Building Brandwidth in an Internet Economy

This was probably the most popular article I ever wrote.   And no it is a bit dated with some of the references, but I think it still holds up very well philosophically so I am reposting it.

 

 

Building Brandwidth in an Internet Economy

In the days before Google your brand was measured by your .Com. Today your page rank at Google says a lot, but if someone will buy your T-shirt you know you have hit the big time. CitiBank gives its T-shirts away on college campuses, Electronic Arts sells their Shirts for $30 a piece.

The Big Guys:

Steve Jobs knows brandwidth. Apple is not competing with PC’s anymore. A PC is a tool, a Mac is a status symbol, and brandwidth is what got Apple to that designer label status. Steve Jobs was recently interviewed by Rolling Stone, is talking to Disney about a job they offered him, owns Pixar and sells more music than anyone. Steve is an embodiment of all that it is to be a Media Geek. He is what every AV guy has dreamed of being. And even if he isn’t he sells it as though he is.

Bill Gates is the flipside of the coin. Bill sells a message of doing more, and connecting, and while Microsoft would like to push connecting as a community thing they come across as join the hive, rather than join the choir. This even becomes apparent in the way Microsoft events are hosted vs. the way Apple events are hosted. At the three events I attended where Steve spoke afterwards I was able to stand in line, shake hands and talk to him. Then he networked around the room. The six events I went to where Bill spoke, he spoke then made a quick exit through the catacombs of the venues. Talking with people at Apple they see Steve wandering around and it is so common that no one notices any more. Those I know at MS rarely see Bill and certainly don’t consider him just one of the guys.

The Legions Who Follow:

Small flaws in a Microsoft product are big news all over the web because people want to complain about the problems that exist in the products that more people deal with on a daily basis than any other software manufacture. It is like complaining about your boss. You are a slave to the system, and that system is run by Microsoft. Linux and Mac people both feel they are part of the community that they work in. This is why you see so few Apple consultants. If you have a Mac question you ask the community. This is perhaps why even when Linux was destroying CD drives, and Mac’s Panther was destroying data no one cared. It was just a glitch, something to be sorted out, something for the community to remedy.

Apple recently ran a campaign where they presented users who had made the switch from Windows. While it wasn’t a huge success, it does demonstrate the differences between the way Microsoft and Apple handle marketing. Apple’s campaign was about individuals. Microsoft tends to focus on groups. Microsoft will argue that Windows runs more software; Apple will argue that it runs the software you want. It is these subtle differences in perceived demographic that make all the difference in the way products are developed at Apple and Microsoft. Everything Microsoft does answers the question of how can people use this product. Everything Apple develops answers the question what can a person do with this product. The flow of these two very subtly different questions is immensely different. With Microsoft focusing on how to work better in a team it creates scenarios by which the most important thing is to make work easy to collaborate on, but doesn’t necessarily give work the best flow for an individual. Apple suffers from just the opposite. Many of their wizards assume step 1 will be completed after step 2 not in parallel to. The big problem with Microsoft’s view of the project team is that in the real world of small businesses a department is often a guy. Office 2003 hasn’t done anything to increase the productivity of an individual. Most of the end users I have worked with can’t tell Office 97 from Office XP from Office 2k3. While managers constantly ask me to install Share Point and other collaboration tools they don’t invest in training to make those products useful. In many cases even if the employees are trained in how to use the tools, they aren’t trained in how to work in teams.

Microsoft communities are a great example of how a great concept is poorly executed. Linux newsgroups are communities. The people in these groups know each other have get-together’s, and help each other out. The Microsoft newsgroups are a harsh unforgiving place where the regulars often poke fun at the newbies who have questions. Those lucky enough to find answer still tend to find the places cold and unfeeling and not a place they would choose to continue hanging out. There are a few good communities with in the Microsoft umbrella, I’m partial to WMTalk, but this community thrives more as a result of its users and the TLC they give the list than the amount of interaction it receives from Microsoft. The off list meetings that the group has had weren’t attended or supported by Microsoft employees, and the amount of feed back that Microsoft employees have given (or are possibly allowed to give) on marketability, feasibility, or legality of some of the topics is negligible. This leave the group feeling separated from the “team” in that they don’t feel any sense of loyalty or ownership in the process.

What few communities thrive around Microsoft products are mostly devoted to how to hack those products. Hack isn’t necessarily in the security sense, but more often in the make a product do more than it was meant to sense. This is the case with the Media Center sites that have sprung up. Those who tend to be most interested in using Media Center are those who acquired it through MSDN, or other channels and want to make it run on hardware that wasn’t provided by a Hardware partner. Xbox has the similar communities of those trying to make the console do things it was not designed to, such as run Linux, or home brew games. Even a great deal of the Windows communities are groups of people dedicated to making Windows Smaller, or automating installs, or adding some other unsupported functionality.

