Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?

    I recently read a post on how Technology isn’t Everything on HN, about how the ranter wouldn’t use eBooks.  

Consider books. I still buy and read all of my books in the form of compressed wood pulp. There are newfangled e-book readers, but I don’t want one. Why? Because the only places I read are 1) In the bathtub, and 2) Lying in bed. Taking a computer into the bathtub is generally not a good idea, and holding a Kindle above my head for 3 hours is awkward compared to lying a (3-D) book on the bed beside me with one page bent up so I can read it. 

via briancarper.net

It’s something I hear often about new technologies–“Why would I want to do that?”  I hear it on blog posts for new tech.  I hear it in person during meetups.  When I hear something like this, I’m reminded of quotes about technologies that we take for granted as being obvious now.

Let’s start with the radio.  Back before radio as we know it now (as radio stations), when people said ‘radio’ in the 1920’s, they meant the wireless transmission of messages over the air.  They considered it as a communication medium to relay news, like the sinking of the Titanic.  Because of that, people use to pay directly to send messages.  No one was using it as a way to broadcast music like the way we know it now–the concept of a radio station.  And hence, there was no sense of imagination that advertisers would pay ads alongside music broadcasts.  And when David Sarnoff was pioneering the idea, what was the reaction by his potential investors?

By 1916, along with Armstrong and de Forest, [David Sarnoff] was using his newfound fame to push the idea of commercial radio, something he called the “wireless music box,” although this idea was before its time. Even as late as 1920, one potential investor wrote him to say, “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” 

Even the Marconi Company, his employer, rejected the idea of radio as anything but a communications medium. So he went to work for the Radio Corporation of America [RCA] in 1920.
— Radio Pioneers enter story of the wire on David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in radio. [emphasis mine]

Who indeed.  We laugh now, but we have the luxury of living in the future with our buddy Hindsight.  It’s easy to forget what use to be non-obvious.  What’s more interesting is that DeForest, also at the edge of innovating on the wireless music box, had this to say about television:

“While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility, a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”  

— Wikiquotes — Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube,

Sounds like what people have been saying about Twitter since it came out.

The point to notice here is not: “People in the past are dumb and haha, they were wrong.”  The point is, when a new technology or a new use of technology comes out, we’re often colored by how we use similar technologies now.  This is especially true when the new thing is bad at doing what the current thing does–“Why would I use eBooks when a regular book would never run out of batteries?”  This is why even the most tech savvy amongst us deride new tech with, “Why would I use that?  The current thing does that much better.”  What we often miss is though the new thing isn’t as good at something (yet), what new usage vectors does it introduce?  You might not be able to read eBooks in the tub like paper books, but what does it allow you to do that paper books can’t?

In fact, there’s already a whole book written on the subject.  I’ll summarize from the review in Amazon:  Seagate was the biggest producer of 5.25″ hard drives in 1985, and was doing research into 3″ and 5″ drives.  However, they shelved the research because marketing found out that the biggest current customers weren’t interested in 3″ and 5″ drives.  Who needs that?  They don’t store as much as 5.25″ drives and they’re not as fast.  So Seagate didn’t develop the 3″ and 5″ tech and had their lunch eaten by startups attacking that emerging market because as it turned out, the rise of laptops and small personal devices like the iPod needed small drives.  

The iPod is also another famous example with CmdrTaco, the editor of Slashdot saying:

No wireless. Less space than a nomad. Lame. 

 via Slashdot

The same was true of Posterous when they were in our batch.  I remember founders of other startups in the batch thought it was a pretty dumb idea and thought Posterous was going to fail, but now, they’re some of their biggest fans.  

When it comes to eBooks, what new usages does it allow that normal books can’t?  Though I might not be able to read it in a tub and the batteries might run out, I could easily look up definitions of a word right there and then without consulting a separate dictionary.  I can potentially make comments on a textbook shared by everyone in the class as study cliff notes in real time.  I can search the reference books and textbooks for exactly what I’m looking for.  I can potentially read a book in another language machine translated by my eBook right there and then.  All these things are things that eBooks can do that regular books can’t–and not only that, introduce new possibilities.

Just as we laughed at predecessors, people in the future are going to laugh at you.  So when you look at Google Buzz, don’t just think about what it does that seems the same as Twitter, but think about what it allows you to do that Twitter can’t.  When you look at Blippy (like twittering your reciepts publicly), don’t just ask why anyone would do that, but also what it allows user to do that they couldn’t before.  Same when Facebook introduces a new feature or layout.  Same when you look at FourSquare and Loopt.  Same when you look at the iPad.  

Of course, that’s not to say that every new thing has potential.  I don’t know that the electric can opener has the same potential.  But that’s more a lack of my own imagination.  Be wary about dismissing something on first glance, especially when you never tried using it yourself.  In all likelihood, a failure of imagination on your part doesn’t mean that something isn’t necessarily there.  
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2 thoughts on “Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?

  1. I totally agree. If you look at my twitter (and I suspect many other peoples’), my first few tweets are “this is stupid. i predict i wont use this”. But now, rarely does a day go by where i dont share the inanity of my life :)Related to this post, Marco (of tumblr) wrote a great post about “Feature Checklist” and how people write things off because they’re comparing things that directly compare to current devices/paradigms/etc: http://www.marco.org/380868888Does the iPhone have mutlitasking? No. But is it stable and give me access to thousands of apps? Absolutely.

  2. Yeah, this is one of my biggest pet peeves, and every time something new comes out, I have to hear it all over again. I’m not saying I could foresee it all. When Friendster first came out, I thought it was lame. But I defn think of what this enables that I couldn’t before.

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