¡Bong! "With physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them" - Sir Jony Ive
As one of the world’s most successful internet investors – remember, I lost $51bn in just one day while at Woodstock Capital – it’s vital to have your finger on the pulse. Or your finger on someone else’s pulse, which is where my invaluable assistant มาลัย (which means ‘Garland of Flowers’ in Thai) comes in.
For hours มาลัย had been poring over printouts of social media sentiment analysis. Then she exclaimed: “Steve, you really got to see this.”
Three amazing software projects have been registering unusually high levels of Twitter engagement recently, มาลัย told me. One is the BBC’s stunning Digital Media Initiative, another is the UK Government ground-breaking and brilliant Gov 2.0 website makeover, and the third is Apple’s new phone redesign, which - for some reason I don’t get - is being called “iOS Vista”.
I have been very close to all these projects at a strategic level, and it’s distressing to see social media know-it-alls react to their bold ideas with such negativity.
* * *
As regular readers will know, I was twice in the running recently for the vacant post of Director General of the BBC – I would have changed the title to “Digital Generalimisso” - but was unsuccessful on both occasions. The second was particularly heart-breaking. My visionary plan involved turning the BBC into a YouTube channel, closing down the archaic ‘radio’ broadcasts (sorry guys, but WTF - is it 1899?) and outsourcing the journalism to Wikipedia. But despite the support of Lord Patten, who [full disclosure] has directorships or investments in 41 BongVentures companies – my vision proved to be just too radical. Don’t tell me it’s not going to happen, though. In fact, it’s already happening, everywhere you look.
Instead the top BBC job went to some guy from Opera – which is better than nothing I guess. At least a tech company – they make a web browser. I had proposed to appoint as my No.2 and ‘Director of Strategy’ Mr Mike Butcher of TechCrunch Europe – and I recommended Mike to the Opera guy anyway after discovering I had been pipped to the top job. Sadly, that job eventually went to James Purnell.
The BBC’s Digital Media Initiative is something I helped get airborne, like a giant baby albatross. Acting in a consulting role, I helped imagineer the original blue sky vision for DMI. It had been my idea to think of DMI as a “giant brain”, allowing the BBC to one day rebrand itself as the “British Brain Corporation.”
I also advised the BBC Trust to suspend conventional cost-benefit accounting - a Bong hallmark move - and focus on intangible benefits instead, like sharing and mash-ups. Now มาลัย told me DMI had been abandoned, after spending only £100m, with “no tangible assets” as a result.
I was aghast. In my experience the reaction to DMI is typical of the British approach to bold, risk-taking software projects. They starve them of funds, and expect instant “tangible” results. I’ll bet nobody has even tried to evaluate DMI using a Love Metric. I’ll bet those suits haven’t made any effort to account for the DMI’s Meme Potential, or how many Viral Archive Mashups it could generate, once functioning.
But that’s analog dinosaurs for you.
Sometimes you can be too bold. DMI turned out to be a wax albatross, with a man called Icarus inside, flapping his arms, on a really hot sunny day. Sometimes you can be so visionary, your software can literally melt around you.
* * *
Yes, I will admit that I too was confused by the new iOS makeover until my old pal Jonny Ive explained it to me over a FaceTime chat.
“Can you imagine something so … simple, yet so … complex…,” said Jonny as ever straining for the right words. I can’t do Sir Ive’s full, four hour long explanation justice. But basically, Jonny said the new iOS look was inspired by a dream he had, in which he was just eight inches tall. He realised that he was actually Ken, the Mattel™ doll. Just as Apple needed to win back the affections of its users, Ken had to win back the affections of Barbie, by throwing out all the physical objects in his house, and replacing them with pictograms. All the while, Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze was playing in the background.
Jonny realised the dream contained an important message. He had to re-invent the iPhone using all the symbols in the dream. If the phone's owner could become Ken, and literally fight through a hazy purple user interface of pictograms, then they too would win back Barbie. And this, said Jonny, is essentially what every Apple user wants to do.
“Stick with it, Jonny,” I advised him. “As Mao Tse-Tung said in his famous 1930 letter, A Single Spark Can Start a Prairie Fire, "When we look at a thing, we must examine its essence and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the threshold, and once we cross the threshold, we must grasp the essence of the thing; this is the only reliable and scientific method of analysis.”
