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In response to Dave‘s Reading tea leaves in advance of Apple’s announcements, I added this comment:

Steve loves to uncork constipated categories with the world’s slickest laxative. So I’m guessing this new box will expand Apple’s retail shelf space to include newspapers, journals and books as well as sound recordings, movies and TV shows. It will be the best showcase “content” ever had, and will be a wholly owned proprietary channel. A year from now, half the people on planes will be watching these things.

It would be cool if it also helped any of us to become movie producers, and to share and mash up our own HD creations. But I think Steve is more interested in hacking Hollywood (entertainment) and New York (publishing).

I’ve thought for years that Apple’s real enemy is Sony. Or vice versa. But Sony got lame, becoming a Hollywood company with an equipment maker on the side. So think instead of the old Sony — the inventive one that owned the high-gloss/high-margin end of the entertainment gear business, the Sony of Walkmen and Trinitrons. That’s the vacuum Apple’s filling. Only, unlike Sony, Apple won’t have 50,000 SKUs to throw like spaghetti at the market’s wall. They’ll have the fewest number of SKUs possible. And will continue to invent or expand whole new categories with each.

And there will be something missing to piss people off too. Maybe it’ll be absent ports (like you said). Maybe it’s no multi-tasking, or skimpy memory, or bad battery life, or an unholy deal with some “partner.”

Whatever it is, the verities persist. Meaning items 1 through 6 from this 1997 document still apply:…

At that last link I wrote,

These things I can guarantee about whatever Apple makes from this point forward:

  1. It will be original.
  2. It will be innovative.
  3. It will be exclusive.
  4. It will be expensive.
  5. It’s aesthetics will be impeccable.
  6. The influence of developers, even influential developers like you, will be minimal. The influence of customers and users will be held in even higher contempt.

So now the iPad has been announced, Steve has left the building, and the commentariat is weighing in.

The absence of multi-tasking might be the biggest bummer. (Makes me wonder if mono-tasking is a Jobsian “feature”, kinda like the one-button mouse.) Adam Frucci of Gizmodo lists mono-tasking among eight things that suck” about the iPad, including no cameras, no HDMI out, no Flash, 3×4 (rather than wide) screen and a “Big, Ugly Bezel”. (That last one is off base, methinks. You need the wide bezel so you can hold the device without your hot fingertips doing wrong things with the touchscreen.)

Elswehere at Gizmodo, Joel Johnson says “PCs will be around as expert devices for the long haul, but it’s clear that Apple, coasting on the deserved success of the iPhone, sees simple, closed internet devices as the future of computing. (Or at the very least, portable computing.) And for the average consumer, it could be.”

The Engadgeteers mostly panned it. Unimaginative… underwhelming… one of Apple’s biggest misses.

MG Sigler at Techcrunch says, “The thing is beautiful and fast. Really fast. If you’ll excuse my hyperbole, it felt like I was holding the future. But is it a must-have?” Then answers,

Most people won’t yet, but as long as Apple has its base that will buy and use the iPad, they have plenty of time for either themselves or third-party developers to create the killer uses that make the iPad a must-have product for a broader range of people. We already saw that happen with the App Store and the iPhone/iPod touch. And at $499 (for the low-end version), there will be no shortage of people willing to splurge on the device just to see what all the fuss is about. They’ll get hooked too.

That’s getting close, but it’s not quite there.

First, the base Apple wants is consumers. Literally. We’re talking newspaper and magazine readers, buyers and users of cameras and camcorders, and (especially) TV and movie watchers. To some degree these people produce (mostly home video and photos), but to a greater degree they are still potatoes that metablolize “content”. This thing is priced like a television, with many improvements on the original. Call it Apple’s Trinitron. They are, like I said, after Sony’s abandoned position here, without the burden of a zillion SKUs.

Second, there will be a mountain of apps for this thing, and more than a few killer ones.

