Last week I got a chance to chat with Ryan Block, former editor-in-chief of Engadget and founder of GDGT, a product-review site with a few social twists (including crowdsourced user reviews and customizable “want” lists). Block has reached tech stardom, with more than 60,000 Twitter followers.
Last week the company hosted a meet-up in San Francisco, which felt like a micro-CES, with attendees moving from booth to booth to see tech toys. At the show, I had a chance to sit down and talk tech with Ryan.
QUALCOMM SPARK: What’s got your attention at the show?
RYAN BLOCK: We’ve got 47 companies here, there’s so much good stuff. One of the ones I really like is Transporter. It’s a peer-to-peer, Internet based, file-sharing device and service. For example, you have a Transporter drive, and I have one—and then sync our files together peer-to-peer. It’s like Dropbox, but Dropbox doesn’t have the files, it’s just between us. they’re actually launching the company and the product tonight. They get special billing in my book—they’re not just here, they’re actually launching their company here.
QUALCOMM SPARK: You’re holding an iPhone 5, is that your daily driver?
BLOCK: It is.
QUALCOMM SPARK: Is it all good?
BLOCK: Yeah, you know, it’s an iPhone. I upgrade my iPhone every year. As it’s the device that I’m on almost every moment that I’m away from my desk and not conversing with a human being. So at that level of usage I feel totally justified in upgrading my phone. I don’t have hard time justifying that to myself. Every year (the iPhone) gets a speed bump, a couple of new features, a little more goodness. It doesn’t feel like a completely changed device to me, it’s good.
QUALCOMM SPARK: What other gadget did you bring to the event?
BLOCK: That’s it. Our office is like a block away, I’ve got mounds of gadgets there.
QUALCOMM SPARK: (Preface: GDGT’s site always you to list products you want and currently own, among other things. You can view other users “want” and “own” lists as well as see if you have gadgets in common on these lists.) I checked my GGDT profile before I came to the event tonight; we only own 1 gadget in common that we both own. The Logitech Harmony One (a universal remote which is one of my all-time favorite gadgets). Do you still use it?
BLOCK: I do, with a caveat. It is amazing and I use it everyday. I did not upgrade or sidegrade to the Harmony Touch because I didn’t like that button layout for the hardkeys. I think it’s a great device, but the fact that it has to exist is so depressing to me. It serves as a constant reminder and testament to how ridiculously fragmented the home theater ecosystem is. And every time I pick it up, I’m grateful that it exists, but I’m depressed also that I have to use one of those things and it doesn’t just all work.
QUALCOMM SPARK: When you were at Engadget, photos were really important part of the experience. You guys had beautiful hands-on photos of gadgets, you were doing live blogs of events with photos. What DSLR are you using these days, it looks like you have a few Nikon lenses on your GDGT “want” list.
BLOCK: Whenever I do a live blog event (for GDGT), I’ll go get a Nikon because my setup is all geared to Nikon because I found that tethering (to a computer) is easier with a Nikon. I think my next actual camera purchase will not be a DSLR, it will be one of our “must-have” GDGT’s—the Sony RX100. That thing is dope. The sensor size is close to APS-C (which is what’s in a traditional DSLR.)
I have been trying to justify it to my wife though that I would get a Leica M next year when they come out. It’s so sick. So the M9 is the Lecia that’s been around for a while, I know a couple of people who have them; it takes beautiful pictures. I don’t really like the screen, it’s low-res—it looks really old school. I’m not gonna spend $6,000…I feel uncomfortable with even the idea of spending $6,000 on a camera, but if I’m going to, I want to make sure that the screen is not horrible to look at. The (upcoming) M has an amazing screen. The pixel density I think is even more than an (Apple) Retina display. So I’m really thinking about that, if I can somehow figure out a way to treat myself to a Lecia M. I don’t know how it’s going to happen…maybe I won’t buy a car next year or something…I don’t know, we’ll see.
QUALCOMM SPARK: So let’s switch gears, the site (www.gdgt.com) looks really good, is there no Adobe Flash?
BLOCK: There might be Flash ads, we don’t control the ads. There was one thing we had to do in Flash when we first launched back in 2009 because there was no way to do in in HTML. Right now and on the site and for the 3+ years there hasn’t been any Flash. I have been pretty not into Flash since the late 90’s.
QUALCOMM SPARK: You have a mobile site, but it looks like the full site. It’s nice, it’s got big images. Is it actually a different site? Is it an adaptable HTML site?
