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The Zipper: Is This As Good As It Gets?

The other day I was thinking about Kickstarter and all the great (or at least interesting and clever) products that have been created through Kickstarter campaigns- though my faith in crowdsourced funding was recently shaken with the wild success of The Coolest. $13 million raised to fund a cooler with a blender and a spot for your iPhone… uh, okay.

Really, world? THIS is the most successful Kickstarter campaign, ever?

Really, world? THIS is the most successful Kickstarter campaign, ever?

And don’t even get me started on Zack Brown’s potato salad. Though, to be fair, it looks like he threw a great party, PotatoStock, and I would happily wear a “Peace, Love, and Potato Salad” shirt.

Anyway, I was thinking about product design and whether similar to ecological systems, where we have the concept of “apex predators”, are there apex inventions? Apex predators are defined as predators with no natural predators of their own, and they are a pretty badass list of creatures- Killer whales (we in the Northwest prefer to call them Orcas), tigers, wolves, and saltwater crocodiles, to name a few. Unless you are an MMA fighter, you do not want to meet any of these creatures bare-handed. Even then, the odds are probably against you.

In the world of design, what could occupy this top spot? A product so dominant that the closest competitor quails with fear. Could the deceptively humble zipper be one of these rare creatures?

Zip-fly jeans- the greatest use of the zipper ever.

Zip-fly jeans- the greatest use of the zipper ever.

Before you scoff at the notion of the zipper as the top of the proverbial design food chain, let’s take a step back and admire its design and longevity. The zipper has few (or no, depending on how you define it) moving parts. It’s durable, easy to operate, incredibly effective, versatile, and ubiquitous. Zippers are on everything from clothing, to shoes, suitcases, and furniture. There are billions of zippers out there. I challenge you to go through a single day- heck, a single hour, without coming into contact with a zipper or something using a zipper.

Buttons. Snaps. Hooks. Velcro. Laces. Some of these challengers came before, some after. But none have the power, the bang for the buck, if you will, of the zipper. It reigns supreme.

Sit back and enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of the zipper.

Sit back and enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of the zipper. (Thanks Wikipedia)

I love this gif of how a zipper works. It’s oddly mesmerizing. So simple. So good at its job. I found myself wanting to work as well as a zipper. When you think about this simple mechanism coming together so perfectly- it’s a little bit amazing that evolution hasn’t provided us with a natural equivalent- though the formation of scar to close a wound does have some of the same properties.

Even more incredible and a testament to its enduring design is the fact that it hasn’t been significantly improved upon in nearly 100 years. In the years surrounding the Chicago World’s Fair, there was a flurry of innovation and design among those working on fasteners, but once Whitcomb Judson (usually credited as the inventor, though he did not make a commercially successful device out of it) and then Gideon Sundback got a hold of it, progress moved quickly to essentially the current design. Yes, zippers can now be bi-directional, but the fundamental shape- the teeth, the slider, and the little tab you grasp would be instantly recognizable to the inventors.

Zippers are everywhere and I contend, will continue to be. If you pause to imagine what clothing might look like in 100 years, it’s likely- whatever fabrics have been invented and whatever style is in fashion- the zipper is going to be involved. From curve hugging red carpet dresses, to rugged fire fighter jackets- zippers keep the goods in and the elements out better than anything else.

Form follows function. There is no denying the allure of a zipper-backed dress.

Form follows function. There is no denying the allure of a zipper-backed dress.

But, Velcro, you say! Sure, velcro is important and it’s a nice addition to a zipper on the front of a jacket, but there aren’t any clothes that require serious holding power that employ velcro alone. It’s adjustability and flexibility is part of its downfall when it comes to the top spot on the product hierarchy. Notwithstanding that brief period in the 80’s when Velcro dominated the shoe scene, now it’s been relegated to a punchline in Macklemore’s Wing$.

Much of a zipper’s genius comes from that engineering axiom, KISS. Keep it Simple, Stupid. The fewer parts involved, the easier to build, maintain, and use. The concept of Design for Assembly was developed in the late ’70’s at the University of Massachusetts, with aim to make products easy to assemble and although the process applied to much more complex products like Swatch watches and the Sony Walkman, I can imagine the zipper as the grandaddy of this concept.

Most know some version of the phrase, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” (Thanks Ralph Waldo Emerson!) and no one loves innovation more than I do, but what if there are truly apex products? Surely, the zipper should be allowed to hang it’s jersey in the Invention Hall of Fame.