What depressed me, though I expected it, was the big pile of what are clearly verticalized Apple apps, which I am sure enjoy privileged positions in the iPad’s app portfolio, no matter how big that gets. It’s full of customer lock-in. I’m a photographer, and the only use for iPhoto I have is getting shots off the iPhone. Apple’s calendar on the iPhone and computer (iCal) is, while useful, still lame. Maybe it’ll be better on the iPad, but I doubt it. And the hugely sphinctered iTunes/Store system also remains irritating, though I understand why Apple does it.

What you have to appreciate, even admire, is how well Apple plays the vertical game. It’s really amazing.

What you also have to appreciate is how much we also need the horizontal one. The iPad needs an open alternative, soon. There should be for the iPad what Google’s Nexus One is for the iPhone.

I got a ride home tonight from Bob Frankston, who was guided by a Nexus One, serving as a better GPS than my dashboard’s Garmin. Earlier in the evening Bob used the Nexus One to do a bunch of other stuff the iPhone doesn’t do as well, if at all. More importantly, he didn’t need to get his apps only from Google’s (or anybody’s) “store”. And if somebody else wants to make a better Android phone than this one, they can. And Google, I’m sure, hopes they do. That’s because Google is playing a horizontal game here, broadening the new market that Apple pioneered with its highly vertical iPhone.

So a big lesson here is that the market’s ecosystem includes both the vertical silos and the horizontal landscapes on which those silos stand, and where all kinds of other things can grow. Joel may be right that “the average consumer” will have no trouble being locked inside Apple’s silo of “simple, closed Internet devices”. But there are plenty of other people who are neither average nor content with that prospect. There are also plenty of developers who prefer independence to dependence, and a free market to a captive one.

Captivity has its charms, and an argument can be made that tech categories are best pioneered by companies like Apple and Sony, which succeed both by inventing new stuff that primes the pump of demand, and by locking both developers and customers inside their silos. But truly free markets are not restricted to choices among silos, no matter how cushy the accomodations may be. Nor are they restricted to the non-choice of just one silo, as is currently the case with the iPad. Free markets are wide open spaces where anybody can make — and buy — anything.

There’s more to fear from heights than widths.

Bonus link: Dave weighs in. This is just a jumbo Oreo cookie.

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Thanks to Keith McArthur for clueing me in on Cluetrainplus10, in which folks comment on each of Cluetrain’s 95 theses, on roughly the 10th anniversary of the day Cluetrain went up on the Web. (It was around this time in 1999.)

The only thesis I clearly remember writing was the first, “Markets are conversations.” That one was unpacked in a book chapter, and Chris Locke has taken that assignment for this exercise. Most of the other theses are also taken, so I chose one of the later ones, copied and pasted here:

71. Your tired notions of “the market” make our eyes glaze over. We don’t recognize ourselves in your projections—perhaps because we know we’re already elsewhere. Doc Searls @dsearls

Ten years later, that disconect is still there. Back when we wrote Cluetrain, we dwelled on the distance between what David Weinberger called “Fort Business” and the human beings both inside and outside the company. Today there is much more conversation happening across those lines (in both literal and metaphorical senses of the word), and everybody seems to be getting “social” out the wazoo. But the same old Fort/Human split is there. Worse, it’s growing, as businesses get more silo’d than ever — even (and especially) on the Net.

For evidence, look no farther than two of the most annoying developments in the history of business: 1) loyalty cards; and 2) the outsourcing of customer service to customers themselves.

Never mind the inefficiencies and outright stupidities involved in loyalty programs (for example, giving you a coupon discounting the next purchase of the thing you just bought — now for too much). Just look at the conceits involved. Every one of these programs acts as if “belonging” to a vendor is a desirable state — that customers are actually okay with being “acquired”, “locked-in” and “owned” like slaves.

Meanwhile, “customer service” has been automated to a degree that is beyond moronic. If you ever reach a Tier One agent, you’ll engage in a conversation with a script in human form:

“Hello, my name is Scott. How are you today?”

“I’m fine. How are you?”

“Thank you for asking. I’m fine. How can I help you today?”

“My X is F’d.”

“I’m sorry you’re having that problem.”

Right. They always ask how you are, always thank you for asking how they are, and are always sorry you have a problem.

