Scoble makes some good points in a blog posting about why Microsoft, and more specifically his old boss Steve Ballmer, doesn’t get Web 2.0. I don’t agree with everything Robert says, but he has an understanding of this era of the web born of living and working in its eye the past seven years:
“There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure,” Ballmer said.
When I worked at Microsoft I heard this over and over and over again from various engineers and program managers who STILL haven’t competed effectively with WordPress, Flickr, Skype, YouTube, or any of the other things over the years I’ve heard this “we can build that in a few weeks” kind of arrogant attitude attached to.
Why aren’t they succeeding? Because eBay is NOT about the technology. It’s about the community and unless you have something that’ll convince the buyers and sellers all to switch all at one moment you’ll never be able to take eBay’s market away. Translation: it’s too late and eBay has huge defensibility around its business because people won’t move away from it even if you demonstrate 5x better technology.
I think Scoble fuses two different phenomena here, but the point is a valid one. But a marketplace is not quite the same as a community. eBay is not really about the community, it’s about the marketplace. As anyone who has tried to move a physical market — a wet market, say — from one location to another has found, it’s not easy. eBay (and Amazon) are about first mover advantage. If you want to sell or buy something, you go to the place most likely to sell it.
Facebook et al are different. They’re definitely about community. But community is maybe the wrong word, because it carries with it connotations of permanence that don’t really exist. MySpace, Facebook etc may still be as big in a few years’ time, but somehow I doubt it. They’re social spaces that open and close like real spaces — less communities, more campsites. Campsites may be there for years, but the structures are impermanent and can, one day, move or disperse.
I agree with Robert, too, that people who use these services ain’t just kids. That’s the most interesting thing about Facebook, in my view: the Skype-like opening up to less techie, older users because of the untechie attractions of being able to find and communicate with acquaintances and ex-colleagues with whom they share loose ties.
Social networking has broken out of its narrow confines, and this has huge implications. But we should be careful before we assume that this will evolve in the same way social networking has evolved for the geek community: these new users won’t stick around for ever adding apps of less and less consequence and communicating with all their buddies via Facebook.
Eventually, everyone finds everyone they need to find on Facebook and bores of the services designed to keep them there. Then they’ll want to export the address book and the creative capital they’ve invested in Facebook and move it someplace else. If they are blocked from doing that, their interest in such tools will quickly wane. We geeks are happy to populate new social networks by repeating all the data entry necessary to make the sites worthwhile, but non-tech users will be less patient (or actually have lives offline.) For them it’s about the people; the apps are just a pleasant distraction.
Then there’s the money. Robert is right: Facebook is an advertiser’s dream. But it has yet to be proven that Facebook users (and we’re talking non-tech users here) are going to tolerate too much intrusiveness. Gmail has scared a lot of non-tech users away, based on anecdotal evidence, because of its intrusive ads. I think Facebook will similarly scare people away if it mines that user data too deeply.
This all said, it is a puzzle as to why Microsoft has ignored this new world. All its tools beg for greater interactivity and sharing, but why is it I use Microsoft only when I’m typing this (the free Windows Live Writer), or when I’m writing a Word document, or emailing it to someone? If I want to discuss the document, or collaborate on a spreadsheet, I turn to Google Docs. Nowhere does Microsoft try to make that process easier or more social. Think of all the opportunities missed in those simple actions.