December 7th, 2008
Dave Winer, the father of RSS [insert humble bow here], wrote a great post this week: Soon it will be time to start over, again. It is about the tech industry and how we get lost in our own complexity, and can’t break that direction easily. So younger folks — the ones who chose not to follow the current leaders — come in and re-write the tech in a simpler way, and thus begin a new tech cycle. These young folks will in 5-10 years be replaced by another group who don’t want to get mired in the spaghetti code of years past, and bring another level of innovation.
I only disagree with one point in Dave’s article, and I do so humbly. Dave attributes the complexity to engineers, and their love of complexity. I disagree. I think the problem is that humans suck at change, particularly when that change involves thinking differently and destroying what we built before. We have pride in what we thought and built for the most part. It is difficult to deconstruct that without blaming ourselves, so we try to improve on what we’ve done, rather than re-doing.
And of course, there is the fear of not being successful with the “new way”, and thus destroying the “old way” revenue in the process. So, I am not saying it is “simple”, just that it is not due to engineers liking complexity. Most engineers I know actually really appreciate simplicity. They crave it, and often see they aren’t achieving it, but don’t see the path to how to achieve it from where they are.
I believe this is one of the reasons that Apple continues to post wins. Imagine how Apple changed their thinking with the ipod. “We build Macs. We don’t build Walkmans — a lower life form.” I can hear it being said. Steve Jobs is one of those thinkers/learners with the credibility to back him up, that gives you a company that does evolve — and even he and Apple have had their challenges.
On how he does it, I believe one key aspect is self-criticism. If you accept that you will make some wrong decisions — despite how smart you are, and how much you work — then you can rethink in new ways. The focus becomes one of learning, and I see Steve Jobs as being great at that. One simple example, after MobileMe got panned, what was Steve Job’s response? A note to the entire company that said (quoted from a Heise Online article):
“It was a mistake to launch MobileMe at the same time as iPhone 3G, iPhone 2.0 software and the App Store. We all had more than enough to do, and MobileMe could have been delayed without consequence”.
Jobs wrote, in his self critical email, that the MobileMe problems showed that Apple needed to “learn more about Internet services. And learn we will.”
I don’t think this challenge in responding to new capabilities/technologies is true just of tech companies. I wish I could say that one of my fav companies, Southwest, has made a “cycle shift”, but they haven’t. P&G made a shift about 5 years ago to focus more on bringing outside innovation in and has posted incredible success with their program. I would use them as a great example of a company that can overcome “cycle shifts” in some of their many industries. I agree with Dave that Google hasn’t shown an ability to shift yet. What companies do you think are examples that can make “cycle shifts”?
And now back to the title, an example of a company that continues to try to make a shift, but it doesn’t seem to work. I know we all have our favorite MS blunder example: my personal ones are MS’s push into push technology and the fizzle of MS Live, because I was related to both of these launches and saw them more from the inside. New is that MS is lauching a t-shirt line, which I learned from Harry McCracken’s Technologizer: Microsoft’s Latest Innovation… T-Shirts!
My fav part: They are delivering it on December 15th, which is two weeks after the Christmas selling season starts — late on shipping even their t-shirts.
My fav shirt: I’m a fan of the greenscreen … it’s simple! ;-)
Microsoft has ridden many tech cycles and they are still a significant player in our industry, so you can be successful without riding the tech cycles, but you have to be big to do it. Now, I am not thinking Microsoft wants to become a t-shirt company. They clearly have seen that t-shirts are great for brand promotion. [Aside: I love that they get that!] However, to get the brand promotion, people have to love the shirts and wear them. Here Microsoft is not playing to their strengths, like Apple did with the ipod — there was a need for good design, simplicity in that market, and most important, their customers were the type that would use the product. Microsoft is not good at hip and stylish, and their customer group isn’t known for wearing t-shirts proudly. Partnering with a rapper doesn’t get you there, but rather it confuses people.
I might buy “I used to love her”, but I need to learn more about Common’s song and make sure that’s a message I can wear. Of course, I think I’ll wait until the after Christmas sale. ;-)
So, what is a message I know I can wear on my shirt today?
For every dilemma, there is an epigram
For every epigram, there is a t-shirt
Inspired by this quote: “Somewhere in the world there is an epigram fro every dilemma”, by Hendrik Willem Van Loon.
For the more detail-oriented reader, my favorite definition of epigram is an epigram itself: