Life on the Front


Welcome to Learn a little more about me and some observations from the always vibrant and demanding digital arts and tech world. It’s a very cool industry and a hell of a ride for anyone in it. Have a look at some posts or review the menu for some history and background. Thx for visiting and feel free to contact any time,


The Future is Here – and Has Been For a While Now

Tesla and Elon MuskA few years back I was chatting with some Topix artists near their downtown Toronto studio when a car emerged from an underground garage beside us. This cool sleek silver vehicle rose out of the shadows and drove past us – very quickly. Two things stuck with me: the fact that everyone had stopped talking to watch it, and the unique electric motor sound it made. It was my first up close view of a Tesla sports car, and it wasn’t until I reflected for a bit that I concluded that the game had changed and that most people just hadn’t realized it yet, because what had happened is that Elon Musk had just done for cars what Steve Jobs at Apple – just as quietly and elegantly as the thing I saw glide past me.

I say this as a long time admirer of older fast cars. As an owner of a ’67 Chev Camaro SS, and coming from a family with two other car savvy brothers, I knew enough about where power and performance game from, and good design. Europe had its curved road and track inspired roadsters, and North America had its own straight road heritage. That is, go in a straight line from a standstill, very quickly. High performance vs high power. However, I have no intention on siding with the traditionalists on this one. The combustion engine is going away. The question is, how did Tesla help ensure this inevitability although the technology has been around for many years now?

Part of it is innovation, but the more critical part is vision, and knowing what people really want. And just as important, knowing who the trend setters are that you want as early adopters, because like I said, the technology has been around for a while now. I like a quote I heard that said change happens slowly, but then when it does it often happens faster than you want. I think that like surfing, Elon Musk timed it right to catch the wave. My guess is that he knew there was a future for this stuff, but that what was more important to him was what he would want. We’d all seen the little nerdy Prius electric cars. Compact, slow, short range durations. Very green. Be honest, how many people really wanted to emulate those owners. As frustrating as it was, instead we saw more affluent, trendy types of people buy high powered sports cars or SUVs. Status and performance. Gas guzzlers. Probably the biggest genius behind the Telsa strategy was to get those same people to see the Tesla sports cars in their neighbours’ driveway and suddenly realize their own car wasn’t so cool anymore.


They’ll all start saying that soon enough, because in the first place, they’ll have to concede that they are very fast cars. The technology is faster than combustion engines. Has been for a long time. In fact if I am correct, the electric car entries into the landspeed competitions needed to have their own class – in part because they dominated (note: in Sept 2016 the Lithium-Ion powered Venturi Buckeye Bullet juventuri-buckeye-bullet-3_100519704_mst set the landspeed record at 341 miles per hour) . But the real kicker is the “cool”. Sure it’s green technology, but what Musk was able to achieve was a sense of disruption along the lines of the iPhone. That’s what it is really. Its got the same buzz. Design style meets substance, plus intelligence, and it became a social media friendly darling. The same line-ups to order and buy, the same sense of technical secrecy. The feeling that something really revolutionary and superior was going on, and that is was all aimed for the next generation. And it didn’t hurt that Road and Track carried the results of a competition among all the fastest sports cars, Ferrari, Porsche, whatever, and that the Tesla entry beat them all. I love it. I love the disruption. Though I feel bad for any of these guys who dropped one or two hundred grand on high performance cars to get people to turn heads, left wondering if they might be stuck with yesterday’s news. Worse, that daughter Cindy might start thinking that Daddy’s car pollutes a lot. Ouch.

So, a prediction. Look to see Lamborghini and Ferrari and everyone else scramble to offer their own high end electric entries. Look also for companies that will offer conversions of sports cars to electric. And look for other new all-electric car companies. They’ll all hold out for a while, but just like BMW tried to convince the world that 2 wheel rear-wheel drive technology was more traditional and superior, buyers knew that all-wheel drive was better. Safer, smarter, better. You don’t see many people refusing X-Drive today. Think motorbikes will buck the trend? Think again. The new electric ones are being built by smaller shops, cheaper. No transmissions, no cooling systems with rads, no pistons. Just hit the throttle and go faster than any other bike on the road. Ignore the naysayers who say there won’t be enough charging stations. Believe me those things are already starting to go into new condos and business buildings and Walmart parking lots. The conversion will happened as fast as it took all new car companies to start including USB and ipad ports in their dashboards as standard features.

