Community management

What makes for a good community? Layout? Competitions? Moderation? Social sharing features?

Having done this line of work for over ten years (a career I find myself in entirely by accident), I’d say there is only one relevant answer: People. Or more specifically, interesting people – ‘Characters’, if you will. It’s easy enough to say, but I think it holds true: – the strength of a community is only as strong as the personalities that populate it.

Twitter is a prime example of a social community where interesting characters dominate, and are rewarded by followers. You could argue that one of the key hooks of Twitter over Facebook (at least several years ago) was the idea of being able to ‘follow’ and to a lesser extent ‘interact’ with public personalities.  Whether they have anything relevant to say, is another matter; but from my experience, interesting people are attractive and draw followers wherever they go.

For example, several years ago, when I was administrating the Alan Wake forums, I remember a particularly charismatic individual who arrived complete with her own set of followers.  I got the impression that she moved around the internet like a celestial body, collecting them as she travelled from forum to forum.  At the time I joked that these people orbited around her like moons, caught in the sheer gravitational force of her personality.  Where she went, they followed, and when she departed, so did they.  Thinking about it though, I believe the solar system analogy is a good one, as it stresses the fact that when someone leaves, moves position, or when someone else enters the community, it affects the people around them.

Most importantly, interesting characters encourage other people to participate in your community and become active members themselves.  Obtuse, obnoxious characters are the opposite — they repel and drive people away (and this includes staff/management — there’s nothing more toxic to a social community than an obnoxious person with supreme power).  So, when managing a community, my approach has always been to identify the dominant characters that inhabit it, to understand why they chose to spend their time there, and to facilitate their needs wherever reasonable.

With this in mind, you have to be sensitive to when they’re unhappy and considering leaving, because their influence will affect the entire system.   Some people are very vocal when they’re unhappy — anger and frustration are very clear symptoms that their expectations are not being met in some way.  Anger, in particular, can be seen as direct emotional response to not getting what you want; and therefore it’s good to get into the practise of finding out exactly what people want.  You can learn a great deal by starting with yourself — whenever I get pissed off and caught in the heat of an argument (and working for, this happens more frequently than I’d prefer) I confront myself with the following:  You are angry because you’re not getting what you want.  So, what do you want? 

However, not everyone speaks up — prolonged absence is a good warning sign that they’re moving on, but you may be powerless to prevent this.  Certainly, in a large, multi-tiered community, it can be difficult to track the comings and goings of individual users, and you may not realise they’ve gone until, many weeks after, someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to…?”

There has been lot written on the topic of motivation, and the idea that people leave their job because they are either attracted to something new, or they have become dissatisfied (repelled) by the existing one interests me.  However, the exact workings of this depend very much on circumstance and personality, which are difficult to understand and predict.  In a general sense, I think you have to just accept that people come and go for a variety of reasons, and you have no real direct control over whether any individual stays or goes.

In my experience, most people don’t leave online communities in a grand departure, they just fade away.  In this respect, I would say that the best you can hope for is to keep the spirit of the community alive, by creating a warm, inviting, vibrant community, with enough strong characters to attract newcomers and keep things lively.  So, nurture your prima donnas — allow them to express themselves, celebrate community tropes and in-jokes, and give them what they need to be creative and do what they do best. Don’t go out of your way to stifle their fun when they’re having a good time. Learn to make exceptions for the greater good — because it’s their community as well.

I want to close this by stressing that when I talk about communities, I’m not just referring to online interactions, but any circumstance where people regularly meet as a collective group – work, school, clubs, and so on.  Companies are made up of people, and by definition each one has its own community — a culture formed from norms, values, roles, and ‘characters’.  I have used the word ‘characters’ to describe influential members of a community or organisation; some might describe these people as ‘leaders’, although I don’t think they necessarily are in the traditional sense.  Certainly these people can be charismatic and inspirational; but ‘characters’ I feel, captures the more intangible, quirky, and endearing aspects of their personality.  It’s also worth repeating that some dominant personalities in a group can be obnoxious and utterly repulsive; so perhaps a more academic definition would describe influential people in terms of ‘attractors‘ and ‘repulsors‘ — or some nonsense.

Regardless of how you describe them, it has been stated many times in managerial literature that the strength of any organisation is defined by the people that work there.  I would extend this by arguing that the strength of an organisation hinges on the strength of its community.  If people are what defines an organisation, then community is the glue that bonds that organisation together.   When these people leave, the company loses more than just their knowledge and work output (physical body) — it loses its community spirit (gravitational effect).  Their absence will affect all those that remain.


