The challenges of geography

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography

There are many residential architecture studios in Melbourne whose portfolios are concentrated within specific geographical regions: the south-eastern suburbs, the inner-north, bayside, the Mornington Peninsula, Ballarat. I live in Carlton North and seem to see Robert Simeoni signs on front fences everywhere. Zen Architects does a lot of work in and around Northcote. Jolson Architects has nailed the Toorak market.

I don’t believe there’s any data quantifying the prevalence of this phenomenon, but common sense would suggest it’s widespread.

Architecture is a physical act: it leaves a mark on the built environment that acts as a type of calling card for future clients. Locals walk past a construction site, come across an ad in the local paper, or see the architect’s studio on a Google Maps search, and are pulled into the architect’s orbit. Each project develops its own powerful gravitational field that inevitably leads to more local enquiries than those from further away. The enquiries become projects, they produce new gravitational fields, and so on.

This chain reaction is useful for an architect, it’s a reliable pipeline of familiar projects that help establish a strong local presence and consistent portfolio. But what happens when the snowball never gets started in the first place?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; Data

A geographically dispersed practice

For reasons unknown to me, both the enquiries and commissions of Mihaly Slocombe are and have always been widely dispersed across Melbourne and rural Victoria.

Our studio is located in Brunswick East, and while we have a growing number of projects scattered across the inner-north, we are also working on or have completed projects in Albert Park, Ashburton, Bentleigh, Brighton, Broadmeadows, Camberwell, Caulfield, Collingwood, Doncaster, Eaglemont, Frankston, Hawthorn, Heidelberg, Ivanhoe, Keilor, Kensington, Kew, Malvern, Melbourne CBD, Moonee Ponds, Richmond and Rosanna.

Our version of local therefore is a sprawling 300 or so square kilometres, and that’s just our work in and around Melbourne.

Each blue dot on the map above represents one of our current or past projects. They tell an interesting story in and of themselves, most importantly this surprising insight:

  • Excluding two projects in Frankston, all of our urban commissions have been less than 20km from the city.

But what about enquiries that never get off the ground? And how do they relate to the ones that do? What else might a thorough mapping of all 160 of the enquiries we’ve received to date reveal?

Melbourne; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Mapping our enquiries

We divide project enquiries into four categories: projects are commissions we win, with signed fee proposals; declined are fee proposals that are declined by the client; aborted are enquiries that never get so far as a fee proposal; and rejected are enquiries that are declined by us.

Overlaying the map for each category reveals a number of interesting things:

  • The pattern of our enquiries is reflected in the pattern of our commissions. In other words, there is no bias towards a certain part of Melbourne whose enquiries generate a disproportionately high or low number of commissions.
  • Of the four project categories, aborted has the highest density outside the 10km and 20km rings.
  • Excluding one project in Keilor, all of our urban enquiries (and commissions) have been from the northern, eastern and southern suburbs.
  • Our rural enquiries have been dispersed across much of Victoria, but our rural commissions have been mostly concentrated on the two peninsulas, Mornington and Bellarine.

These observations corroborate what was previously a set of educated intuitions about the pattern of our enquiries. They provide specificity too – We previously had no idea that the 20km ring is so important, nor that the western suburbs are so underrepresented amongst our enquiries. Most actionably, they have given us firm metrics to assess the likelihood of a project proceeding based on geography and other factors, and have helped us flesh out what we now call the three hurdles.

The hurdles are simple really: when a potential client first makes contact, we aim to discover as much as we can about her and her project. In particular, we want to know three things:

  • Where is the project located?
  • What is the broad scope of the project and what is the budget?
  • What are the client’s design ambitions?

The answers to these questions help us be pragmatic about our enquiries. We know statistically that enquiries outside the 20km ring are almost always non-starters. We also happen to know that projects with lower budgets are expensive for us to take on (more on this in a future blog post). And we know that clients who have strong preconceptions about their design outcome aren’t well suited to our openly creative design process.

If the client stumbles on two of the three hurdles, we can be confident that the project is likely to end up a yellow dot. Asking the hard questions early, and knowing the geographic shape of our portfolio, help us spend less time on projects that don’t lead anywhere, and more time on projects that do.

Victoria; Map; Mapping; Geography; GIF; Animation; Data

Challenges and opportunities

Our dispersed portfolio has meant a few challenges for our growing practice, some of which are only just becoming apparent as we hit our seventh year in business:

  • We are less visible. Our fragmented street presence across Melbourne means we are much less likely to make serendipitous connections with passersby.
  • Our portfolio is less coherent. If all of our projects were renovations to terrace houses in the inner-north, clients with that sort of project would be able to easily understand what we do. For us, a new house on a vineyard, a small sleeping pavilion and a renovation to a 1977 Kevin Borland house are too unrelated to paint a comprehensive picture of who we are and what we do.
  • Our growth curve is slower. The key quality of a localised portfolio is that it generates momentum. For us, we are only just beginning to return to suburbs where we’ve worked previously. In the meantime, all of those missed enquiries in far flung places were commissions that a localised practice might have won.

It’s not all bad news though, far from it. A dispersed portfolio has a number of benefits that I think will begin to matter more and more the longer we’re in business:

  • We have broad expertise. Having worked across many parts of Melbourne, we have developed an appreciation of unique topographies, prevailing weather patterns, demographics, histories, building stock, culture, and local council requirements. This makes us better placed to keep working across Melbourne, including into new suburbs.
  • We are hard to pigeonhole. Our well-rounded experience resists the pigeonholing that goes hand-in-hand with a localised portfolio. Our portfolio is full of unusual projects, and is only becoming more so. I expect this will open future doors for us that would be shut to a more homogenous practice, including assisting us to diversify into new project typologies.
  • We don’t get bored. Perhaps most importantly, the diversity in the locations and clients of our projects make our work more intellectually stimulating, and ultimately more enjoyable.
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Evening
Hill House, 2006
Mihaly Slocombe; Architecture; House; Renovation; Kevin Borland; Evening
Chamfer House, 2015

Reflection

Understanding why our practice has evolved this way is difficult. Architecture is largely opportunistic. Clients approach us, not the other way around, so we work on whatever the world brings us. This leads to all sorts of unpredictable connections with potential clients.

Let me illustrate:

Our Hill House project led to the commission for Chamfer House despite the former finishing five years before the latter starting, the two sites being located 30km apart, and the two clients never having met. How can they possibly be linked? Well, in 2006 Hill House was completed, then in 2008 longlisted for the WAN House of the Year award. The longlisted entries were exhibited online. A television scout for Canadian television programme, World’s Greenest Homes, discovered the project and got in contact. In 2009, the house was filmed and the show aired in Australia on the ABC. Then in 2011, the show aired again on repeat, and our soon-to-be Chamfer House clients saw Hill House, liked it, and tracked us down.

The important thing to acknowledge here is that we had zero control over all of these steps. What’s more, I’m sure many of our projects would reveal similar stories if probed.

Twenty one years ago, Nicholas Negroponte predicted that “the post-information age will remove the limitations of geography. Digital living will include less and less dependence on being in a specific place at a specific time.”[1]

Negroponte’s argument centred around the death of cities, which of course has proven not to be true. But there is nevertheless a profound realisation in his prediction. Our cities may be thriving more now than ever before, but they’re not what they used to be. As Carlo Ratti has observed, “the digital revolution did not end up killing our cities, but neither did it leave them unaffected. A layer of networked digital elements has blanketed our environment, blending bits and atoms together in a seamless way.”[2]

The layering of the digital world over the physical has, for us, allowed us to make connections in new and geographically diverse ways. I can’t explain the spread of our early projects, but more recently our strong digital presence on Houzz has untethered us somewhat from the limitations of geography. Reviewing our last five projects won from online enquiries proves this point:

  • Ivanhoe East – AIA find an architect service
  • Princes Hill – Google
  • Northcote – Houzz
  • Kew – Houzz
  • Murrindindi – Houzz

In past generations, it was perhaps more difficult for an architect to develop a portfolio without relying on local personal networks and word of mouth. The Internet has by no means replaced these pathways to new projects, but they have certainly increased the chance of chance encounters. Now there are two worlds to navigate, the physical and digital, and in each there are opportunities for an architecture practice willing to master them.


Footnotes:

  1. Nicholas Negroponte; Being Digital; Hodder and Stoughton; 1996
  2. Carlo Ratti; Digital Cities: ‘Sense-able’ urban designWired; 2nd October 2009

Images sources:

  1. Map of Melbourne, author’s own image
  2. Melbourne data: project category, author’s own image
  3. Melbourne data: all categories, author’s own image
  4. Victoria project data: all categories, author’s own image
  5. Hill House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Emma Cross
  6. Chamfer House, design by Mihaly Slocombe, photo by Andrew Latreille

Houzz Pro membership

Social media, Houzz, Database, Photos, Logo
Houzz, pronounced /howz/

In August last year, Erica and I signed Mihaly Slocombe up to the Houzz Pro membership programme. This placed our sponsored project photos into the organic search streams of local audiences, increasing the visibility of our business in and around Melbourne.

We were required to commit to the programme for twelve months, a huge financial leap for us considering our marketing budget had previously been $0. When our membership expired recently, we took the opportunity to ask ourselves whether it has been worth our while. Has it increased the number of leads coming into our studio? Have the leads been qualified? Have they resulted in any commissions? Ultimately, we needed to work out whether we should opt in for another twelve months.

The Houzz platform is one I’ve discussed before, though I’ve not explored the membership programme, nor analysed the benefits and challenges it has brought to Mihaly Slocombe. The following discusses our history with the platform, our reasons for joining the paid programme, and the results we’ve seen from our investment.

Let me start at the beginning.

Houzz, Mihaly Slocombe, Homepage, Profile, Houses, Residential design, Architecture, Photos

The beginning

I created a Houzz profile for Mihaly Slocombe in October 2013. It had been three years since we formed our studio and I was eager to increase our presence online. Even then, Houzz had a database of photos well into the millions. I had the feeling that we were hitching our wagon to the Amazon of residential architecture and figured it was better to be flying along with them than left behind in their dust.

At that stage, Houzz was based only in the US. It would be another year until the launch of a dedicated .com.au site, so the majority of our early traffic came from overseas – the US primarily, but plenty of European countries too.[1]

During this period, our profile developed some very strong organic traction. Amongst our two dozen or so project photos, it was the Basser House walk-in-wardrobe that attracted the most attention. To date, a whopping 18,000 people have added it to an ideabook (the Houzz equivalent of an Instagram like). It has also led to us winning the Houzz design award three years in a row.

The popularity of this and other photos earned us a constant presence. Like Google, the Houzz search algorithms reward popularity with more of the same. Despite the youth of our studio and small collection of photos, we were beginning to pop up everywhere.

Houzz; Melbourne; Launch; Party; Architects

Houzz in Australia

In August 2014, Houzz spread its wings and officially launched its Australian domain. I attended the Melbourne launch party, and watched during the presentations (with some pride) as the Houzz staff used our profile as a case study.

During the drinks and canapés that followed, I met an architect whom I knew was enjoying just us much organic traffic as we were. I was curious to discover how she was going with her profile, and whether she’d won any projects through it.

Up until this point, our popularity on Houzz had not converted into any paid work. I had dedicated countless hours to answering technical questions from Houzz users, and even fielded a modest number of project enquiries that went nowhere, but I was just spending a lot of time selling our services to people who weren’t really buying.

I assumed my new friend would have had a similar experience, but discovered instead that she’d won sizeable projects with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. I was amazed. What was she doing that we weren’t? And what was it about our profile that attracted people with unreasonable expectations about the architectural process? We discussed this divergence for most of the night, but I left without any real understanding of why her success was translating into fee-earning commissions and ours was not.

