Tackling an email inbox full of spam, newsletters and reply-all chains can be a headache. Y Combinator Founder Paul Graham wrote an article recently about the modern day problems he wants to see solved and wants to fund, and unsurprisingly, email is one of those problems. “Email was not designed to be used the way we use it now,” Graham wrote. “Email is not a messaging protocol. It’s a todo list. Or rather, my inbox is a todo list, and email is the way things get onto it. But it is a disastrously bad todo list.”
There are alternatives to email inboxes, from Twitter’s direct message feature to the Facebook inbox, but they often aren’t a suitable replacement for email. Traditional email services are trying to improve on the frustrating aspects of email to make sure users don’t stray. Within Google’s Gmail service there’s been a slew of innovation through the dozens of extra features from Gmail Labs. And outside plugins are improving the experience as well, with industry players taking note – Gmail plugin Rapportive was recently acquired by LinkedIn for a rumoured $15 million in cash. The browser add-on provides rich contact profiles on a sidebar next to an email, pulling a user’s social graph into their inbox. The investors in the social CRM add-on were none other than Y Combinator, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Paul Buchheit, who was the 23rd employee at Google and the original lead developer of of Gmail.
For most users, Facebook or Twitter’s messaging system is not a suitable replacement for email, and they need something like Gmail, Microsoft Outlook or Apple’s Mail client. A number of native client alternatives to Mail.app on Mac OS X exist, including Notify, Postbox, Mailplane, and Mozilla’s Thunderbird. However none have attracted the widespread attention and usage of Sparrow. A fully native desktop email client for Mac with full support for Gmail’s labels and stars, the real difference with Sparrow is the design and simplicity. The UI looks similar to Twitter client Tweetie, which was acquired by Twitter last year, and that’s no coincidence: Tweetie creator Loren Brichter is one of the company’s advisors. Sparrow co-founder Dom Leca told The Next Web that when he saw Tweetie for the first time, he thought it would be the default UI for many apps. After starting development of Sparrow, he simply asked Brichter if he could adapt the same UI as Tweetie. Sparrow just recently introduced an iOS version of its client, too, which is already attracting plenty of positive attention.
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Choosing the right pillow design or drawer knob is something that many new home builders and renovators will obsess over, and finding inspiration online is a growing trend. Pinterest-like site Houzz is a platform for finding home renovation ideas, and there’s certainly no shortage of inspiration with over 370,000 photos and 1.8 million “ideabooks” that users have created. Many of those ideabooks are created by users, but also by designers and architects who are using Houzz as a promotional tool.
Houzz launched in 2009, and raised an $11.6 million Series B round in December 2011 led by Sequoia Capital. Design inspiration sites in general are seeing a huge surge in popularity with Pinterest exploding and the widespread adoption of tablets that are conducive to browsing through photos. Houzz’s iPad app allows users to search their specific tastes and filter by other criteria, and it has been downloaded over a million times, with the average user sessions lasting about an hour.
So what does Houzz do that Pinterest doesn’t? One thing that differentiates Houzz in the design inspiration space is that they are working directly with designers to provide them with a place to promote their design talent. Many home owners have found a designers’ ideabook, contacted them and begun relationships. On the “Professional” tab, users can look at the designers in their city and view their ideabooks and sort by styles. There are 65,000 design professionals in total, with nearly 29,000 of those in the Bay Area. Many home improvement professionals have had success using it as a marketing tool, since designers aren’t charged to upload or share their photos or ideabooks.
It isn’t new for clients building a house or doing a renovation to come up with their own options for styles. They’ll go through hundreds of magazines, books and websites and print out everything that remotely interests them. After they’ve narrowed it down, clients will bring all of their designs to architects who can advise on the possibilities of implementing a certain style, looking if that sink or kitchen counter can realistically work in their house. Sites like Pinterest and Houzz let homeowners save their design plans in one space, in Houzz’s case in an ideabook they can take directly to architects.
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3D printers are not a new technology, they’ve been used for prototyping by large companies and the military for years. But coming soon will be 3D printing technology that allows people to “print” many objects in their household. If everyone is manufacturing many objects that are typically manufactured in China, what are the economic implications? Will this just be something that hobbyists continue to use, or will it be on everyone’s desks? Dr. Banning Garrett, Director of the Asia Program at the Atlantic Council and co-author of the recently published report “Could 3D Printing Change the World?” talked about this extremely disruptive technology in an interview, and he said we’ve only scratched the surface of its potential.
The possibilities for what can be created with 3D printers are infinite, as long as the object is within the resolution of the printer and made of the material the printer uses. Makerbot debuted the Makerbot Replicator 3D printer in January, which is now available for $1700. Makerbot was founded in 2009, and since then they’ve expanded their 3D printing capabilities from the size of a cupcake to the size of a loaf of bread. They focus on personalized manufacturing, and have a community for their hobbyists at Thingiverse.
While the Makerbot printer is aimed at consumers looking to print school projects or toys, there are industrial design implications for larger 3D printers. They remove the need to think about whether the standard production line can meet the requirements for a specific product. Boeing is printing titanium landing gear and even wings, and Dr. Garrett said three percent of the parts on a Boeing 757 are now printed. Medical companies are even using 3D printers to build replacement human body parts. While printers are very far away from being able to manufacture an entire iPhone or pair of headphones on a single printer, single parts can be printed for these complex devices. Instead of the U.S. Navy carrying around hundreds of spare parts they keep a large 3D printer and some smaller materials. If a bolt or nut is needed, it can be printed in a couple hours.
How products are designed fundamentally changes with 3D printers. “The key thing about it is that anything you can design, you can print,” Garrett said. It may seem this is already possible, but Garrett points out that products have to be built based on the tools available to build the parts. “Your design choices are strictly limited by what your machines can make. There are so many complex shapes that you simply can’t make with machine tools, or if you did it would be extremely expensive.” A factory machine does have the benefit of performing one task very efficiently. All consumer 3D printers on the market take hours to make a ball, something a factory machine could produce in seconds. But a ball with spikes? It would only be feasible to create if 10,000 were made.
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