It’s done, and its going to change the world. It’s cool, it’s revolutionary, and it’s being applied all over the place. Design and smarts, plus buzz.  A hell of a combination. So yes, I truly believe the quote. I do think the change happens slowly, but that it really is now happening faster than anyone thought.

DM Jun 2017

Style with Substance

Watched a great interview with writer Michael Lewis about the recent “Moneyball” film adaptation – from his book about the Oakland A’s turn-around under (now) famed general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt). I’d heard the main story before but I tend to enjoy interviews with this author because he offers some unexpected observations.  I also wonder if it relates to another very real tendency of some companies to shy away from innovation; which I think often has a lot to do with not wanting to make a mistake in a highly risk-averse business climate.  Anyway, here’s what he had to say.

As it is now widely known, the central idea to the Oakland A’s story was that Billy Beane decided to buck the trend of traditional scouting for new players – by relying more on statistics to make the final determinations – claiming that it is a faulty art due to inaccurate human assumptions. The central idea was that people were being mislead by image; that the scouts often rated players higher if they “looked good”, and which would then skew the results and lose teams money in the long run.  Quite often, there were less “good looking” players that simply got the job done better (and cheaper). In Oakland’s case, Beane and others bet on another human factor; that those who did not depend as much on looks had earned a place n the big leagues due to more dependable factors, like hidden talent, grit, perseverance, whatever.  Interestingly, the organization also apparently decided to view their other business activities in the same way.

According to Lewis they recognized that just like ball players, some businesses had leadership figures that simply looked the part. He mentioned a statistic, fitting enough, that showed that the majority of companies gaining the most investment had leaders who (if I recall correctly) were white and over 6 ft tall. Applying the same principle from baseball scouting (based on stats vs image), they determined to find investment opportunities with company’s that specifically were not headed up by such types.  It would stand to follow,  that the companies which had done well with leaders who did not look the part, must have other more reliable qualities that got them there, like savvy thinking, creativity, determination, experience, strong character etc.   Apparently it proved itself out and their portfolios prospered.  Its an interesting reality if its true, and I think could challenge the entertainment and digital consumer product realm where image is often touted as the priority.

You would think things would be different in an industry where the more important advances that affect our lives where produced by people who were not exactly poster material. I in fact just heard a reporter at the Consumer Electronics Expo (dressed appropriately in geek chic attire) describe the show as “the Superbowl for Nerds”.  Yet the tendency to rely on image is still there.

A lot of companies these days are trying hard to look good, wanting leadership and workplaces that look young, cool, and vibrant – and who could blame them?  Like any form of branding, it appeals to customers and investors on an emotional level. It’s not a bad default position – like using sexy ads selling more products.

But the big successes…? The real ground-breakers…?  They came from more than that.  Like true inspiration, innovation, creativity, motivating style, experience, determination, and most of all a great team.  At first glance you may think Apple did well due to a great cool image for their products, but anyone who uses them or knows more about their history will credit them with matching image with quality and innovation. These are companies that invested in a backbone built from true talent with visionary leaders who gave them a shot.

This all brings to mind a rare comment I heard from an accomplished senior production exec that stuck with me.  He had said he’d be crazy not to take a look at an idea or concept regardless where it came from – be it a top developer or guy off the street – because you just don’t know where genius is going to come from.  If he only talked to people that looked good, he may just miss out on the next best thing.  On the flip side it also brings to mind a comment from another leader I know who proclaimed (when asked about the need for marketing) that “if the technology is good the product will sell”.   Didn’t work.  His company didn’t make it.

In the end, as it usually comes down to, it’s all about finding a balance. Go too far one way, you don’t look the part enough to get you through the right doors or make the bottom line.  Go the other way, you may rely too much on looks that just might leave you short one day on performance or vision, or allow you to overlook a good opportunity.  Its not that hard I guess to get a good mix of youth vs experience, or of innovation vs sound best practices.  And certainly it should not be that hard to try to be more open to a good thing, regardless of where it comes from.


The New Old, Again

When I saw the new fall line-up for TV I had to wince.  After enough years in the business I tend to keep and eye open for new “also rans”.  In this case, I couldn’t help noticing (like a lot of people) that there were some conspicuous “Mad Men” 50’s or 60’s era look-alikes – like “The Playboy Club”, “Pan Am” etc.  One by one, I could almost envision the creative discussions behind them.  Mad Men’s success will have been dissected enough by now and inevitably there would be people eager to nip away at some of the demographic and market they seemed to attract.  But it was/is never so simple.  They did not track so well and The Playboy Club, despite its best efforts, obvious branding, intrigue, and decent production value, was pulled after only 3 episodes.

