Flutterby™! : Owning the ecosystem, seeing the future.

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Owning the ecosystem, seeing the future.

2010-08-30 14:11:33.675226+00 by Dan Lyke 6 comments

The MeFi entry pointing to this Kodak post about creating a portable digital still camera in 1975 and this NY Times article about it had a few comments that got me thinking. There's the usual "why couldn't they see far enough?" and "Xerox PARC could, but they couldn't get corporate to execute" and that kind of stuff, but empath's observation about seeing the future is worth a pondering:

I'll give another example -- if someone had asked you, in 1980, which would have been the more world-changing invention -- the ability to make video-phone calls, or the ability to send a text message to anybody, at any time, anywhere, most people probably would have said video-phone calls, because I think it seemed like a more difficult problem.

Video calls are one of those things that I've tried and abandoned a whole bunch of times. Asynchronous text exchanges? I've been doing that for more than two and a half decades, but when that started nobody in the mainstream saw the value.

And then I'm not sure what it was about this comment about Kodak owning the sensor market, and then losing it to Canon and Nikon, and Rochester suffering got me thinking, but...

I get a lot of "hey, we're working on this cool project, you should join us!". I saw a handheld portable personal video player ready to come to market years before Apple brought out theirs. I've sat sipping scotch and talking about all sorts of products that eventually came to market a decade or so before they finally hit the big box retailers. Time after time, the problem wasn't the ability of the engineering team to execute, it was owning enough of the ecosystem to make the overall product useful. That portable video player? Heck, the guys working on the hardware understood that a portal that led the user to content was a necessity, but they couldn't get the next level up to spend a few tens of thousands to stumble through getting that portion working.

In that comment above, the thing that struck me was that Kodak owned the consumables, but Nikon and Canon owned the lenses. So Kodak's digital cameras used Canon lenses; once Canon figured out sensors Kodak's line was toast.

I'm not sure how to summarize that realization, but as you look to consumables and ancillary products and how to position your efforts, I think it's worth looking at how Kodak, in its pursuit of providing the consumables, lost the long-term game.

See also: this great MeFi comment about the decline and fall of Sears. And also realize that many of these things happen at scales longer than human careers. There's another lesson there.

[ related topics: Apple Computer Interactive Drama Photography Games Work, productivity and environment Video Economics ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-30 16:38:52.819226+00 by: petronius [edit history]

In the item by the digital inventor, he was asked the question " Why on earth would anybody want to see their snapsots on TV?". I asked the same questions at the time. I also remember talking to people in the early '70s about the future of video, like Cartrivision or CBS's strange EVR format, which distributed playback only videos on a sort of sproketless 8mm film. When you asked anybody about content, they talked about first-run movies or cooking and golf lessons. I was not convinced. I think the real breakthrough came when Sony was able to get the price point below $1,000. You also need the real killer app to prime the pump. Time shifting TV shows did it for VHS, VisiCalc for the PC. In 1971 nobody thought of time-shifting, and the EVR system had no recording function. Also, nobody would admit to thinking that cheap porn would be the killer app in video.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-30 18:20:31.699226+00 by: Dan Lyke

So something your comment brings up: If we expand the notion of "cheap porn", and, to a lesser extent time-shifting, just a little bit, what we get to somewhere in the middle of that is that companies which are heavily tied up in the process of publishing don't understand, or aren't willing to facilitate, user generated content.

Your examples, VisiCalc, home-made porn, not watching first-run movies, are all about the customers wanting more control over the content.

This is something of a personal bugaboo, but I'm seeing a lot of a business model that I'm over-dramatizing as "keeping the user from doing what the user wants to do". It's like if Henry Ford said "You can have any color you want, as long as it's black, and we've lobbied Congress to make it illegal to repaint your car". They depend on legal restrictions more than innovation or actually satisfying the customer's desire to do what the customer wants to do.

I was going to make some pronouncement about short term profitability over long-term sustainability, but I'm wondering if that's just me pushing my prejudices on a reality where it doesn't really matter: You make your investment for whatever term it seems reasonable, and as long as you get off before the organizations with those mindsets crash and burn, who cares? Because these things happen in decades long cycles anyway.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-30 19:24:57.031226+00 by: ebradway

I've been wondering why calling something a "disruptive technology" almost seems to be a curse. I wonder if disruptive technologies arise more due to environmental factors than engineering (or design)?

#Comment Re: The demise of Sears, Roebuck et cie made: 2010-08-31 10:56:40.583226+00 by: andylyke [edit history]

Along the lines of Sears, consider IBM that saw the PC as a nit, put its third string in Boca Raton to prove that the concept was doomed. Instead of using their vast software resources, and Drdos, (senior moment - what was that other microcomputer operating system) as OS examples and developing their own pc, they handed the business to Gates, who contributed nothing technologically but, along with his father, recognized the future. I haven't done the numbers, but I wouldn't be surprised if Microsoft's market cap exceeded that of IBM, who once owned computing.

Just looked up the market caps: IBM $150e9, MS $208e9. Q.E.D.

And as to the senior moment: CP/M

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-31 11:27:45.367226+00 by: jeff

I remember when living in Rochester in 1982 that Kodak employed over 40,000 people at one plant complex alone (~ two miles long) and over 60,000 people in the city received their paycheck from Kodak.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-31 14:39:22.343226+00 by: petronius

Dan, your point about customers having control is an interesting one. In the recent Wired story The Internet is Dead, the suggestion is made that using apps as our portal to content puts the control back on the provider instead of the user. A convenient app makes everything easier, but resolutely re-establishes the provider's mastery, including demanding pay for their product. Maybe the point is that while some users want complete control, others just want to find out the weather report. Its a bit like the arguments over Linux vs. MS 10 years ago. When I would point out to the to the Linux kids that MS Office let you integrate spreadsheets, slides and documents, they didn't know what I was talking about. they were far more interested in doing things TO computers, rather than doing things WITH computers.