80s-90s Recording / José Ramón de Lothlórien from flickr
I don’t have many hobbies and this can often lead to a slightly awkward patch in conversation when I meet new people and have already run through the usual ‘what do you do?’, ‘where do you live?’, and ‘isn’t London sooo expensive?’. They start talking about the latest triathlon they have done or a recent sailing trip, and I smile and nod and pretend that I also have a serious, ‘worthwhile’ pursuit outside of work, without really saying what it is.
If pushed though I would say my hobby, or my fascination, is with technology, and specifically with the internet (it should be immediately obvious why I do not mention this on first introduction, for the same reason people don’t say ‘watching tv’ or ‘reading’ – it sounds lame). On my internet travels I come across many startlingly creative ideas (and have many ‘why didn’t I think of that’ moments). Perhaps because I feel a slight sense of embarrassment I do not tend to tout my loot of digital ephemera on social networks. Which is why I get really excited when I can legitimately, in polite conversation, contribute a recommendation of a new app or online service, that in other circumstances would be too geeky to bring up, with my only claim being that I knew about it ‘first’.
Being an early-adopter of new technologies has its drawbacks. Firstly, choosing between technologies is not completely costless for the user, even if the app or service is free. You may end up investing time in something on the basis of promising signs of potential that do not materialise. Second, you may choose unwisely – you may unwittingly opt for the losing side in a battle of technology standards.
I have a personal example of having wasted time and effort on a dud app. Dan’s family sends a lot of family photos via email. I looked for a service offering simple photo sharing functionality but that was completely private and unconnected to Facebook (many of the pictures are of Dan’s young cousins and there was an express requirement that these should remain within the family). After researching the field and trying many apps I chose to go with the brand new (read: untested) EveryMe app (“the private social network”), where you share to “circles” of your friends and family. Over the course of two weeks I got each member of the family to join EveryMe and get sharing, which involved individual instruction emails and follow-ups. There was muted enthusiasm at first – people don’t like change. I convinced them the benefits would be worth it, and slowly they migrated.
The result? The (welcome) flood of photos and updates dried up to a trickle and then to nothing. Turns out EveryMe is slow, unreliable, and clunky – for now, anyway. It’s quicker to text or email than to load to the app, particularly when travelling. I may have been better off getting everyone to join Whatsapp or similar, but it’s too late now, I doubt the family is up for another experiment. The real shame is that the photos that have been shared on EveryMe are now stuck in the app and can’t be exported out.
The second problem with being among the first to try a technology arises from the widespread phenomenon of network effects. Many online services and apps benefit from network effects, which is to say the value of using the service increases with the number of users. The classic example is the telephone – it’s pretty useless if you’re the only one with a phone because you can’t call anyone, but the value increases as more and more people adopt the technology.
Social networks clearly operate this way – and it is one of the reasons I haven’t yet gotten into Google+, because very few of the people I know have joined. But it is also true, although less obviously so, for non-networked products and services. It doesn’t really matter to me, as a customer, how many people use Blu-ray discs versus HD DVDs but it matters to the manufacturers of DVD players and to the distributors for Hollywood movie studios. We see the same force at work when app developers design apps for the iPhone and Android but not for Windows phones.
Where two different products and services are competing for users in a market where one but not both can survive there often reaches a tipping point beyond which it is safe to declare an indisputable winner. One service triumphs (VHS, Blu-ray, Facebook) and the other suffers an irreversible decline (Betamax, HD DVD, Myspace) (although note the recent redesign and refocus of myspace).
Experts refer to the “first mover advantage”, the idea being that the first on the scene will be the first to gather momentum in the race to the tipping point. There’s also an element of luck. Products can become redundant overnight as technology outstrips the acquisition of users. Customers can get caught out just as technology flips from one standard to another. Personally I am sitting on a pile of obsolete Mini Discs, several portable Mini Disc players and a Mini Disc stereo system, having transitioned from CDs just before MP3s came on the scene. This is no great loss as I am no longer into puerile and angsty SoCal pop-punk rock, but still.
I remember feeling almost betrayed when Sony stopped producing recordable Mini Discs (although I now see that this was for my own good – they were preventing me from piling more favourite songs onto a soon-to-be-redundant medium). I felt that way again more recently when Google announced that it was shutting down its Google Reader service on 1st July 2013.
Google Reader is (was) an integral part of my online routine. I used it to suscribe to a carefully selected list of blogs. And now its gone. All that time spent curating my subscription list, potentially gone to waste.
But of course, nothing really disappears online. One technology builds on another, replacing the obsolete and going a little bit further. I use the fantastic Newsify app in conjunction with Google Reader. Blog posts are presented in an easily skimmable format, and all articles (and their pictures) are available for offline reading. Newsify announced that it would automatically migrate all Google Reader subscriptions to Feedly. Aces.
There is a valid concern as we put more and more of our photos, documents and content online and in the cloud that these services may not be future-proof, that the market may tip away from the new app you are using, that Facebook may shut down one day and take all your memories with it into a black hole of captured content and unreadable formats. The reality is more subtle. Feedly saved my Google reader bacon, and if Facebook went down there would probably be a sea of contenders vying for the social network throne promising to reinstate my years of memories. But the issue remains that much of our digital content – and the average user generates a lot of digital content – is not protected from obsolescence if we reach a tipping point away from current technologies. And I’m not convinced that the cross-your-fingers strategy is going to cut it.
EveryMe – the private social network
Myspace redesign @ TechCrunch
Newsify RSS reader