Simple questions

I used to smoke. And it didn’t matter how hard I tried to rationalise or defend my smoking, it all boiled down to one question.

Would I be happy to see my children smoke?

The answer never changed, it was always No. I should have learnt more quickly from that.
Sometimes we need simple questions to break through our own sophistication and sophistry.

Two examples.

Over the years I’ve regularly found myself in senior management meetings where everyone opines with great wisdom and knowledge about the merits and demerits of a particular application. And over the years I’ve learnt to listen quietly and come in at the right time with a simple question:

Have you actually seen it?

More recently, as I’ve seen the kerfuffle about the iPhone, I’ve been tempted to try the same device out. I shall wait for a time when I am surrounded by Blefuscudians, one group arguing that Jobs is God and the other claiming he missed the opportunity to bring peace to the Middle East and solve global warming by signing up with Cingular-soon-to-become-AT&T.

And then I shall ask:

If I gave you a working iPhone, would you refuse it?

That should sort out the detractor wheat from the chaff.

This is important. Innovation, as Michael Schrage says, is what the consumer consumers, not what the innovator “innovates”. The secret of the iPod’s success is its, well, success.

Why did it succeed? I am not alone in fighting for vendor-independent devices and software platforms. I know many people who believe in what I believe, yet use iPods. So why did the iPod succeed?

I think people want freedom in their devices and in their software. They also want simplicity and convenience. And they want to be able to afford it. And they want it to have it, to have style.

People are pragmatic. They trade some freedom for some convenience and some coolth.

But only up to a point.

There is a minimum amount of freedom people will insist on having. When the trade-offs come close to that amount, people will push back.

What Apple needs to do is make sure that they never get to that push-back point.
And in a strange kind of way this is good for all of us, an each-way bet. Because a market opportunity is created. A variant of The Threat is Stronger than The Move.

Let’s say someone comes up with a phone that’s better than the iPhone. Better in freedom and convenience and style and coolth. That’s good for us.

My guess is someone will come up with that freer-simpler-cheaper-cooler phone. My guess is that someone is Apple. But even if it’s someone else the customer wins.
Innovation is what the customer consumes.

Try naming ten people who have non-iPod personal music players. The chances are you will name a few. Less than ten. Who use their phones as their music-playing devices.  Go figure.

Musing about opensource: The threat is stronger than the move

What do you do when you’re told to take it very easy, when you’re told to make “slow” a polysyllabic word? If you’re me, and you also have a deep-seated protestant work ethic in you, you struggle. Big time.

Well, that’s what I did for a little while last month, struggling to get past the denial stage. I really didn’t know how to do nothing. Then, come the new year, I had a Road To Damascus experience and then I settled down into an easy rhythm of eat-read-sleep-potter-about-aimlessly, interspersed with the real joy of spending time with my wife and kids. While on the subject of convalescence, my thanks to all who sent me get-well-soon messages. As you can see the messages are working…

Now to the point of this post.

As part of the pottering-about-reading-aimlessly time, I came across this post by James McGovern, whose blog I get to reasonably often.

Read the post, it’s worth it. James commented on a perception held by some developers that many opensource communities aren’t particularly welcoming, and that developers are put off joining as a result.
And it made me wonder.

I’ve always believed in a community participation rule of thumb, something I’ve written about before here and here. The numbers tell the story:

  • For every 1000 people who join a community:
  • 920 are lurkers, passive observers
  • 60 are watchers, active observers capable and willing to kibitz
  • 15 are activists, actually doing something
  • …and 5 are hyperactive, passionate about what they’re doing, almost to a point of obsession

And this is what I was musing about.

Does it really matter, the number of people who actively contribute to an opensource project? Is there something about the way opensource communities work, something that will always ensure that a very small number are the hyperactive core?

The more I think about it, the more I believe that there’s something important here. Linus’s Law is about eyeballs, not hands, and it’s for a reason:

  • At the heart of every successful opensource community is a small cottage industry. And it is this cottage-industry mindset that makes the community different from other “commercial” ones.
  • The core doesn’t have to scale. The core needs to behave in such a way that Linus’s eyeballs are attracted, and this is done by upholding the right values.
  • Jerry Garcia and gang only needed to make sure that Grateful Dead concerts had “taping rows”; the number of people who sat in them was not relevant (although they were full). In a weird kind of way, the core is the band. The tapers are the activists. The kibitzers are the roadies and volunteers.
  • Together with the audience, they formed a whole and vibrant community.
  • Not everyone needs to be on stage for the community to work. In fact there isn’t space.

It is the freedom of access, represented by the taping rows, that really matters. That’s what makes opensource opensource.

Or, to take a chess analogy:

The threat is stronger than the move.