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Ubergizmo Makes Gadgets Accessible to Non-Geeks (and Fashion Accessible to Geeks!)

At Ubergizmo's Digital Summer fashion show, a dress by San Francisco-based designer Colleen Quen with a HP mini Vivienne Tam netbook. (Photo by Liz Caruana.)

Did you know that for $50, you can turn your iPhone into a mobile microscope with 60x zoom and LED light display?

Or that a bug in Apple's FaceTime video chat feature suggests that it can take and store pictures without you even knowing it?

The place to find stories like these is San Francisco's Ubergizmo, where geeks explain technology in language that non-geeks can easily understand.

The perfect antidote to the gibberish typically found in user manuals.

Ubergizmo was was co-founded by designer Eliane Fiolet and software engineer Hubert Nguyen, both native French speakers, as a small blog in September 2004.

"We never thought it would be successful," says Fiolet. "Back then we both had day jobs."

They had a surprise coming. Traffic grew quickly, so the following year they launched as a website, and by summer 2007, they could quit their day jobs to focus on Ubergizmo.

Unlike some of their larger competitors, like Gizmodo and Engadget, they are headquartered here, not in New York, plus they have never taken any venture capital funding.  Today, they operate one of the top consumer electronics sites on the web, cited by the likes of the Wall Street Journal, ABC, and the BBC, from their offices on Potrero Hill.

"We were the first gadget blog publish really short articles and also the first to publish in languages other than English, says Fiolet. At this point, Ubergizmo has a strong reach internationally (over 200 countries) and six language versions.

"Tech products ten years ago were driven by people's needs," says Nguyen, "but today it is by what people want."

"Entertainment," adds Fiolet."

What I find especially useful from a consumer's point-of-view are articles like the review Nguyen wrote of the iPad2 last month. Whenever product upgrades like this one appear on the market with a lot of marketing sizzle, many people can't help themselves from plunking down the cash to get their hands on the new gadget before finding out whether it's actually worth it to do so.


In his detailed review, Nguyen took this question on directly: 
"In my view, most iPad 1 owners won’t feel the *need* to upgrade from the iPad to the iPad 2 (although, they might feel the 'urge')..." His advice: Don't bother upgrading yet, as the incremental improvements of the iPad2 are not that significant, plus cooler versions are are in the works already.

I also asked Fiolet from her perspective as a designer what she thought of the various media apps from companies like Wired or Rupert Murdoch's The Daily.

"The major problem is that the people who are the decision makers started in the paper business, and the way they think about implementing a tablet app is as if they are just putting the paper inside the tablet. They don't think about interaction. Just about a newspaper or magazine on a screen.

"Of course you need great content, but you also most provide a great user experience, and they don't realize that yet."

She also noted that most media websites or mobile apps are too male-oriented in their designs. "They tend to be blue, gray, with square  boxes. For our site, I added curves, bright colors -- no blue, no gray -- and we have twice as many women readers (20%) as most tech gadget sites.  At our Facebook page, it is 25% women. So you can influence the composition of your audience by how you design your site."

Just as Ubergizmo, the website, specializes in making technology accessible to non-geeks, the company makes attempts in the physical world to bring together communities that normally do not mix much -- like artists and engineers.

At an annual event called Digital Summer, Fiolet organizes fashion shows sponsored by tech giants like Intel. "All the geeks love it," she says, and the fashion designers do too."

"Maybe next time," she chuckles,  "I put tech people as models on the runway!"