid and easy path to productization (with apologies to Jane Austen). This is clearly reflected by the use of "Launch" in the name of this particular classroom. Apple honors this "truth;" and its App Store is the poster child for that honor. Thus Pulse quickly found its way into the App Store, allowing Stone to continue his narrative as follows:

The students estimate that about 15,000 people have downloaded their app, which translates into more than $40,000 in revenue, taking into account Apple’s 30 percent cut.

The pair have created a company, Alphonso Labs, and are now working on versions of the app for other devices, as well as talking to potential investors.

Now, before everyone joins in the chorus of a Pavlovian incantation of "Cool!," it is important to note that Stone's post appeared on June 1, followed by an endorsement of Pulse by Steve Jobs at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference on June 7. As Stone's Tuesday blog post observed, this was when the boogieman of consequences raised his head:

On Monday afternoon, after Steven P. Jobs himself had highlighted Pulse in his keynote speech at the Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple received a letter from a Times Company lawyer and removed Pulse from the App store.

The main problem, as the lawyer said in his letter, was that the application took pages from and, which is also owned by the Times Company, and put them in a frame within the app, with other content around the edges.

The lawyer also wrote that the app, which sells for $3.99, represented a commercialization of the company’s free RSS feeds. Both features violate the company’s terms of use for the sites, the lawyer wrote.

“We want to be clear that we are willing to work with Pulse, but only under our terms of use,” said Robert Christie, a spokesman for the Times Company.

Information may want to be free, and it may even go so far as to exercise that freedom in the classroom. Unfortunately, the real world has other ideas! Even less fortunately, those ideas are currently more than a little messy; and there are no end of keen legal minds grappling with no end of subtleties to clarify matters for naïfs such as graduate students. One can easily get a sense of that mess by turning to Erica Ogg's Circuit Breaker column for CNET News, where she basically told this same story yesterday. As I write the story has harvested 31 comments, which, for the most part, are dominated by a highly argumentative tone. Taking away the right to chant "Cool!" involves goring a pretty serious ox. Cooler heads (so to speak) need to prevail; but they are unlikely to do so on the CNET site!

The more important question is whether or not those heads prevail at the Institute of Design. Here is what their People Web page says about the supervisory team:

A core team of Stanford faculty from Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering, Management Science and Engineering, and the Graduate School of Business already are working on the, alongside consulting faculty, staff members, and fellows.

It is unclear where legal expertise gets to sit at the table when a design is promising enough to lead ("launch") to a product. Perhaps it does not sit there at all. Perhaps this is "beyond the scope of the course," as some of my professors used to say. Well, it may be "beyond the scope" of how we think about design; but, to invoke my favorite Ken Auletta phrase, is there anyone around to prepare students for what happens when they "bump into" the real world?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Innovation is indeed a hot-button issue. It continues to occupy the time and attention of those whose time might better be spent in listening to the forest, or to Luigi Nono, or in praying unceasingly. We might well consider the Roman Empire's take on innovation (see. e.g., Josephus). In the context of Roman law, innovation was such a bad thing that it was close to an unpardonable crime. As a long-time student of innovation human and nonhuman, I struggle at times to keep up with the many ramifications of the topic in our society, from journalism and enterprise to the often-bizarre musings of evolutionary psychologists on human nature and behavioral innovation. The natural history of innovation is a fascinating and well-documented bit of biological treasure, though well under the digital radar and co-opted by those who use biology for questionable purposes. Shall Darwin have the last word? (Nature is niggardly in invention
though prodigal in variety --not an exact quote).
And, even if your interest in things Blblical is purely
a matter of historical scholarship, try to imagine the impact of Jesus' ministry and of early Christianity on a Judeo-Roman culture that
viewed innovation as anathema. Now, as ever,
the prophets of a new creation find little honor
in their own country -- often, as Smoliar eloquently argues, with ample reason. Yet to be as a child,
to be born again, remains the essence of innovative and creative behavior in our own species and even beyond.