Saturday, November 30, 2013

Airplane seating

How many times have you boarded an airplane just to stand behind a bunch of people trying to cram their luggage into the overhead bins or waiting for others to give way so they can get into their window seat?  I have been in a lot of these situations and that is what got me thinking about how an airline can make this more efficient.

A plane on the ground is a plane not making money for the airline.  That is the reason why airlines try to turnaround their planes as fast as possible. 

Disembarking is simple and happens efficiently: passengers milling out of the plane starting from the front to the back, aisle to window.  It is boarding where all the confusion lies.  There are three predominant patterns used by most of the airlines: free seating, back to front and zone based seating.  United is the only airline that uses outside-in seating. 

Southwest uses free seating.  The main problem with this approach is that everyone wants to sit in the front of the plane (less engine noise, faster to disembark, less lateral movement, etc.).  Also, no one wants to sit in the middle seat.  This means people start filling the window and aisle seats from front to back.  The problems with this approach are that people have to wait in the beginning since others are holding up the line as they find their seats up front.  Later on, the process speeds up as people start moving backwards.  And, at the end, it slows down again when the middle seats get occupied.  One advantage is that there is never a situation where two people have to get up to let a passenger get to his/her window seat. 

Most of the other airlines seat from back to front in zones.  This causes packs of delays within the zones as people board in random order within the zones.  Add to this mix, the elite travelers who board prior to all others.  A lot of elite travelers prefer the aisle seat leading to more delays as the other seats are occupied. 

United's approach loads the windows first, followed by middle and then the aisles.  This would mean that there is no need for any passenger to get up once seated.  But, unfortunately, the elites mess this up too.  The elites board first and could be seated anywhere on the plane. 

We could come up with all kinds of sequences to make boarding as efficient as possible, but, still we will have issues with each of these approaches.  The main culprit being carry-on luggage.  Finding space for carry-on luggage is the biggest concern for all passengers, and hence the rush to board. 

In an Utopian world where passengers did not carry any luggage on them, boarding would be a cinch.  Any of the above approaches would work pretty well. 

One obvious answer is to eliminate carry-on luggage, especially the ones that fit in overhead bins.  Laptop bags, backpacks and purses that can fit under the seat and could be fine.  The big increase in carry-on luggage has happened since airlines started charging for checked-in baggage.  It would be interesting to see how this has increased the boarding time.  If it is significant, then, airlines could charge for carry-on luggage too.  This would bring us back to the good old days of no charge luggage.  Airlines can make more money from baggage fees, as well as increase the turnaround time. 

Another answer is to open all doors and load passengers from all of them.  Especially on the wide body jets with two aisles, opening doors on both sides will speed boarding incredibly.  For the smaller planes, opening doors in the front as well as the back would do the trick.  But, that is not really possible since all airports have only one jet bridge assigned to a gate.  A redesign of the gates and bridges would be very expensive. 

A few airlines are still experimenting with various strategies for boarding (alternate aisle and window, back to front, eliminate elite early boarding, etc.).  But, the airlines are knocking on the wrong door.  The boarding process is very well optimized.  It is the carry-on baggage issue that needs to be addressed by either eliminating overhead bins, or by reducing the carry-on luggage.  This would either mean charging for carry-on baggage or eliminating them completely.

It would be interesting to see if there has been an uptick in boarding times since baggage fees were instituted.  If there is, it makes sense to address this problem by focusing on the carry-on luggage.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Building Motobecane MTB 550HT

All these years, I have been walking into a LBS to buy my bikes.  This summer, I thought of buying a bike online and assembling it for my daughter.  Here is an account of how easy it was to assemble a Motobecane 550HT Mountain Bike. 

The 550HT is a bike with pretty decent components for the price.  It comes with an aluminum frame, Suntour XCT shocks, SRAM X4 derailleur as well as Tektro Draco hydraulic disc brakes.  I was against buying hydraulic disc brakes (didn't want to get into the bleeding routine), but after trying them out, convinced myself to get one.

The bike came in a box with not a lot of cushioning.  Luckily, nothing was broken or bent out of shape. 

