Software only its mother could love

I’m learning something, or actually re-learning, something fundamental about marketing: a new idea, a true breakthrough, won’t sell.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been talking to people whose job it is to follow/report/blog about software. And more than one has told me that I once worked on a very original product that, despite my best efforts to explicate it, confused them. (Why they waited until now to tell me is fodder for another post. You’d think the more outspoken tastemakers would have been delighted to express their opinions at the time, not ex post facto.)

I love highly engineered products. I also love new ways of doing things. I believe software can and should make it possible for people to do new things, things they haven’t been able to do before. But it’s not that way in the real world.

There, people like incremental changes. They like the familiar (though that begs the question of how the conventional got that way). They want to “get it” right away. They want to be like everyone else (I can’t tell you the number of blonde housewives I see in white Land Rovers with Sudbury High School stickers on the car, typing away in traffic on their white iPhone 4Ss). They want to be conventional.

You’re thinking, “Uh…light dawns on Marblehead. That’s pretty obvious, ain’t it? And, Alex, who cares?”

It matters because many software types believe that to be successful, you need a completely new idea. You can’t fund a company to build a “slightly better” product. To get investor interest, you need to convince them that you can displace an incumbent in a very large category, preferably a category with sales in billions of dollars. But, in reality, I am coming to believe that that’s what the dumb money funds. It’s probably better to fund a replacement for something people already know and hate.

Consider these two (fictional) software products. Then tell me which one you’d spend money on. Be honest. Calculate how much one or the other would change your world, the way you work. Consider having to deal with all the people around you with whom you interact and what would be required to really change how they all work. Decide how much of your day you wish to devote to exploring something new, unknown, different.

Product A:

  • Stretches your understanding of how you work
  • Has the potential to revolutionize the way you collaborate with your colleagues
  • Is less focused on user interface than on managing interaction

Product B:

  • Is familiar
  • Is an evolution of software you’ve used for decades
  • Looks like your favorite website

Bottom line: successful software products today are like a Philip Glass symphony: modern, but repetitive.

Truly inventive software ends up being something only its creators can love — because users today don’t really want innovation. They want to think they’re daring, in the vanguard, forward-thinking…but, really, they don’t want to change a darn thing.

One thought on “Software only its mother could love”

  1. Alex, good post. New invention sometimes cannot be accepted at the very beginning. Like Ford said: If you ask people what is a better tranportation tool. They always reply “a faster horse”.
    We cannot always say that new invention will definitely change others’ life immediatly, though we truely believe in the new product or new method. The acceptance relates to so many other things rather than the new invention itself.

    In China, “micro innovation” was a popular word last year. It reflects the reality that chinese net cititzen cannot accept “c2c(copy to china, especially point to copy american internet procuts,like twitte,facebook)” product. Relatively speaking, chinese net citizen is not mature as american. Though the copied product is fashionable and will improve the efficiency, still lots of net citizen has no idea about how to use it and where to go. May be in 5 year, copied products will be popular, but not for the time being.

    Because of that, some “micro innovation” products are popular exceptionally.So some chinese young starups are struggling balancing between “superhot products in the worldwidet” and “local acceptance”.

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