The Zen Bank. It exists.

Last year, Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress fame) thought out loud about a bank he’d love to set up. Matt’s bank would focus on safety, ‘Google-like’ simplicity, ‘white-glove’ customer service – and be usable with the tools of today.

… At the very beginning… make it invite-only, which will create a buzz and also allow you to give amazing white-glove service to the initial customers, who will in turn tell their friends… There would be only one style of checks and debit cards and they’d need a distinctive design so if you saw one you’d say, “What’s that?” which would then start the whole conversation again about how SafeBank is different.


… old-time vintage design aesthetic combined with a Google-like simplicity and attention to speed. All logins would be two-factor, with the default being it’d SMS you a one-time code to log in… a big part of the website would be the blog… few cool saving or home tips each week, it would cover at least one financial industry story a day.

Today, Alex Payne (of Twitter fame) made it known there is just such a bank. And that he’s joining it.

BankSimple is an easy, intuitive, and social bank for people who appreciate simple online services. Unlike other banks, we don’t trap you with confusing products nor do we charge any hidden fees. No overdraft fees. We use sophisticated analytics to help you better manage your finances by providing you a individualized service, catered to your needs and goals.

About the smartphone category called iPhone-like

From an email exchange with a friend asking about the Nexus One (the ‘Google phone’) launch.

Thoughts about the Nexus One’s prospects

Does it have better hardware, a better screen, better battery life, better price, more freedom, better apps, better multitasking, better camera than the iPhone? Yes. Is it the iPhone? No.

People who’ll buy the Nexus One say they want to buy something like the iPhone that isn’t the iPhone, and they’re lying even though they don’t know it. They want the iPhone because it’s the iPhone. And nothing else. When you create in your mind a category called iPhone-like, there’s only one member that’s ever going to be a full, incontrovertible member of that category.

These buyers are going to be disappointed even though they won’t know quite why. They’ll blame it on the phone instead of their own expectations, and demand won’t spike the way it did for the iPhone.

Would I buy it?

I don’t like the iPhone, but I like this current crop of Android devices even less. If, in a (thankfully) fictional dystopian universe I had to choose only between the iPhone and the Nexus, I’d take Apple’s baby (and lament long and hard about the lack of alternatives).

Reason #3: form factor wise no Android device has nailed the iPhone. This is HTC and Motorola and Samsung, not Apple we’re talking about. So there. These firms are known for specs, not sex.

Reason #2: I will not buy a phone with a trackball. Ever. Would you buy a Skoda that featured a manually-operated crank to start the engine? Heck, even Blackberrys have moved on.

Reason #1: Polish. I posit that no one has been able to nail the touchscreen experience other than Apple. Not Palm, Not Android. Not (shudder) RIM and most certainly not Microsoft. Since 2007, for instance, Android phones have been underpowered and have had user experience (UX) issues where the phone hasn’t been able to keep up with text or touch input. Now three years later,

Some animations are very smooth, some are janky as hell. The Nexus One has a faster processor than the iPhone 3GS and has twice the RAM, and yet it still cannot have as fluid a UI as the iPhone OS. This is great proof that your software is key—throwing raw power at things won’t necessarily make them better.

And it doesn’t even have to run Android. Every touchscreen phone apart from iPhone suffers from this.

I think it’s worth demonstrating how Apple nails the experience with an example.

In Mobile Safari, the iPhone browser, if you scroll (swipe) too fast, instead of text you’ll see a chequered pattern – the processor can’t render the text fast enough – but the scrolling experience itself is smooth as ever. Once you stop scrolling, text will eventually appear. On any other mobile browser, the scrolling itself will stutter as the processor tries to render everything.

When you’re using a device all day every day as essentially an extension of your body and mind, stuff like this matters more than features.

I’d pick the iPhone. As, sadly, will folks who upgrade from the Nexus One eventually.

Update (10 Jan 2010): Another example of polish in design:

Other issues that I can’t live with day to day? How do I copy text from non-editable field like an email, webpage, or SMS, or even a 3rd party application? Oh, I can’t. Say what you want about the iPhone not having copy and paste for two years — a joke — it’s the single best implementation on the planet for a smartphone and Google’s approach is almost as bad as RIM’s with the Storm-series.