My second reaction was a bit of skepticism.  Basically, unless each new entry  tried to break in with something fresh and unexpected, I would inevitably settle into asking questions like “okay I see the similar sexy retro angle, now who’s their own “Don Draper”.  Its like shopping for new tablet!  I.e. why?  Why do I need this one when Apple seemed to nail the concept so well already?  Only because Mad Men in winding down?  People didn’t gravitate to it because of the 50’s/60’s era.  That helps create flavor no doubt, but it became compelling in many other ways, as always through good story, character, and unexpected situations.  I knew from the first episode that it was worth watching – in part due to a great, cool opening title/credit design.  Anyway, the point here is not to smack down the creators or producers.  Anyone wishing to know more can check out views at places like The Hollywood Reporter  who know a hell of a lot more than I.  Another good article that looks at this trend can be found at Remote Patrolled,

I have no doubt there is some fantastic talent behind the new shows – writers, cast, designers, set crews, etc. – but in the end something deeper was at work that should be respected, and that likely started way, way earlier.  It’s also pretty universal so we can’t be so quick to point fingers.

In Screenwriter William Goldman’s famous book on Hollywood “Adventures in the Screen Trade” came out it included an oft quoted line “Nobody Knows Anything”.  He was speaking about the business and decision makers, and to be clear he was not putting them down.  Rather, he was pointing out just how difficult it is to know what will be a hit form a miss in advance.  As we all know, from the film world to games, software, electronics, or a sports team for that matter, its tough when you don’t have a crystal ball.  Even tougher when you are at the end of a long boardroom table with all eyes on you as you have to make a decision that could make or break your company, department, or most certainly your own position.  The film and TV world is a pretty good bell-weather example for this process. But at the heart of it all is a funny hidden equation for success that includes a measure of top talent, good budget, strong  research, good design, fresh concept, and above all, a good hunch.  That last one trumps the rest, but am sure creates as many ulcers as awards.  I also don’t suspect it is a skill taught in MBA classes.  I think it’s one of those ingredients that sits with experience and wisdom, and if you will excuse the term, balls.  They all have to work together.  One who masters them probably can’t tell you how they did, which is why I don’t doubt that no one will emerge at Apple as the next Steve Jobs.  Someone different will come along though – a new star with different strengths.  Last I heard Ashton Kutcher was doing well as a replacement in the Two and a Half Men series…

But getting back to the crux. I was speaking recently with some creative heads and designers from digital companies at Toronto’s recent X-Summit event.  This same issue came up when someone mentioned a company commercial on TV that said they always seek innovation and fresh ideas – and have the confidence to take a chance on something new.  We’ve heard it before.  They are great words and true if put into practice, but what we at the table recognized was that everyone really wants these things!  What company wouldn’t?  However, in the final analysis, it appears so often that the nod tends to go to the less ambitious options.  In essence, people want of those factors, …but without the risk.  That’s a tough nut to crack, unless you are a fearless leader or very well protected.  The rest must stare at stacks of market and customer research; at team track records or test surveys, and have to determine which one to present to the board and spend someone else’s money on.  Its easy to be an arm chair critic after the fact.  But the world loves a winner when someone pulls it off.

They loved Steve Jobs for doing it, and same for James Cameron. They love the guys at the top who give truly gifted ideas or talent a chance – like the studio who finally gave the nod to the creator of Sponge Bob, or hell, anything from HBO.  Or whoever at Rockstar greenlit Grand Theft Auto.  I can’t say it was up my alley, but I can say I’d never seen anything like it.  The guys at the top aren’t so naive as to ignore a fresh and innovative idea.  It just makes their job way easier to prove it enough so they can walk into their meetings with a little more ammo (“help me help you”?). That means more ground work, research, testing, pilots, prototypes, trailers or even some metrics from a YouTube post.  Cuz even if they are a supporter, they won’t be able to help you later if they can’t move up the ladder!

Its a quiet but crucial partnership.  It may not be fair, but its a reality in a hyper-competitive business world.  And that’s what might make it more likely to see some more fresh new products on TV or anywhere else.


