The iPad and the development of Markets

The release of the iPad is bringing to the fore a topic that is near and dear to me, and one that I believe will be at the center of design thinking, marketing, etc., discussion for the foreseeable future.

Essentially, some are threatened by the iPad’s “closed” system. The most vocal seems to be Cory Doctorow. In his piece, “Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t, either),” Mr. Doctorow puts forth the idea that the iPad represents a closed system, and therefore is a “gadget” that stifles innovation, etc.

With respect to Mr. Doctorow (who I do indeed respect immensely), I feel he’s dead wrong here. As someone who at 14 wrote my first piece of software on a Commodore 64 (it was a program that attempted to teach my 6 year-old brother some basic math aptitude by rewarding him with a piece of a picture every time he got the arithmetic problem correct; get ten right and you’ve “built” a race car), and as someone who now likes few things more than devoting an hour or so every other night to teaching myself Ruby on Rails, and as someone who’s been instrumental in the development of two successful iPhone apps (here and here), I just don’t understand his thought process.

The iPad is a delivery device, and, as such, relies on creative types to develop the content to justify its existence. Developing this content — books, movies, tv shows, apps of all stripes — and having an elegant distribution channel and device for our users to consume and enjoy our creations represents a massive win for the creative class.

Did developing not only this device but the distribution channel require Apple to make some decisions that were not informed by “open source” wisdom of the crowds? Absolutely. And, thank God.

The “wisdom of the crowd” could no more design the iPad nor the delivery mechanism (i.e. the App store) than “they” could design any other elegant system.

Why people have not yet come to the realization that wisdom of the crowd/crowdsourcing, etc. is simply a variant of design by committee (taken to a massive extreme) is beyond me.

This is not to say that there is no value to be had from crowdsourcing, etc. There is. What people seem to be neglecting is that these crowds tend to lack experts, or that the sheer volume of the crowd often mutes the experts.

As the Cluetrain famously taught us, “Markets are conversations,” and in a pre-industrial society that’s all we had.

Conversations were muted entirely during the industrial era; Henry Ford: “You can have any color Model T you want, so long as it’s black.”

Conversations were inauthentic during the Modern era; companies attempted to manipulate us into believing we had choice when we didn’t, etc.

The Internet — a medium for conversation and storytelling — allowed us to reclaim our voice, and thus, our choice. Amazon rankings representing the earliest and most cogent example of how “civic sharing” destroyed the Modern conceit of brands über-alles, and began our move towards “wisdom of the crowd” fascination.

We’re in an interstitial period now where we realizing that the wisdom of the crowd alone isn’t working. The recent kerfuffle over negative Amazon reviews for Michael Lewis’ new book, based not on the content of the book, but rather its lack of availability as an e-book, represents an example of this failure. The crowd wasn’t wrong exactly, but rather the current system did not allow the crowd to communicate their collective voice effectively.

What is required now is more filters and crowd leaders. Taking a cue from social entrepreneurship, “teams of teams” must emerge that allow for better organization of the crowd. Again, this requires people with real expertise to marshal the voices.

What is required is that someone with a point of view and knowledge make decisions. This is what the iPad represents. Decisions were made. Cory Doctorow and others were left out of this decision making process, and they don’t like it.

I personally am delighted that I can read Mr. Doctorow’s work on my iPad; I’ll read more of his work more enjoyably because of it. However, I’m also very glad that Mr. Jobs (and his team) designed the iPad and not a collection of Mr. Doctorows.

I know precisely what would have been developed by the “open source” community. It would have been a watered-down version that attempted to please everyone.

I refer to this dynamic as the Coder/Manager Dilemma. Essentially, without a strong manager the coders will water down an idea and leave the manager no economic choice but to ship a product that is less than what had been envisioned. Mr. Jobs is one of the few that seems to combat this (The Kindle is an example of the coder/manager dilemma writ large).

This post
(via Daring Fireball) sums up the need for expertise:

…open source has nothing to teach literature or indeed any artistic creation, since talent doesn’t scale as you give more and more developers check-in access to the version-control system set up for your novel. It further explains why one’s inability to hack an iPad means precisely nothing. Nobody needs to program an iPad to enjoy using it, except those who have no capacity for enjoyment other than programming and complaining about same.

This was the weekend those of us with high standards lost their remaining residue of patience for ideologues who hyperbolize about open systems without actually creating something people want to use.

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  1. Dave’s avatar

    I think you have underestimated the levels of organization involved in the creation of open source software projects. While you are right that hardware comes together much better by way of for-profit organizations, great software solutions can and do come together very well by way of the work of many people and the leadership of a few. Apple themselves create operating systems based on technologies that exist because of free collaborative projects.

    Here's a great example of an open source software project we all use:


  2. George Howard’s avatar

    Fantastic points and example. Thank you.




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