Monday, 12 February 2007

The rise of the information ecosystem: How mobile devices, personal computing, media, and the Internet all fit together

Fair warning: This is going to be one of those philosophical posts on strategy. If you're looking for quick gratification, I recommend browsing the archives here.

Anyone still reading?

Okay. The other day I got a bit of flak for posting a note about Hollywood's view of the Web. "Your weblog's about mobility," the comments said. "Stay on topic."

I sincerely appreciate the feedback, but it was a surprise. As far as I was concerned, I was staying on topic. But then I realized that I've never actually explained what I'm trying to accomplish in this weblog, and so of course people might confused. I'd like to fix that right now.

I started this weblog to comment on the mobile industry, but as time went on and my work at Rubicon exposed me to a wider range of tech companies, I found that the boundaries of mobile were getting harder and harder to define. I'm now convinced that you can't understand the mobile world as a separate industry, because it's deeply interconnected with three other industries that deal with information: the Internet, personal computing, and the media (including video, print publications, games, and so on).

All four industries like to think of themselves as separate. But in reality, they depend on each other heavily, and the connections are deepening all the time. In each industry, it's commonplace for people to be blind-sided by unexpected changes, or for major initiatives to fail dismally. I think that's a symptom of the growing connections. Because we can't yet see all the connections, success and failure become more a matter of luck than skill.

The idea that those industries are merging has been around for years -- I remember a colleague making that argument at Apple back in the early 1990s. But I think "merging" or "convergence" isn't the right metaphor. What's emerging is more like a tropical jungle where a rare tree is the favorite roost of a bat that's fed on by a mosquito whose larvae are eaten by a fish that secretes the cure to cancer in its skin. Everything's connected in subtle ways that we don't understand.

Call it the information ecosystem.

Some very bright people have used the term "information ecosystem" in the past to refer to the Internet or Web 2.0, but I think it encompasses all four industries.

That ecosystem is what I'm trying to map in this weblog, because that's where the opportunity is. I don't pretend to have all the connections mapped yet; nobody does. But what we can see so far suggests that we're still in the early stages of the new ecosystem. I think the big changes are still to come.

The new information ecosystem

Back in ancient times (around 1975), the old information ecosystem looked like the diagram below. Most information (and I'm using that word very broadly to include everything from written words to movies to photographs) was passed through a distribution hierarchy that filtered and distilled it down to the most marketable items. Delivery of information was generally through mass media -- bookstores, magazines, newspapers, television stations, etc. The prevailing metaphor was one-to-many, with information flowing from a relatively small elite of creators to the population as a whole. People also communicated directly between one-another, of course, but most of that communication was one-to-one or one-to-few via letters, meetings, and phone calls.

Even before the Internet, this old ecosystem had already started to erode. For example, computer-based desktop publishing in the 1980s made it much easier for small groups and individuals to create newsletters and magazines, giving them some of the power of mass media (although their creations still had to be printed and distributed through traditional mechanisms).

"Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one." --AJ Liebling
"Let's give everybody a press." --Simultaneous thought of several million Internet users, sometime in the 1990s

The new information ecosystem. It was the rise of the Web that really challenged the old structure. Although we're still in a transitional period, I think it's clear that the new information ecosystem will look something like the diagram below. In the new system, the filtering role of the publishers and commentators is radically eroded. Any information that anyone wants to share can be fed directly into the Internet. Tools like the personal computer make it much easier for people to create information, and mobile devices are also starting to play a minor but important role in info creation as well (for example, at the end of 2006 a cellphone video of the execution of Saddam Hussein created worldwide news and intense political debate). The net effect should be that information flows faster, and between more sources, than ever before (by the way, that's an assumption I want to test in future posts; I'm not sure it's correct).

The diagram shows why mobile devices can no longer stand alone as a separate industry. As soon as they get any data capabilities, they're embedded in the larger ecosystem. Want to add apps to a mobile device? You need to understand the trends driving PC and Internet app development. Want to tie your customers to you more closely? Make sure you know how online communities form (and why most of them fail). Want to play content on a mobile? Don't link yourself too closely to a content company that was part of the old ecosystem -- you might be pulled down by the suction when it sinks.

What's the most important part of the ecosystem?

A lot of people would tell you that the center of the ecosystem is the Internet; that the other industries are just appendages. On the other hand, many mobile enthusiasts would tell you the dominant part will soon be the mobile phone, and I'm sure Microsoft and Apple would tell you that it's the personal computer. But I think they're all wrong. The most important part of the ecosystem isn't any technology, it's the ideas themselves: the articles and music and essays and videos and memes that we use to make decisions and entertain ourselves. The Internet and the servers that hang on it like Christmas ornaments are the storage and transport mechanism for those ideas. PCs and mobile devices are capture and playback systems, and the software programs we run on those devices are the tools that we use to create and work with the ideas.

Meanwhile, the publishers, producers, editors, and critics who used to control the idea factory are struggling to find relevant roles in the new world. I think some will succeed, and many will fail.

The real mobile opportunity

So I know it'll feel irrelevant to some people, but I'm going to be writing more about subjects like web apps and communities and Hollywood, because they're all part of the same system. I'll try to label the posts that focus on the broader ecosystem, so you can skip them if you want to. But if you're working in the mobile world I think you should tune in. You need to understand the whole ecosystem or chances are you'll be left twisting slowly in the breeze by a competitor who does get it.

The real mobile opportunity of the 21st century isn't mobilizing technology, it's mobilizing ideas.

That's what this weblog is all about.

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