Dark Horse Fire: The Amazon Kindle Entry

I heard a lot of good things about the Amazon’s new Kindle Fire Tablet and so did a little reading on it.  Gizmodo had a good review ( that I think covers the main points, basically that it is very well designed, cheap, fast, and taking full advantage of a satidfied and loyal customer base (for both Kindle e-readers and Amazon services in general).  This comes at a time when various other tablet entries have been seen to retreat – and in some cases bail out completely.  So someone did something right, and I don’t think it was luck.

The world thought it was running out of innovative leadership and forgot that Amazon always had it.  The world also likes a darkhorse to mix things up or add to the unexpected. This one’s worth a good look at.  Mainly I get the sense that Amazon built on its strength, which is something that gives anyone confidence.  They did not seek to go head-to-head with Apple’s iPad but did make it clear they are a new blip on the radar that won’t be going away anytime soon.  Oddly enough, the reaction that many had wasn’t suprise, but more of an “oh-yeah!”  It’s almost as if they think that if they do steal significant market share, it will be more of a bi-product of what they are doing.  They are making their “base” happy – something that can’t be said for everyone else.  People say they set the price point so low (at $199) to go after a lower portion of the market, but I think that, again, its a price their past customers were used to seeing.  Whether or not its makes Amazon money on the hardware side may not matter – given the returns they likely hope to capitalize on from on-line content and merchandise purchases (and associated ad revenue).  The old “razor and blade” strategy?

I am not a Blackberry basher.  I own one, and I like it.  In the past my first Blackberry phone was a life-changer for me in business; truly an office in my pocket.  I remain one of the many fans that are pulling for them to really hit the mark – and that doesn’t mean going up against Apple!  I respect the desire/obligation to match a competitor’s progress, but I think its clear enough from my own surveys that the BBerry “base” did not really understand how exactly the PlayBook fit in to them or who exactly it was talking to.  I don’t have all the answers but it would have been interesting if it was designed and released around the premise that whatever the world may think, people who love Blackberry’s will love this thing, because it extends their familiar experience or need to do… whatever – do more with their BBM “super-app” or something.  (Actually in hindsight, the BBM could have become much bigger than what it is, a real entry point or hub for the new experience of its now broader users.  And I suspect that is an angle we may yet still see).  I’m not so quick to count them out.  Anyway, it had some genuine selling points that the iPad didn’t, but I didn’t need it to go up against Apple, I just needed it to talk to me.  Still do.

Which takes us back to Dark Horses.  It’s not a bad position to take while the other guys duke it out.  I suspect its not easy for past leaders to do, especially when an existing base of users and shareholders are demanding a return to the top in a rapidly shifting landscape.  You almost have to swing for the fence when you know sometimes you shouldn’t. You get top billing whether you want it or not.  The Dark Horse gets to be in the game and quietly impress when all eyes are looking elsewhere.

So let’s watch this interesting market continue to evolve and see how this new entry performs.  It may be the first real proof that someone can carve out their own little space in it and only have to worry if they are making their own crowd happy to stay there.  They are today’s tablet Dark Horse, and a good one I think. Enjoy it while it lasts I guess.



Get Physical

Had an interesting chat recently with a music industry friend about digital apps.  I had noticed that the apps for the Apple platform tended to make good use of real-world simulation. Apps like Amplitude and their e-books library which display backgrounds and elements with near life-like quality.  And why not – the devices they run on now can display a degree of detail and colour range that would make older game developers weep.

It makes me wonder why people don’t do it more.  Sure everyone wants style, but there’s something that tickles people about seeing something they are familiar with in the real-world represented closely in a virtual experience.  Mostly it creates an emotional connection, which if I am not wrong is king in today’s brand-centric market.

So I commented to my music producer/artist friend Tony that as far as apps go – I miss the feel of a good turn-table light.  Gimme that. It would take me back to times I can barely remember just before vinyl made its exit; when we all sat in the low light at parties listening to cool tunes, happy to enjoy the rythm of the irregular “bumps” of the spinning album and stylus head – and that blue electric glow of a strobe-light projected on the side of the turntable base.

We don’t need those things anymore – as much as we dont need to see a CD spinning through a plastic window on a player, but it makes a connection back to the physical world and people seem to like that.  But with the progression to true solidstate, I wonder if there will be much left of the medium to connect to.  It’s not likely to awaken the same sort of memories,  like of that girl at the house party in the plaid shirt I wanted to dance with in the soft light created by the turntable and glowing amp meters.  Funny what a little physical connection can do.