January 15th, 2008

Future Of Digital Media: Perfecting Existing Technologies For People On The Web


A post by Steve Yelvington contemplating the secret of Apple’s success got me thinking again about principles that will drive the next wave off successful digital media companies, in addition to the five principles I wrote about to kick off the year:

Here’s Apple’s magic: Other people’s ideas.

Think about what Apple did not invent:

  • The windowed, mouse-driven interface. That actually came from Xerox PARC.
  • OS X. Inside is Carnegie-Mellon University’s Mach kernel, overlaid with functionality lifted from BSD Unix. Key parts come from hundreds of open-source software projects. The entire printing system comes from Unix/Linux.

  • Safari. That came from the Linux-based KDE project.
  • The iPod. Apple was a latecomer to the solid-state audio player game, and the original iPod software came from a third party. Even the name was outsourced.
  • The video iPod. Companies like Archos had pocket video systems long before Apple, which initially disclaimed any interest in video.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The magic is not in the invention, but in the execution, the singular focus on user experience. Apple’s innovation is aggressively outsourced. Smart integration of other people’s ideas has transformed the entire company.

Steve goes on to take newspapers to task for harboring a not-invented-here mentality, instead of capitalizing on new — already invented — technologies. But I think the same could be said for all digital media companies.

Google didn’t invent search. They perfected it. They didn’t invent pay-per-click text ads. They perfected them. YouTube didn’t invent online video. They perfected it. Facebook didn’t invent online social networking. They perfected it.

Chances are the next big digital media company won’t be built on a technology yet to be introduced on the web — it will likely be built with existing technology, by figuring out how to perfect the technology.

But if successful digital media companies have taught us anything, it’s that the technology is in fact secondary — it’s the people that matter.

It’s the people who upload videos to YouTube and embed them across the web.

It’s the people who create their identities and record the details of their lives on Facebook and MySpace.

It’s the people who submit and vote on stories on Digg.

It’s the people who create links on the web, which Google figured out how to interpret as a way to rank relevant content.

All of these companies understood that the web isn’t just about technology or about content — it’s about people using technology, people creating content.

For all Google is painted as a pure technology company that doesn’t understand people, Google’s original PageRank algorithm was really an insight into people. Google realized that when people create links to content on the web, they are essentially voting for that content. And when people link to another site, they are essentially voting for the site — and for the people who run that site.

Google didn’t invent the link. They harnessed it.

Google figured out that when people search for something on the web, they don’t want to go to a cluttered, head-ached inducing portal page. They don’t want winking, blinking rich media. People just want to type words in a box and get a bunch of links.

Google didn’t invent the web page — they perfected it by not to cramming stuff onto the page that people didn’t want. (Remember what web pages looked like before Google?)

People don’t want ads. They want information. So Google perfected the ad format that looks most like information.

That’s the opportunity. Perfect existing technologies — make them work for people on the web.

  • Adam

    Recently I heard about a website www.pressmart.net delivers the digitization services for all print publications. Services of pressmart.net would be advantage for all publishers as the future of the print media is web.

  • Ken,

    I think it's highly unlikely that Larry and Sergei didn't think about hyperlinks as HUMAN judgments -- otherwise why give pages with links "more importance and credence"?

  • Ken

    Not sure if PageRank was about Google understanding people, at least originally. It was actually a simple lifting of the academic citation system applied to hyperlinks. The more a paper/ webpage is cited, the more importance and credence it is given.

    While this too is about people and their preferences, I doubt Larry and Sergei thought of it that way when they set out.

  • To paraphrase Theodore Levitt, the celebrated Harvard Business Professor, from his seminal article entitled "Marketing Myopia": if the railroad companies had recognized that they were in the transportation business and not the railroad business, they would still be in business.

    Steve Jobs knows that he's in the "creativity business" - from publishing to music to movies. Probably the true marketing genius of the post-war era.

  • Great post!

    Doc Searls (a few years back) said that the firms that would become most successful were not ones that necessarily invented the technology but "because of" the technology. He was referring more to usage than borrowing/incorporating but the idea is not all that different than what you have discussed here.

    I believe that the 21st century will be dominated by usage/synthesis of technologies (i.e. execution) and Apple is an great example--but the tech sector will not be only (or perhaps) best example of where this occurs.

    I love reading your "stuff"--one of the more insightful voices on the web...

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