More and more, the entrepreneurs we see present their business in the context of an ecosystem. This is a healthy development because it acknowledges the complexity of the environments within which start-ups operate today. Technology generally and web services in particular are no longer exist in their own world, they are increasingly part of the world. Ecology may be a good model for understanding some of these complex interdependencies, but, Fred pointed out earlier this week that maybe it’s not just ecology, maybe its science. Maybe, as web services become an integral part of all of our lives, they must learn to exist in a world that is best understood by analogy to all of the sciences.
Here, for example, is an analogy from biology:
Last fall, Wired ran a story about the sequencing of the Chimpanzee’s genome. One of the most striking revelations was how close it was to ours. Depending on how you count, we humans share 96-99% of the genes in Chimpanzees.
So what does that have to do with web services? Many of the services we see are lightweight hacks (I use that term with reverence) on top of a huge shared hardware software and communications infrastructure. If you were to analyze the entire infrastructure necessary for the delivery of two different web services including the code in the chips, operating systems, browsers and communications systems, you might find that 96-99% of the code necessary to deliver the services is identical.
On the other hand, just as we would like to think that the 1-4% of our genes that we do not share with chimpanzees makes a big difference, the creators of innovative web services argue correctly that the difference between one web service and another is huge.
At the risk of pushing the analogy to the breaking point, it is interesting to think about the difference between web services of the same “species”. One could argue that they share almost all the same DNA, and yet subtle differences can still have a huge impact. Ari Paparo, the founder of an early web based bookmarking service recently compared his service BLINXPro and Delicious. He points out that two subtle distinctions in the implementation made an enormous difference in the outcome:
1) Blinx mimicked Windows’ hierarchical file system – Del.icio.us used tags to organize bookmarks and 2) Blinx’s default was to keep bookmarks private - Del.icio.us’ default was to share them.
Ari’s insight may also explain why Delicious continues to grow despite being surrounded by many apparently similar services.
Are there any practical applications of this insight? I think so. The entrepreneurs who build the most successful web services will recognize that they share 99% of the same genome with their competitors. They will eagerly exploit any and all of the infrastructure services they can in order to focus their energy to create the most useful innovation within the 1% of code that is not shared. They will also recognize that even the subtle differentiation between them and their direct competitors can still make a big difference, and they will continuously refine their thinking in a dialogue with their users in an effort to get it “just right”.
Next, we’ll try physics.