(From Boy Genius Report, via John Gruber)

About my Android prediction

My comment on a Google Reader shared item in Jan 2009:

“As I said months and months ago – “jiska koi nahin uska Android”. No product line to convince MS to license you WinMo? There’s Android. No cash to pay for licenses? There’s Android. Want to convince market and customers that you have something up your sleeve? There’s Android”.

WIRED Magazine today takes stock of Android today and its future “explosive growth”.

The manufacturers of the 12 Android devices on the market are Motorola, HTC, Samsung, LG, Dell, Huawei and Acer. Except for the first three, none of the manufacturers had a product line with a mainstream mobile OS – they’ve hitched their smartphone fortune to Android. The case with Moto, HTC and Samsung is more dramatic – they’re all developing a strong Android product line (Moto in particular) in spite of their Windows Mobile backgrounds. I cannot find one smartphone manufacturer that is betting on Windows Mobilee, and I strongly suspect that most of Android’s growth will come at WinMo’s expense.

But my comment was to point out that a commitment to Android implies a lack of coherent strategy for manufacturers. That certainly seems true with Moto, HTC, Samsung and LG. In my opinion, Moto has suffered from terrible hardware design. HTC and Samsung have tried without success to hide Windows Mobile’s ugliness under their customizations. LG’s proprietary OS strategy means few, if any, third-party apps.

For the rest, Android *is* their first strategy. That’s brave. But it’s also evidence that Android’s features are exactly what smartphone users want today – touch-screen support, strong integration with Google’s applications, a capable browser and support for other installable applications. This is also true of Mac OS X on iPhone, but what if you want another phone? Android’s looking like a very, very attractive alternative.

But their own mission is far from achieved

Is [old giant] losing out to [hot upstart] over [new trend]?

Did Microsoft miss out on the big search opportunity that Google pounced on? Is Google losing the real-time communication game to Twitter?

Microsoft’s original mission was “a computer on every desk and in every home” [1]. Even with their almost total dominance of the PC industry, that mission remains far from accomplished.

Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. That’s a mouthful. But it’s also nowhere near completion.

Both companies – one over 3 decades old, the other over a decade old – have still only plucked the low-hanging fruit. Urban homes and corporations have computers, but there are still billions of potential Microsoft consumers – who might be well served with a mobile “computer”, for instance. For Google, even with its mind-boggling data center infrastructure and web-crawling, the task is just begun. Books. Space. History. Energy and resource consumption. And more. And that’s just the “organize” bit. Converting all that data to information so that it is “accessible and useful” is another thing altogether.

Companies like these are larger than the “next big thing”. Their own “thing” is so incredibly significant, so humbling. That’s why it’s unfortunate when such an organization changes its very mission to something that can mean absolutely anything (and therefore also nothing): Microsoft’s mission is now “to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential” [2].

Google isn’t about to kill Microsoft. Not if Microsoft directs all its resources towards what it set out to do. Likewise for Google; Twitter isn’t out to organize everything known to man. So ignore those predictions of doom.



[1] According to Wikipedia the exact words were “to get a workstation running our software onto every desk and eventually in every home”

[2] Although I didn’t find any evidence to suggest Microsoft changed its mission in response to any other company or threat

Rethinking Schools

This isn’t related to the theme of this blog, but is worth quoting. From David Ascher’s blog:

In the case of the Think Schools event, it was hard to find people who didn’t appreciate the elegance of an old idea: that our schools shouldn’t be thought of (and budgeted for) as single purpose “teaching boxes”, but instead as multi-purpose community hubs, leveraging precious real estate to provide a variety of civic services (libraries, gyms, meeting spaces, cafeterias, playing fields), with an appropriate funding model.

David Ascher is the head of the new Mozilla Messaging project.

Teaching boxes versus community hubs – I realized instantly that this, more than anything else, is what made two years at IIM Kozhikode more rewarding than four years at Bombay University.