As one of my friends on Facebook defined it superbly – Nonplussed – the act of standing around while everyone around you has a Google Plus account. Google plus, which has been launched recently, has been termed as a Facebook killer and the buzz (Oops) around it has been phenomenal. However some people are still doubtful about the possibilities and the extent to which Google can launch a social network to challenge existing networks like Twitter or FB.

There is a common misconception that startups possess a greater propensity to innovate / have greater incentive to innovate. The incentive / propensity to innovate comes with the corporate/ company culture. There are firms such as IBM which have been able to consistently maintain the culture for decades, as can be proved from their company history. However it is true that startups do possess an advantage of being at the edge of latest research and have the ability to change direction quickly in comparison to most large firms. However it is as much a factor  of risk tolerance as it is of size and propensity. The startup may enjoy a few benefits of an early advantage but it can be negated very quickly by a large firm choosing to enter the field.

Another common misconception is that Social media as a trend is fluid and people will soon shift to the next upcoming media channel just like people shifted from Orkut to Facebook to Twitter. However what people forget is that Social Media is an evolving channel. The dramatic changes we have seen in the last 10 years rival the changes seen in the telecom space two decades back. What however we need to realize is that the choice of media channel will not matter as much as how we are able to make users both generate and promote content. The channel is but a choice. However users do believe in the importance of user experience and this is one place where both large firms and startups are equally ignorant and at equal risk.

What one really needs to remember though, is the story of Psion. People forget that Psion was way ahead of its times. It came up with amazing innovations and brilliant concepts but consumers were pretty happy with their first product and were equally happy with getting a few simple needs satisfied. Psion is the origin of at least three path breaking ideas (Ipad, GPS systems and Satellite Radio) but these ideas could not get accepted as most people were unsure of the business potential for such ideas.

The true advantage of a huge firm like a Google or an IBM or a Microsoft is not about its innovation. It can choose to innovate through promoting its own talent or acquiring talent. The true advantage lies in its ability to take risks which other firms cannot. Google has burnt its fingers twice earlier with Wave and Buzz. Each time it has learnt valuable lessons about privacy and true sharing of content which it has applied in Google Plus. Though I have been using Google Plus for only a day, I like two of its features – one the ability to choose whom I allow to follow/ be followed and whom I share content with, and secondly, the ability to take all my data with me through Google Takeout if I choose to leave. Google has addressed two major concerns of most existing social media users – privacy and data control. Equally important is the changes it has brought in controlling and managing conversations, which has predominantly been a feature much needed in Twitter. Each time, users lose out on useful conversations which cannot be saved or noted as the TL moves faster than one can blink.

One has to realize that firms can choose to innovate horizontally or vertically. The big firms enjoy the advantage of horizontal innovation through their access to talent across spheres of technology . If there is something a startup does which is really interesting / innovative, the large firm will probably just incorporate it into its systems the next time. Classic examples are those of Tweetdeck shortening of links being integrated into Twitter, Facebook Messages being converted into mail and so on. The problem for a small firm to grow big or innovate majorly lies in accomplishing innovation which is of no interest to the existing major firms. Sadly most firms seem least interested in taking that risk



5 thoughts on “Nonplussed

  1. Two things:
    1. I would define true innovation in the social space as a completely new concept or platform. Like Twitter. Or Facebook. integration in Tweetdeck is an innovation, sure, but not the on the scale of a new platform altogether. And this is where I feel big companies are left behind. A new social platform takes a while to be successful, and I don’t think IBM/Google/Apple have the inbuilt tolerance for things that may not make money immediately. This is relative to start-ups, of course.

    2. Company culture plays an important role, yes. But as I said in my post – name one successful social platform created by an Apple/Google/IBM. The famous Google 20% rule no doubt sees tons of innovative ideas. But which ones do you think get allocated budgets and get the kickass developers? Probably the ones that are more likely to make money right? That’s the difference. Start-up projects in the social space often don’t aim to make money directly. They know that if they’re good enough they can survive on angel investor funding. That’s not really an option for the Googles and Apples of the world. Hence lower propensity/incentive.

    • In reply to your points:
      1) There are two styles of innovation – one is incremental, the other is radical. Radical innovation is great. But it is quite rare. Also IBM built the barcode scanner, the systems which run our airport ticketing systems and the System 360. Apple has twice chosen to redefine itself. The choice of taking on that risk lies with both. It is just that since the big firms can survive a few hits, their taking the risk makes more sense. A startup could come up with a radical innovation but as I said in the post, some ideas may never get funded coz people just wont believe there is a market for them. Psion tried to sell the idea of the PDA long before anyone thought of PDA’s.

