The Commons and Globalisation - Some more slants.

By Brian Ohanlon, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 10 years 27 weeks ago.

I have to make some comment about Nick Carr's blog post on personal productivity applications and online collaboration. There are just too many issues wrapped together here, and ultimately confused.

"Some, though, may find nice niche markets - consumers who need to do a specific task, inveterate Microsoft haters, tech tinkerers, tiny companies and nonprofits, educators - or carve out a role, at least temporarily, as a complement to the hybrid version of Office. But don't expect today's Office 2.0 contenders to make meaningful inroads in the mainstream business market, at least not anytime soon."

Sounds rather a bit like what RCA might have said about Sony televisions in the 1950s. Nick, to be honest, in all of your discussions of wikis and utilities and everything, there is one angle you have missed. There is a topic of research which still awaits someone to look at it. To explore the real parallel between the rise of online commons based phenomena, wikis and web 2.0, with the flattening effect of globalisation. I will try to illuminate the circumstances, for ordinary folk in today's global working environment.

"What will be attractive to end users - at least a sizable number of them - is to extend the usefulness of the traditional office suite through the addition of web-based tools and interfaces."

Lets get some bearings here shall we. Just what is so traditional about the modern world anyhow? I live in the city of Dublin, in Ireland and I can see zero to do with traditional anything, in the modern scene. Almost everything, that one could have take for granted a few years ago, has all been turned on its head. A very fancy way to dress up temporary, migrant and often very short term contract employment, is to call it social networking, or wiki-working, or cooperative commons. Call it whatever you will, but I think Alvin Toffler has recently summed it up the best.

Alvin Toffler talks about the third job, in his latest book, Revolutionary Wealth. It is a job we are all having to do increasingly, but are unaware of it. It seems now, that we have all become employees of the corporations, without being aware of it, and with absolutely no extra pay. They are making bangs of money, because customers are offering their time and equipment for free! Corporations are making more money by offering people much less. The low fair airlines for instance. Thomas Friedman, seems over the moon about printing your own plain tickets. But I am not. We have got wrong footed, with all of the emphasis upon personal this, and consumer that. In the long run, there isn't as high a quality, or as comprehensive a service for individual people now, as there used to be. But heck, everyone is so happy playing around with their new MS laptop, they don't notice, how little they are receiving now in other departments.

Look at energy companies at the moment. There is no competition now in the market for supplying household energy here in Europe. Why? Because the energy companies only want to deal with large industrial customers, where you have massive quantities and very little administration overhead. With utility computing, it will be no different i think. A thousand homes, might be the same as one industrial facility. But with the home owners, you have to provide all this extra individual billing, customer relations, meter reading, maintenance, accounting etc for each home. My friend down the road is always getting disconnected and re-connected, because she cannot be even bothered paying the bills on time. What company would want to do business with that kind of customer? But the energy company has to serve her, all the same. Even though, she is a pain to deal with. Signs by, no corporation is in a rush, to compete in the home energy supply game. No company is in a rush to serve individuals with utility computing power either.

"What is absolutely unacceptable to them is to take a step backward in functionality - which is exactly what would be required to make the leap to web PPAs today."

In this flatter world we seem to be living in, people are being forced to do more and more work they weren't used to doing in the past. One of those things, is keeping much better records, for personal and accounting and taxation purposes. Companies are often registered with an employee count of one. Many peoples' jobs are quite portable nowadays, they could move to India in the morning. Contracts get tighter, shorter and flexibility is something workers are having to learn to survive. So, there is a whole new bunch of self-employed and contract people working within the umbrella of large companies. All filling out their own accounts and book keeping. Just trying to squeeze in some administration, as they try to conduct their daily lifes. They need to do their own book keeping, and have to do it efficiently. They haven't time or energy to absorb all of the functionality, of the full blown office suite. You borrow and grab whatever small opportunities you can get, to try and enter some book keeping. This is a totally new consumer of office applications. The company with one employee. Many move around the world all the time, working where the work is. They simply cannot lug around an office with them. Companies with an employee list of one, don't last long enough, to even buy a laptop and install the software on it. Three months and the company might be hosed again. Licensing an office suite, or anything like that, isn't a part of the plan.

