One Way Doors

by Kris_Tuttle on December 6, 2010

I attended a one-day “Think Tank” hosted by Coburn Ven­tures in Novem­ber where a hun­dred or so smart peo­ple riffed about a broad range of top­ics in tech­nol­ogy, social net­work­ing, the Inter­net, and invest­ing. The event defies easy encap­su­la­tion because ulti­mately what you take away is based on your own per­sonal thought process and the inter­ac­tion you have with other ideas and atten­dees. So with that intro/caveat here are some high­lights I came away with:

One-Way Doors

The con­cept of “one-way doors” for con­sumers in the tech­nol­ogy space is very pow­er­ful. It’s a per­fect turn of a phrase to describe what we’ve been doing for hun­dreds of years.  But today the doors seem to be com­ing faster and real­iz­ing just how “one way” they are is instruc­tive.  Recent exam­ples are the iPhone and the Kin­dle.  Con­sumers expect sim­plic­ity, power, touch screens and the abil­ity to get imme­di­ate access to dig­i­tal content.

Many of us have already had the expe­ri­ence of touch­ing and pinch­ing a device with a non-touch dis­play and wondering what’s wrong.  Now it seems odd to inter­act with a hand-held device that *doesn’t* have a touch screen.  The advent of main­stream touch screens is only four years old.  iTunes is another good exam­ple because it took a very con­vo­luted process and turned it into a plug and a click.  Another instant one-way door.  I think the Kin­dle (and Kin­dle soft­ware) will do this for a large seg­ment of the book mar­ket.  I’ve been crazy for books my whole life (no doubt in part because my dad and my step-mom were both librar­i­ans) and I thought the Kin­dle was a ter­ri­ble idea when it came out because I love my phys­i­cal books so much.  But, after using it for a year, I can see that it will be very big for every­one, myself included.  Art books, out of print books, large for­mat books, etc. will con­tinue to need a phys­i­cal aspect for a while but not for­ever. A quick look at the inter­ac­tive Sis­tine Chapel makes it clear that con­ven­tional books will get out­moded quickly.  It will take some time to see a dig­i­tal edi­tion of “Clas­sic Japan­ese Join­ery Illus­trated,” but when it does come out it is likely to offer an enhanced view­ing and learn­ing expe­ri­ence that I can’t even get today from the beau­ti­ful printed book.  It’s true that for ser­vices like Kin­dle to work we need a way to bor­row and lend con­tent more eas­ily.  Remix­ing need to be eas­ier too. In the mean­time, how­ever, a dig­i­tal ver­sion will offer bet­ter value than the phys­i­cal book for many purchases.

Many of these recent inno­va­tions have hit the con­sumer first but are increas­ingly putting pres­sure on enter­prises.  Most enter­prise tech­nolo­gies are very dif­fi­cult in almost every way pos­si­ble: hard to buy, hard to install, hard to learn, hard to run.  Many enter­prise tech­nol­ogy big­ots sug­gest that this is all nec­es­sary because these prod­ucts are secure, they scale, they meet the myr­iad require­ments for com­pli­ance, etc.

But enter­prise users are still peo­ple. Which means they are also con­sumers who are going through these “one way doors” all the time.  They are com­ing to expect power and sim­plic­ity.  They are begin­ning to vote with their feet — or fin­ger now that most things are just a click or two away — and enter­prise tech­nol­ogy providers need to take notice.  One study found that a vast major­ity (>70%) of peo­ple in For­tune 100 com­pa­nies were using ser­vices like Drop­box even though they are pro­hib­ited.  It’s hard to pre­vent the use of sim­ple, free (or cheap) prod­ucts that work great.

From an invest­ment stand­point I think this means that mar­kets will shift faster and the abil­ity to adapt and scale will con­tinue to be extremely impor­tant. It also tends to add to vis­i­bil­ity once the door is opened.  For exam­ple, the attrac­tive­ness of an invest­ment in Apple has not really ebbed much since 2007.  So many peo­ple have yet to flow through their one way door (with high mar­gin toll booths) that years of prof­itable growth are locked in.

Lean Back ver­sus Lean Forward

A lit­tle over ten years ago, John Seely Brown gave a pre­sen­ta­tion at a War­burg IT con­fer­ence in NYC using a bril­liant set of illus­trated charts that showed many modes of com­put­ing, includ­ing lean­ing for­ward and lean­ing back.  Today the idea is very apt given the bat­tle that is going on in the enter­tain­ment indus­try.  Enter­tain­ment evokes a “leaned back” view of con­tent.  You are, after all, sup­posed to be enter­tained. Which means some­one else is doing the work.