Houzz project, West Brunswick, Renovation, House

If at first you don’t succeed…

In May 2015, we received our first commission through Houzz. An Italian couple were returning to Melbourne after many years living abroad and wanted to renovate their family home in Brunswick West. It struck me when they got in contact that this was one of the marvels of Houzz: a couple flicking through pictures on their laptop in Rome could discover us on the other side of the planet, and then commission us for a project located just around the corner from our studio.

Still, it was tough going. By this point we had racked up a total of 14 enquiries through Houzz (including a couple of exciting calls from interstate), but only one commission. Not a good success rate. I realised then that the risk of the Houzz platform was that it replaced our relationship-based marketing approach with one more akin to internet shopping: high volume, low conversion.

So we were still spending a lot of time on our Houzz enquiries without much to show for it. In 2015, Houzz accounted for 43% of our enquiries, but only 14% of our commissions. It was the age-old business conundrum: we were spending the majority of our time on the minority of our clients. Something needed to change.

Houzz, Melbourne, Map

The programme

In August 2015, we received a call from Houzz. With the dedicated .com.au website now a year old, the Houzz Pro programme was being introduced to Australia. The call didn’t surprise me. I had wondered a number of times when Houzz would monetise its platform. With over 35 million unique visitors each month, professional users were getting access to an enormous audience for free.[2]

The deal was intriguing and came at just the right time for us. We were enjoying great organic traffic to our profile, but in contrast to my launch friend, the vast majority of it was international and of no real value to our business. Our photos were appearing on someone’s screen around 300,000 times every month, but only getting clicked around 90 times. A lot of people were seeing our work, but a tiny .03% were engaging with it.

The Houzz Pro programme proposed to change this model. It would guarantee our appearance on the first page of photo and profile searches for any user within the Melbourne CBD and immediately surrounding suburbs, and thus push us in front of many more local eyes.

Our hope was that more local connections would be the ingredient we were missing, the thing that would convert all my effort engaging with the Houzz community into paying projects. We still thought long and hard about it though – as I said, it was a big commitment for us. In the end, we figured a year of membership fees wouldn’t kill us, and our business needed to take a risk to continue to grow. We set a KPI for ourselves: an acceptable payoff would be one substantial commission, or two smaller ones.

We were the first architecture studio in Melbourne to sign on.

Houzz; Houzz Pro; Advertising

Our decision to join

Residential clients are notoriously difficult to connect with, particularly for younger practices without the reputation and bag of awards enjoyed by established studios. If our portfolio were centred around restaurant fitouts, we could probably work out ways to connect with restaurateurs. But houses are hard. Our clients are everyone and no one.

Houzz provides this connection. Better yet, the Houzz Pro programme provides a local connection, one that is based on images of our design work. In late 2015, our organic traffic was already excellent, but unproductive. The programme promised to top up our organic international audience with a far more engaged Melbourne one.

We also felt that Houzz was a safer bet than Google or Facebook advertising. Houzz users are a subset of the general population, a pool of people already interested in residential architecture. In marketing terms, this meant the leads we hoped to get through Houzz would be more likely qualified.

Finally, we sensed that Houzz is an unstoppable train rolling out across the planet. The Internet is hardly growing less connected to our daily lives: Houzz is a part of this trend, a huge marketplace we’d be foolish to ignore.

Bangkok; Chatuchak; night market; market; colour; night

What happened next?

In August 2015, we paid for our first month of membership to the Houzz Pro programme. The good news was that we didn’t have to wait long for leads to come knocking: we received 3 enquiries that month. The bad news was that none of them turned into a project. And neither did the next 10. It wasn’t until March 2016, and our 14th Houzz enquiry since joining the programme, that a lead converted.

Five more leads rolled in without result, but in July our 20th enquiry came good too. Exactly as we’d hoped, both projects are sizeable, with proper budgets and clients interested in good design. We’re working on sketch design for them as I write.