The frame came with the rear wheel assembled with the crank and chainset in place.  The fork was also assembled.  Everything else was loose.  Almost everything needed some tightening and greasing.  The tools needed to assemble this bike are simple: a Phillips screw driver, metric Allen key set, 14mm spanner to tighten the pedals. 

Once the bike was assembled, it was time to tune it.  The derailleur needed some fine adjustments. The brakes needed adjustment since the pads were rubbing against the disc.  Luckily, I didn't have to bleed the brakes.  I bought a bleeding kit online, just in case.  The head needed tightening. 

Then came the tough part: wheel truing. 

Both the wheels had loose spokes and needed truing since they were off by more than a mm in at least one place.  Luckily, I found this site which made truing a simple task.  I inverted the bike and got to work with the spoke spanner I bought from REI.  BTW, the local REI mechanics were great in guiding me on what to lubricate and what not to touch. 

After all the final adjustments, it was time to take the bike for a spin. 

Overall, the bike is great for the money.  I am sure it won't withstand the punishment some of the extreme trails at Duthie hill park have to offer.  But, it holds up to my daughter's style of riding. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Dynamic real-time maps

I-5 bridge over Skagit river collapsed last night.  I read about it today morning.

Since lot of people will be driving over to Vancouver from Seattle for the long weekend, I wanted to check out the damage and how it is going to affect the travel.  I go to Google maps and voila, Google has already done the work for us.  Check out the image below to see how Google has already updated the map so that the break in the freeway is shown.  It would have been cooler if they indicated the breakage of the bridge, rather than a missing segment on the map.   

Now, look at Bing maps and see what it says.  As per Bing, you can still drive over the (broken) bridge, and nothing is wrong!

Now, I went back to Google maps and asked for directions from Seattle, Wa to Vancouver, BC, expecting to see something cool.  Here is what it returned:

Hah.  Google messed up.  So, now I am wondering if the I-5 breakage (shown in Google maps) is a bug in Google maps or whether it was updated based on today's news.  If the map WAS updated based on the news, kudos to Google.  But, they need to take it one step further and feed this information to the routing engine too.  Why stop half way?

Wouldn't it be interesting to create dynamic maps that are hooked into the news and update based on the current conditions, like breakage, bridge/road closures, etc?  There are lots of avenues to get this information and feed it into the maps.

I am looking forward to such innovation.  We do live in interesting times.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Design Innovation (or not)

I wanted to talk about design innovation, thinking out of the box, and pushing the envelope.  This is what every company (at least, consumer goods companies) is striving to become good at.  You can innovate like crazy, but still not solve the problem if you lose sight of your primary goals.  I think that is what is happening to the Tesla Model X.

As you can see in the Model X Reveal video, Elon Musk talks about the problems addressed by the new design:
  • More stylish than a minivan
  • More spacious than a SUV
  • Ease of getting a child car seat into the car
  • Ability to stand inside the car
  • Ability to easily get into the third row without folding the second row
The design is super sexy because we don't see it often on the streets.  We have only seen gull wing doors on sports cars and super cars.  Now, you can have it on an SUV that most people can afford!  BTW, Tesla calls this design 'Falcon Wing' since it flexes in the middle in order to minimize overhang.  A cool bit of engineering and innovation. 

Really cool design. 