Apple’s community is so strong that people will line up around the block to get the next new operating system. Or in the case of Gary Allen and his son hop on a plane and go to Japan, stand in the rain for hours just to get a free T-shirt and be able to say they were there when Apple came to Tokyo.

“It was definitely the most exciting grand opening of all the stores I’ve been to, My wife doesn’t quite understand the fascination, I try to explain to her it’s a social experience. It’s a fun thing. But Tokyo in the rain. She was mystified by that.”

–Gary Allen

This is what Social Networking is all about. Friendster wishes they had the community that Apple or Linux has. They certainly wish they had the brand loyalty that Apple has. iTunes listing what songs are in your play list is just one more way of enhancing your community. By asking users to take part and share in the experience they make using their products an event. And this isn’t limited to just online. The experience follows the users into the real world.

“She walked right up to me and got within my comfort field,” Crandall stammered. “I was taken aback. She pulled out the earbuds on her iPod and indicated the jack with her eyes.”

Warily unplugging his own earbuds, Crandall gingerly plugged them into the woman’s iPod, and was greeted by a rush of techno.

“We listened for about 30 seconds,” Crandall said. “No words were exchanged. We nodded and walked off.”

Apple goes out of its way to make products feature rich not just feature complete. It isn’t about giving you products that do everything you need, it is about giving you features you hadn’t thought to want, and often making those features social. Computer geeks are very social creatures despite popular belief, but the level of development for those social skills are varied.

Look at me: Much like a little kid who when you have company over wants you to watch him stand on his head. This is the type of geek who is into vanity website. Sites that talk about what that person wants or has, and how they are using it.

What you doing: Are the geeks who visit sites about projects and ask all sorts of how does that work, and why can’t it do this questions.

Who are you: This group makes up the HotOrNot.com and RateRealPeople.com communities. They want to know what makes you, you. They talk about feelings and likes and dislikes, they want to know more people so they kind find out what they like about people.

I wanna be a part of it: This is every fan site. Every person who feels that they own what ever it is they enjoy. “How could they take MY Buffy off the Air?” “When are they going to make MY Halo live enabled?”

Successful Social Networking sites know how to feed each of these groups egos. Apple has done its best to have a product that appeals to each of these niches and even how to make these groups interact. A prime example of this is an event that recently happened at the Apple store in SoHo. At the event Apple appealed to the “look at me” crowd by offering Karaoke served from iPods. The “who are you” group was satisfied with Name tags toting the persons top 10 songs. The “guilt by association” group was wowed as DJ Richie Hawtin spun the grooves from an iPod in a manner that made you think even you could have mad skills.

Blogging, .Com, .Net, .Mac, and .Org

Apple has made .Mac much more of a success than Microsoft’s .Net. The reason is simple; .Net is all about what a group or a company can do and .Mac is all about the individual. The old water cooler analogy that says we should watch and do things that we can talk about at the water cooler has been expanded to the Net. Now it is not enough to just have something that sounds good at the water cooler, but on your Blog site too. People are realizing that their brandwidth is important. A blog is a way to build a network of followers, people who may offer you opportunities, free stuff, or just support and appreciation for what you do. The epitome of this is the CraigList. The CraigList is a community that exists for the sole purpose of people connecting. People offer each other jobs, discounts on cars, room mates, and more. You join up by submitting your friends name and e-mail and as they join you see more about your friends and their friends and the friends of friends. It is like 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon, as a Country Club, or a Fraternity.

Apple also has another huge lead in the social networking to expand brandwidth game, Women. Let’s face it your PC is not going to get you laid, but oddly a Mac might. In the same vein as a VW bug can’t be driven buy any self respecting hunter, bodybuilder, or army recruiter, but the car has great appeal to women. The Mac has a lot of the same things going for it. A Mac is a form of expression, and it is some how sexxxy. You can go to a Mac event and if you play your cards right end up with a date out of the deal. The Windows Media 9 launch was a great example of how you can’t do that with a PC. Music and dancing was great for the 3 guys who brought dates. The rest of us stood around and talked. Until Microsoft can capture a female following they are going to struggle with the growing segment of businesses that have females who influence purchasing.

Oddly, you can build a community of all Males or all Females, but often the strongest communities are those with more diversity. Operah has one of the largest communities with resources in her Angel Network. The Angel Network is primarily women but has about 10% men. They are joined not by background, race, sex, creed, or occupation, but by common will to do good things. This creates a group that is able to conquer overwhelming tasks with relative ease, because the diversity means that someone with the right tool, quip of information, or in with an important person is just a phone call away. Operah has made her billion dollars by making her audience a part of her show. The community is self sustaining. It generates a great deal of her content, a great deal of her revenue, and a great deal of her publicity.

