Berg’s CEO on the experience of connected devices & avoiding the creep factor

Eight-year-old London-based Berg has long straddled two hip and high-tech worlds. For years it’s been operating as one part design consultancy — working on creative projects like iPad magazines for clients like Google and The Guardian — and one part product maker, developing quirky and thought-provoking connected devices like its Little Printer. If you missed Little Printer, it’s a wee printer with a smiling face and growing hair that spits out news and social tidbits on command from the web.
But as the company has matured and reached its milestones — Fast Company called it one of the 50 most innovative companies last year — Berg has decided to stop straddling and has been transforming into, gasp, a proper tech startup. That means no more iPad mags for brands, and the crew is now knee-deep in developing the Berg Cloud, a connectivity platform for devices, which it sells alongside dev kits, offering a sort of Amazon Web Services for connected devices.

Berg CEO Matt Webb

Berg CEO Matt Webb

One of its first customers for the new service is Twitter, who worked with Berg to create #Flock, a cuckoo clock that connects to a Twitter account and cuckoos (an audio tweet if you will) according to certain Twitter actions (new followers, @messages, etc). Berg will continue to brainstorm quaint products, like #Flock, as a way to inspire and work with customers, though it remains to be seen if it’ll commercialize those on its own. We’ll be highlighting the design of connected devices at our RoadMap conference in San Francisco in November.
To learn more about Berg’s pivot, I sat down with Berg’s CEO Matt Webb and picked his brain on the future of connected devices, the term “Internet of Things,” London tech, and how connectivity changes objects (the creep factor). Here’s our lightly edited conversation with Webb:
Fehrenbacher: How’s the pivot going?
Webb:The short answer is exciting and in progress. Watch this space.
We originally made Little Printer as one of a family of connected products. The platform we built was basically to give products web APIs, because that’s where we cut our teeth: on the open web. But sometime around the beginning of this year, we were like ‘whoa’, if this makes it easier for us to invent connected devices, maybe it’ll do the same thing for other people, so let’s do that. So we’ve spent this year going through that transition. We’ll be done with that very soon, I hope, and be able to focus completely.
What’s the business model of the new product?
Long term it’s Amazon Web Services for connected devices. There are so many difficult things when you try making connected devices. Moving bits and bytes between the cloud and the device is just 10 percent of what you’re trying to do. The rest of it is common developer challenges. Everything from figuring out a password reminder button, to debugging tools and analytics, to fleet management, and all those sorts of things.
For the user side you need a trusted experience that lets you interact with your products as those products actually are in the real world. So no super admins or no dialogue boxes that interrupt your flow. We need interface elements that are native to making connected things.
#Flock by Twitter, powered by the Berg Cloud

#Flock by Twitter, powered by the Berg Cloud

The other thing we’ve learned is that you need to make things to spark ideas in people. We do a lot of prototyping here and work with partners like Benetton to help people think about what connected devices are going to be. One of my main takeaways has been that nobody really knows what connected devices are going to be yet. Nobody really knows what the value proposition is going to be yet. It’s a bit too early to just decide on one thing and bet your company on that. But it’s a really good time to find easy ways to experiment. So that’s going to be as much of our business going forward as our cloud services.
So you were saying that you think this Summer is a breakthrough moment in London for connected devices?
I think so. From the consultancy and Little Printer being so public, we get to speak to a lot of companies. There are three areas that people need to figure out for connected devices: 1) tech, 2) design and 3) business. The technology is being figured out and it feels like there’s no massive innovation that needs to be done there. For the business model, people seem to have a clear idea of that.
The thing that is really missing is the user experience. The thing that people can’t really guarantee is what should the products be? They’re sure there’s something there but they don’t know what it should be and they have no belief that they can make it. So I find this to be an interesting time.
From the London startup perspective there’s more and more hardware development going on. So I would liken London’s hardware scene at the moment to what it was like four years ago with Silicon Roundabout then, which became Tech City when the government supported it. The government support ignited the city, whereas before it was a bunch of people who happened to be in the same area. The hardware scene is a bit like that: there’s people going around doing roughly the same thing, we’re all chatting on an adhoc basis, and people are making investments, but it hasn’t been ignited yet. There’s a few exceptions like the London Internet of Things meetup. But it feels like something’s tipping this Summer.
By the way, what do you think of the term “Internet of Things”?
I don’t like that term. That’s why I say connected devices. I sort of regard the network as being like the next generation of electricity: it will end up hitting all products sooner or later. But we wont really think about them as being “networked products,” in the way we don’t think about things as “electrical products.” Take a sewing machine: in the old days you had to stamp or pedal it, and then sewing machines became electrified and you just plugged them in. So now people don’t buy an electric sewing machine as a part of their collection of electrical goods — they just know they don’t need to pump their foot anymore. The product is slightly better. There will be a bunch of that with connected devices.
Berg's labs filled with Little Printers, in Shoreditch, East London

Berg’s labs filled with Little Printers, in Shoreditch, East London

There will also be new product categories, as there always are. But much of it will be an incremental improvement. So calling it the Internet of Things names it in the wrong way. Also I suspect that Internet of Things bundles up too many things, and the people making them are too different. Connected home is different from quantified self is different from agriculture is different from city sensor arrays. So I think, at least in the field of consumer connected devices – which is where Berg is – there’s more in common between people that make consumer hardware that isn’t connected than with people who make connected things in different verticals.
Do you think devices will always get better when connected?
I’m going to say no to that. Because I take quite a social attitude to technology. I think it has to make you feel good. I remember when we did Mag+ the iPad magazine, and the company we were working with did research into why people read magazines, and one of the reasons they love magazines is for “permission to have time on their own.” What people do when they pick up a magazine is they’re buying solitude and time in their own head. I found that absolutely fascinating. Are magazines helpful by being live and connected? I wonder. I think it makes something different, and that’s its own thing. What comes first is the experience and that’s what design is for.
So what products are coming out of the Berg pipeline?
We’re super preoccupied by white goods at the moment. It’s really nuts. We’re obsessed with washing machines and it just feels like one of those areas where there’s a lot of room to explore. We’ve also been looking at office equipment. Ask me again in a few months and I’ll show you some stuff.
Will you be selling any more of these devices commercially, like Little Printer?
I’ve got ambitions to do more than Little Printer in terms of releasing products, but we’ll see I guess. If anything comes up that we think is absolutely fantastic then sure, why not. But I would prefer to be making dev boards, and learning from people working on dev boards, and creating prototypes to inspire people. I think that’s where our time can be well spent for the next 12 months or so.
I’ll give you an example of something we learned from Little Printer. On Valentine’s Day, all the Little Printers printed out with the faces wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. Which we all thought was super cute. The face of the device is a complex graphic, and it represents the life of your product. We looked on Instagram, and everyone was loving it and it was great — apart from two people, who said, ‘this is not OK.’ They were like this is my product, I’ve invited it into my home and how dare you change it. There’s a phrase, an Englishman’s home is his castle, and once you start connecting devices in the front room to the web, then things become more permeable. Its weird, its like that creepy line.
So would you not do something like that again?
Of course we’d do it again. It was hilarious. But you have to figure out ways to frame it.
Little Printer is like a little probe that can look six months into the future and help figure out what are the actual concerns with connected devices. It’s being used by non-technical people at ad agencies, and in families with little kids. We’re learning stuff like that.