They even do that chant in chat sessions. Last week I had a four chat sessions in a row with four agents of Charter Communications, the cable company that provides internet service at my brother-in-law’s house. This took place on a laptop in the crawl space under his house. All the chats were 99% unhelpful and in some ways were comically absurd. The real message that ran through the whole exchange was, You figure it out.

Last week in the New York Times, Steve Lohr wrote Customer Service? Ask a Volunteer. It tells the story of how customers, working as voluntary symbiotes in large vendor ecosystems, take up much of the support burden. If any of the good work of the volunteers finds its way into product improvement, it will provide good examples of what Eric von Hippel calls Democratizing Innovation. But most companies remain Fort Clueless on the matter. Sez one commenter on a Slashdot thread,

There’s a Linksys cable modem I know of that has a recent firmware, and by recent I mean last year or so. Linksys wont release the firmware as they expect only the cable companies to do so. The cable companies only release it to people who bought their cable modems from them directly. So there are thousands of people putting up with bugs because they bought their modem retail and have no legitimate access to the updated firmware.

What if I pulled this firmware from a cable company owned modem and wrote these people a simple installer? Would the company sing my praises then?

The real issue here is that people frequent web boards for support because the paid phone support they get is beyond worthless. Level 1 people just read scripts and level 2 or 3 people cant release firmwares because of moronic policies. No wonder people are helping themselves. These companies should be ashamed of providing service on such a low level, not happy that someone has taken up the slack for them.

Both these annoyances — loyalty cards and customer support outsourced to customers — are exacerbated by the Net. Loyalty cards are modeled to some degree on one of the worst flaws of the Web: that you have to sign in to something before you make a purchase. This is a bug, not a feature. And the Web makes it almost too easy for companies to direct customers away from the front door. They can say  “Just go to our Website. Everything you need is there.” Could be, but where? Even in 2009, finding good information on most company websites is a discouraging prospect. And the last thing you’ll find is a phone number that gets you to a human being, even if you’re prepared to pay for the help.

So the “elsewhere” we talked about in Cluetrain’s 71st thesis is out-of-luck-ville. Because we’re still stuck in a threshold state: between a world where sellers make all the rules, and a world where customers are self-equipped to overcome or obsolete those rules — by providing new ones that work the same for many vendors, and provide benefits for both sides.

This whole issue is front-burner for me right now. One reason is that I’m finally getting down (after three years) to unpacking The Intention Economy into a whole book, subtitled “What happens when customers get real power” (or something close to that). The other is that this past week has been one in which my wife and I spent perhaps half of our waking lives on the phone or the Web, navigating labyrinthine call center mazes, yelling at useless websites, and talking with tech support personnel who were 99% useless.

A Tier 2 Verizon person actually gave my wife detailed instructions on how to circumvent certain call center problems in the future, including an unpublished number that is sure to change — and stressing the importance of knowing how to work the company’s insane “system”. And that’s just one system. Every vendor of anything that requires service has its own system. Or many of them.

These problems cannot be solved by the companies themselves. Companies make silos. It’s as simple as that. Left to their own devices, that’s what they do. Over and over and over again.

The Internet Protocol solved the multiple network problem. We’re all on one Net now. Email protocols solved the multiple email system problem. We don’t have to ask which company silo somebody belongs to before we send email to them. But we still have multiple IM systems. The IETF approved Jabber’s XMPP protocol years ago, but Jabber has been only partially adopted. If you want to IM with somebody, you need to know if they’re on Skype or AIM or Yahoo or MSN. Far as I know, only Google uses XMPP as its IM protocol.

Meanwhile text more every day than they IM. This is because texting’s SMS protocol is universally used, both by all phone systems and by Twitter.

The fact that Apple, Microsoft, Skype and Yahoo all retain proprietary IM systems says that they still prefer to silo network uses and users, even after all these decades. They are, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “demented with the mania of owning things.”

Sobriety can only come from the customer side. As first parties in their own relationships and transactions, they are in the best position to sort out the growing silo-ization problems of second and third parties (vendors and their assistants).

