Avoiding Silos and How the Single Killer Application Does Not Exist

I think Dan Tynan got it right…. His recently published column titled “Ten technology combos that are changing how we work and live” really gets to the heart of the change process that is occurring across many professions today. It’s been my experience that no matter how hard one works to master all of the elements of a single discipline, to really be on top of a profession one simply can’t operate in a silo anymore. This means for both a corporation and an individual there is no single “killer app” that one can hold onto on which to base a career. For someone like myself who based a career on media technology, it is actually the combinations of technologies that create real change. And in todays climate they are to be watched daily.

The reason I like Tynan’s column is it looks at ten such combinations of technology. It allows one to consider the effect of all of these technologies in tandem and never mentions a single “killer app”. He notes “Disruption is rarely the result of a single gadget or innovation, however. It’s typically when two or more technologies converge that the real changes start to happen.” For the most part, Mr. Tynan’s list matches technology with distribution as the disruptive combination(s). It’s clear he understands that a single killer application does not exist and the relationship between technology being paired with distribution.

In his article Dan Tynan identified the following combinations of technologies as significant;

  1. Cell Phones + Wireless Internet Access
  2. The Web + The Graphical Browser
  3. Broadband + Wireless Networks
  4. Cloud Computing + Always-On Devices
  5. Cheap Storage + Portable Memory
  6. Blogs + Google Ads
  7. MP3 + Napster
  8. Open Source + Web Tools
  9. YouTube + Cheap Digital Cameras and Camcorders
  10. DVRs + Entertainment on Demand

Recently Michael Geist delivered a talk at Osgoode Hall in Toronto. Geist is a lawyer and has focused his efforts of late on impending Copyright legislation in Canada. His talk was titled Facing Up to Facebook: The Fight for Fair Copyright in Canada. It was based on an experience that he had when he appeared on a TV Ontario show called The Agenda hosted by Steve Paikin. When Geist was asked by Pakin why Canadians care about copyright reform, he found it difficult to verbalize. His difficulty came from the short period of time that an interview program can provide in the television medium. Geist’s could not explain the complex combination of factors around why so many Canadians care about copyright reform in the “sound byte” style television demands.

Whether we realize it or not we’re all living an era where the combination of digitization technology and networking has changed many aspects of the way we work and live. The result of digitization in the broadcast and media industry where I work has been dramatic. Digitization first changed the production process with new technology and later the distribution process changed as networking became more predominant. The upheaval has created fundamental changes to our associated professions as a result. My personal opinion is that the effect of networks, primarily the internet, remains central to this massive paradigm shift towards the democratization of Media. As it spreads it has really put pressure on both individuals and corporations who want to develop and operate in silos.

This month’s WIRED magazine is timely because it puts yet another spin on this. In an odd sort of way the magazine celebrates this phenomenon with an article titled Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business. The article cites Stewart Brand’s astute observation from a 1984 hacker conference:Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive … That tension will not go away.

Businesses and corporations operating primarily by finding profitable niche areas to serve in areas of information technology. They actually can actually provide value and they often promote their services like singular “killer apps”. However when these same companies then they try to create walled gardens and silo their thinking they can run into trouble. The trouble can happen quickly and it’s especially prevalent in todays networked environment. Corporations and individulas forget that in a world that’s interconnected by ideas, people can often communicate cheaper and more functional alternatives to simple problems.

SONY is a company that has a culture of creating technological silos. And my experience has been where they’ve found a nice they’ve been very good company. I grew up watching their Trinitron television sets and listening to their Walkman technology on old style audio cassette. For much of my professional editing career I used their U-Matic and Betacam videotape recording technologies and I found them to be excellent products. They were all great niche products…

However SONY’s focus on optical disc technology has been puzzling to me. While I understand their push into the Compact Disc market in the 1980’s I never truly understood what followed. Having built a predominant brand in personal music appliances with their Walkman products, they should have seized todays market of MP3 players. The late 1980’s would have been the ideal time to relaunch the Walkman that should have employed MP3’s and recoded on flash media. Instead they stuck with optical MiniDisc and pushed Adaptive Transform Acoustic Coding (ATRAC). ATRAC was a family of proprietary audio compression algorithms that they developed and I think a lot of consumers, who just wanted to listen to their MP3’s. SONY wanted to control both the technology and distribution with technology that did not suit the market. SONY’s failure to adopt the MP3 format forced consumers like myself to purchase other manufacturers MP3 players and left the door wide open for Apple to launch the iPod almost a decade later. The rest is history.

Following the demise of HD DVD it looks like SONY’s Blu-ray will find a niche. Blu-ray looks like a medium that will be useful for the distribution of games and for consumers who want to physically rent or purchase movies. Blu-ray is central to their PS3 and the sale of those game units has put a lot of players into the marketplace. However if SONY tries to create a walled garden around Blu-ray to maximize profit Blu-ray could remain just remain a niche product.

With a walled garden SONY could run into a corporate culture that slows its development and creates compatibility issues between various stages of Blu-rays development. SONY has already announced Profile 2 Blu-ray machines at this years CES. Are there incompatibility issues?

With a single company controlling Blu-ray’s development, will it be slowed by a corporate culture that wants to to maximize profitability? Advances in Solid State Disk will ultimately create an attractive alternative to optical media. In addition networked based delivery will eat away at movie and software distribution in a physical form. Given the nature of todays network world SONY needs to keep in mind that Blu-ray is not “the killer app” for everything. It needs to focus it in areas where it makes sense to consumers and develop a community with those consumers.

However this methodology might be tough for them. Just this weekend SONY’s historic corporate culture resurfaced in another very public gaffe. Following Infoworld, Slashdot.org and Engadget posts on Good Friday about SONY’s $50 “Fresh Start” option, SONY found itself in a position where it had to retract the service. Apparently this “Fresh Start” option was a service charge that SONY applied to VAIO computer purchasers to remove software that SONY put on the hard drive prior to its sale. In reaction to the multitude of blog posts, WIRED posted a breaking story that said; “Responding to a tidal wave of outrage, Sony has reversed a plan to charge $50 to remove all the pre-installed applications

This incident all occurred in one day but it demonstrates a hiccup that surfaces from time to time in their corporate culture. Since one would assume this is not something SONY would set out to do, one can only speculate that this situation was brought about through some sort of “siloization” inside a company that’s large and inherently bureaucratic. Or in perhaps its simpler than that. Maybe SONY found itself caught in the tension that Stewart Brand’s observed: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive … That tension will not go away.”

This entire episode demonstrates how several of the technology combinations that Dan Tynan identified come into play. It’s really great in this day and age we have the technology to share what we’re learning so we no longer have to operate in a vacuum. We need to keep in mind that other people’s insights are valuable to our collective learning and development process. And today, with the internet in place, the same principle applies to individuals as it does to corporations. I’d encourage everyone who reads this post to tear down those silos and to continue to share what you learn.