Video games blurred the dis­tinc­tion long ago and today we are faced with a very fuzzy set of lines in dig­i­tal enter­tain­ment. The real chal­lenge is that con­sumers vac­il­late wildly about lean­ing for­ward and lean­ing back *even in spe­cific gen­res*. For exam­ple, games are lean for­ward activ­i­ties but now many gamers are eager to watch oth­ers play games on a gam­ing TV chan­nel to learn more and pick up tips while eat­ing pizza and relax­ing with friend in the liv­ing room. Some even watch for the enter­tain­ment value alone. Mil­lions learned about poker by being cap­ti­vated watch­ing the Poker Chan­nel on their TV (often while unable to sleep at 2am in their hotel room.) That turned into a desire to play online and “lean for­ward” into the game. The same is true for Inter­net radio (last.fm) and even­tu­ally Inter­net video (YouTube/GoogleTV, AppleTV.)

The other sort of crazy new trend is to go from lean back to lean for­ward based on direct inter­ac­tion with the artist and the con­tent. Increas­ingly, con­sumers are being invited into the cre­ative process and many true fans take advan­tage and turn pas­sive music con­sump­tion back into active engage­ment and a new level of entertainment.

This is also hap­pen­ing with sports with “hel­met cams” seep­ing into NFL foot­ball that allow view­ers to select and view their own per­spec­tives of a play. NASCAR imple­mented “in-car cam­eras” some time ago.   These are inter­est­ing tech­nolo­gies but it’s too soon to know how much con­sumers will be will­ing to pay for and engage with these new models.

Mul­ti­ple con­sump­tion modes don’t just apply to the *types* of con­tent but also to the use cases which seem to be mutat­ing and being demanded *simul­ta­ne­ously*. This is a big prob­lem for non-IP archi­tected con­tent solu­tions like cable com­pa­nies. It would seem that what is going on here is utterly incom­pre­hen­si­ble to cable com­pa­nies and media net­works. Con­sumers will need to pay for big data pipes, but in return will demand new con­tent mod­els that shift end­lessly between “lean for­ward” and “lean back,” which will make it impos­si­ble to suc­ceed with­out rad­i­cal retool­ing.

Is Face­book the Devil?

It hasn’t taken long for Face­book to become a light­ning rod for many storms (pri­vacy, val­u­a­tion, data own­er­ship, games) and it seems, for many, also morals and soci­ety.  Clay Shirky has said that Face­book is a new metaphor which defies analo­gies and prior exam­ples.  As such, every­one is still fig­ur­ing out how to deal with it and opin­ions range from “the great­est thing ever” to “it’s the Devil” to “it’s good but like AOL for social net­work­ing and a big short.”

Now that tech­nol­ogy is so entwined with soci­ety, debates about a new “tech­nol­ogy” like Face­book are unlikely to go any­where from an invest­ment stand­point. Mankind has con­sis­tently given up things like pri­vacy in exchange for con­ve­nience. One way to really under­stand this is to read a book called “How to be Invis­i­ble” which lays it all out for you. The extent to which you would have to change your life not to be fairly eas­ily dis­cov­ered and known is stag­ger­ing.

For me the real ques­tion is “are we using Face­book or is it using us?” Many of the peo­ple in the room no doubt felt they were con­trol­ling it, but wor­ried about the less tech­ni­cally savvy and teens/tweens in the world.  Based on a small sam­ple I think young peo­ple are learn­ing fairly rapidly how to use these sys­tems and are pretty smart about what infor­ma­tion to put where (at least based on their own sen­si­bil­i­ties) and which things to avoid.

It’s become pretty clear that most peo­ple have mul­ti­ple and dis­tinct net­works (social and pro­fes­sional) so that the idea of hav­ing just one, be it Face­book or another, doesn’t really make sense. This means that despite the dom­i­nance of Face­book we can prob­a­bly expect to see many suc­cess­ful net­works built and become great invest­ments. We’d point to exam­ples like Stock­Twits (stock invest­ing), LinkedIn (pro­fes­sion­als), and Mende­ley (sci­en­tists) as three easy examples.

Dig­i­tiz­ing our lives opens my myr­iad oppor­tu­ni­ties for use and abuse. Which path Face­book will take isn’t yet totally clear.

[Cred­its: Door image from Fluxxlab.]  [Dis­clo­sures: None for this post.]

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