Few products have the same staying power, the same relevance nearly 100 years after their debut without significant improvement. What else deserves a top spot? The wheel? Ballbearings? Airfoil wings? There aren’t a lot of fundamental designs that can compete with zipper for ubiquity, functionality, and durability.

As Jack Nicholson said, "What if this is as good as it gets?"

As Jack Nicholson said, “What if this is as good as it gets?”

The next time you slide on your favorite pair of jeans, ask yourself, “Is this as good as it gets?”

Why yes, yes it is.

I’d love your thoughts. Thanks for reading and sharing.

Captain Bill and the Innovation Bullet Train

After my last post discussing the incredible power and social good that technologies like Facebook and Twitter are generating today, I got to thinking about how interesting it is that Microsoft hasn’t been a participant in this most recent round of platform-level innovation. In fact, in a way that was oddly similar to Microsoft’s reluctance to embrace the power of the internet, until Bill Gate’s watershed memo, when the whole company pivoted to bear-hug the Internet “tidal wave” (should have more accurately said tsunami…), Microsoft was also reluctant to embrace or leverage Twitter or Facebook. Perhaps another instance of “Not Invented Here Syndrome” that the company seems to suffer from? Anyway, then I got to thinking about the previous technology revolution, that Microsoft dominated, desktop computing.

Bill launching Windows 95

Bill launching Windows 95

Although my children will never know the world before the age of easy, accessible computers, the Windows operating system was practically a single-product global revolution that changed the world and created vast wealth for Bill and many others, as Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat (shudder) are doing today for their young (mostly male, *sigh*) leaders.

So that line of thought brought me to another question- Bill is in a unique position, he has been the most prominent and influential figure in a technology revolution that brought amazing change to how our global citizenry communicates and works, and created tremendous wealth in the system and for himself. Then in 2000, rather than continuing to drive the engine of innovation and product development that he created- he boarded a new train: direct community investment.

Let’s unpack why this is such an interesting change. What Microsoft did through the 80’s and 90’s was ground-breaking and transformative and without a doubt, incredibly good from a social welfare perspective. The creation and expansion of affordable computing power leveled the playing field for invention, learning, development, communication, and made it possible for nearly *everyone* to participate and use computers for a myriad of purposes. There would be no Zuckerberg without Gates.

I’ll sidebar on Bill for a minute- I have never had an opportunity to meet him, but feel like

Bill's reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

Bill’s reading list is ALWAYS worth reading!

I have a good measure of him based on his actions and writings over the years. (I am a devotee of his reading list!) He is a deeply thoughtful, highly intelligent, driven man who is passionate and committed to doing something meaningful with the power that his wealth has afforded him. I can only imagine the hours of reflection and thought that went into stepping away from Microsoft to lead the Foundation with Melinda.

One question that must have come up constantly as he wrestled with his departure from the company is, “Will I do more good via direct investment through the Foundation than I would do as the leader of Microsoft?”

It’s not an easy question to answer, though history tells us that he decided in favor of the Foundation, for which I applaud him and hope that he will serve as a model to other young leaders who also amass great fortunes.

I am a huge fan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and one of the things that stands out to me is the recognition that even with the incredible financial resources at its disposal, the organization doesn’t try to directly assault any of the problems that fall within its charter (perhaps with the exception of eradicating Polio)- and indeed alleviating global poverty, improving global health and education are too vast to be simply solved through the liberal application of money. The underlying conditions and systems that cause and perpetuate these realities are too complex to be solved through money alone.

Rather, the Foundation has developed the concept of multiple focused, concentrated investments being made or seeded, with the aim of continuing to fund and grow those that take root and flourish. This model has roots in Biology and can be seen even at play in the free market system. The Foundation has great material on its mission and values- I highly recommend reading its Annual Reports.

I have little doubt that the Foundation’s impact and legacy, and thus Bill & Melinda’s, will be one of the highlights of the 21st Century, just as the computing revolution ushered us out of the 20th Century on a high note.

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

We are on a bullet train. Remember to take in the view!

So what’s the moral of this little journey? In part, it’s a reflection on the rapidly changing world that we live in. When observed from a distant vantage point, innovation is like a bullet train and we are its lucky passengers, watching the world whiz by, a view that we can become numb to, if we don’t take the time to really *look* at the transformation happening before our very eyes. And yes, there are some very special people who participate in driving and fueling that train. Bill Gates is undoubtedly one of the best and most remarkable among them.

Above all- I’d love to get Bill’s thoughts on this question, anyone have his number?

As always, I appreciate you reading and sharing my blog! It’s fun to sit alone and ruminate on these questions, but I far prefer conversation- so please share your comments and thoughts!

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