Caterpillar to Chrysalis to Butterfly

Or: idea to software to product.
I like the guys at FudCo.  They write thoughtful, reasoned pieces; since I found them, I’ve tried to limit myself to working back through their archive slowly, one article at a time, so that I get a chance to think about what they’ve said; to chew it over and spit out the gristle.  There’s remarkably little gristle; Chip’s How To Deconstruct Almost Anything is a tiny polished gem of demolition; a shaped charge placed against the weakest point of the great castle of post-modern theory.  But this is a technical blog, so I’ll link instead to the first of his Beware The Platform posts.

In this, Chip says:

A better paradigm is a different paradigm, and a different paradigm is nearly unsellable. The problem was that in order to enable customers to do things they couldn’t [previously] do… they had to do things that you just don’t do … (which was simply unacceptable). We were selling a technically superior solution, but one which asked too much of its customers. It wasn’t that what were asking them to do was hard but we were asking them to adopt a completely different view of application architecture, and that’s just not the kind of change people make without an overwhelmingly compelling reason.

Well, uh, yeah.  Don’t get the wrong idea here; I’m not claiming superior insight or anything, but that’s a lesson that we (meaning the somewhat off-the-wall company that employs me) learned the hard way.

A while ago, we went through a phase where people would bring us Ideas.  We got very good at assessing these very fast; sorting the few grains of actual value from the heap of chaff with which we were presented.  There were object lessons aplenty; in how an inventor tends to become blind to the problems of the invention, how oddball individuals can’t resist generalizing from themselves to model people in general and how wildly absurd the valuation of one’s own cherished ideas can be.  I’m talking “pay me a million pounds up front and you can have the idea” absurd here.

One of the biggest traps was the familiar old boil-the-ocean conceit.  If you’ve never come across this, I think the canonical reference is here, but you can use this example: my newly invented rolling-ball mode of transport is a fantastic idea and worth a fortune.  All that’s required is that every country in the world refit their entire transport infrastructure to accommodate it.
Very, very few ideas and products that require a paradigm shift ever succeed[1].  Some do, but to use them as models to follow is to miss the point; new products catch on where they follow the way in which things are already done, with an incremental improvement.  If you can get an order of magnitude improvement, but still follow the way people expect to work, even better.

Let’s take one of my absolute favourite examples du jour, video calls.  Here in Europe[2], we have video phones – not so advanced as in Asia, but they’re here.  The 3 network (website so feeble that it fails to show anything in Opera; use IE) started out promoting video calls with a vengeance.  They were, it was reasoned, so amazingly cool and better than boring ole voice that the population would flock to buy phones – even if coverage was patchy and the handsets uncomfortably bricksized, with a battery life that could be measured in mayfly lifetimes. They quickly shifted to trying to promote video clips, then to selling vast numbers of free minutes. Look on their works, ye mighty, and despair.

Video calling shifts paradigms.  Phones, experience says, are held to the ear, not in front of the face.  People do other things whilst on the phone – they type, read, scribble rude notes about the caller for their colleagues – even drive (though, of course, you and I would never dream of doing that, even hands-free).  The mental model of a phone call does not include seeing the person at the other end.  That requires a different model – and if/when video calling succeeds, it’ll be because that different model catches on, in different social contexts, for different uses.  Mobile phones work sufficiently closely to the way phones always have to succeed.  It’s a phone – a dial, you hold it up and talk.  The amount of adaptation required is minimal.

Anyway, enough derivative pontification.  How do I relate this to software?  Chip’s article is, in part, about the failure of a software product that attempted to do something better by doing it in rather too different a way.  When software moves from being an intellectual curiosity to a consumer or business product, certain things must be true if there’s to be a reasonable expectation of success.

Firstly, it must fit into the way the real world works.  Users and developers rarely have time to try new things for the fun of it (unlike geeks).  There are risks; financial (to the buyer, company or CIO/CTO who signs off on the purchase), political (“hey, there goes Ben, the guy who committed us to writing the thing in SmallTalk to run on Plan 9 – he’ll never make promotion”) and personal (“If I knew then what I know now about Zope, I’d not be working late every night this week”).

Secondly, it needs to be presented correctly.  I’m notorious in certain places for saying things like “packaging is 80% of a software product” but hell, I stand by that.  People buy things based (in part) on the packaging – and by that term I don’t just mean the box.  I mean the box plus the manuals plus the advertising plus the website plus the name plus the reputation plus the user community plus the knowledge base plus the… you get the idea.  The Mobile Phone Project we’re working on is a case in point; the idea is simple.  The effort is going into presenting it, with an appropriate name, image and way of working when in front of The Average User.

Even software that’s technically mediocre can succeed with all that; an uncomfortable truth, but it’s demonstrably true for other markets, why should software be different?  Nobody eats at McDonalds because the food is wonderful; it’s familiar and well-packaged.  Most people understand how a McDonalds[3] works.  Windows has many technical weaknesses but people know and understand the way it works; the packaging is reassuring.[4]

Enough.  There’s work to do, and tea to drink.  Oh, and my video phone is ringing; excuse me while I go and put on some clothes.

[1] I can’t help but remember the Dilbert cartoon (no online reference) in which someone refers to “a paradigm shifting without a clutch”.  Excellent metal image.
[2] I write with the built-in attitude that most of the people reading this are American; 60% US IP addresses last time I bothered to do a study.
[3] The grammar pedant in me just screamed and fell over at that; “a McDonalds works”.  Where the hell does the apostrophe go?  And is it really singular?
[4] And Linux has the opposite problem; technical strengths, but far too high a paradigm-shift-cost for the mass market.  Bear in mind by “people” here, I mean the completely non-technical majority of the population.

3 thoughts on “Caterpillar to Chrysalis to Butterfly

  1. “Look on their works, ye mighty, and despair.”

    Finished listening to Danny’s NotCon presentation huh?

    (I got it last night on your recommendation, very very good. I was looking for it ever since it was shown at the O’Reilly ETECH Con).

    • Point [3]

      The word is “pedant”, not “pendant”, just to be pedantic about it… šŸ™‚

      For what it may be worth, I believe it is “McDonald’s”.

      • Re: Point [3]

        Ouch! Now, if there is one canonical mistake for a pedant to make, it’s that one. Damn my loose fingers šŸ™‚

        Now I’m going to edit the entry so that your comment will appear to make no sense šŸ˜‰


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