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The wearables market is starting to feel like the 1990s PDA market

In the mid to late 1990s, Microsoft was unstoppable. Microsoft was dominant. So dominate, in fact, they were ruled a monopoly. Microsoft revenues were doing well and Apple was just starting to make a comeback as Steve Jobs just came back into the fold to kill the Mac clone business and cut all non-core products. Microsoft had Windows-based PDAs, Apple had the Newton, but neither Microsoft more Apple was having success with the emerging personal data assistants or “PDA” market.

The old Palm Pilot Professional

There was also a little company named Palm Computing. Palm was originally part of US Robotics, then 3COM before they spun-off to become Palm Inc. Palm made some very basic handhelds to handle personal information with very simple functionality. Palm Pilots had a tremendously loyal following and a strong userbase.

I can’t help but see the same patterns from the 90s around the emerging “Smartwatch” wearables market today. The players might be taking different roles, but much of the same philosophical design strategies of how device companies looked at the PDA are similar to how they are looking at functionality in the smartwatch. You also clearly have the “David vs. Goliath” scenario of Microsoft and Palm with Apple and Fitbit.

Design Methodologies: Minimal & Add vs. Pare Down 

The Fitbit Force

Fitbit has been the marketshare leader in the early wearables market even after a recall of their Force model. Fitbit’s design methodology is minimal and bare-bones. Fitbit totally reminds me of Palm. Both companies start with a minimal feature-set and add functionality as needed. Palm users loved the basic design and simple OS that just handles the core functionality required. Fitbit’s methodology is quite similar and they just use a very light footprint on their devices and very minimal UI.

Microsoft had a much different approach with software on their PDAs in the back then. The Microsoft approach was to try and capitalize on their Windows desktop dominance and take the Windows OS down into smaller devices. Unlike Palm, this approach was more along the lines of trying to take bigger features and a larger footprint and stuffing it into smaller devices. The products were generally clumsy and awkward. Companies bought them because they theoretically worked with existing corporate environments and consumers. But, the user following was never there on the various incarnations of Windows Embedded or CE or Pocket PC.

The Windows-based Compaq PDA
The Windows-based Compaq PDA

Apple, interestingly enough, is taking more of the old Microsoft route here. Apple is trying to leverage the iOS familiarity they run in tablets and smartphones into the smaller watch device. No doubt Apple will sell a ton of Apple Watches, but will this really work well or is Apple going to repeat the Micrsoft mistake? We’ll have to see.

David vs. Goliath Again

The other clear parallel is that, just like in the 1990s with the PDA market, there is a “David” in Fitbit and a “Goliath” in Apple today. Back in the 1990s, it was Palm and Microsoft. Fitbit is a small player in the grand scheme of the tech scene but the users represent a loyal following much like Palm users did two decades years ago. Apple, again, is more along the lines of Microsoft in the 1990s with big money and marketing budgets.


Apple is the big player in this rendition and with the recent delayed availability of the Apple Watch, I wonder if Apple will be successful with this device. Fitbit isn’t trying to be everything to everyone with their devices and even though they were late with a device response to their Force recall, they really do have a shot to add users in the next few months until Apple Watch is in full swing.

Sadly, if the wearables market does mimic the PDA battles of the 1990s, it doesn’t bode well for Fitbit. Palm went through hell and eventually died. They were bought, sold, and moved around. Something tells me Fitbit could have a similiar fate.

Let’s see how this ends. The patterns are similar, the players are different, but the market could bring this to a different conclusion. It will be interesting to watch what consumers really go for in this go-around.

Please stop trying to kill email

email icon

It boggles my mind that we still have the battle cry in the tech world around killing-off email. Various tech startups starting trumpeting the goal of killing-off the evils of email over a decade ago but email still endures. It might be tough for folks to fathom, but email is really a very effective tool if used properly.

I understand the needs of the various cloud software companies doing project management systems to try and carve-out a niche at the expense of email, but it is misguided effort. There are many challenging aspects of email and how people screw it up, but the threaded email chains we all continue to live with are not going away no matter who or what tries to destroy or “disrupt” it. Email is effective as an asynchronous tool to communicate with the world. Can we please just acknowledge this and move on?