What is not that cool is the fact that the design only solves a few problems and creates a lot more issues.  It does solve the virtues that Elon mentions.  But, it does create other issues:
  • Letting rain water into the cabin.  Remember, rain rarely comes perfectly down.  It is always blown by wind and comes down at an angle
  • Letting snow fall into the cabin.  If you ever lived in snow country, you know what I am talking about
  • Forget snow falling into the cabin.  Anyone who has shoveled snow knows how heavy snow is.  A few inches of snow on the roof would mean that the hydraulic/pneumatic mechanism on the door would fail to even raise the door.  In fact, it could even break the mechanism
  • Inability to mount a roof rack.  An SUV without a roof rack.  C'mon.  I know Tesla packs a ton of cargo space (including the 'frunk'), but I can't carry 3 bikes or a canoe inside the cargo space
  • What about older homes with low ceiling garages?  You cannot even open the doors while inside the garage
  • How safe is this feature?  Most car roofs are designed to support the weight of the car body (when it is upside down) with the doors shut (Now you know why it is important to remember to lock the doors).  With the buckling Falcon Wing doors, are they strong enough to hold the weight of the base?  Maybe, they are, considering the fact that the Model X is pretty light compared to its gas counterparts
  • Opening area when the door is open is huge.  Of course, it allows one to stand inside the car, but who would want to do that?  With this large opening, your hard working A/C will have to work extra hard to cool/heat the cabin every time you open and shut the door
One of the main reasons minivans have sliding doors is to solve a lot of these issues.  If the main purpose was to solve the issue of loading car seats, and loading passengers into the rear seats, Tesla could have come up with a better and cooler sliding door.  Falcon Wing doesn't seem to cut it.  It is a cool fashion statement, but not practical in a lot of geographies.  Fashion statements work in niche products (like super cars).  But, if Tesla is aiming this at the mass market, Falcon Wings are not the answer. 

If the main problem to solve was the passenger loading, there are a ton of other ways to do it.  By innovating on the seating.  Maybe, by swiveling the middle row seats so that the seat faces you when the door opens.  This will aid in easily attaching a car seat.  It will also get the backrest out of the way and provide more space to get into the third row.  There are a lot of other ways to solve the problem at hand, AND not create additional problems.

Talking about out of the box thinking, here is a company that has created one of the lightest EVs around.  Check them out:

Image courtesy: Tesla Motor Co.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Memoto use-case

Ever since I read about the Memoto lifelogging camera, I was wondering where it can be effectively used without intruding on privacy of others.  Google glass is already facing scrutiny even before its launch.  Same holds true for Memoto.  How would the world react if you walked around with a video camera in hand recording everything in view?  The difference now is that you are wearing a tiny camera masquerading as a pair of glasses or a necklace or a clip.
Today, we were visiting one of our friends and their month old baby.  We started talking about how they should capture every fleeting moment of the baby's childhood and how precious it is.  That is when it struck me that this is a perfect use-case for Memoto.  Clip a Memoto to the mother's dress and it takes a snap every 30 seconds.  With the mother spending a majority of her time with the newborn baby, chances are she will capture some really candid fleeting moments.  No more running for a camera when the baby smiles, no more running to get your smartphone when the baby takes the first step.  Memoto does it for you.  In fact, you could even hang a Memoto onto the crib to record everything that the baby does.

This use-case is perfect since it is private and you are not recording anyone else without their permission.  Once you have the images, you can determine what to do with them and how to use them.

Oh, just make sure you remember to take Memoto off when you to to the bathroom :)

Monday, March 04, 2013


There has been a lot of speculation on the iWatch that Apple is working on.  Analysts are comparing it to the other watches available and are peering deep into the watch industry for insights on the market, revenues and margins.  What everyone should realize is that the iWatch (or whatever Apple chooses to call it.  In fact, I would call it iWear) is just another wearable computing device.  I don’t consider it to be a watch.  I hope it is much more than a watch.

Let me talk a little bit about watches.

A watch, per Wikipedia, is a device that tells time.  It is a timepiece.  It is generally worn around the wrist or attached to a chain and carried in the pocket.  Traditionally, watches have been either manual or automatic (driven by kinetic movement).  These watches have slowly progressed from just telling the time to being a calendar and then being a stopwatch.  These additional behaviors are called 'complications'.  There are a few automatic watches that perform the function of an alarm clock too!   There are smart watches (not in the computer smart terms), which understand the variation of days in a month (yearly calendar watches) and there are those which can even compensate for the leap year (perpetual calendar watches).  There are watches for the blind.The video below shows a Patek Philippe watch with a chime!

These are mechanical marvels driven by just a flywheel that charges one or more springs either based on manual winding or the kinetic movement of the wearer’s hand (or the winding machine).

