From Browse to Search to Subscribe

The grief for not having posted again has already come and gone, but I’m still well within my goal of not measuring posts on geologic time.


There is an idea coming into focus for me that is kind of obvious when you look at the specific instances but I’m not sure the general impact has sunk in yet.  There is a user paradigm evolution occurring around us that is turning the Internet in its head. 


The browser jumpstarted mainstream Internet use and made browsing the user paradigm.  You could type in a URL or follow links and it worked pretty well as long as you knew where you wanted to go or someone else had the foresight to provide a link to where you might want to go.  But this approach couldn’t keep up with the hypergrowth of the Web.  Even if you surfed all day long, the unknown was growing exponentially faster than the known.


Enter the search engine.  Instead of being limited to what you knew about or could find a link to, search engines allow you to query across millions of Web sites and billions of Web pages.  Search makes vastly more of the Web accessible, but it too has limitations.  Simple queries return preposterous quantities of links (as opposed to answers) while complex queries go unanswered.  Personal relevance and understanding user intent are, to be charitable, in their infancy.


Both browsing and searching are about discovery, but have little to do with consumption. Discovery is work. You navigate and enter queries.  Consumption is when you get something valuable.  Browsing or searching by themselves are just a means; the end is consumption.  The way these terms get used everyday reinforces this gap.  “Can I help you?”  “No thanks, I’m just browsing.”  “Did you find what you are looking for?”  “Nope, I’m still searching.”


Subscribe to a New Approach


The subscribe model allows software to act on our behalf and significantly improve consumption.  RSS is obviously the first successful taste of the subscribe model (we’ll conveniently forget the whole "Push" episode of the late 20th century).  Subscribing doesn’t replace browsing or searching any more than searching replaced browsing.  Both will remain common activities with continued growth and innovation.  They’re probably how you will find most of the things you subscribe to.


But when you subscribe, software does things on your behalf.  It automatically grabs stuff you’ve expressed an interest in (and in the future software smarts probably will do a pretty good job of finding things you might have an interest in).  Discovery and navigation disappear once you’ve found something worthy of ongoing attention.  Software bridges delivery with the consumption experience and lets you interact on your terms.  With RSS, instead of having to visit a wide range of web sites in order to read blogs, people can subscribe using newsreader software that will retrieve and present those data feeds.  You can read them at your convenience.  They are available offline so you can catch up any time.  You can sort or search them.  Most newsreader software is pretty simple today as blogs are designed to be read by people.  But newsreaders will get smarter and enhance the consumption experience.  As we grapple with lots of feeds, it would be great if software could help prioritize.  Or make it easier to read a lot of content on-screen.


Personal video recorders like TIVO are another early example of the subscribe paradigm.  Based on your preferences, they grab video streams out of the sky or off a coaxial cable.  You can then watch it whenever you want.  And you can easily omit the bits you don’t want to watch (so you can fast forward to the ads).  Or watch some bits over and over (attention Janet Jackson fans).  You’re in control of how you consume it.  PVR software can make suggestions about what you might like to watch based on what your history and preferences.  In a world where storage is the hardware component with the best price-performance improvement trajectory, speculative caching of feeds seems like it will explode.  Who cares if you never look at many of the captured bits.  The convenience of what you do consume outweighs the cost.


Like blogs, TV is also designed to be consumed by human eyeballs.  But there are all kinds of interesting feeds that might be consumed by software, which then does something for us.  Software updates and patches.  Event calendars.  Business data.  Traffic flows.  Search queries.  Stock prices.  All can be subscribed to as feeds and then software can party on that information to our benefit – personalize, analyze, visualize, manipulate, aggregate, synopsize, prioritize, etc.


The subscribe model promises people a more valuable experience with much less effort. The old rallying cry of Information At Your Fingertips is no longer a dream.  We all have access to more information than we could ever possibly process.  The challenge now is sifting through oceans of information to get the right stuff and, equally important, then be able to take the appropriate action and do something with the information.  It kind of turns the way we use the Internet on its head and conjures up all kinds of cool ideas for software.

Taking the Plunge

To state the obvious, I am finally doing a blog.  I’ve wanted to do it for a long time but have held off for fear that the intervals between posts would be measured in geologic time.  Microsoft’s guidance on blogging is “don’t be stupid” but says nothing about frequency.  Hopefully the pressure of having leapt off the cliff will keep me from embarrassing myself too much.  


I focus on “the platform” in my day job at Microsoft (which, needless to say, gives me some leeway…).  As you might guess from the goofy domain name, I have some kind of a perverse interest in the economics of platforms (or it may be the agronomics, ergonomics or Freakonomics of platforms – you’ll have to wait and see how it develops). 


Lots of people talk about platforms.  Politicians have their platforms (which in turn have parallels in the technology world), as does an offshoot of the tennis world.  Every tech company likes to tout their “platform”.  You can’t talk to Microsoft about anything without the word being thrown around with impunity.  There is some academic literature on platforms from the likes of Michael Cusumano and Marco Iansiti.  There are marketing perspectives.  But most platform efforts don’t get beyond the technology.  The magic happens when you manage to build and sustain an ecosystem around your platform.  When it works, there is no more powerful model. 


What is interesting about platforms today is that we’re moving from a world where providers of technology were the primary platform players to one where you could argue every company is becoming a platform company.  And software is a critical ingredient for most of them….