      2) Many times we rarely get to see internal innovation as firms choose to wait to show it for later. For example, a lot of Microsoft’s changes in Windows 7 were actually available much earlier and used as internal software.Similiarly for a long time, Apple has currently been working on bringing NFC to their iPhones but has not chosen to show it to anyone (except for prototypes being lost). Most importantly, Startups are meant to make money. Basically the startups take extra risk so that they get money for the equity they own. No startup owner is in it for the sake of making a new idea alone. As for angel investors, they seek higher returns in the long run.There are dozens of horror stories of angel investors shutting the plug early because they did not see returns quickly enough

  2. Sudharshan,

    What has been eating me about the Google+ thing is not the innovation which went behind it. I earn my living from marketing, and trust me I have learnt it the hard way when I say the best product doesn’t necessarily sell the best. The reference to RIM which I gave off on twitter was in that context. Innovation, in itself, doesn’t mean anything, if it cannot be sold off to a larger group of people.

    And mind that I said larger, not large. You mentioned twitter in your post,as compared to FB and orkut. And so, I would invite you to compare Twitter and FB and Orkut today. But not in terms of users, in terms of active users. If we don’t use that parameter, we are clutching at straws. That is like the GoI saying India has 10 million mobile subscribers (which includes 5 cell nos which I have owned in my lifetime, four of which are dead. To not put too fine a point on it, that data is spurious). So, what I was talking about was active users. As much we, I mean people like you and me, who use Twitter actively, as compared to services like FB and Orkut, like to mock them, they have a user base Twitter will never compare with.

    I am rambling, but take a simple example. I have some 300 people who follow me on twitter, you have around a thousand or two. Half of them are bots, another quarter are people you know in real life (via colleges you attended or places you lived in) who don’t tweet much, if at all; and that leaves the 100 (realistically more like 30) odd people like me and you, and sid, and sidvee and techrsr and a__muse etc, with whom people like you and me really interact, not counting the #bulbs, of course. What does that say about the real reach of twitter?

    See, the thing with Twitter is, it is all about user generated content. I generate good enough content that 300 people think it worth their time to follow me, out of which some 30 think it worth their time to interact with. Similar numbers apply to you, or anyone else in social media (in any form), so to say. The rest, as we say, is noise.

    The point, as they say, is that it not about innovation. Twitter is not that different from FB, when you come to think of it, except maybe the ability to restrict people who can follow you. But then, you can do that on FB too, if you know enough to set your privacy settings. The difference lies in the level of interaction, and the class of interaction. FB is for throwing sheep, twitter is for making puns (I am being frivolous here). But the fun you get from them, and the intellect you require to do it, are different.

    Which brings us to our original Q, G+. From what I know of it, it is a Twiiter+Orkut+FB mashup. Which is not a bad thing, at all. It is a very good thing, in fact. We all have our Orkutiya side, however much we might want to hide it, and also relevant Facebookiya and Twitteriya sides. That we need to keep them separate is understandable. I would not want my boss reading my #drunktweets and so on. And, if a service offers me that, that is wonderful. But if I sell it as a service which offers me privacy which FB doesn’t…well…FB didn’t offer me privacy, I don’t use it. Plus, with 3 separate aspects marketed seperately, I come off as 3 separate services. Which is kinda useless.

    AFA innovation is concerned, I would still stand by my point that Goog have not been that prescient in innovation as they could have been; with most of their major successes outside of #Goog; they cannot really back this claim with data other than search and mail. But that is an argument for another day.

    • As I was telling Pranav, Innovation itself is of two types – incremental and radical. It is easy to expect radical innovation but it may not work many times. Incremental innovation on the other hand is gradual but brings more users to the table and improves their experience.
      I agree with the point about content. We are now moving to a Web Era when content is king and the true winner is someone who offers easy access and sharing options to content , be it in whichever media format. It is very easy to say that Twitter is like FB but I believe FB is more about relationships while Twitter is more about information capturing. We choose Twitter for keeping track of the latest information.Our latest social media offers great options, specially when it comes to sharing of new content which was earlier not available and when it comes to interaction of different sets of people who were hitherto not easily connected.Innovation as such is required in this domain, not technologically as such but more as to ideas to how to get diverse sets of people together in a fashion so none of them feel claustrophobic while you get an opportunity to pursue diverse interests / learn from others.
      The point is , there are always an initial set of key users, the folks who gravitate to what is new and what is interesting. They try it out and spread the news and over time others join and discover new uses and ideas for it. It is always going to be an incremental process.
      With regards to Google, I see it less as an innovator and more as a company with huge access to multiple parts of our life. In that sense, it has integrated itself in so many diverse ways that breaking free is tough. Thats why I feel they have the best scope for this project

  3. Pingback: Into the Valley of Death « UnWired

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