"The collapse will begin with small and medium-sized businesses, which have the most to gain and the least to lose from moving quickly to a software-as-a-service model, even for PPAs, and it will roll upward to larger companies from there."

As I have said, if you want to find the root cause of this disruptive innovation, the competition against non-consumption, look again. Forget small and medium-sized businesses. Try the people with the third job, as Alvin Toffler described it. They will not care two hoots about functionality, lack of features or existing formats. The technology barrier to surmount, to access this new value network, is very small indeed. It could quite easily be served by the new crumby, web based products. It does a job, that customers are trying to do. This is what Microsoft have never quite understood I think. They have defined their market segmentation, too much on product attributes, rather than on customer circumstances.

"It's a good point - there's a reason they're called personal productivity apps - but it's also true that "office work" is often collaborative, in one way or another, and there's rarely a bright line between personal and group productivity."

As I say Nick, you are missing the point. The rise of so-called commons based resources has more to do with affordability and simplicity, for migrant workers, working in increasingly flattened global economies. It hasn't a thing to do with collaboration, or social networking, or the existence of a common resource. That is only a fog that has been wrapped around it, a way for people to feel better while using these cheap crumby products. Competing directly with MS Office would be a daunting task at the moment. But when all the fog lifts, Microsoft might see a different picture. It may even find itself excluded from distribution channels.

Remember the first use of the transistor radio, was to allow the lowest form of humanity, teenagers, to own their own radio. The early Sony transistor radio, was very much linked with the notion of communal gatherings of teenagers, in all sorts of places, listening to rock and roll music, without parental supervision. Web based productivity applications are about the same thing, about teenagers needing to get things done, but without the supervision. It is a common mistake in the web 2.0 treatment, to interchange social networking, with a new low end customer, who will accept virtually anything, as long as it is free. That is why I posted this response to Howard Rheingold, in relation to James Boyle's cognitivie bias.

In Cluetrain, Dave Weinberger wrote about the futility of intranets hiding behind firewalls. He wrote of employees starting their own web sites and by-passing the stodgy in-house systems. Well, I like what he says, but my experience hasn't been that. System admins are still largely in charge of networks in any business I know of. Everyday, the inhouse network admin learns more about web 2.0 services, and new applications living on the web. Then having learned about these cool new things, they proceed to go around all the business desktops under their charge to make sure, employees aren't using these applications. Network admins are still hired servants, paid by the boss to eradicate all new cool stuff off the business desktop. All you need do is substitute the computer for a radio, the network admin for parents and web 2.0 for rock n' roll, and guess what! We are back in the 1950s!

"That said, it's a mistake to think that online collaboration is always superior to, say, emailing a file back and forth or even distributing hard copies and gathering comments."

Many small and medium sized business servers now, simply block all emails coming from the yahoo, google and msn mail addresses that global migrant workers are using. Again, see my comments in relation to James Boyle's cognitive bias linked above. There couldn't be a clearer distinction between the business community and those using web based PPA. The only hassle free way for individuals, to get things done, is to move away from email as a tool altogether. Web based PPA is what Clayton Christensen calls, in his book 'The Innovator's Solution', a brand new distribution channel. Clay talks of the old RCA distribution channels which relied on shops making their profits by replacing vaccum tubes in TVs that they sold. Kmart could never sell TVs, because they hadn't the skills to repair TVs. But when transistor based TVs came out, Kmart became the new distribution channel, and RCA found that space was already taken by Sony, when RCA tried to sell their transistor based product through this new channel. Microsoft is happy at the moment. There are still enough revenues coming from sales of their office product. MS Office is getting more sophisticated all the time. But in future, I think some web based PPA maker will suck customers from the old value network Microsoft has, into the new value network.

I will give the last words to Sam Rose, from the James Boyle cognitive bias post. His words appear to reinforce, most of what I have said above. He seems to capture some of the same spirit of those 1950s rock n' roll kids, and their Sony transistor radios.

"I think it's worth keeping in mind that the Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 are environments that are more conducive to people who want to start something outside of the traditional corporate business walled gardens. This is of course, a lot tougher than hooking up with an established company that has lots of resources and money. But, the tools themselves can help you close some of the gaps, sometimes. So, if you want a Web 1.0 or Web 2.0 workign environment these days, I think that you might have to strike out on your own. That is what I am doing. Start a new business of your own, based around the way that you want to work."