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Joseph Smarr » Sources of inspiration for 2010

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January 2010
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Sources of inspiration for 2010

Despite all the serious challenges the world is facing these days, I’m also seeing more and more that inspires me–cases where great things are happening to great people doing great work and improving the world in the process. Specifically, the following recent examples come to mind:

  • Movies: Avatar
  • Music: Lady Gaga
  • TV: Netflix HD streaming to Blu-Ray/TiVo/Xbox/etc.
  • Mobile: Palm Pre & Nexus One
  • Desktop: Chrome OS
  • Social: Foursquare

What do all of these have in common? They’re all cases of insanely talented outsiders changing the world by just working really hard and doing great stuff.

Everyone said James Cameron was crazy to make Avatar, just like they said he was crazy to make Titanic. They’re both such impossibly grand, expensive, and difficult visions to capture. But he did it anyway, and the work is brilliant, and the only thing that went broke were the previous box-office records.

Same thing with Lady Gaga: just two years ago, no one had heard of her, and she was just playing little clubs in New York. But using her incredible talent in song-writing and performance art, and a willingness to work insanely hard every day, she unleashed her strange and unique vision of music/fashion/art/performance and took the world by storm, becoming the first artist ever to score four #1 hits off her debut album, and at age 23 no less. If you haven’t paid close attention and think she’s just another made-to-order corporate pop starlet, take a closer look, you’ll be surprised (as I was).

Netflix is certainly an outsider when it comes to watching TV in your living room (it’s neither a cable provider nor a set-top box manufacturer), yet now that I can watch entire seasons of Lost in HD on my TV whenever I want–thanks to its Watch Instantly streaming and integrations with existing set-top boxes and gaming consoles–I find myself rarely watching “real TV” any more. And Netflix’s user experience is far superior–it knows which episodes I’ve already seen, so I can just pick up where I left off whenever I have a free moment. And if I’m up at Tahoe for the weekend, I can watch it there too on my laptop, and my episode history is kept in sync because it’s stored in the cloud. Brilliant.

Both Palm Pre and Android (hard to pick a favorite yet!) are up against fierce competition from Apple and the old-world mobile establishment, and neither company (Palm or Google) is an established player in this space, but they’re both producing excellent devices that simultaneously improve the quality of the experience for users while opening up more flexibility and power to developers. And they’re also making web development more of a “first-class citizen” for mobile apps. It’s hard to think of a more ambitious challenge than building your own mobile platform–hardware, OS, software stack, apps, and distribution in physical stores–but that’s not stopping these guys from having a major impact, and the game is just beginning.

Chrome OS isn’t even out yet really, but it’s already clear that the desktop will soon evolve to their vision where all important data lives in the cloud, and it will no longer matter if your computer dies or if you want to use multiple computers in different places–a pain that I’ve experienced many times, as I’m sure you have. Windows is one of the most well-established monopolies there is, so again it’s crazy in some sense to try and compete there, let alone with a radical new vision that does a lot *less* than the status quo, and instead re-imagines the problem in a new way. And yet people buy new computers all the time, so it’s not hard to believe that they could establish considerable market share in a short number of years, while forcing radical change from their competitors at the same time.

And perhaps closest to my own area of work on the Social Web, I think it’s noteworthy that the company that has had the biggest positive impact on how I connect and share with my friends in the last year is not any of the big established players, but a tiny startup that’s building itself up from scratch by making it easier and more rewarding to share where you are and what you’re doing: Foursquare. While I cringe at the amount of work they have to do to integrate with each separate social network and build apps for each separate mobile device (that’s why we need more common standards, of course!), they’re still able to deliver an awesome product with a tiny team, and their service is taking off like a rocket.

Why are these examples so inspiring to me? They provide reassurance that in 2010, two basic things are still true–perhaps more true than ever before:

  1. You *can* win by being excellent and working hard to build a better product
  2. You *can* win even if you’re an outsider in a field of powerful incumbents

It’s hard to believe in transformational innovation if you can’t believe in those two points, and it’s often easy to get discouraged, since these are such difficult challenges. But if those guys can all do it, so can we. In fact, it’s not hard to believe that it’s actually getting easier to succeed in these ways. After all, barriers to entry keep getting lowered, and the spread of information keeps getting faster and more efficient, so the good stuff should be able to be discovered and bubble to the top faster than ever before. If that’s true, then the new “hard problem” should be doing great work in the first place, and that’s the problem I want to be tackling!

