Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A simpler approach to computers Entrepreneur takes father’s ideas, turns them into a business

Software entrepreneur Aza Raskin measures productivity improvements by theseconds.
Using Enso, his company’s new software, it takes just 3 seconds tocalculate, say, sales tax of 8.25 percent. That’s about one-tenth the time itwould take if a user was to call up the calculator that comes with Windowsusing the Start command, he said.
You might wonder what difference 27 seconds makes in the scheme of things,but Raskin is striving for the absence of interruptions with his new software,which is always at the ready on the desktop.
To fetch it a user simply holds down the Caps Lock key. For example, tolaunch Notepad, hold down Caps Lock, type open, then notepad. To get adefinition for a word, hold down Caps Lock, then type define and the word.Enso Words, which also includes spell-checker and a thesaurus, is designed towork on all applications, from Photoshop to various e-mail and instantmessaging systems, so users don’t have to stop and switch applications tocheck a word.
“One of the impediments to modern computers is they make you jump around somuch. They break your train of thought,” Raskin said. “If you lose what you’rethinking about, that’s going to cost you a lot more time.”
Raskin, the company’s 23-year-old president, is one of four University ofChicago alumni who are principals at Humanized, a Chicago-based softwarecompany promising to simplify the use of Windows-based PCs.
“By making computers easier to use and more humane, the productivity edgecan really help you out,” he said.
It’s not an original idea. In fact, Humanized stems from the work ofRaskin’s late father, Jef Raskin, who created the vision for the Macintoshcomputer and authored the book, “The Humane Interface.” Aza Raskin startedHumanized after his father died of pancreatic cancer in 2005 and has dedicatedEnso to his memory.
While Humanized’s software has received early accolades for its ease ofuse, ultimately the company will need more than cutting-edge technology to besuccessful, experts said.
“Most great technology companies succeed because of marketing, not becausetheir technology is great,” said Scott Meadow, professor of entrepreneurshipat the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and a partner atEdgewater Funds, a Chicago private-equity firm. “The specialized knowledge inbeing able to market the technology is what separates the winners from thelosers normally.”

Price dropped
Just a week after it launched its first two software products, EnsoLauncher and Enso Words, on Jan. 24, Humanized slashed the price of the twoproducts, which are downloadable at Together, they sell for$35, down from $65 initially, and the company is refunding the difference forthose who purchased at the higher price, Raskin said.
“People really like Enso but said it was too expensive,” Raskin explained.”We decided we wanted to reach more people. We think we’re going to get moresales at a lower price.”
Still, the company might have hurt its image in the process.
“They couldn’t help but appear somewhat amateurish,” Meadow said. “Everyconstituency you deal with views you differently when you make changes early,whether investors, customers, suppliers or people you want to hire.
“To the extent you don’t seem organized and thoughtful about yourdecision-making process, it doesn’t create confidence in the underlyingproduct.”
Ideally, the company would have thoroughly tested the pricing beforerolling out the software, Meadow said. Such business missteps are common amongstartups founded with a great idea but lacking in business experience.
“It’s a question of recognizing what you’re good at and what you’re not,”Meadow said. When a company identifies a weakness, it needs to bridge the gapby bringing in an advisor or professional manager, he said.
Still, those familiar with Humanized see a promising future in Enso.
“The best way to get over obstacles is to have happy customers,” said DougMcKenna, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Mathemaesthetics Inc., who workedwith Raskin’s father and is an advisor to Humanized. “The best way to succeedis to prove you’ve got something people want and are willing to pay for.”
McKenna is hopeful, in part, because underlying the Enso software is aphilosophy of simplicity that many embrace, he said. Enso sets up “a means ofnavigating through stuff in our personal computers in a way that’s easy toaccomplish,” he said.
“If you have to [play around] with a file system or think aboutapplications, it gets in your way,” McKenna said.

A father’s influence
Aza Raskin grew up hearing his father talk about simplifying computers,said Linda Blum, his mother.
“Jef’s primary goal was to make the computer easier to use, so you wouldn’thave to think about how it worked–more like a toaster,” she said.
Jef Raskin encouraged his son to think about why things worked in a certainway, asking, “Is it good for humans or isn’t it?” Blum recalled. “They werequite close. Aza started programming with Jef when he was in 6th grade.”
Aza was home-schooled in 8th grade, with Jef Raskin teaching him algebraand pre-calculus, plus programming and shop, Blum said. When Aza was studyingmath and physics at the University of Chicago, his father was asked to teach acourse on the human interface. Aza became the teaching assistant, andHumanized principals Jono DiCarlo and Atul Varma were in the class.
Aza founded Humanized with DiCarlo, Varma and his U. of C. roommate AndrewWilson shortly after his father died, because he didn’t want the ideas tovanish. Within a few weeks, Humanized had a prototype of its software, thenspent about 18 months fine-tuning it, Aza Raskin said. The company decided todesign it for Windows-based computers, he said, “because Windows needs themost help.”
While Humanized plans to develop a Macintosh version of its Enso softwareat some point, first the company will add new offerings to the Windows line,including a more powerful calculator and a media player, Raskin said. All thesoftware will use the same unified framework, with most users accessing itthrough the Caps Lock key.
“Once you learn it, you don’t have to learn it again,” he said.
- - -
Humanizing PCs
- The software: The Enso programs aim to simplify the use of Windows-basedPCs
- Where to get them: Download from
- Cost: $35 for both Enso Launcher and Enso Word

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