When our membership came up for renewal in August, we did so without hesitation. We had expected the slow start, had even been warned about it by our Houzz account manager, but it seemed now that we had gathered a bit of momentum.

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Project; Lead; Enquiry: Client; Houzz

Some data please

Since our renewal three month ago, the enquiries have continued to arrive. Two more have converted into commissions in just the last couple of weeks.

Examining the 14 months of our Houzz Pro membership, I calculate that 50% of all enquiries, and 20% of all new projects, have come through Houzz. These figures are both improvements on our pre-membership results, particularly the gross number of enquiries. Pre-membership, we received one enquiry through Houzz every 55 days. Post-membership, we’ve received one every 12 days.[3]

The main downer is that Houzz leads continue to convert less often than our other marketing activities. 20% of projects from 50% of enquiries is much better than it was previously, but still not great.

I think there are two reasons for this: first is the varied nature of the leads we receive – many have unrealistic budgets and come from people curiously not that interested in good design. We’ve realised that we can’t do much to stop these enquiries, but have at least worked out how to politely decline poorly matched commissions. Second, there’s the issue of trust, or more pointedly, the lack of trust. While a potential client recommended by a mutual friend tends to inherently trust our expertise and creativity, someone contacting us via Houzz can’t tell us apart from a bar of soap. The Internet makes it too easy to get in contact, and thus too easy to never return a phone call. Building trust with a stranger takes time, something we don’t typically have when we’re trying to win a project.

That said, the projects we’re now winning through Houzz are very exciting. Exactly as we had hoped, they’re for clients interested in design, with decent scopes and realistic budgets. Qualitatively, the projects have the same spread as those that arrive through other means: they vary in size and budget, in geography, client and design ambition. For me, they prove that Houzz offers a viable model for lead procurement.

Has the number of leads coming into our studio increased? Yes
Have the leads been qualified? Yes (well, at least more often than before)
Have they resulted in any commissions? Yes.

So, we had to wait patiently in the beginning for our membership to reap a reward, and both then and now must spend a lot of time fielding tyre-kickers. But I am in no doubt that the Houzz Pro membership has helped our business grow. For the success we’re seeing thus far, it’s worth it.


Footnotes:

  1. I know this because occasionally we receive a comment like this: “Die fensterläden sind ein echoer hingucker!”
  2. Houzz Facts; Houzz; 2015
  3. It’s important to note that this success isn’t just due to upgrading to the Houzz Pro programme. We put constant work into our profile, uploading new projects, managing photo metadata, answering user questions, contributing to discussions etc. The programme puts us in front of more eyes, but we’ve made sure what they see is worthwhile

Image sources:

  1. Houzz logo; copyright Houzz
  2. Mihaly Slocombe Houzz profile; copyright Houzz and Mihaly Slocombe
  3. Houzz Melbourne launch at Meizai; August 2014; copyright Sushii Photo
  4. View from street of Mihaly Slocombe’s first real commission sourced through Houzz; author’s own image
  5. Houzz Pro programme, Melbourne CBD coverage; copyright Houzz
  6. Houzz Pro programme; copyright Houzz
  7. Chatuchak night market in Bangkok; sourced from Shop JJ; author unknown
  8. Project leads through Houzz; author’s own image
  9. Projects through Houzz; author’s own image

Houzz for students

In my casual surveys of architecture students from first year to final, I’ve been surprised to discover how few engage professionally with social media. While Facebook is ubiquitous and many have Instagram accounts jammed full of selfies, there is little interest to extend this activity into the professional sphere.

This is the 6th of eight articles exploring the major social media outlets, how I engage with them, and how they might be of interest to students. An archive of the series can be accessed here.

Social media

Houzz
Mihaly Slocombe
Following: 22
Followers: 477
Joined: October 2013

Purpose: A massive online database of house photos, it’s the eBay of residential architecture.

Community: Unlike many other project typologies, private residential clients are notoriously difficult to find and connect with. As the Houzz user group is mostly populated by non-architects, it’s evolving into one of the best ways to overcome this hurdle.