What examples are inspiring you right now?

  • Tom Coates

    While I completely agree with your general point, and definitely look at people like FourSquare in the same light, I'm afraid I don't share your enthusiasm about most of the others. Google is a company with over 10,000 employees and currently a license to print money. Do I think it's a good thing that they decide to spend a vast amount of that money to go into direct competition with Firefox? No, I'm not sure I do think that's a good thing, and it's certainly not a victory for the little guy. Similarly Android. Do I think that it's a triumph for an outsider or a big move for one of the world's largest and most financially solvent technology companies? And Avatar? I mean, he made a huge money-spinning film, I'll agree, but he's also the producer of the largest grossing film of all time, and a number of other huge movies, and was funded by the major studio system. I don't see this a source for inspiration, particularly. I don't think see these things as good narratives for the little guy, the outsider or whatever. Honestly, if it's a triumph for anyone, it's for marketing! Because I can't see how else you can argue that a company like Google with a market cap of 190 Billion Dollars is an 'inspirational outsider'!

    I'm really sorry to be negative about this. God knows I think we should be celebrating innovation and outsiders, and pointing to the huge effects the right ideas can have, but I just can't find myself getting teary eyed for the James Cameron or Google 'underdogs'…

  • Joseph Smarr

    Tom-I agree that not all of these “outsiders” are starving artists with no track record (except perhaps for Gaga), but they're definitely still *outsiders* in the fields they're tackling now, to an extent that's easy to underestimate. Sure, Cameron and Google have done great things in the past and made lots of money, but they're also both constantly challenging the status quo and doing things their peers say are crazy and foolish. It takes courage of your convictions when everyone around you is telling you that you're crazy, and IMO it's worthy of celebration when people stick to their guns and prove everyone wrong with wild success through hard work and excellent execution, regardless of how successful those players have been in the past.

  • Greg

    I have to take issue with this sentence, “Both Palm Pre and Android … are up against fierce competition from Apple and the old-world mobile establishment…”. I think it's very disingenuous to lump Apple with the “old world mobile” companies. Not to mention that you didn't even include Apple/iPhone as an example of “insanely talented outsiders changing the world by just working really hard and doing great stuff”.

    Furthermore, Palm is hardly an outsider to the mobile phone industry and Google does not manufacture any hardware. I'm not sure if Google actually designed the Nexus One, or they left the details to HTC, who manufactures it, but they certainly aren't solely responsible for it as Apple is the iPhone.

    I certainly don't contend that Google and Palm haven't accomplished impressive things with their phones, but whether you like them or not, you should give Apple the credit it deserves for, at the very least, putting smartphones and mobile apps into the hands of the masses.

  • Joseph Smarr

    Fair point, Apple certainly fits my definition over the past several years (both for iPhone and iPod/iTunes), though I don't think they've done anything radical in the last year, which was the time period I was considering for this post. At the same time, Apple's new-found market share and their tight/opaque control over their app store is cause for concern for innovators, and justifiably so. It's why both Palm and Google can compete partly by being more open, which you won't be surprised to learn is a strategy I agree with and commend. :)

  • jp

    Do you like Netflix HD? I'd love to get the streaming from Netflix, but last time I checked they were not streaming 5.1 audio tracks :( A friend of mine tried the streaming and told me he was disappointed by the quality, but I don't think he was using HD.

  • Joseph Smarr

    I'm very impressed with the quality of netflix streaming. It's almost always HD, and it almost never jitters or shows artifacts, and the initial buffering is also very quick. And given that we don't get HD over cable where I live, ironically netflix is often superior quality to what I can get over real TV! :)

  • jakelevine

    Great post Joseph. Your comment on Chrome OS – “let alone with a radical new vision that does a lot *less* than the status quo” – calls to mind Christensen's definition of disruptive technologies: (see Low End Disruption)

    It's hard to imagine that the average user needs 1TB of hard drive space and 8GB RAM. While a cloud OS might well undershoot the needs of a professional video editor, it could provide *just enough* for the main stream market, at an unbeatable price point, and with the additional benefits you allude to above (durability, portability, persistence).

  • hackele

    Outsiders do not always do the “right” thing. And if outsider is big enough to have its creation widely praised and adopted (sometimes beyond the creator's intention), it can do more harm than good.