“Why can’t I see it now?” Or why it pays to listen to your most demanding customer


Oh the impatience of youth!

The first time one of my sons pressed the button on a non-digital camera, he turned to me and asked “where can I see the picture?”

I knew at once it was a significant moment, but I was all wrong about the reason why.

How cute, I thought, he’s so steeped in the digital age that he expects the image to be displayed instantly, just like on our digital camera.

Yet it turns out that the expectation of photographic instant gratification was not the preserve of the digital natives at all.

The evidence is here in this vignette from the 1940s family life of Edwin Land:

… on a family vacation in California, Land took a picture of a burro for his three-year old daughter, Jennifer. When the little girl impatiently asked, “Why can’t I see it now?”

Clearly Edwin Land was no ordinary father. Where most would have dismissed the request as childish naivity, he set to work on a startling answer: and within an hour came up with a concept that seemed revolutionary to grown-ups the world over…

It took Polaroid scientists nearly five years to make Land’s vision into a reality. By the fall of 1948, the Land 95 camera, priced at $89.95, was ready for the public. On the day after Thanksgiving, a sales and demonstration crew arrived at Boston’s Jordan Marsh Department Store. As astonished customers witnessed the first instant photos being made, cameras flew off the shelves. The demonstration ended early when the entire stock of cameras sold out.

I love the story of the Polaroid camera because it makes me wonder. What other innovations are out there, under our noses, so blindingly obvious that it takes a three-year-old to demand, and an attentive parent to deliver?


Relax, your photos are in the sky (but I’ve burned a CD just in case)

The conversation in our household goes like this:

Me: I’m clearing the digital camera. Its memory’s nearly full.

My spouse: I don’t like the idea that all our photos are just on the computer.

Me: Well they’re safer there than in tatty envelopes under the bed…

Spouse: Yes, but why can’t we print them all out?

Me: … and I’ve got them all on Flickr. You can print them off the internet any time you like.

Spouse: You know what, that doesn’t make me feel any better…

I wanted to know where my photos would be safer – “in the sky”, or in a shoebox. 30 minutes of Googling later, I have the answer.

According to my local Fire Service, there were 17.2 “calls to accidental dwelling fires per 10,000 dwellings” in 2005-06. That’s odds of 581 to 1 that we’ll suffer a house fire. Obviously, the shoebox could survive unscathed, but then again it’s subject to other risks such as flooding, theft and shredding by toddlers, so I reckon the fire statistic is a pretty good proxy for the risks to photos stored physically in the home.

As for Flickr, well it’s owned by Yahoo! Inc, a multibillion dollar US company with an exclamation mark in its name. Let’s assume they take good care of our pictures unless they run into serious financial difficulties. Yahoo!’s (or is that “Yahoo’s!”?) corporate credit rating is a just-about-investment-grade BBB-. For this grade, the Average Default Rate Within One Year of Rating (1970-2001) is apparently about 0.15%. Satisfyingly, that works out at a 666 to 1 chance of Yahoo! defaulting on its debt and taking my photos down with it.

So actually, the chances are pretty comparable. The sky shades it a little over the shoebox. Better still, I can really keep things safe by doing both. It seems safe to assume the two variables are independent – that is, my house burning down wouldn’t make it any more or less likely that Yahoo! goes! belly! up! In that case there’s only a 387,333 to 1 chance of both catastrophes occuring in the same year. Some back-up dividend!

I’m more likely (370,035 to 1) to die choking on food.

[Scary afterthought: Maybe I’m now destined to be poisoned by fire-raising Yahoo! acolytes enraged by my mockery of their carefree approach to punctuation?]

The logic of online storage seems compelling, but it may not be enough. No matter the hypothetical benefits of having stuff stored in a cloud, people exhibit strong attachments to having personal data in forms they can touch: prints, CDs, DVDs, and so on.

Is this just a hangover of a bygone age, something that will be ironed out as the iPod generation goes totally digital? Or is the need for tangible assets a deeply held one that we need to incorporate into online services to ensure their long-term adoption? What are the chances?

Remember, I’m just a bit of software

Unlike some people, I’m partial to a spot of anthropomorphism, which is why I was delighted to receive this email after ordering some cards from Moo

Hello Matt

I’m Little MOO – the bit of software that will be managing your order with us. It will shortly be sent to Big MOO, our print machine who will print it for you in the next few days. I’ll let you know when it’s done and on its way to you.

Please do not remove the photos you have chosen from your account until the cards have been printed, or some of your cards may come out blank.

You can track and manage your order at: http://www.moo.com/account
Please note, as your order will be shipped via Royal Mail First Class/Airmail, it should be with you in around 10 working days, but it won’t have a tracking number.

