Actually we can add bubble-wrap, Silly Putty and Viagra to this list. They are all products or services that we now use in a way that was not how their creators intended.

The original creators of Brandy made it as a preservation method and a cheap way of transporting wine. Many years ago, taxes on wine were levied by volume, so merchants distributing wine would boil the water off of large quantities in order to both transport it more easily, and save on these taxes, adding more water at the end of the journey. At some point, one of these merchants discovered that the concentrated (or distilled) wine was delicious on its own and Brandywine, from the Dutch brandewjin (burnedwine) was born.

It seems that looking at something from another perspective can have beneficial results and even turn failure into success.

A 3M a researcher was trying to devise new super strong adhesives. One formulation was a spectacular failure, because the adhesive was so weak. For a while it was discarded, and then someone eventually realised that a very weak adhesive that could be removed and stuck down again was a whole new market. And so now we have Post-It notes.

While everyone knows the name and brand (there are now more than 600 Post-it Products including flags, labels, pockets, easels, bulletin boards and notes and they are a multi-million dollar revenue stream for 3M), this fail to win story didn't happen overnight. The almost-too-weak-to-stick solution was created by Spencer Silver in 1968, but it was six years before Arthur Fry came up with the perfect application and a further six before it was released to market in 1980.

Maybe it needed to be around for six years before another use was invented or maybe there needed to be a massive amount of office workers passing pieces of paper that needed annotating before Post-its had their moment in the spotlight (the idea might have struggled in the frugal, make-do-and-mend times of the forties for instance).

So maybe timeliness is a factor in all this. Ideas can only take off when the time is right. This was one of the strands of thinking that led us to experiment with a form that's forty years old this year and about as ubiquitous as it's possible to be: Barcodes, the small striped pattern that's on every product out there but is only useful if you have a shop, a till and a barcode reader. Until now that is, as the other ubiquitous device in most peoples pockets, the smartphone, also has the capability to read these codes. What happens when you put the two together in a way that's not about finding a price? What if you could leave a message on a product, share a story, tell a joke or write a poem for the whole world to see? What if every product barcode was a virtual pinboard?

Well, now it is. We've created Gum as a way to test this idea out, a way to let people into the machine readable network to write and share whatever they want. We thought people might stick their thoughts about a product, but until people get it in their hands who knows what might occur?!

Not that we think it's in the same league, but it's interesting to note that something we now take for granted like Twitter started in a very different place. I'll let a quote from Evan Williams (one of Twitter's founders) finish up:

“It was hard to define, because it didn't replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network”.

Could barcodes go from price check to information sharing? Get Gum and let us know :)



Steve Lloyd