BLOCK: It is not responsive design. We actually look at the device requesting the page and then we built separate pages for that device. Part of the reason we didn’t do responsive design is because, I like responsive design, but to me, responsive design is kind of a compromise. You have to take all of these elements and then you have to reflow them together in order to get down to each step—tablet, phone, etc. (Responsive design) works well for media, we’re not really media, we’re like a web application. We have so much interactivity that there was no way to do it and have a really great user experience. Everything we do a GDGT, we put user experience first and design first so we built the mobile site specifically for mobile usage. It doesn’t flow down responsively, it is designed for “this” device, not for a nebulous device of any size with a certain screen size and certain resolution. It’s designed specifically for a phone.
QUALCOMM SPARK: Are you seeing any trends with how people are accessing the site? Is mobile going up?
BLOCK: Our mobile performance is good pretty good. We’re seeing A LOT of tablet usage, more than I had originally anticipated. Although for tablets we deliver the full site because…it works really well on a tablet.
On a phone the thing we were trying to go after is “I’m in a store, I’m looking at a router, I have no idea what I’m looking at.” This is what happened to me, and I was like “why do we not solve this problem for people.” So I’ve got this shelf of routers at Best Buy, which one do I want to get? GDGT tells me what the best product is and if I get it cheaper online. Those are the two problems we’re trying to solve on the mobile side.
QUALCOMM SPARK: GDGT doesn’t have any native apps, is there a need for a native app?
BLOCK: I think there is. We have a lot of functionality on our site, more than what you would notice if you just came to the site for the first time and clicked around a little bit. The amount of work it would take for us, as a very small team, to port not even all but just a good size chunk of that functionality to an app is more than we can take on right now. We really want to do it, I’m not sure when we’ll get there.
QUALCOMM SPARK: If you had a native app, what features do you think you can add that the mobile site doesn’t currently do.
BLOCK: A lot of people ask for barcode scanning. Not only to use to find a product quicker, but if you bought a product, you could add it to your GDGT “Have” list, with a barcode.
QUALCOMM SPARK: Any new features coming to the site this year?
BLOCK: Yeah, we’re been launching a ton of stuff this year. We just launched a system that will show you the product linage. So if you’re on the first iPhone, it will show you that there is now an iPhone 5 so you can zip right there. This is really helpful for HDTVs because there are a lot of HDTVs on the market, but you don’t always know if you’re looking at the latest model. So we can tell you about that HDTV but also there is a slightly new model that’s out.
We just launched price alerts. So you can get an email anytime a price drops on a product that’s on your “want” list or that you just sign up for. That’s been a big one, that’s actually our most popular email that we send out.
QUALCOMM SPARK: You wrote a column for Spark that referenced inventors Edison and Tesla and it ended up becoming our most commented on article—it has over 1000 comments! The comment section has a spawned a crazy debate about Edison and Tesla; inventors who died a long time ago. Why do you think that people care so much about these guys and why did it end up being such a controversial story??
BLOCK: I felt that the case that I laid out was not controversial; it’s funny how it got tangentially controversial. I think Tesla and Edison are collectively responsible for a very large portion of how we live today, in a very technology oriented society. The technical advancements that they made and their labs made can be directly correlated over time with how we live today. Edison gets a lot of attention, he is looked at as one of the, if not the greatest inventor of his time. And Tesla, was arguably a better inventor and has contributed more to science, tends to get overlooked—excepted by nerd. And there something, people just come out of the woodworks, I just did not even think that was going to become a thing.
QUALCOMM SPARK: Well you did it! You tapped into something!
BLOCK: Well, I’ll tell you, this happens from time to time. One time I wrote a piece for Engadget called “Would You Sell a Kidney for a Hush?” (Hush) was a PC; it was a quiet, all aluminum, Home Theater PC and it was crazy expensive. It was like $6,000, hence the headline “Would You Sell a Kidney for a Hush”—you know, I was being cheeky. Now, no joke, that post’s commenting system turned into, going on seven years now, a giant thread of people all over the world putting out offers to actually sell their kidney. Which was something totally unintended…like the law of unintended consequences, right? And to this day you will actually go to that thread and people will be like “hey, I live in Bulgaria I have a kidney I’d be willing to sell you. My blood type is A negative; $20,000 US Dollars, you pay surgery.” This is illegal in most countries! I’m not at Engadget anymore, but many years ago we opted never to shut the comments down because we through it was so unbelievable. So sometimes, like I said, law of unintended consequences. You write one thing, and people just react to it, then it goes off on it’s own and it has its own life.