Xiaomi has announced an add-on accessory button that plugs into the phone’s audio jack. If this sounds familiar, then you may have already heard about Pressy, an earlier successful, but yet-to-ship, Kickstarter campaign that essentially does the same thing. Here are our thoughts on the matter.
In August last year, a startup called Pressy launched a successful Kickstarter campaign for an innovative device: an additional button for your smartphone that plugs into the headphone jack. Called Pressy, the plug-in button promised to enable users to launch apps or run commands with a click of the button.
Through a custom app, the button could be customized to run different commands depending on the number of clicks. For instance, one click could launch the camera app. Two clicks would turn on the LED flash as a torch, and so forth.
The project far surpassed its target in a matter of days, gaining $695,000 in pledges — well beyond its $40,000 target.
It’s not surprising that third-party manufacturers would catch on to the trend and build their own devices. Chinese OEMs are known for no-label or no-brand devices that essentially copy technology off of known brands. For example, even Kuai Anniu, a project launched on DemoHour, a Chinese equivalent of Kickstarter, built on the same concept.
What’s surprising is how Chinese company Xiaomi has suddenly launched a similar product of its own, reportedly called MiKey in the Chinese market. Xiaomi even undercut Pressy’s price point substantially, perhaps geared toward gaining more mass appeal than the yet-to-ship product. Tech in Asia reports that MiKey will retail for $0.79, just a fraction of Pressy’s $27 pre-order price.
According to a statement from Pressy, “knock-off versions were anticipated.” However, the company “did not expect to see it from such a respectable and known company,” and having “IP rights for the design and functionality of Pressy,” it is considering the next moves regarding how to handle the situation.
I would agree with Pressy that knock-off versions are often the bane of any hardware and even software company building on platforms as popular as Android. Soon after you launch your product, you can expect copies to be launched by third-party manufacturers, often at deeply discounted prices.
There may be little recourse for Pressy now that the damage has been done, though. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
Chinese knockoffs? Expect it. That’s the power of Chinese manufacturing capability, after all: speed and flexibility. Where else can you find a manufacturing plant change specs and tweak designs and restart manufacturing in a matter of hours? This is the reason Apple builds even its most precision-designed devices in China. They’re good at what they do. And for hardware accessories, it’s easy enough to reverse-engineer the product and build clones in some facility that can churn out thousands of units faster than you can say “pressy.” Want an accessory button for your Android device? Mi too!
It’s not exactly a new technology altogether. Audio jack circuitry is not exactly rocket science. DIY builders have been creating accessories that take advantage of the simple circuitry of the 3.5-inch audio jack. I even remember doing some simple modifications to handsfree Nokia headsets about a decade back to make these work with Motorola FRS radios. What Pressy has done, however, is build on these ideas and make a marketable product that will cater to the biggest mobile market today: Android users.
Pressy has not shipped yet. For all the buzz and hype, Pressy has not shipped its product yet, seven months after the Kickstarter project was fully funded. Through this time lag, third party manufacturers may have already taken heed and decided to come up with products of their own. In fact, Pressy is aware of this, warning its fans about fake products. “We have encountered a few counterfeiters who try to sell Pressy online as their own. Until we officially launch Pressy and you get yours you can be sure that those Pressys are fake.”
It’s all about the app. Still, in fairness to Pressy, the technology is not only about the audio jack accessory. Rather, it’s the app that controls the functionality of the button that the company gets credit for. The startup had been reportedly building the app months before the Kickstarter campaign was even started. In short, your $27 payment mostly goes to the development of the Pressy app itself. Xiaomi — perhaps along with other third-party manufacturers — has proven that you can build the accessory dirt-cheap and still make it work. Let’s hope that Pressy’s app does offer superior features and user experience than others.
With debates like this one, the concern about the need to update the laws on software copyright and patenting come to mind. To date, software is the only creation that can enjoy both copyright (as with artistic or creative works) and patent (as with technology and process) protection. This enourages creators to build on their own ideas, with the promise of profit or other gain. However, with patent (and sometimes trademark) trolls lurking around, innovation is sometimes stifled.
It’s not that Pressy is not actively working on actually building and shipping their product. But with a bigger company already announcing a competing product that does essentially the same thing, we will see how this pans out in the courts of law and the courts of public opinion.