Remember, I’m just a bit of software. So, if you have any questions regarding your order please first read our Frequently Asked Questions at: http://www.moo.com/faqs/ and if you’re still not sure, contact customer services (who are real people) at: http://www.moo.com/service/


Little MOO, Print Robot

It’s a simple positioning seen through with total conviction. I love it. And so does my email client, Fluffy.

Capturing the rainbow

Out shopping on an Autumn Saturday afternoon, a spectacular rainbow appeared over Islington. And on every street corner there was someone taking a picture with their cameraphone. A perfect example of how convergent technologies create brand new behaviours, as well as enhancing existing ones.

Most of those people taking pictures probably didn’t explicitly choose a cameraphone – the mobile photography revolution was virtually pure technology push by handset manufacturers and network operators. But once armed by default with a reasonable quality, zero-cost-per-click camera they’ve created new usages that never featured in the all-too-predictable MMS launch campaigns (it was all Beckham and babies from what I remember, never happy slapping or lunch).

Chris Heathcote sums up the digital photo effect as “more people taking more pictures, more people looking at pictures, and more conversations started from photos” – and it’s not just more, more, more, it’s different, different, different.

The private life of a digital camera

Flickr etiquette is a tricky thing. For starters I have to pigeonhole the tangled web of people-with-whom-I-share-photos into “family”, “friends” and that wonderful catch-all “contacts” (maybe we should all be using a Cold War-style dead letter box in Regent’s Park?)

But that’s nothing to the almost daily dilemma of how to share each photo I upload.

  • If I make this or that picture public am I giving away just a little to much of my family’s privacy?
  • Maybe someone, someday might find a use for that snap of Leonardo Da Vinci’s printing press?
  • Just how many photos of my kids can my work colleagues stand to see?

I think it has to do with the intimacy gradient:

Conflict: Unless the spaces in a building are arranged in a sequence which corresponds to their degrees of privateness, the visits made by strangers, friends, guests, clients, family, will always be a little awkward.
Lay out the spaces of a building so that they create a sequence which begins with the entrance and the most public parts of the building, then leads into the slightly more private areas, and finally to the most private domains.

Now for “building,” read “photo sharing service”.

But I’ve noticed one thing when skimming through my photostream: I’m far more likely to mark a picture public if I take it with my cameraphone than if I take it with my digital camera.

The regular camera is used in intimate situations – in the living room when Pascal smiles, or when Ludo falls asleep standing up. It only leaves the house in its faux leather case for special occasions – family parties, days out, when we value good pictures of never-to-be-repeated moments.

The cameraphone is the Bic Biro of image capture devices. Always in my pocket, with me everywhere I go in my everyday life. It’s helping me to take pictures I’d never have taken before – stupid pictures, random pictures, might-come-in-handy-one-day pictures. These are the pictures I’m happy to mark public on Flickr without a moment’s thought.

What we say versus what we see

So I know what you’re going to say, text isn’t the point of mobile blogging – it’s all about pictures, videos, media, capturing the moment and storing it up or sharing it out. Yes, I love taking pictures with my phone and zapping them up to Flickr, and yes, Shozu is one of that rare breed of sensitively designed mobile apps that does one thing really well.

But the thing is, if I’m going to carry around a “reality acquisition device,” I’d like to acquire the whole of reality as I experience it, not just the bits that can be captured directly as light waves or sound waves.

There are places a cameraphone just cannot reach.

And anyway, sometimes a handful of words can paint a thousand pictures. Take this August 2001 mobile post:

Circle Line, King’s Cross to Liverpool Street. Boy 11ish is playing the accordian for money. Badly. He looks exhausted. Most of us ignore the upturned baseball cap. Boy 9ish gives him a half-finished pack of mints

Get the picture? Text is still one of the most expressive ways we people have of capturing reality. Take it away and mobile blogging will be like a foreign language film without the subtitles.

Text – gets to the parts that cameraphones just can’t reach

There are places a cameraphone just cannot, umm, go. Places like the men’s toilets at King’s Cross Station. (Stay with me on this one.)

There you’ll find a sticking plaster product design solution that would be at home in a Don Norman book: a hand-dryer so sleekly built into the wall that someone’s sellotaped the laser-printed word “HAND-DRYER” in Times New Roman bold caps onto its brushed steel surface.

[is it the same in the ladies? reports from the other 51% of the King’s Cross traveller population would be much appreciated].

At this point, I’d inline a picture to show you what I mean – but taking photos in the men’s toilets at King’s Cross would be wrong on so many levels.

Update: 2 December 2007 – apparently there’s now one of these in the gent’s at Leeds Station, and I shall shortly be parting with 20p to investigate. Unlikely that pictures will follow. Also (have to be careful how I say this) I stumbled upon Clive Grinyer blogging on the toilet. As it were.