Personal note:

Working for a tech company for several years, I’ve had the privilege to work with people who are as eccentric as they are intelligent — brilliant minds with quirky humour and fascinating interests (one used to run a nightclass on lockpicking, for example).    Like any community, brilliant minds need a social space to flourish — one that not only accepts their culture but encourages it.   Some of my fondest memories at include being shot at by a motion triggered Nerf gun; model helicopters flying past my desk; and toy sonic screwdrivers re-engineered to function as working presentation remotes.  These are kind things that make a company fun to work for, in spite of everything else they might throw at you.

Ultimately though, it always comes back to the people you work with – the people you spend time with.  Sadly, quite a lot of my friends have left over the last 6 months, and my fear is that as each person moves on, we lose a bit of our community spirit.  At the same time, I think those that remain have been brought closer together, which can only be a good thing.


I don’t believe in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music, as such;  assuming an artist or performer is competent at what they do.  I’m not a musician, so I don’t feel qualified to judge.  There is simply music I like, and music I don’t like.  And it’s not a fixed constant – what I like today, I might not like tomorrow.

When it comes to artistry, I think there’s a place in the world for both art and entertainment.  I see popular music as as a doorway to discovering even more music — a foothold, if you like, to higher ground.  I don’t begrudge the entertainers of the world, because the best ones are damn good at what they do — they encourage us to dance, sing, and feel grateful for being alive.  However, I’m wary of those who try to pass superficial entertainment off as something deeper than it actually is.  Nevertheless, I think the best artists somehow manage to find a happy middle ground between art and entertainment (or accessibility), without compromising their integrity.

When it comes to personal tastes, I prefer to characterise music taste in terms of breadth and depth.  There’s music you know well, and music you’ve yet to discover.  Patterns you understand, patterns that are currently beyond your comprehension.

We  are really lucky to live in an age where technology can let people discover and explore music.   Let’s not throw that away.

Social Disconnect.

So last week I discovered that for the last month or more, Facebook, in its infinite wisdom, had set all my posts to only be published on my parents wall.  Brilliant. :D  Anyway, with the election nonsense going on, I’ve decided to unplug from facebook, g+, and twitter for a while until the dust settles.  I’m going to spend the time working on my blog here, and various projects I’ve left to stagnate.  I can still be contacted by email, if you remember that old technology, and I’ll still reply to direct messages (though I’m not expecting any, tbh).  When discussing this, one of my friends at work pointed out that the fact I wasn’t willing to delete my account outright implies that I’m addicted.  They’re probably right.

“10 of your friends like this stupid meme you posted? That’s great! Everyone loves sarcasm! Post some more of that and you’ll be become super-popular!”

The addictive nature of social networking sites is interesting to study though.  The way people mindlessly post and share content, looking for likes, retweets, +1s reminds me of how slot machines work with their pre-determined variable ratio reinforcement schedules.   I’ve written about the topic of reinforcement before because it’s as fascinating as it is scary.  Outside of gambling, RPG games like Final Fantasy, Diablo, and MMOs use VR reinforcement schedules to hook people into spending large amounts of their free time (tens or hundreds of hours) performing mindless, repetitive tasks – rewarding them with level ups, and item drops.  In gaming, we call this ‘grinding’.  It’s intentionally tedious, and many games nowadays encourage “micro-transactions” (i.e. spending real money) to skip all of that stuff.  Social games have this down to mathematical precision — if you want some insight into exactly how horrifying they are, I’d encourage you to read Tim Rogers’ review of The Sims Social and companion piece who killed video games? (a ghost story)

Social networks reinforce mundane, repetitive user actions such as refreshing the page, liking an item, or re-sharing it, by rewarding them with attention.  Anyone who has spent a lengthy amount of time online will eventually come to the conclusion that attention is gold dust on the Internet.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s sincere or not.  The internet is, we believe, a level playing field, and everyone is fighting for their share of attention online; you, me, your family, mine, your favourite band, your least favourite politician, fucking marmite, television celebrities, pundits, hacks, religious figures, anonymous hackers… I mean, hell, if Charlie Sheen can successfully reboot his career by having a mental breakdown on twitter, there’s hope for us all.  Right?

Facebook and Twitter give you a platform to project your trivial insignificant nonsense to the world, and this is reinforced by positive attention.  On a forum, if you post half the junk you do on facebook, you’d get branded as a troll or an ‘attention whore’ and ostracised by the community.  But not on Facebook right?  They’re your friends!  You’ll notice that Facebook has never implemented a ‘dislike’ button — negative reinforcement would drive people off the site, which would probably upset advertisers.

