Monthly Archives: May 2014

Size does not matter: Innovation and the Internet of Things

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By  May 22, 2014
The Internet of Things (IoT) is often associated with huge companies with vast R&D budgets. Here’s how a small business with a passion for innovation uses connected device technology to stay ahead.

I have been in the market for a new grill, and was considering purchasing both a standard gas grill and a smoker, the latter as I’ve become more interested in barbecue. I was intrigued to discover “pellet grills,” a niche I was not previously aware of. Rather than burning gas or charcoal, a pellet grill uses an electronically controlled auger to feed compressed wood “pellets” into a flame. This provides the benefits of cooking over natural wood combined with the control of a gas grill, since the electronic controls can increase or decrease the pellet feed rate, in turn controlling the temperature.

As I checked out some of the manufacturers and models, I came across a company called MAK Grills, which released MAK Grills Mobile, an option allowing the electronic control to connect to a cloud-based service, using IoT-type technology that would allow someone to turn on their grill, set and monitor its temperature, and even monitor the temperature of the meat they were cooking from a computer or smartphone anywhere in the world. Not only was the technology interesting, but I was surprised to find this level of innovation from a relatively small company. I spoke with Bruce Bjorkman, MAK’s director of sales and marketing, to find out more about how a small company has used a technology typically associated with the “big guys” to stay ahead of the competition.

Size doesn’t matter (at least when talking about innovation)

One theme that quickly emerged from our conversation was that MAK is constantly pushing to innovate, even without a massive, formal R&D budget and process. MAK was an early entrant to pellet grill business in 2009, and it’s now a crowded field of 27 companies. MAK has been looking for ways to stay ahead of the competition since its inception, and despite not being familiar with terms like “IoT” and “cloud,” they had a concept of a remote control grill from the company’s inception. Mr. Bjorkman noted that MAK had no problem pulling in local companies to help on the technology side of product development. MAK would essentially share their product vision and then ask “Is this possible?” and pulling in expertise it lacked. If current technology didn’t quite meet their product vision, MAK would either take an interim step toward the ultimate goal or shelve an idea for a future release.

An obvious theme from our conversation was that innovation and risk-taking were not only tolerated at MAK, but encouraged. MAK’s owners were not industry veterans, and therefore open to even unconventional ideas. Mr. Bjorkman noted that the response to most product ideas is “Hey, let’s try it” rather than a litany of risks or potential reasons the effort could fail.

Mr. Bjorkman also noted that most employees of the company were not only users of the product, but also routinely interacted with customers in a formal and informal manner, and that several product ideas came directly from customers asking for a feature or accessory. These customers would then be offered an opportunity to test the product they had requested, essentially co-opting a willing and passionate audience to help with product development and testing.

The right mix of product planning

I was also interested to hear Mr. Bjorkman’s outline of how MAK did product planning. Like most companies, MAK has a multi-year product roadmap, but the company is also willing to make major modifications to a product shortly after it is released. Unlike large companies that let a product languish on a defined timeline with little more than a cosmetic update or two, MAK has added major features and tweaks to a product as soon as they’re commercially viable. This has allowed MAK to stay well ahead of its competitors, despite a relatively simple product line of four grills. Too often, product planning becomes an inflexible and unchangeable “master plan” that must be followed at all costs. This is a recipe for a competitor “eating your lunch” when the industry changes. While “seat of the pants” product planning is generally not a good idea, MAK seems to have found a good balance between planning and ad-hoc innovation that’s instructive for other product companies.

Concepts like innovation and leveraging new technology are certainly not the sole province of the Fortune 500, and perhaps can even be competitive advantages born of being a smaller company, where long-term risk taking and flexible, rapidly iterating products are encouraged. The benefits of commoditization and consumerization have made even complex technologies readily accessible to companies of all sizes. Rather than worrying about IoT, Cloud computing, and the rest of the techno babble, follow MAK Grill’s lead and ask “What’s possible?” An open mind, willingness to take calculated risks, and a capable partner or two just might allow you to out-innovate the world’s largest companies, and gain a sterling reputation with a fervent band of loyal customers.

