I’m not a classical early adopter or tech passionate. I hang around tech places, use services that are still in their early adopter phase (or trying to break out of it). I read a lot about new startups providing us with new technology or services, but I don’t sign up for every (private) beta that is announced. I work with technology, I program software, but not professionally, and currently I’m preparing a launch of a web service that will see the light somewhere around September 1st 2008. I work with very passionate and incredibly talented developers and designers and can comfortably deal with all the different technologies and processes involved in complex technology development.
I see myself as a person understanding technology (developments), but I’m not fascinated by the technology (development) itself. What I do care and get passionate about is the “first use” of new technology. First use is a term I have used throughout my career to describe the most important aspect of new technology, the fist use of it by a user. We can spend a lot of time developing the best, most high tech, innovative technology (solution) that we can think of, in the end all that matters is if it solves a need or problem for the person using that technology. First use is therefore the first real test of a new development. Whether we talk about first use in a corporate or enterprise environment or individual users, the basic challenge is always the same. Is a user willing to put in the effort to learn about this new technology and incorporate it in his current habits? The answer in any case is that willingness is related to either solving a problem or creating another type of value for the user. If this isn’t obvious from the start, then the user is not committed to put in the effort of integrating this technology into his life. Note that this isn’t necessarily related to design or usability or complexity. It helps if your development scores well on those factors. Bottom line however is whether or not the user conceives enough value to put the effort into it.
Because I am passionate about “ First Use”, I’m not fit to be an early adopter or tech passionate. I can’t be fascinated by the development itself without asking myself questions about the value of that development. Don’t get me wrong. There are uncountable successful developments throughout history where only afterward the value or impact could be determined. So you don’t necessarily know or have to know value upfront. I doubt Sir Tim Berners-Lee envisioned the importance or impact of his effort to let a few computers within CERN use HTTP client-server protocols to exchange information.
When developments pick up speed and evolve over earlier developments the question of value is perhaps answered a bit easier. In the case of web development it seems at some point we enter a new “era” of development (web 1.0 versus web 2.0), but until we make another big jump a lot of the developments are basically circling around similar themes. It seems to me we are in such a phase right now. As an example, the first “social network” was big news, now we have thousands of them. Twitter was hot and new when it started, now there are many competitors. Watching your first on-line video was exciting. Finding someone on this planet that hasn’t seen a video on-line is probably an impossible task.
You can see this state we are in when you are watching the technology blogs and news sites. Most breaking news stories are about stuff we have seen and heard before. A post title “Is X going to kill Y” is a signal too (good example, is Cuil going to be the next Google-killer. It is sensational but of course a nonsense title). There aren’t any revolutions taking place in technology, mostly small improvements over existing developments.
It is during this period that the “First use” question is an important and meaningful question. We basically have a pretty good understanding of the impact of current technology, so if a new service is being announced we can meaningfully ask ourselves, where is the value for the user, what problem is it going to solve?
It seem to me that a lot of the startups that launch new services have spent more time on the development of the technology than on answering these hard questions. Answering such questions might be a very painful process that could even lead to the conclusion that there isn’t any value to be found. It leads attention away from development, is not a motivating process for the tech passionate, and also puts your startup in the possibly uncomfortable situation that you have to live up to the responsibility or value you have determined upfront. And obviously you could get it all wrong, you thought you were solving a problem that turned out to be something else, or creating a value that was never there.
But it can also be very rewarding. It provides excellent focus when you have a clear problem you are going to solve, or a value you are providing the user. It makes development simpler because you will have less “features” to implement. Your efforts become measurable. Do users see the things you envisioned too? You can create an effective communication message to your target audience if you know exactly what it is you are delivering.
Failing to answer “first use” questions not only has technological consequences, but perhaps more important, it has business consequences. If you don’t understand the value you are creating, how can you then create a viable business model for it? As a result, we see not only copying of services but also copying of business models. (or the lack of a good business model 😉 ).
It seems to be an accepted way of working to just start and see where things lead to. I can’t help but feel that there are many cases in which the outcome can be a bit more predictable and therefore used to create maximum value for the user and ultimately for the startup. But they tend to follow the easy path instead.
If you are going to ask me or any other user to invest time and energy into your technology you better make sure I feel it’s well worth the investment. I started writing this blog post with the title “5 technologies that have been developed to solve a problem you didn’t know you had”, which probably would do well in terms of traffic. I ended up writing about the mechanisms behind it because I feel it isn’t fair to just provide you my personal list of services I don’t get. I felt it would be more interesting to provide you my thoughts on it.
I’m interested to hear your opinion on this. Do you agree, feel differently Are there services that fall into the category I tried to describe? Let me know.