Rafi Haladjian likes to approach a problem from multiple angles. By the end of 2006, his company, Ozone (http://www.ozoneparis.net ), will have finished connecting Paris into one of the biggest wireless internet or wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) networks in Europe. His other venture, Violet, is hard at work building to create the objects that will make that Wi-Fi network essential.
A Beirut-native, Haladjian arrived in France as a teenager and studied linguistics. He entered the telecommunications industry in 1983, pioneered the first Internet Service Provider (ISP) in France in 1994, FranceNet, and in 2003, sold it to British Telecom. Many would’ve retired, but Rafi thinks big. He founded two companies, Violet and Ozone, which are exploding the boundaries between technology and daily life.
“I was wondering what to do next. Then I found that the internet wasn’t the last step in the evolution of the way we use things to access networks. In my opinion, pervasive networks and smart objects were the next step,” he says.
“We want to start connecting people and not connecting places. When we use a DSL connection, you are not the one who is wired, your house is. The idea is that we should cover the whole city so you always have contact.”
At first, it was difficult to convince Parisians that Wi-Fi was essential. This year, Rafi feels the mindset has shifted as more and more people have computers with built in Wi-Fi and expect connections wherever they go.
A RABBIT WITH AN ARMENIAN ACCENT
Rafi’s other company, Violet, approached the same problem from the opposite direction. “We thought, let’s build technology you can embed in any object and make them provide many types of services,” he explains.
Their first WI-FI product was a pricey computerized lamp launched in 2003. It proved that you could build an everyday object with a technological component.
Nabaztag (www.nabaztag.com), the Armenian word for rabbit, was Violet’s next product and their first for mass consumption.
With a barebones advertising campaign that relied on word of mouth and web postings, it was released in June of this year and Parisians rushed to grab 5,000 Nabaztags in ten days. Violet rolled out another 10,000 units immediately after and those sold out in the following few months. Now, the company is faced with the dilemma of how to meet the steep increase in demand.
“In June, when you typed Nabaztag into Google, you had two hits and now you have at least 140,000,” Haladjian beams.
Hoping to hit the Japanese market by year’s end and the U.S. soon after, Violet needs to overcome some technical issues, including multilingual web resources and governmental certifications, and then they can go global.
What makes Nabaztag unique is that Violet has found a way to make techie objects friendly. Not only can users receive transmitted emotions that tell Nabaztag owners they are loved through pulsing colors or sounds, but they can be programmed to tell traffic, weather and stock reports at a scheduled time.
Nabaztag’s online demo is as infectious as the concept. It is an amazingly designed object that, their ad copy says, promises to be your personal companion.
Why a rabbit? The rabbit is an animal with no specific association, Rafi says. “When we think of a rabbit, it could be a smart rabbit like Bugs Bunny, a sexy rabbit like the Playboy bunny or the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland—it comes in all sorts of personalities.”
“There is nothing more different from a computer or a piece of technology than a rabbit, a Wi-Fi rabbit proves that any object can be a communicating object.”
Why Nabaztag? “First, because I’m Armenian,” he replies. “Second, it’s hard to find names nowadays and if you want to differentiate a product you want something that sounds different. When you look at Japanese products they have Japanese names, like Tamagotchi. Nobody knows what it means but you get used to it—so why not Armenian? People in Paris don’t speak more Japanese than Armenian.”