Due to the transitory nature of the wall and twitter feed, it’s quantity, not quality, that is emphasised.  Furthermore, you’ll start to notice that Facebook is now filtering content from your friends and pages you’re following, presumably based on popularity (likes/trends), so that you only see a percentage of what you’ve subscribed to.  Page owners – bands, magazines, and what not – are now desperately pleading with users to adjust their settings because they now have to pay Facebook to guarantee that their updates will appear on your wall.  What this means is that your Facebook wall is becoming an increasingly competitive space — already over-saturated with companies and corporations trying to advertise their special brand of bullshit on your wall.

So every day people and organisations just post random garbage to social networks, in a scatter-shot fashion, trying to out-shout each other.  I was actually employed to do this for 6 months, and frankly, I strongly suspect that over half of them don’t even know why they’re doing it, except for a pressing need to have “an active Facebook presence”.


“Because everyone is on Facebook”

That’s one of the things about social networks that’s really innovative — everyone is there.  You don’t need to leave the site or bookmark stuff any more, because they bring the best content from the web directly to you.  News, current affairs, interests, hobbies, music, games.  I mean, does anyone use email for contacting their friends any more?  Or, like me, do you almost exclusively use social networks to contact your friends and family?  It’s more convenient isn’t it? You may have noticed a couple of years ago they stopped emailing you every time you get a message or notification — it’s redundant when most people “check their facebook” multiple times a day.  It also encourages people to keep visiting the site.

Yesteryear sites like Yahoo, MSN, AOL, as well as your favourite ISP, tried and failed to pull this off.  All of them had (and still have) redundant content on their home pages — the latest news, fashion, and gossip, as well as their own webmail to boot.  But they all lacked the magic ingredient of social networks — instead of creating a universal, personalised hub for your friends and interests, they all created their own branded ‘portals’, each with distinctively bland, irrelevant, re-hashed ‘original’ content.

Convenience is the key ingredient to making convergence work, and social networks are massively convenient because they pull your friends and interests into an easily digestible, personalised news feed.  Social networking is better than static communication like emails, because they’re dynamic, engaging, and there’s an social vibrance or flow to them.  Breaking news stories spread quickly and gossip trends to the top — almost every time you refresh the page, or scroll down far enough, you’ll likely encounter something that piques your interest.  But that’s also why I find them problematic.  They’re designed to draw you into an unconscious routine of checking your notifications, posting or reposting content, and then refreshing page periodically to see if people have responded to your update.  Like a slot machine.

When I first joined Facebook, I saw it as an online community or forum “with just my friends”.  Now it feels like a crowded, uncomfortable, stale white and blue conference room with a bunch people I vaguely know from my past, intermingled with corporate PR reps and indie musicians wandering around like lost children trying to find their way.  Everyone wears a name tag containing a brief description of who they are, what they do, their sexual orientation, status, interests, beliefs, and their birthday, lest you forget.  On their backs they are required to wear a thing called their “Timeline”, which highlights the key events in their life, or lack thereof.  Mostly it chronicles your failed relationships.  The room is so crowded that you can only really speak to the people in your immediate vicinity,  but megaphones are available for a small fee so you can reach your friends at the back of the room.  In one corner is the games room, but it’s starting to look like one those dodgy stalls at the fairground, or one of those gambling arcades at a motorway services stop — you know the kind, with lots of bright colours and music to attract kids, but designed callously to rob you blind.  Except it’s not your kids getting hooked on this, it’s your mum.

I have nearly 200 ‘friends’ now and yet I can’t remember the last time I actually had a conversation with any of them outside of my circle of face-to-face friends.  We don’t need to, because they can just read my status updates and I can read theirs.  We communicate through automated validation.  Real friendship, which I’ve learnt to value through losing it, has been replaced with something superficial and alienating.  In a way, the more I think about it, the more I realise that I’ve actually lost touch with some of my closest friends.  Facebook has connected me to everyone, and by doing so, I feel connected with no one.

I’m not going to talk about privacy, that’s been done to death, you know the risks when you use sites like this, and the internet at large.  My primary concern is productivity.  Every time I’m writing an asinine comment on facebook or a witty “That thing” observation on twitter, I can’t shake the feeling I could be doing something more worthwhile with my time.  Yet, at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to delete my account.

And so, I guess we’re stuck with each other.

RIP: Psygnosis

Sony’s ‘Liverpool Studio’ better known as Psygnosis, one Britain’s most prolific develop-publishers back in the day, has been closed:

About 5 years ago, when I was researching for my dissertation, I remember reading a LOT of articles on Gamasutra about how selling your studio to a big name publisher guaranteed the studio security and resources.  Since then, I’ve lost track of how many studios have been absorbed into bigger companies, lost their identity, produced mediocre products, and were subsequently closed due to internal restructuring.

Don’t judge others, lest you be judged yourself.