The Generation Gap

Back in the 80s and 90s, the written letter was “The Man” and as a teenager and into my 20s, I had disdain for having to write letters and formally respond to others via the printed application, form, or letter. Using email to communicate asynchronously on bulletin board systems and later via the Internet was a breath of fresh air. No longer did I need to sit down and write a formal letter to others, get a postage stamp, mail it, and wait for a phone call or letter back many days later. Email gave us all something really close to instant gratification.

Nowadays, it’s email is the “The Man” for the younger generation. Forget about the written letter. The semi-instant gratification with email is usually not immediate enough for those under 30. The immediacy of messaging tools like Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and whatever the fad of the day happens to be is quite seductive. The farce that messages disappear or expire is also very attractive to kids and young adults as they become more aware of their digital footprint on the world. Email is thought of as structure and as a corporate tool. So, it makes sense tech startups wanting to entice new users play to the disdain of the apparent dinosaur that is email.

The truth is that the “free” and paid communication tools of the day have come and gone. Also, there really is a need for some decent accountability on what people write, how people respond to others, and what people commit to doing. Email hasn’t gone away in business for these reasons. Different generations might not love it, but it works well enough to displace all that was done decades ago with a lot more paper, pens, and typewriters.

The Common Straw Man Arguments

Just because many people misuse a tool, it doesn’t necessitate the displacement of the tool. The arguments against email are often rooted in a incorrect attribution of what it actually is useful for in the real world.

  • Your email inbox is a to-do list: Many people make this mistake and try to turn an inbox into a to-do list or something. You can “star” the heck out of things and/or flag what you want, but this is not really effective. You are much better off actually using a tool that was meant for individual collaborative task management. Wunderlist and other tools are much more effective. The better tools focus on tasks and can notify via multiple methods. Just because email is not a decent to-do task list, doesn’t mean it should be displaced. Use the proper tool.
  • Email is not IM: If you use email in the hope of instant communication with others, you are going to be frustrated. It’s not going to work. People have a wide range of understanding on acceptable response time on email. You need to deal with that. Just because someone doesn’t respond to you immediately on an email doesn’t mean email is broken and doesn’t work. It means that you probably have unrealistic expectations that haven’t been communicated to others prior to your request or you should use another form of communication that would be more effective for your instant need. Use the proper tools.
  • Email is not a replacement for human contact: I cannot tell you how many times I have had misunderstandings with others over email on sensitive subjects or issues because words and tone were taken the wrong way. It happens. Of course, we all need to remember that email is not going to provide the same level of empathy and understanding humans achieve when you able to talk with someone in-person or on the phone.

Email is not going away. Your startup is not going to kill it and you are much better off focusing on creating real value that people and organizations will want to use because it is more effective and innovative then the tools they have today.

Avoid the disco ball trap in technology implementation projects


Having led more than my fair share of technology and software implementation projects in different types of organizations, I’ve often referred to the term “disco ball” as a way to capture a trap that can jeopardize your implementation. Leading a project from discovery to selection to implementation, I have always been aware and concerned with the trap that many before me have fallen into around trying to enable all potential or possible functionality from a new system right off the bat even though the organization might not be ready to handle it.

The urge to make an impact and possibly over-promise at go-live is a strong-one. You, your team, and the company is geared-up for an investment and you want to show how much better things are going to be and how much bang-for-the-buck you get with the time and money you have invested. But, giving in to this sort of trap really can jeopardize the whole project. Enterprise systems and business software are projects lend themselves to this kind of trap. When a company is looking to find a new back-office system to cover the needs of the growing business, it makes sense to look at what you need currently for the business and also to the future on what the company will need in the next 3-5 years with a software partner and functionality around items like CRM, HCM, and financials. When you look to the future for needs, you are probably going to buy more than what you need currently and a common urge from everyone involved is often to show how awesome everything is going to be for everyone as soon as you possibly can. Don’t do it.

When you fall into the disco ball trap, you open up more risks on your project and take on more challenges than your organization is probably able to handle. You can easily get mired into larger business process questions and waste time on areas that are related and in the scope of need for the future, but not required in the immediate radar. You can open up more questions than answers and more problems than solutions. People often refer to this as scope creep, but I see it as a different animal. The difficulty is that the functionality is often in scope for the longer-term goals of the project and what you may ultimately want from the technology or software system, so scope creep doesn’t really seem appropriate. “Disco ball” is useful term in that it conveys the want to have something sparkle and impress but it can also be a major distraction.