Then came the era of electronic quartz watches.  These were powered by small batteries and were completely electronic.  Quartz crystals, by their nature are very accurate leading to extremely accurate watches.  Additionally, the electronics afforded designers to add additional functionality into the watches.  These watches had lights to see at night, multiple time zones, stop clock, alarm, and other features.  And, there are the techy watches which need a degree in computer science to tell the time.  The quartz electronic watches were also fashionable since they were tiny and could be fashioned into any shape and size.

There have been several watchmakers who are trying to reinvent the timepiece.  Urwerk is a classic example making high end watches that beat the conventional wisdom.

The watch market is a thriving market.  There are people who buy one watch to tell time.  There is a segment of the market where watches are akin to jewelry.  They buy several; one for the office, one for sports, one for the evening party, one for the black tie event, etc.  There is another segment that just buys watches just to collect them.  I belong to this segment.  I guess we haven’t heard the Confucius saying ‘Man with one watch always knows what time it is.  Man with two, never sure.’  The watch market is huge.

I have always wondered about one thing.  Whenever I walk into a meeting, I look around to notice what watch everyone is wearing.  I am sure anyone who is interested in watches would do the same.  I have never, let me say it again, never been in a room (full of people) where I saw two people wearing the same brand/model of watch.  There have been some rare occasions where two people were wearing the same brand, but never the same model.  That itself shows you the market for the variety of watches.  The global watch market is about $60 billion a year with a margin of around 60%.  Everyone is looking into the watch market and wondering how Apple will disrupt it. 

If Apple is targeting the watch market, it is looking in the wrong direction.  Apple should be looking at something that is much more than the watch market.  In fact, when Apple releases their iWear, people should buy it, and still be buying/wearing watches. 

The point I am trying to make is that Apple should not be getting into the watch business.  The watch industry will thrive by itself, and there are many disruptors around.  All phones have a timepiece functionality built into them.  The phone industry has had incredible penetration in the past decade.  Did it affect the watch industry?  Nope.  People still wear watches.  Quartz watches came and kicked the traditional mechanical watch’s butt.  But, I still buy mechanical (manual winding as well as automatic) watches!  My computer has a very accurate clock.  My cell phone has an incredible clock which automatically adjusts to the timezone I am in.  Still, I wear my automatic wristwatch which loses about a few secs a week (which, by the way, is pretty bad).  Why do I still wear it?  It is a part of my attire.  One reason may be that I love the mechanical marvels (automatic watches) and want one ticking away on my wrist.  I have not seen people ditch watches in droves since they are carrying their cellphones with them. 

Apple should be getting into the wearable computer industry.  We do ‘wear’ our cellphones, but there is a huge difference between carrying a device and wearing one close to your body, close to millions if not billions of interface points (skin cells, veins, etc.) to a human body.  This affords incredible opportunities in various areas of which telling time is the least important one. 

With a computer strapped onto my wrist, the device can be:
  • a health monitor (heart rate, temperature, etc.)
  • a pedometer
  • an alarm
  • a safety monitor
  • a tracker
  • a phone
  • a camera
  • a music player
  • a video player
  • a device to inject medicine based on a schedule
  • a GPS
  • an internet browser
  • a calendar
  • a timepiece
You get the drift.  It can be anything.  As long as you are wearing a computer on your body, there is no limit to what it can do.  That is where Apple should be heading.  Apple should build an ecosystem around this wearable computing device in the same way it built an ecosystem around iPod with its iTunes store.  This will afford incredible opportunities for smart entrepreneurs to innovate and bring great applications to life.

I am excited for Apple and am ready to pounce on this opportunity.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Enterprise startups are sexy

“The door to the consumer is through the enterprise, and not vice versa.”

This is what RIM co-CEO Jim Balisille said in 2007 when RIM was flying high.  This was the comment made when Apple released its iPhone to the consumer market.  That was then, and this is now.  RIM is struggling to stay alive, and corporate America has embraced the iPhone.

With technological advances, mobile computing, cloud computing, connectivity, BYOD phenom and a host of other factors, there has been a major shift in how new technology is being introduced into the enterprise.  Here is a very insightful article on this issue.  If that was interesting, read the full interview with Marc Andreessen here.