XML, DRM, and Open Standards

Linux has some definite community advantages over Apple and Microsoft. Linux is of course by its nature a community project. Clean up a park, help at a shelter, or submit a few lines of code, it is all part of being a part of something bigger than yourself. It is actually the being part of something bigger that makes Linux a strong player. Linux is very big on open standards. They work to make sure that everything will talk to everything else. Microsoft and Apple aren’t so good about this. Windows Media took forever to hit the Mac platform, and isn’t available for a great deal of OS’s and certainly not plentiful in Consoles and Handhelds. Mac is often just as bad, their versions of QuickTime and related tools are just barely working on a PC and are often encumbered by so much adware that they are unusable.

Content Reference DRM (CRF) may do a lot to make this less of an issue, and Microsoft has put a lot of input in to how CRF will shape the DRM Content market. CRF works by giving you a single license for content independent of the media or format. This means that if you own a Mac, a PC, and a Archos PVR, that you could get a Movie watch it in QT on your Mac, DivX on your Archos, and WMV on your PC with out having to buy 3 copies. It is the first time a Microsoft backed product has ever been designed in such a manner that it encourages the use of proprietary formats of competitors to be promoted on the competitor’s platform.

There has long been this idea in the industry that using a proprietary format gives you an advantage because you have a captive audience. If they sign up they are stuck with you for ever. But the truth is that a proprietary system goes against the current trends in the industry. If you support open standards your market is everyone, anyone can switch to your product with zero downtime. Buy supporting open standards you also convey a sense that you are able to better connect and interface with multiple organizations, users, and platforms. This is why XML has been such an important technology in recent history. While XML is easily “the” data format standard now, there isn’t a standard for Audio or Video. While Mpeg4 was originally going to be the new standard it seems the only people doing Mpeg4 are doing DivX a format that is not really a standard and in a lot of ways is just a hack. The evolution of DivX from a hack of Windows Media, to a Hack of MoMuSys Mpeg4 has created a company with a huge market share because it made things easy rather than good, or right. DivX had all the right buzz words at all the right times “AVI compliant” “Mpeg4” and buy using a name that already rang in out ears from the defunct DVD format they had the makings of a VC’s dream come true, lots of brandwidth minimal Intellectual Property. DivX was even clever in its creation of an OpenSource Spin off, XVID through which DivX gets its code updated and revised free of charge. They have a community of “Hackers” that develop tools for Pirating Movies and a community of industry members who develop DRM like solutions to stop Pirating. This is a company that knows Brandwidth.

What Microsoft is Doing More Right:

Gaming. At least console gaming. Xbox is massively successful for a generation one product. Xbox is successful for a couple of reasons. First it targeted a more Adult audience. If you are a college kid, or a middle aged male you bought an Xbox, and as you have more dollars to blow on games than a pre-18 year old you have a bigger collection of games. Xbox Live is an amazing success; people love it, they are a community of gamers swapping tips, tricks, and insults via voice.

Collaboration. There is a difference between Team, and community. And I think that gets forgotten. You can be a great team not ever do anything outside that group. You can be a great community but fail as a team. Microsoft has great tools for letting people work together. Little things like comments as text, or voice in a word document make communicating ideas so much easier. Shared calendars and Outlook Web Access.

Hotmail. The new Hotmail is amazing. I’m ready to sign up for an account just to be able to do calendar stuff with my less technical friends and clients. By making Hotmail more like OWA Microsoft is in a sense training users to do what they would be doing in an idealized corporate environment.

MSN Messenger. Messenger got a great overhaul recently, and it looks great, it is easy to use and it is feature rich. I do a lot more VoIP with friends and family now that there is no learning curve for them to use it. People are excited about the ability to customize the interface too. And the ilovemessenger.msn.com site is a great community with 3,300 members.

MoBlogs. Thankyou. There has never been a better, more it just makes sense to do it solution. You have pictures you want the world to see. Sure I worry about pictures with text from the local gym but I think that more what you will see is pictures with funny captions, and moments that are touching captured for the world to see. This is the embodiment of what community is about. Taking bits of your world, your life and putting it up for others to share.

Where This Is All Going:

In the very near future there will be a trend to use Social Networking to create product communities. This will replace focus groups, and market research trends of today with direct interaction with those most likely to buy a given product. This is the American Idol for big business. Instead of trying to pick what the best solution is and betting the farm on it, you let the market pick a winner for you and they will already love the product before they have it. The focus becomes on the end user. They feel ownership in the creation of the product, and already know they want it. Microsoft is the Simon Cowell of the software world. They are who we love to hate, but Microsoft needs to have the lovability, boyish charm and character that Simon has. Having sat down with Simon I can tell you that he understands more about Social Networking through media than anyone I know. He realizes that in order for an Artist, product, or event to be popular it has to be perceived as heroic, idolized, and modest. We get to know the stars of American Idol, we feel connected to them. The American Idol slogan should be “make it your own” because the hosts say that so often, but it is what so much of the industry is missing. They aren’t letting users make it their own.

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