I follow a very small number of colleagues and clients. I don’t see Houzz as a useful tool to connect with other architects (Twitter and Instagram are much better for this), but I can attest to its ability to generate project leads. Our followers come from all over the world and are mostly non-architects, though it’s hard to tell whether any of these connections will lead to fruitful collaborations.

Portfolio: Houzz is essentially a supercharged portfolio website. It’s a way for us to push our work out into a domain populated by millions of people feverishly devouring photos of houses. It also acts a gateway to our own website and a growing number of project enquiries. Most of the project leads we receive from online portals (as discussed here) come via Houzz.

Notoriety: As I uploaded our portfolio onto Houzz long before it officially launched in Australia, we’ve benefited from a huge headstart in having our work seen by more people in more places. Much like Google, the Houzz search algorithms reward popularity with more popularity. As bizarre evidence, this photo of one of our wardrobes has been saved by over 16,000 people, and continues to receive awards each year as the most liked wardrobe photo in Australia.

Procrastination: For anyone interested in building or renovating, Houzz is easily the most addictive source of procrastination in existence.

For students: Unless you have built work in your portfolio, Houzz is not a good way for you to advertise yourself. It’s possible you could connect with potential employers, but again I think Twitter and Instagram are better tools for this.

However, with 9 million photos and counting, a 2014 market valuation upwards of $2b, and their first major tech acquisition late last year, I figure you’re either on the Houzz wagon or getting covered in dust.[2]

Good examples:

These are all practicing architects, all of whose practices appear on the first page of Houzz when I search for professionals in Victoria.

Importance:
4 / 10 for you
10 / 10 for me


Footnotes:

  1. Leading social networks worldwide as of January 2016Statista; January 2016
  2. George Anders; Houzz tops $2 billion valuation, opens million-item marketplace; Forbes; October 2014

Image:

  1. Houzz, logo copyright Houzz. Composition by author.

Just in time

The Model T Ford, the first vehicle mass-produced on an assembly line

What is it?

Just In Time (JIT) manufacturing is an approach to manufacturing that reduces the stockpiling of parts and products to an absolute minimum, instead fabricating them only as required. This methodology necessitates a tightly integrated workflow of all aspects of production, yet reduces the cost of carrying unsold goods, increases the efficiency of production and ultimately increases profits. First used in the late 1950s by an engine supplier to Ford, it is now used extensively throughout modern manufacturing processes.

The key benefit of JIT manufacturing is clearly its ability to reduce costs: when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in the late 1990s, the company “had more than two months’ worth of inventory sitting in warehouses, more than any other tech company. As computers have a short shelf life, this amounted to at least a $500 million hit to profits.” Apple now maintains a JIT manufacturing process with as little as two days’ worth of stockpiled product.

However, there is also a significant drawback to the JIT approach, best demonstrated by its recent appearance in the Australian news.

When CMI Industrial, a car parts manufacturer for Ford, stopped paying its rent, then failed to meet the terms of an agreed payment plan, and eventually tallied up a backlog of over $100,000 in unpaid rent, the landlord took matters into its own hands and last week locked CMI out of the premises.

The next morning, the 80 Campbellfield employees of CMI arrived at work only to be informed the factory had been shut down. The day after, the Dana Australia factory, via which the CMI parts make their way to Ford, was also closed. With no parts coming in, the day after that, so too were both the Broadmeadows and Geelong factories of Ford itself. All up, almost 2,000 employees were stood down.

What do we think?

The drama unfolding right now in the lives of 2,000 Ford employees provides an unsettling mirror through which we can see all of modern civilisation. More than anything else, our systems of production, consumption, politics, education, the environment, even war, have one thing in common: co-dependency.

Ford cannot make motor vehicles without CMI Industrial supplying the components. Dutch tourists cannot travel without a sky clear of volcanic ash over Iceland. Melburnians cannot eat at restaurants without functional gas plants in Gippsland. A child cannot study anywhere in the world without Google’s million plus computer servers. We cannot go to war in Afghanistan without the eyes of military satellites hurtling through space.

