Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Packaging and Selling Technology

Creating and building technology is one thing; coming up with the latest thing that appeals to the hearts and minds of consumers is another. Today on Radio New Zealand National I take a look at the difference. Read on for my notes or download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Q: Selling technology today – what do you mean by that?

A: I thought we’d talk about how technology is packaged up and sold to people. So, I’m not talking so much about the underlying technology this week, as how it’s put together and presented to consumers.

Q: Can you give me some examples?

A: Well, a great example from last century was the Model T Ford. Henry Ford didn’t just manage to build a machine that was cheap enough, he made it usable by the common person. A more modern example is the iPod. There’s nothing revolutionary inside an iPod – technologically speaking – but its miniaturized and packaged so brilliantly that many of us just look at them and want one immediately.

Q: There are competing MP3 players.

A: Of course there are. But iPods have the mind share. iPods are to personal music players what Google is to search engines – there are others, but Google is the name you use to describe searching the web.

Q: Is Google another example?

A: In a way it is – and we talked about that last week. Google not only has very high quality underlying technology, it’s careful to package it well in a cleanly designed website without misleading advertising distorting its results.

But, back to iPods – they have one other point of difference – the integration with the iTunes Music Store. Again, there are alternatives to iTunes but none have the market share that Apple does. Apple’s achieved that by a model where, until recently, all the music was the same price, and pretty cheap compared with CDs. The music companies keep grizzling about the pricing and threatening to stop supplying the iTunes Music Store, but that hasn’t happened yet and it would be a very brave act indeed. And Apple, it seems doesn’t make much or any profit off the iTunes Music Store, but it certainly makes money of the iPods whose sales are partly driven by the store.

Q: iPods are very well designed

A: Aren’t they? Back in the late 90s, Apple was on the ropes and looking likely to disappear. And the board hired Steve Jobs – one of Apple’s two founders who had been ousted from his company some years before – to turn it around. Steve was asked how he was going to achieve that, and he said “industrial design”. Now, industrial design sounds to me like a boring or unnecessary discipline, but when I see what it has done for Apple I realize its importance. And, yes, iPods are beautiful pieces of kit that probably half the people in New Zealand want.

Q: Have you got one?

A: I have several! But, these days I use my iPhone which has an iPod built in to it. Again, with the iPhone, you have Apple taking its industrial design philosophy to the telephone and coming up with something that doesn’t look like anyone else’s even though it contains the same technology, and is an instant hit around the world. iPods are huge sellers and they have reversed Apple’s slide and made it back into a great company.

Q: And you’d compare Apple with…

A: Well, the obvious one is Microsoft. Apple has been running ads comparing PCs unfavourably with Macs for a few years now. They have the Mac personified by a young, hip and slim guy while the PC man is bumbling, middle aged and overweight. Microsoft decided to respond by paying Jerry Seinfeld ten million dollars to star in a counter-campaign – you know, Vista is cool really – but they have now cancelled that campaign after making three ads and only airing two of them.

Q: Nice work if you can get it!

A: I did say you should have taken that job! But, being fair to Microsoft, it has a much harder job because it doesn’t control its hardware platform. The PC is essentially an open platform that any vendor can make hardware for. That allows for a lot of innovation in the computer and keep prices of PCs down. But it does mean that Windows has to be written to cope with a huge variety of possible configurations whereas Apple – because they sell the hardware and the software together – has a lot more control over the whole computer. That’s partly what lets them give you a more stable computer. So, it’s not all Microsoft’s fault. But Microsoft still has the problem.

Q: So is Microsoft running any more ads?

A: Apparently its got some which are more directly aimed at Apple’s ads – people representing Macs and PCs – but someone on the web has pointed out that the Microsoft ads were made on, wait for it, Macs. Go figure!

Q: Ad agency people use Macs

A: Yes. You can imagine the conversation, can’t you? Yes, we’ll do your ads for you so long we don’t have to use the product!

Q: Packaging technology – have you got another example?

A: Yes – let’s talk about the MySky box.

Q: That’s being heavily promoted at the moment.

A: It is indeed. And its ability to freeze live TV is the cornerstone of the ads – Sky have cleverly promoted that particular angle of the device in real situations, as opposed to their previous iteration of the MySky ads which had a rather seedy-looking character saving up the fashion TV to watch when his wife was out?

Q: Not for the fashion?

A: I’m certain it wasn’t.

Q: Glad we’ve cleared that up…

A: But Sky has relaunched the box, now called MySkyHDi because it does high definition as well as everything else. But it’s the everything which is important.

Q: OK, what does a MySky do?

A: It records TV onto a hard drive. It does all the Sky channels and all the free to airs – except the Freeview only ones, which it can’t see. Technically, that’s what it does, and its little different in that respect to boxes you can buy from many places or even build yourself.

Q: It’s got a computer inside?

A: Yes, it must have, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it ran GNU/Linux. I haven’t researched it but it’s very likely – Linux is very suited to applications like this. There’s a program called MythTV that turns a Linux computer into something very like a MySky – it saves TV straight onto a hard drive and plays it back for you. In fact, these machines can do a lot more than the MySky – they can burn things to DVD for instance – MySky doesn’t have a DVD – or they can play video files that you download off the Internet.

