No News is Bad News

In March, two announcements were made pointing in opposite directions. First, Google announced the closing down of Google Reader, a news-feed app widely used by the cognoscenti of the up-to-date in everything. Yahoo! followed by announcing the purchase for nearly USD30 million of a mobile news-feed app from a 17-year old now-millionaire boy from the UK. Has Yahoo! out-googled Google? Will Android phones be abuzz with Yahoo! apps?

Behind Google’s defenestration of their much-loved Reader it would seem is the m-word: money. The Reader doesn’t generate money or enough of it. It’s an app not an ad. Does it build “relationships”? Seemingly not enough to keep it up with the money-making of social networking. After all, the Reader is a push technology and users consume its content without feedback, without pushback, without any ‘back’ at all. So the problem with the Reader is that it is, simply, very useful to people and that’s about the measure of it. Clearly an insufficient reason to exist in a modern relationship-driven data-dominated world. To be fair to Google, the company is not a charity. Corporate do-gooding usually requires a payoff. But losing some goodwill is a bit of a cost. Just not much of a cost compared with all the other lines of business. As Paul Ford in the Financial Times (27 March) ended his column, “For Google Reader and its fans ‘better user experience’ is not a goal. It is an epitaph.”

So the interest will turn to Yahoo!, a company badly in need of a new lease of life. News along with search has been the lifeblood of Yahoo! and somehow, despite all its problems, Yahoo! has survived. Its first-mover advantage turned into a second-mover disadvantage as yet more innovative service providers stole the market, but scale and lots of cash gave Yahoo! a way to reinvent itself. Except that it hasn’t, not yet. Rather it is positioning itself. That is what firms do when markets enter middle-age, as the pace of innovation slows and the pace of imitation gathers pace. Instead of new paradigms, there are new products within established paradigms. The paradigm of unified platforms which has been consecrated with the development of cloud computing is here to stay for a long while. What will be new are the ways to use it. The apps.

Some apps will appear as revolutionary, such as self-drive cars, but there will be apps using the new paradigm of unified platforms across which it is possible to configure just about anything. Other apps will appear less revolutionary, but will have far more reaching and long lasting effects. One of these will be online learning. It will transform modes of learning, it will transform access to education for thousands of millions of people globally. It will be seen as one of the greatest threats to established interest groups. It will challenge ignorance and all national edifices based upon ignorance in developing (and in some developed!) countries. But ignorance is not the lack of learning. Ignorance too can be taught, so there will be a clash of educations, and Internet companies will find themselves providing the platforms for these clashes.

There is therefore far more at stake than money-making apps and social networking relationships. The challenge for the Googles and the Yahoo!s will be whether they themselves have the application to want to change the world beyond just its material aspects.

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