Cicero decreed "fame is the thirst of youth". Nowhere is this mantra more pronounced than in Hollywood’s superlebrity industry. It may come as a surprise but this same thirst is also the main force behind social network’s rapid rise to stardom.
In a similar fashion to the celebrity business, many of the leading social platforms have developed a following totaling hundred of millions of users (more than all the traditional commercial on-line services combined!). But contrary to the entertainment industry that only parades the rich and famous in static fashion, the social networks provide an effective array of tools to help users realize and enhance their on-line digital personas. Some of the current sampling includes effective mechanisms for self promotion (such as LinkedIn and Facebook) and platforms that foster collaborative efforts on an unprecedented scale (such as Wikipedia). To all but a few New-Luddites, these applications are ushering in the age of technological utopia.
But alas, every garden has its resident snake, and such is the grade A serpent found in Social Network’s Garden of Eden. What many of us don’t realize is that the same characteristics that make the social networks so attractive are also their greatest limitations. As the size and proliferation of these applications continue to increase, so will the pressures on traditional technology organizations to incorporate similar functionality into their line of business enterprise products. So where is the problem you say? Well, incorporating this technology into the old enterprise will most likely be done via acquisition of existing products (like the News Corp purchase of MySpace) which ultimately results in the conversion of free and cool applications to full fledged (and dull!) commercial advertising platforms. Either way it will have certain predictable side effects on the user population not dissimilar to mixing alcohol with sleeping pills. Flanders and Swann have captured the essence of this conflict in their famous song "Have Some Madeira, M’Dear":
She was young, she was pure, she was new, she was nice,
She was fair, she was sweet seventeen.
He was old, he was vile and no stranger to vice,
He was base, he was bad, he was mean.
He had slyly inveigled her up to his flat,
To view his collection of stamps.
And he said as he hastened to put out the cat,
The wine, his cigar and the lamps,
Have some Madeira, M’Dear!"
If you are wondering what this witty Edwardian ditty has to do with the subject of social networks vs. the enterprise, wonder no more.
Over the last decade we have become accustomed to the sweet tasting fruits of strict SLAs, strong security and customer service. Most users now instinctively expect a high degree of 24x7x365 enterprise software availability (which includes corporate email systems). Unfortunately, this is exactly what the social networks cannot deliver (recall Gmail outages). Very much like superlebrities, they look great but when it comes to actual long term commitment and performance they’ll break your heart.
A quick glance at the most common error messages found on any social network (1-6 below) reveals that availability and up-time are their Achilles heel. This in itself is a clear indication that these platforms are not enterprise ready. Their business models are based on casual and non-contractual usage and their applications should not be relied upon to provide any sort of SLA. The error messages we get from our favorite social networks may be adorable, but the causes for these messages are hardly cute and cuddly.
Any enterprise architect worth his weight in salt would immediately identify such error messages as show stoppers for the enterprise product. Big commercial software—suffering from no shortage of good software architects—is fully aware of such system limitations. The real paradox is that even though big soft and media companies would love to exploit the cool and trendy social networks (for commercial purposes of course), they can’t because for the last 20 years they have been preaching the message that any product that cannot be governed by a strict SLA has no place in an enterprise data center.
Such is the sting of irony.
© Copyright 2009 Yaacov Apelbaum All Rights Reserved.
The Anti Socials
I recently had an opportunity to discuss the question of social networks vs. commercial software at great length with a fellow airplane passenger who happened to be a SVP of technology in a fortune 500 company (which will remain unnamed here).
As we were preparing for takeoff on a cramped CRJ50, I took out my current reading assignment: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order. My neighbor sitting in 1D inquired about the subject of my book and during the course of the bumpy flight and the conversation that ensued, he bemoaned his inability to understand how relatively young startups the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin were so rapidly able to develop so much rich functionality and capture such a large market share, while other much more mature organizations with much bigger budgets and talent pools were failing to make any such inroads.
His frustration is by no means unique. It is a shared by many large technology companies such as IBM and Microsoft which at present are still scratching their head trying to figure out if this social networks thing is for real and does providing a communication platform for income-challenged teenagers makes any commercial sense. To see just how hesitant the traditional software cartels are to dip their toe in the chilly and profitless waters of the social media, examine the social network landscape. I challenge you to identify even one significant, viral product developed by any of the major software vendors.
One example that illustrates this failure to improvise, adapt and overcome is Microsoft’s difficulty in harnessing the emergence of blogging and SMS as commercially viable services. In 2004, after some soul searching, they concluded that it was unlikely that products like LinkedIn would be commercially viable because—they guessed—few professionals would agree to pay a monthly subscription for them. In 2005 even after it became clear that users were indeed moving en masse to open and free social platforms, Microsoft continued to insist that this was just a fad and what these users really needed in terms of social networking were minor improvements to the MSN subscription service, Office Live, and Windows live platforms.
For Microsoft and other leading commercial software vendors, social networking has to be a subscription based because their entire operating model is based on reoccurring revenue (either via subscription or licensing).
Yes siree, for big soft, it’s one of those ‘damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ scenarios. You may find it hard to believe, but the same organizations that made their fortunes outdoing each other with applications like the spreadsheet are now missing the train big time on what is clearly the next killer platform. In what appears to be a blockbuster sequel to Oedipus Rex, they are powerless to leverage this newfangled phenomenon to make any money or capture market share.
Microsoft is certainly not unique with regard to this model. AOL with its Messenger product is another good example of how to squander your entire user base. Following a slightly different tactic, they offered a “free messaging service” with the small caveat that the user would need to install a fat and intrusive client that would quickly pay for itself by monitoring all of your Internet (and network) traffic all the while serving up unwanted advertisements.
If you think that this form of myopathy affects the big software companies, think again. Traditional communications organizations Nortel which should know better (because of their proximity to the social segments) are still trying to survive the proverbial 7 lean years in the hopes that the public social network phenomenon is just a fleeting narcissistic fad fueled solely by generation X’s and Y’s fascination with exhibitionism. In their vision of market paradise, all future social networks will once again go back to being routed and controlled through their proprietary appliances and just like in the good old days they will once again skim the fat profits on a per-server\user license basis.
Whether you like it or not, the social networks are here to stay. They provide meaningful social interaction, are fun to use, and ultimately do what good software is supposed to do: connect people and give them more control over their lives.
My advice to big software is to heed Dylan’s words: “The Times They Are a-Changin”. Don’t wait any longer; jump in now and contribute to the social networks development effort by providing free and open source applications (Seadragon and Wave would be two great candidates). As contrary as it may seem to your operational philosophy, disregard the immediate profitability question and do it because of the tremendous social benefit these products could offer. I have no doubt that in due time, the money, champagne, and caviar will follow as well.
© Copyright 2009 Yaacov Apelbaum All Rights Reserved.
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