A (quick) look back

Hey!  Remember ‘98-‘99? I do!  We had a bit of a run-up if you recall …

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Will that ever happen again?  Beats me, but I’m probably not the right guy to ask!  I remember when Ask Jeevs went public. I went to the site and asked it “How can a company with no revenue be worth $1.5 billion dollars?”  I didn’t know.  It didn’t know either.

The causes for such a run-up are various and there are lots of theories out there, but there is no question that the steady rise in internet usage starting in 1995 lead to a huge influx of potential customers that companies and investors believed could be tapped.  Web company after web company popped up in a frenzy of venture-capital-backed growth.  It seemed that the decision-makers at just about every established company were convinced that if they did not have a web presence that their market share would be ravaged by some start-up waiting in the wings with a better business model than theirs.

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The debate on whether this “new economy” was actually realized is interesting.  But if this history is written by the winners (eBay, Yahoo, Amazon), one might argue that it has been.  New economy realized or not, things are starting to change again.  The model of 18-29 year old males sitting behind their desktop computer interacting with a disjointed set of web sites is breaking down.   Another wave is coming and we need to ask ourselves how do we catch this one?  (I will leave the question of how do we not get crushed after it crests and then comes crashing down for another time.)

Where are we now?

I find it particularly interesting how that run-up seems to be repeating itself.  Compare the above run-up in internet users to the current run-up in wireless connections …

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Add to that the fact that mobile devices and laptops are quickly becoming the devices of choice and it starts to look a lot like something is fomenting here …

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(Source: Pew Internet: Internet, broadband, and cell phone statistics, January 5, 2010).  It’s clear that the manner in which people are using devices to access information is changing.  Has the time come again to throw out all of our business models and all try and be the next Twitter or Facebook?  Well, I hope we have collectively learned something from what happened with nary a decade passed.  Given that admonition, however, there is something significant going on here.

Experiences

The dot-coms had some things right – one among them was to recognize that their customers’ behaviors were changing.  They (and I should say “we”) identified the need to offer new buying experiences to their customers.  That pattern is happening again.  People are looking for a different type of experience.  Instead of a new buying experience, people want new experiences in terms of how they interact with information and other people during the course of their daily life  They don’t want information to come to them only during the times they sit down at their computer and seek it out with a browser.  Instead, they want to interact with it live, as it happens.

One of the (many) things I think the design team of Windows Phone 7 got right is to group experiences into “hubs.”  Grouping experiences into hubs removes the disjointed type of experiences we have now.  That is a good first step.  But, grouping experiences alone itself will not yield a good ontology that we can analyze for patterns.  In order for groupings to have more meaning, they must be accompanied connections.  Take for example the following potential groupings of experiences in no particular order.  Each grouping has questions associated with it.  The “hub” attempts to answer the questions. 

Extensibility

How do I get more experiences?

Games

What do I play?

Multimedia

What music do I listen do? What videos do I watch?

People

Who do I know? Who do I associate with?

Pictures

What do I see? What have I seen?

Productivity

How do I exchange information?

This is a good first categorization of experience.  But, I don’t think it tells the whole story because the questions that are being asked and answered are the wrong questions.  Notice that the questions all focus around the user himself (“What do I play?).

The reason I believe this is an incomplete categorization is that one category dominates the others as a driver for what we are observing in peoples’ behavior today.  That category is People.  The questions “Who I know?” and “How do I associate them?” are the fundamental drivers behind the phenomenal growth of companies such as Facebook, Twitter and to a large extent Apple.   Under this hypothesis, the central hub is People with other hubs defining their value with how they interact to the central hub.

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That way, our interactions are focused around the principal question of how my hubs compare to people I associate with hubs.  (Rather than the general “associates,” I will use the more personal “friends” as I believe this to be the true driver.)  Given that categorization then, the questions become less internally focused …

Extensibility

What are the ways I can get in contact with more friends?

Games

What games are my friends playing? Can I play with them now?

Multimedia

What music are my friends listening to? What videos are my friends watching? Can I listen to/watch that too?

People

Who are my friends?