Nowhere is this enmeshing of parts better exhibited than in our cities. So finely tuned are a city’s systems, and so reliant on them are its inhabitants, the city is the canary in the coal mine, the place to look for the first signs of impending failure.

It doesn’t take much: a broken down car on the Monash Freeway causes a traffic jam on Dandenong Road. Carlton and Essendon play at the MCG and the entire city grid of mobile telecommunication networks is clogged. A deluge of rain causes stormwater drains to overflow and streets to flood, while a string of hot days in summer causes rail lines to buckle and hundreds of train services to be cancelled.

Day after day, without even realising it we test the limits of our infrastructure. What will happen when something truly catastrophic occurs?

In our global civilisation, our reliance on one another, and on barely-understood processes run by invisible organisations, is greater than it has ever been before. We are so tightly co-dependent that when any part fails, the entire system crashes. The cascading closure of Ford and its parts manufacturers reveals to us just how precarious our comfortable existence is, how little buffer we have between us and utter chaos.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV

What is it?

Australia’s first volume production all-electric vehicle, with zero drive time emissions (depending on how its owners source their electricity, potentially zero emissions, period). First seen on a billboard hovering over the CityLink tollway.

The i-MiEV (which we presume stands for the obligatory “i” followed by Mitsubishi Electric Vehicle) is powered by an electric motor driving the rear wheels that generates 47kW of power and 180Nm of torque, and produces a top speed of 130km/h. As the motor is mounted in line with the wheels, the transfer of energy is direct so no transmission is required. Electricity is stored in a 16kWh bank of lithium-ion batteries that require 7 hours of charging from a standard power point and enable a maximum driving range of 160km.

What do we think?

Normally, we do not look too favourably upon Mitsubishi vehicles. Even aside from their recent and much-publicised financial woes, they generally produce bland cars that are long on features but short on style and driver-enjoyment. In this vein, the i-MiEV has cute exterior styling let down a little by predictably plasticky interior detailing – hardly the looks of a visionary car of the future. Its short range (compared to petrol engine cars) will further limit buyer interest. It is undoubtedly best suited to individuals who make short trips around town or companies whose staff do.

Nevertheless, this car represents a big step in the greener direction almost every car manufacturer is scrambling to take. It’s an important step too: the WWF Energy Report released earlier this year (and discussed in a previous post, here) cited the transition away from liquid fuels to rechargeable solid-state energy storage as critical to an environmentally sustainable future.

What should we learn?

With electric cars by Nissan, Peugeot and Citroen also coming to markets around the world, plus many other manufacturers developing their own soon-to-be-released models, we expect to see an explosion of both electric vehicles and fast-charge electric fuelling stations over coming years. Corporate interest for zero emissions fleet cars will further intensify this development – indeed, Origin Energy, News Limited and Google already have their first i-MiEVs on the road.

For Australia at least, dare we say that Mitsubishi has at last given us something to get excited about?

The rise of Google

What do we mean?

Google announced this week the release of its Chrome operating system, paired with two new Chromebooks from Samsung and Acer. A “completely new model of computing”, Chrome OS is a cleverly extrapolated version of the existing Google Docs idea, with users accessing all basic computing applications online, together with their stored data: word-processing, spreadsheets, presentation and email software are operated through a web browser; whilst files, movies, music and photos are all stored in the cloud.

By building computers designed specifically for the online storage of both applications and data, Google hopes to fix what director of product management, Caesar Sengupta, regards as today’s “broken” world of computers. Gone will be the “outdated” requirements to update software and back up data; so too the fear of virus attack. We won’t even have to worry about transferring data and settings upon purchasing a new computer – we just boot up, log on to our account and we’re off and running again.

According to this article in The Age, both the Samsung and Acer Chromebooks will be available in Australia within the next few months.

What do we think?