Google picks up incredible visual translation app Word Lens and makes it free

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By  in TechRepublic
May 20, 2014
Word Lens
 Image credit: Apple


Back in 2010, a company called Quest Visual debuted a little app called Word Lens. It scarcely seemed possible, but the app translated a number of different languages in real time using just the smartphone’s camera. When traveling in a foreign country, Word Lens users would simply hold the phone up to a sign and the camera would immediately translate it.

Currently, users can translate between English and Portuguese, German, Italian, French, Russian, and Spanish.

It’s easy to see why Google would want to own it — its stated mission is to make all the world’s information searchable in any language — and Google Translate generally does this quite well, at least for web pages.

With Word Lens, iPhone users can translate the world. Apple even featured the app in its recent “Powerful” television ad for the iPhone 5s, and it’s obvious why.

Even better, it doesn’t require a connection to the internet, which is another benefit for business travelers.

Word Lens isn’t perfect. It has trouble with particularly stylized text or handwriting, and the translations will make occasional mistakes. However, most of the time, it will at least get the point across.

No financial terms on the acquisition, which was announced on Quest Visual’s website, were disclosed. Neither company shared details on what the future holds for Word Lens either, other than the website saying that the app and language packs would be “free to download for a limited time,” while the Quest Visual team transitions to Google. Individual language packs previously cost $3 each.

Quest Visual

 Image credit: Quest Visual

The app itself is free to download from the App Store for both the iPhone and iPad, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly. The translations are available via an in-app purchase, though they are currently free. It’s also available on the Google Play Store for Android users.

Because we don’t know how long Word Lens will remain on the stores, I recommend that you pick it up as soon as possible, particularly if you travel internationally.

Word Lens is truly one of the killer apps for mobile, and it should be a staple on every phone. Here’s hoping that Google keeps it around in some form or another and doesn’t kill it off.

What about you? Do you have a situation where you used — or should have used — Word Lens? Let us know in the comments below.


On-Demand Services are changing industries.

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Condensed from Steve Schlafman’s blog dates May 4, 2014.

In the pre-mobile era we had to search yellow pages (or google), find a provider, call  or email that provider, wait to connect with someone, schedule a convenient time, hope the provider arrives on time, and then pay with a credit card or cash.  Thankfully, a new array of mobile services removes all of that friction we were used to experiencing. Welcome to the uberification of our service economy: 

The U.S. economy is largely driven by the service sector so it’s only a matter of time until all of our services are accessible via our mobile devices.  The implications are huge for large companies like Google and Craigslist as well as thousands of regional and local service providers.  Hundreds of billions of dollars of enterprise value are up for grabs.  As you can see from the market map, we now have on demand services for: 





Apps are emerging in categories like elderly care, medicine, real estate, and security. Additionally, there are a variety of B2B services emerging such as office cleaning, supply replenishment, tech support, and fleet management. All industries at some stage will feel the impact of on-demand services.


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Solar Roadways

Eight years ago, Scott and Julie Brusaw had a vision of replacing the asphalt on American roadways and parking lots with energy-producing solar panels that are strong enough to withstand vehicular traffic. After a lot of experimentation and funding struggles, the couple and their company Solar Roadways just unveiled their first parking lot made of hexagonal panels! The road panels don’t just harvest solar energy – they are also equipped with circuit boards, programmable LEDS, and a heating element that melts ice and snow, all covered in “super-strength” textured glass. The parking lot is equivalent to a 3,600-watt solar array.

Not only does the parking lot harvest energy, it also incorporates overhead utilities and repositions underground utilities for more efficient use. Power and data cables line a cable corridor alongside the parking lot, which provides easy access to power and data companies. This eliminates the need for overhead power lines and amazingly removes cell phone dead spots. The cable corridor is able to house all kinds of cables, including TV, fiber optics for high speed internet, and phone. Another function of this incredibly smart parking lot is to store, treat and redistribute storm water.