Dave Winer’s map for the way out of the Valley of the Shadow of Death:
Most software users would say Dave’s got it wrong. There’s not too little software, there’s too much. All the enthusiastic do-it-yourselfers who want to learn and explore new applications and scripting languages and preference panels have already done so. How many apps can one person master? I’m a maven with about a dozen software apps and conversant with another couple of dozen. I’m the go-to guy for most people I know, and most of them are way younger than I am. And I feel incredibly incompetent when confronted with a software issue, but I soldier my way through it. What do the regular folks do?
In Dave’s fondly-remembered 70’s, every new piece of software was new and compelling. Perhaps because there were so few of them. It’s like wiring your stereo. It starts as a receiver and 2 speakers and morphs slowly into a component system – you’re able to grow your dendrites at the same rate as the system. But software got away from us a long time ago.
So I’m as put off by new software as I am by late model car engines. The investment of time and energy in a new app seems like just too much hassle. It’s not an age thing – I don’t know many people 25 years younger than I who get excited about software, even if they’re in technology. Perhaps especially if they’re in technology.
I can’t pop my stack back to the 70’s, so how can the software industry pop consumers’ stacks? This is the real problem. You know what I want? I want Commander Data. I want him in my coat closet, using no resources until I have a question and then he activates, solves my problem and goes back into stasis (he might be expletive-activated). Because he’s Commander Data, he does everything almost immediately, so I’m willing to pay him a lot per minute. I’ll bet that’s what you want too: an expert on the software you’ve got, not more software to be inept with.
My Commander Data exists, it’s just that he’s in the form of a few dozen skill sets, each possessed by thousands of people whom I could IM or web to, if I knew how to connect with them. For every problem I’ve got, there are lots of folks who are as good as Commander Data for that specific problem and who would be happy to help me out, especially if paid, say, $1 per minute.
They may be at help desks, but rarely, and the irritation threshold is just too high there. I need an index of “amateur” experts with proven track records who are available immediately for high per-minute rates which I only pay when I’m satisfied, which means they have to be confident that I’ll be reasonably satisfied. So we also need a reputation engine in addition to an expert index. They need to be “amateurs” for the same reason that the best bloggers are amateurs, as Dave is the first to point out.
With a decent market for instant expertise, more than software support becomes available. I’ll find wizards at Excel who can whip up an analysis by noon that would take me ’til Christmas. So why would I buy Excel? There will be online bookkeepers who’ll make my copy of Quicken irrelevant. Etc. and so on. Customers for expertise are not customers for software. If you’re in the software business, this is a nasty vision, but what other outcome is more likely? We know we’ll figure out how to link up consumers with experts who know how to do the things that software publishers wish everyone would like to learn.
If this vision is correct, the software industry will find itself at a crossroads as dicey as the one faced by the RIAA. How many experts are needed to do the specialized tasks of, say, a thousand people? Way less than a thousand is the clear answer. Do companies want their people struggling with Excel analyses when they can outsource the expertise for a fraction of the allocable resource costs? You guess, but from here it feels more like the Dreamweaver market more than the MS Office market.