Mitch and I are doing a little hobby consulting with Allen Searls, Doc’s son. Are we surprised that this Searls is also smart? Doc says Allen is a lot smarter than he is. Well, doh. He’s smart enough to be in his 20s.
What’s hobby consulting? It’s when you have a little experience and a lot of mileage, and you help out someone with energy, promise and a good mind. Unlike regular consulting you don’t get paid and you don’t tell your client what he wants to hear but rather what he needs to hear. (Actually, I now tell clients what they need to hear, which is why I don’t have as many clients as I used to, but they stay in business longer.)
Allen has developed a live expert solution called GlobeAlive, the World Live Web. The participants on the site use a built-in chat tool to augment email as a way to connect to an expert immediately, which is the gold standard of using expertise. Mitch and I are helping Allen develop the site along conventional lines and also preparing it to act as an Xpertweb infomediary for the benefit of Allen’s participants. Here’s Allen describing his unique value proposition:
It’s amazing that Allen “got” this Identity and Presence thing so long ago, and developed his own chat engine, within GlobeAlive, to connect his participants.
Compare the GlobeAlive service to my conception of ideal support and expertise:
The Problem with Silicon-based Solutions
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, but I feel incredibly incompetent when confronted with a software issue.
In the 1970’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.
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 and then expletive-deleted). 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 for you to be inept with.
My Commander Data exists, but he’s in the form of dozens of 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.
Sometimes you find them 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.
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 Memorial Day. So why would I buy Excel? There will be online bookkeepers who’ll make my copy of QuickBooks 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. Do companies want their people struggling with Excel analyses when they can outsource the expertise for a fraction of the allocable resource costs? Your guess is better than mine, but from here it feels more like the Dreamweaver market than the MS Of
Maybe the answer is Xpertweb. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. From here anyway.