With cloud computing already gaining considerable momentum among both commercial and personal users, and high-speed internet connections becoming cheaper and more reliable, the idea of shifting the entire computing experience online makes a lot of sense.

We are particularly interested by the approach Google is taking in the United States to encourage the uptake of the Chromebooks, offering them on inexpensive phone-like contracts that include the hardware, technical support and warranty. Such an accessible financial arrangement confirms that more and more, the computer is becoming the principal portal through which we engage with the world. Like the mobile phone before it, we expect the Chromebook will come to be considered more a prosthesis than a mere tool.

Of concern to us however is the privatising implication of the Chromebook, an issue we have raised previously when discussing the expanding influence of companies like Google and Facebook into what we perhaps erroneously continue to think of as the public sphere of the internet. With the Chromebook, our aforementioned portal to the world would in many ways not be our own – our data and the applications we need to access it will be located on servers controlled by Google.

A symptom of this is online privacy, a controversial topic at the moment with big tech giants repeatedly featured in the news over breaches in the privacy of their users, slip-ups we argue would never be tolerated in our governments. Indeed, Facebook admitted just this morning to an attempted smear campaign against Google over the issue, first seen on The Age, here.

As a friend of ours reminded us recently, possession is nine tenths of the law. We remain unconvinced that big corporations controlling vast tracts of cyberspace is a good thing.

Direct advertising

What is it?

A form of advertising pioneered by the likes of Google and Facebook that tailors adverts to users. Rather than broadcasting an advert to millions of mostly disinterested users, direct advertising limits the broadcast to the advertised product’s demographic, reaching fewer but potentially more interested users.

Google is a blunt tool for such tailoring, utilising users’ recent search patterns to make a rough guess at where they live and what they do. Spend a bit of time searching for used cars online and you’ll probably find that Google starts offering up various car sales sites in its Ads column. Facebook in contrast is like a surgeon’s scalpel, garnering its user information from the people who know best: the users themselves. Facebook offers you an advert for a wedding dress store in Armadale because you told it you live in Melbourne and you just updated your status to engaged.

What do we think?

We are intrigued by the concept of direct advertising, but remain torn between strong scepticism and grudging acceptance.

We’re sceptical because Facebook and its ilk sell (and profit from) direct advertising space by utilising information entered into what many people think of as the “public realm” of the internet. It just goes to show how misguided we all are – Facebook is not the digital equivalent of a town square but a shopping mall, where every square centimetre is owned and where the security guards can kick us out if they think we’re loitering without intention to buy – the infrastructure of the internet may be modelled on a free and open city, but its buildings are private property. Facebook argue that they gather only crowd statistics rather than specific information on individuals, but all this nevertheless reeks strongly of a slippery slope heading straight for a direct invasion of privacy: we accept crowd statistics today and we’ll find our most intimate information being sold to the highest bidder tomorrow.

Our further concern is the recent evolution of direct advertising into user-endorsed advertising i.e. the broadcasting of advertised products “liked” by a user to all of his / her friends. According to Mark Zuckerberg in Time‘s recent, extensive and excellent article on him as the 2010 Time Person of the Year, this is a positive development. After all, we are intensely social creatures and thus place a far higher value on what 3 of our friends think about a product than 1,000,000 strangers. But we’re not sure we really want to become unpaid advertising whores for the world’s products.

On the other hand, like it or not, the world is chockerblock full of products with which we engage on a daily basis. Our vocabulary is full of trademarked, copyrighted and registered terms: energy drinks after exercise have been replaced by Gatorade™; our phones have been upgraded to iPhones™; and surfing the internet is a thing of the past, now we Google™ it. Without even realising it, we are already advertising whores every time we open our mouths. Even here at Panfilocastaldi we can’t escape this reality – check out our Sublimely Utilitarian articles here and here.

So we may be fundamentally queasy about direct and user-endorsed advertising, but we can’t deny its inevitability. Perhaps telling our friends on Facebook that we like Coon Tasty™ is really no different from telling our friends at a dinner party that we like cheese.