Pictures

How can I visualize what is happening with me and my friends?

Productivity

What information do I share with my friends?

I don’t feel that current application models handle the People experience well.  The current generation of phones has taken from the desktop model too much.  They are generally a grid of different programs (okay applications) that I can choose to execute.  I flick around to search out the program I want to execute, I execute it, I interact with it and I close it.  If I want to interact with Twitter, I launch a Twitter app, if I want to interact with Facebook, I launch a Facebook app, if I want to chat, I launch a chat app.  Yes, I can setup widgets that will all bombard me with information whenever anything new happens, but fundamentally, I don’t have any way to interact with People in a centralized way. 

This is the wrong model going forward.  I don’t want Games, for example, to be disjoint from People.  I don’t want my pictures scattered to the four winds on my computer, my phone, my Facebook (I don’t actually have Facebook account), my Flickr and my Twitpic.  The result of the way we currently drive (or power) these experiences results in their disjoint nature.  I need a People hub.

Powering Experiences

The notion of Services Powering Experiences is fantastic concept!  That is, the idea is that there are a set of experiences out there that need to be driven by a particular set of data or capability exposed by (web) services. But, is it true that having a Web API in 2010 is like having a web site in 2001? Or more specifically is not having a Web API like not having a web site?  Is it truly Services Powering Experiences or is it something more like “relationships powering my daily interactions with technology”?  If it is indeed the later, it’s critical that whatever experience we choose be related in some way to the People hub.  Otherwise experiences will continue to diverge instead of converge.

An Example

Take as an example the experience of writing little tidbits about what is happening in your life at the current moment aka Twitter.  There are many, many was to interact with Twitter.  The most popular, is the method provided by Twitter itself, the web page.  But, this does not represent a majority of the Twitter interactions.  In fact, it represents less than 40%.  The other 60% of interaction with Twitter happens through their API

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Twitter has very effectively captured the notion of offering a service that is power a particular experience.  That has enabled them to capitalize (hehe) on the community to drive creation of the tools used to partake in that experience.  Now, Tweets by my contacts on LinkedIn show up on my LinkedIn home page.  The presence of the API has enabled the first step in combining these disjoint services into an experience.  This is the way that people and organizations will move – everyone will want to be the aggregator, the home page, the place where all the APIs come together.  The convergence (yuck) will be beyond the desktop level as it is now (the grid of applications approach) and move to the application level.

Experiences across devices

If indeed the convergence (yuck) is driven to the application level.  Then we will be looking at experiences that cross devices.  I want the same experience on my desktop computer as my laptop as my mobile phone as my xbox (or set-top box) with each experience offering a view on my information that is appropriate with it’s capability.  And now, we’ve circled back to hubs and why I think they are a good idea.

Moving Forward

Battling over who/what the aggregators will be is discussion for another time.  There are many possibilities for how that might shake out.  But it should be clear that we need to offer our community to ability to have their view on our data as part of their chosen aggregator through their People hub.  In order to follow this model and take it to the next level, we need to ask ourselves the following fundamental questions …

1. Who is our community?
2. What could they be doing with our data/service/API?
3. How can we facilitate that?
4. How do we monetize that?

The answers to these questions for the basis of deciding the best way to ride the wave that is upon us.  The beauty of the situation is that unlike the dot-com boom, the infrastructure to take advantage of the current wave already exists.  People already have the devices (phones, laptops, set-top boxes, televisions, xboxes and desktop computers).  And, better still the ability to offer globally available, resilient and scalable services is available to the enterprise as well as to the garage.  That makes the answer to #3 a piece of cake.  (This was a much more difficult question to answer back in 1998.)

There is no simple answer to the others.  They vary from business to business and company to company.  Information marketplaces are a possible answer to #4, but that still begs the questions of #1 and #2.  Though difficult to answer, these are the questions that we should be asking ourselves when it comes to taking advantage of the wave of opportunity that is currently upon us.  Identify your community, figure out how/why they use your data/service and give them the ability to use that data/service as part of their People hub.  The tools are in the hands of the communities – it is up to us to figure out how our data/service relates in a meaningful way to their People hub.