The Eigenharp, openness, and launching something (really) new

Today I attended the launch of something weird and wonderful: a new musical instrument, the Eigenharp. And although this is a hardware device the event, and the run up to it, brought to mind the launch of our own Open Platform six months ago. By seeing some commonalities between the two it gave me a whole new respect for the people who do marketing and PR, because it reminded me how much stuff needs to be planned. Common phases I saw are: (1) the controlled buzz, (2) openness at launch, and (3) the follow-through. But first a few words about the two products…

The Eigenharp and the Open Platform

The Eigenharp is a new kind of device. It’s a musical instrument with several patents already filed, and incorporates 132 keys with three-colour LEDs and a breath pipe. The keys operate in three dimensions (so you can exploit, say, pressure, pitch bend and filter effects with one finger) and are sensitive to within one micron. So while it’s compatible with MIDI, that’s an incredibly out-of-date protocol compared to what you could do with it.

The Open Platform has been well-documented here and elsewhere: a full content API directly into the Guardian’s content database, plus a store of raw data on which our journalists base some of their stories.

Although they are clearly two different kinds of beasts a remarkable similarity struck me in that they are both not just new products, but really new products. There is no clearly defined place for them in either of their markets, and no predictable success path for either one. The success of each is dependent entirely on other people’s innovation. The Eigenharp’s success is dependent on musicians taking their creativity into new directions — no-one to date has written music for an Eigenharp. The Open Platform’s success is dependent on developers doing innovative things with the new data they have access to.

So how do you launch a product that’s really new? The similar steps I can see are…

1. The controlled buzz

Eigenlabs (the creators of the Eigenharp) and the Guardian (creators of the Open Platform) managed to seed a few select people with their product — musicians and developers respectively — and some small details leaked out. This clearly did a couple of things.

First, it helps you get the product right. I know from my conversations around the Open Platform that what might seem a good idea to one or two people close to the product can provoke strong negative reactions when you float it past an informed outsider. When you’re inside the company you can easily think too much and lose the big picture, so it’s good to get an informed but independent view before you go public.

Second,  creating a buzz protects you from a bit of unforeseen negative reaction — if people are excited about your product and want it to succeed they will forgive some minor mistakes. You can see Eigenlabs achieved this with this low-fi video of two guys playing the James Bond/Moby theme on YouTube. Eigenlabs didn’t create this themselves, but they let “close friends” do it, and you can see the reaction in the comments underneath: “What the hell!! This is awesome”, “where can I buy one of these?”, “dear god this is epic” and so on.

The benefits of this are well explained by Lance Ulanoff at Here he compares the lacklustre launch of the Motorola Cliq with the hype from the January 2009 announcement (six months before the launch) of the Palm Pre:

Speaking of Palm, it has a good bit in common with Motorola right now. The Pre (and now Pixi) is its hail-Mary pass. If the new phone and WebOS platform fail, Palm will be done. Back in January, however, Palm ran the best product rollout event I have ever attended. It perfectly conveyed the company’s excitement and all that is good about the Pre. I remember tweeting the event with mounting excitement. Today, I tweeted the Motorola event with mounting confusion.

What Palm did in January was give the Pre a good hard shove off the shore. Those waves of excitement produced a good six months of positive press. Eventually, Palm and the Pre hit some rough waters—a shipping delay, the slow delivery of the SDK and tiny list of apps that has yet to grow. Still, that first day set the tone.

Then after the buzz is…

2. Openness at launch

There’s much that doesn’t need to be said about the launch event, but one thing that struck me about both the launch of the Eigenharp and the launch of the Open Platform was a common ethos: the honesty and openness of the presenters, and the openness of the products.

At both events the “real users” (musicians/developers) were on-stage demonstrating their early adoption of the product and open to questions from the audience. These are the kinds of people who most marketing and PR people would lock in cupboards at a press event for fear they arrive without the regulation press-on smile and go off-message. But when a product’s success relies on innovation and creativity from its real users then it’s important that intended audience hears an authentic voice.

Also, there is an openness about both products. Aside from the very concept of opening up content and data, the Open Platform gives a lot of latitude to developers, including (unusually) commercial use. Meanwhile Eigenlabs are open-sourcing their software. Again, because each product’s success relies on people taking it in unexpected directions it’s important for there to be as many opportunities as possible for that to happen. Otherwise its success is stifled.

And then finally there’s…

3. The follow-through

Well, it’s early days for both products. The Open Platform API is still in beta, but you can see some developments now, such as the launch last week of the Applications Gallery. It’s even earlier for the Eigenharp. Company founder John Lambert was asked what well-known musicians he’d like to see using his creation and he said that a number of high profile people do have the instrument but that he cannot name any names yet. Clearly some really interesting things are going to happen some time soon.

If a product really does depend on the creativity of others then you can’t — and mustn’t — be too controlling of what those people do with it. (When I spoke to him John seemed slightly apprehensive about the quality of some of the things people might produce around the Eigenharp; I bet Matt McAlister didn’t anticipate a swearword tracker coming out of the Open Platform.) But if you can’t control what others do, you can at least show some examples of what might be achieved, and that’s what the follow-through is doing with each of these products.

1-2-3, easy as A-B-C

Now if any marketing people have stumbled across this blog post I wouldn’t be surprised if they were horrified by the naivety of these observations — all of this might just be first grade A-B-C of marketing for them. But I find this fascinating. As a tech person it’s very easy for me to focus on my own role and not spend much time wondering what challenges are faced by my colleagues in other departments. Here are two products whose paths to success are unusually dependent on the unknown and whose stories will be well worth watching. By looking at the communication that’s gone on around them the significance of other people’s role becomes much more apparent. Technology success is about much more than successful technology.