“That’s brilliant Steve, why didn’t you tell me that before?” asked Jonny.
“I have told you this many times, Jonny, but we were always strung out on DMT,” I muttered.
* * *
Of course not all dream-based web redesigns are as successful as iOS 7.
Like everyone, I’m proud of what the UK Government is doing, via its Cabinet Office, in making Government more digital. To some, the Gov 2.0 may “only” be a “website redesign” but it leads directly to a slimmer more agile and responsive government, and from there, you’re one hop away from a true Digital Democracy. And it’s amazing to see what Mike Bracken and Tom Loosemore’s tiny, skeleton team of only 1,400 Agile web developers, designers and UX experts have achieved so far.
They’ve been able to do it using two brilliant guiding principles. One, remove all the links to services people want – but in fact only think they need. Two, spend the necessary time to get the font and the icons right, even if this takes months. Or years. Once you can get the font right, electronic democracy will soon follow.
This is how software engineering works in the internet era. In the analog era, it was like building a house. You prepared the ground and laid the foundations. When the structure was solid, you put in the floors and walls. Finally, the "user" could put move in and decorate it with William Morris wallpaper, IKEA shelves and horrible garden gnomes.
In the digital era, you start with the cosmetic details, then work outwards. You start with the icons and the fonts and the rest takes care of itself. Arts graduates and graphic designers have replaced the traditional engineer, with his calculator. Taste has replaced Maths. And the gnomes are now ironic.
However, just this week there was a major setback. And it had a familiar ring. As มาลัย told me, the team had abandoned its ground-breaking icons.
Check out this blog post by the UK Gov icon guru, which captures the genius of the whole Digital Cabinet Office ethos. The team had used their ignorance as their reference manual, and their intuition as their design guide.
“We had no user data to work from when we first introduced the icons, so we based our decision on our judgement of what felt right,” writes Guy Moorhouse. He continues:
“However, over time and after lots of user testing sessions it became apparent that they weren’t achieving the intended result. Users would often click on the icons, thinking that they’d ‘do something’”.
Have a look – I think you'll agree it ranks with Ive’s best icon work. Clear, concise, consistent and unambiguous.
But this got me thinking? Why waste these amazing pioneering initiatives like DMI and the Gov 2.0 abandanograms? This is the era of remixing and reuse - let’s create some synergy! Only someone like the Bongster can see these connections and make the introductions.
So, strictly in confidence, this is what will happen.
Very shortly, the BBC will announce that it is crowdsourcing the DMI project, with the source code available on GitHub under a Creative Commons license. The Brain will then truly belong to the people, who can tinker and improve it even further. It becomes the People’s Brain. This will then incorporate all the icons thrown away by Apple and the UK Government.
The icons will not do anything at all – representing, yes, a slight short-term usability challenge to those few outsiders not actually employed by the BBC or the UK state. But thanks to a partnership between the BBC, the Cabinet Office and the new UoB (University of Bong – a catapult-funded educational MOOC) training will be available to help users “unlearn” the archaic concept that an icon should ever “do something”. The UoB has already been assured a twenty-year funding contract.
Digital education. It’s the Ken to the Barbie of Great Design.
Bong Out. ®
Steve Bong (official title: Lord Bong of #businessmodel) is the founder of Bong Ventures, an early stage investor and incubator focussing on innovative new technology start-ups based in Shoreditch, London. When he's not helping rear the next generation of business models, Steve enjoys parties, foreign travel, extreme cuisine, Open Data and draws his inspiration from Ayn Rand and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. He advised (then hired) No.10 policy guru Rohan Silva on mindfulness and innovation, Mark Zuckerberg on the Perfect IPO, the Republic of Kazakhstan on emergent social media strategies, LOCOG on brand enforcement, and imagineered the Olympic Opening Ceremony with Danny Boyle, Shoreditch's #guardian coffee coffee shop with Jemima Kiss, and was the social media consultant for Lady Thatcher’s Funeral. At the personal invitation of Kim Jong Un, he is a strategic consultant on the Nextification of North Korea. Steve wants to pivot the BBC into the 22nd Century, and favours Small Government but Large Catapults.
Follow @BongVentures on Twitter for direct and disintermediated entrepreneurship, and boutique design-o-gnomics.