In the digital age, connectivity is the keyword
Sep 1, 2013
The importance of openness and connectivity in the digital age suggest we should be Embracing change for long-term success and adaptation.
"They work with a multitude of things they don't control; they create, but don't own; they act but don't presume; they succeed, but don't cling to success and precisely for that reason, success never leaves them." The description could be about Bill Gates making his Windows more open than the establishment (read, then, IBM) allowed or when Steve Jobs understood that DRM was nonsense and that selling content was a problem of format and price, not a fight against piracy. It could also be about Zuckerberg when he created Facebook in a way that the information he collected was not restricted to the social network, but flowed among other partners. "They" are "wise men" and the text above is not from a Web 2.0 lecture, but the millennial Tao Te King, written around 600 B.C. The scripture fits perfectly with what would be necessary to understand in the digital information age - that control is worth less than connectivity; ownership is worth less than transience; that openness is safer than closed systems.
Almost all the big players in the tech world are in some kind of fight. Apple swore to take revenge on Google because of Android, which Steve Jobs considered a "theft" by the search giant; Google also maintains arm-wrestling with Twitter and Facebook, to different extents, because of the privilege of holding "all" the internet search market; Apple, in turn, has an eternal dispute with Microsoft, which once had Bill Gates's company as the outright winner (see or revisit Pirates of Silicon Valley to remember when MS was much bigger than Apple). The curious thing is to observe that all of them gained some immense competitive advantage at a stage when they broke market reservation paradigms and became omnipresent, but this was not enough for them to maintain their creed in openness and adaptability.
Once leaders, all try (or have tried) to prevent competitors from taking advantage of new paths they have created. All of them, in recent years, have started or increased the amount of restrictions they offer in their services. Examples? Apple removing the YouTube and Google Maps app from its iPhones, Google closing the same Google Maps for APIs that made a certain number of queries per month, Twitter that closed the search results for its users' tweets, or even Microsoft whose obsession with the Office package and Windows practically destroyed all other projects that could have returned the company to the advantage it gained in the 90s.
It's hard to condemn. The problem is that, without naivety, once on the Stock Exchange, these companies have only one thing demanded by their shareholders: money, in the form of dividend distribution. And it's hard to explain to a financier why certain products have peculiarities like a football team, for example. The shareholder just wants money, but sometimes, taking a less financially interesting measure can have a great benefit for the consumer-supporter (or user). The same applies to products that go beyond offering a service, but create a community around themselves, like Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Apple's products. From speech to action there is an abyss, of course, but this kind of attitude that requires a little less immediate results is what will give immense advantages to digital competitors who adopt it. The other path, of winner-takes-all, is not necessarily a failure, but it is undoubtedly more risky.
It's a question of posture. Up to now, in the world of digital connectivity, the example we have is that opening doors brings, in the medium and long term, more success than closing doors. However, success doesn't necessarily mean money. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to name three, are examples of companies that are absolute successes in their purposes, but have had their ability to generate money overestimated and do not raise revenues equivalent to their user numbers. All the examples cited gained space by betting on freedom for the client/user against the previous monopoly (Microsoft against IBM, Apple against Microsoft, etc).
Projects that get very big rarely continue to be run by those who know the product and developed it at the core of the community. Mega companies have strong financial pressures and not by chance the sales and marketing departments push to extract the revenues they think are viable. This kind of financial pressure rarely thinks about what developers call success. The battles that big companies are fighting today are for them and only them to use the information you left with them when you registered for any service. In theory, it would be in your interest to be asked about it, but generally, no one wants your opinion.
Digital services that want to be successful in the long term need to bet on total or almost total connectivity. What does this mean? It means that services with large numbers of users should make it as easy as possible to access these users' data (provided they give their approval to do so) by other service providers, charging nothing or an amount equivalent to the expense of information transit. Companies that try to create stables for their users, keeping them away from competition will be penalized as digital access becomes broader and free choice becomes more than an obvious option, but a necessity. The digital format is fluid and dynamic by excellence and working against these forces will always require a cost - a cost that, throughout the history of capitalism, has seen many rises and falls of companies that tried not only to profit, but to profit alone.
We're still at the beginning of the digital era. There's time for everyone to adapt.