Q: But you’d have to be technical to put one of these together?

A: reasonably, although its not rocket science. And there’s a New Zealand company which builds and sells boxes like this – the company is called Open Media and their product is called myPVR. Like I say, it does far more than a MySky including letting you keep the programmes you record for as long as you like.

Q: MySky doesn’t do that?

A: No, it’s pretty tightly locked down by Sky. They can erase things of the machine’s hard drive, or, say, give you a week to watch them. And you don’t own a MySky, you only lease it. But, it is brilliantly packaged – that’s my point, really. The machine has an electronic program guide which makes it much easier to program – no more failed video recordings – although, to be fair, so does the OpenMedia box. And the MySky has the famous Live Pause – it’s automatically recording what you are watching and at any time, without preparation, you can just hit pause and it stops – then you can rewind a bit if you want, and just start playing again.

So, here are two contrasting alternatives – MySky, well-executed but with a limited set of features, tightly locked down, and available on lease only. And OpenMedia, an open source-based product built in New Zealand, a huge range of capabilities, and you buy it, not lease it. It can tune Freeview channels but not the Sky ones.

Q: Do you think that the MySky will damage the OpenMedia’s sales?

A: I don’t know – I’d like to think that the increased interest in the capabilities of the MySky that it’s advertising generates might rub off on OpenMedia as well.


Microsoft cancels its Seinfeld ads and its new ones were created on a Mac.

New Zealand company OpenMedia and its myPVR TV recorder.

posted by colin at 10:03 pm  


  1. About the hard disk TV recording systems,
    There is also an Apple system that works in full integration with the system. You do know that the Apple system is a UNIX based system and it also gives away the code for writing APP’s. Apple only controls the user interface and graphics. I have worked with Apple for 19 years and all there systems and have seen so many great leaps forward because of this setup.
    You only need to look at who started the idea of a typewriter keyboard and not just a number keypad! Plus fonts… The mouse…
    The iPhone will push the phone producers into a new era. Peter Jack of

    Comment by peter Jack — 16 October 2008 @ 10:33 am

  2. Peter

    I know about the Apple TV, but that doesn’t record – correct me if I’m wrong. Or you can use eyeTV or similar, but its not as seamlessly integrated as a dedicated box.

    And yes, I have had a bit to do with Apple products over the years.


    Comment by colin — 16 October 2008 @ 5:22 pm

  3. If their box includes Linux or any other GPL’d software, then they’re required by the licence agreement to make the source available somewhere. And not to prohibit you from make modifications and building and redistributing your own version.

    Unless they’ve done a Tivo, in which case the box will not run any versions of the software except their own…

    Comment by Lawrence D'Oliveiro — 16 October 2008 @ 5:41 pm

  4. Colin, I found another USB plug and play unit that is able to receive free to air TV and record it onto your Apple or any compatible computer.

    Comment by peter Jack — 18 October 2008 @ 6:29 am

  5. Peter – yes, I’ve seen those in Magnum. I’m sure they do what they say they will. I doubt they come with an electronic program guide, but even if they do they aren’t as seamless as something like the MySky, the Openmedia box or (overseas) the Tivo, because you have a general purpose computer involved.

    I’d still look at one for recording Freeview, though – at the moment AFAIK there is no Freeview HD recorder which is a significant minus for the Freeview platform.

    Comment by colin — 18 October 2008 @ 8:38 am

  6. FYI there’s a new kid coming to the block. See
    but no mention of Freeview, at present :-( (and I doubt there will be, given TelstraClear’s lock-in with Sky)

    Also, typo – “technolgoy” in the first line

    Comment by Mark Harris — 18 October 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  7. “Now, industrial design sounds to me like a boring or unnecessary discipline, but when I see what it has done for Apple I realize its importance”

    unnecessary?! what i can’t understand colin is how a technology comentator could possibly had had such an opinion of industrial design!

    Technology and Design are intrinsically bound, one doesn’t exist without the other. look at any company with products that excel; nokia, bmw, apple etc. All of them understand the synergy of great design and technology.

    Unfortunately we as designers come up against this lack of understanding more often than not. Most people believe design to be an after thought, not a driver in product development. I hope colin that you realise and now promote how necessary good design is. New Zealand has incredible potential to offer the world with it’s innovative thinking. We could be the finland of the southern hemisphere. But not without embracing design.

    here’s some interesting design sites for you

    chris blundell

    Comment by chris blundell — 21 October 2008 @ 10:04 pm

  8. Chris
    Colin is a ginga Pom – no more need be said ;-)

    Comment by Mark Harris — 21 October 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  9. hi mark,

    ah, now i’ve got it – thanks for clearing that up.


    Comment by chris blundell — 22 October 2008 @ 12:19 am

  10. Kia Ora! Just want to drop a line to tell you that we enjoy your blog. We are a bunch of geeks (probably the only group in New Zealand) that is capable of opening up 2G/3G Apple iPhone to perform hardware/software repair. Cheers!

    Comment by Omni Tech Limited — 30 October 2008 @ 5:25 pm

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