Once customers become equipped with ways of managing their interactions with multiple vendors, we’ll see business growing around buyers rather than sellers. These are what we’re starting to call fourth party services: ones that Joe Andrieu calls user driven services. Here are his series of posts so far on the topic:

  1. The Great Reconfiguration
  2. Introducing User Driven Services
  3. User Driven Services: Impulse from the User
  4. User Driven Services: 2. Control

(He has eight more on the way. Stay tuned.)

Once these are in place, marketers will face a reciprocal force rather than a subordinated one. Three reasons: 1) because customer choices will far exceed the silo’d few provided by vendors acting like slave-owners; 2) customers will have help from a new and growing business category and 3) because customers are where the money comes from. Customers also know far more about how they want to spend their money than marketers do.

What follows will be a collapse of the guesswork economy that has comprised most of marketing and advertising for the duration. This is an economy that we were trying to blow up with Cluetrain ten years ago. It’s what I hope the next Cluetrain edition will help do, once it comes out this summer.

Meanwhile, work continues.

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I’m listening right now to On Point*, where the topic is Pushing E-Health Records. The only case against electronic health records (EHR, aka electronic medical recordsk, or EMR) is risk of compromised privacy. Exposure goes up. The friction involved in grabbing electronic medical records is lower than that involved in grabbing paper ones, especially with the Internet connecting damn near everything.

Here’s the problem with privacy in the Internet Age (which we are now in, with no hope of ever getting out, unless we live the connectionless life): the Net is a big copy machine. It’s amazing how a fact so simple escapes attention until a first-rate metaphorist such as Kevin Kelly comes along to expound on what ought to be obvious:

The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free.

Our digital communication network has been engineered so that copies flow with as little friction as possible. Indeed, copies flow so freely we could think of the internet as a super-distribution system, where once a copy is introduced it will continue to flow through the network forever, much like electricity in a superconductive wire. We see evidence of this in real life. Once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave. Even a dog knows you can’t erase something once it’s flowed on the internet.

We’re not going to fix that. The copying nature of the Net is a feature, not a bug. We can fight some of it with crypto between trusting parties. But until we find ways to make that easy, the exposure is there. And, as long as it is, we’re going to have people who say risk of exposure overrides other concerns, such as the fact that dozens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone die every year of bad health care record keeping and communications — in other words, of bad data.

Still, if we want good medical care, we need EHR. That much is plain. The question is, How?

The answer will not be an information silo, or a set of silos. We have too many of those already. That’s the problem we have now — both on paper and in electronic formats (as I discovered last year in one of my own medical adventures).

The patient needs to be the point of integration for his or her own data, and the point of origination about what gets done with it. Even if the patient’s primary care physician serves as a trusted originator of medical decisions, the patient needs to anchor the vector of his or her own care, for the simple reason that the patient is the one constant as he or she moves through various medical specialties and systems.

The patient needs to be the platform. Not Google, or Microsoft, or your HMO, or the VA, or some kieretsu involving Big Pharma, Big Software Companies and Big Equipment Makers.

This requires classic VRM: tools of independence and engagement. That is, tools that enable the patient to be independent of any health care provider, yet better able to engage any provider.

In other words, while the answer needs to be systematic, it does not need to be A Big System (which I fear both BigCos and BigGovs whish to provide).

The answer needs to come from geeks who know how to eliminate big problems with simple solutions. For example,

  • Consider how the Internet Protocol solved the problem of multiple networks that didn’t get along.
  • Consider how email protocols such as SMTP, POP3 and IMAP solved the problem of multiple email systems that didn’t get along.
  • Consider how the XMPP protocol solves the problem of multiple instant messaging systems that don’t get along.

We need new ways of organizing our own health care data, and communicating that data selectively to trusted health care providers through open and standard protocols (that may or may not already exist… I don’t know).

I wanted to get those thoughts down because there’s a bunch of stuff going on around health care right now (including two conferences in Boston), detailed to some degree in Health Care Relationship Management, over at the ProjectVRM blog.

* On WBUR, a Boston station I pick up here in Santa Barbara over my Public Radio Tuner.

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