Why I don’t believe in organised religion can largely be summed up in this video:

Hell, and the idea of obedience in fear of eternal punishment, are such barbarically human concepts, that they couldn’t possibly come from an all knowing, all loving God (and unsurprisingly they stem from social oppression –

Compassion, not vengeance, is something I’d expect from a prospective deity; and that’s about understanding, acceptance, and ultimately unconditional forgiveness. That means you have the capacity, wisdom, and strength of character to forgive everyone on the planet (past and present), regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, for just being human (capable of making mistakes, waging war, being weak, cowardly, selfish, petty, cruel, violent, fearful, ignorant, bigoted, psychopathic, and generally flawed). It means you understand and accept that everyone is simply just trying to struggle through life, learning what they can, seeking fulfilment, meaning, acceptance, and love where they find it, and generally trying their damnedest to make the best of the short time they have.  Some people may find it difficult to forgive everyone, as it is entirely inclusive, but hey, they’re only human.  God, on the other hand, should be setting a higher example, because for me, the purpose of God, on a moral level, is to exemplify virtues like wisdom, learning, charity, and compassion – not judge people for being disobedient subjects.

Hypothetical question: what are the moral implications of forgiving the Christian God for the eternal torture of human souls? The same God that demands absolute obedience through ignorance and threat of violence? (not because he knows best, or they had it coming; but because you understand that he’s a flawed, human construct also struggling to survive against increasing irrelevance). Or put another way: if you can absolutely and unconditionally forgive God for being a cruel and vengeful deity (as well as all the pain, suffering, war and murder that has been caused in his name) and yet — he won’t forgive you for your ‘sins’ — morally where does that put you? (besides hell, of course)

Arguably, all this shouldn’t be considered as more than a philosophical thought exercise, however wars are still fought and justified in the name of God.  Therefore, our leaders should be held to the same standard – for if God doesn’t stand up to moral reasoning, then where does that put those who act in his name and enforce his word?  The word ‘Evil’, when used earnestly, comes from a fundamental lack of understanding human behaviour and motivation, and I think you should be very wary when an elected authority judges another person or group as “Evil”.  Behaviour could be generically described as ‘evil’ as a blanket term for lack of moral responsibility; but people absolutely can’t, because that’s an exercise in denial and dehumanisation.  Dehumanisation, perhaps, is the one true sin of mankind — to disregard another person’s worth, and treat them as less equal, less deserving, less than human — for whatever reason.  Moreover, as soon as they dehumanise them, they are drawing a line in the sand between “them” and “us”… and that, sadly, is how wars are started – as some six millennia of violence will attest to.

Bad guys

Kratos - Man about town

Kratos - Man about town

It turns out I write more on forums than I do blogging, so I’m considering posting the more interesting ones here.

Today’s topic: Homicidal maniacs in video games – why do we love them so?

I think what’s interesting with the GTA games (along with stuff like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Dusk Till Dawn, etc), is that the lead characters still have a strong moral code. Sure the player can go on a killing spree; but in the game story, none of the player characters are sadistic or psychopathic — they’ve been thrown into a situation that forces them to fight, and the people they attack are usually other criminals or corrupt cops and politicians. On a moral front, the game justifies it by saying something akin to “I may be a bastard, but I’m not a ****ing bastard“. The same is true with John Marston as well — he’s a criminal, but he’s seeking redemption, so in terms of the story it’s okay (even if you got that dastardly achievement).

It’s the same with Alan Wake and Max Payne — they’re both dicks (especially in MP2), but they’re in impossible situations, and under tremendous physical and psychological pressure. But above all, they’re not bad people — they might be flawed, but they have redeeming features. Which means you can identify with them and their cause — at least in the game fiction.

Kratos I’m not sure about — even Riddick, under all the fatalist bravado, shows some levels of remorse. But Kratos is actually psychopathic (I read an article that convincingly suggested that Lara Croft was too). I haven’t played the sequels, but in the first one he has absolutely no regard for anyone’s life, feelings, or goals, except his own. He’s not even aware of them. The game makes it really difficult to like him, except for the fact that, 99% of the time he’s fighting monsters, and in combat he’s a badass.

Perhaps Kratos can be forgiven because he’s so morally shallow, that it’s actually quite comic to watch, in an absurd way. It’s like you’re waiting to see just how far he’ll go. The same can be said about Mortal Kombat — it’s pure comic-book fantasy and so over-the-top, that it just about gets away with it. As others have said – I think humour helps.

But these games aren’t really sadistic, either — which is where I draw the line. When I was younger I liked the Postal 2 demo; but growing up, I realised it was just sick. Of course kids are going to dig it — again, it’s so absurdly divorced from reality, that you can’t quite take it seriously (e.g. using a cat as a silencer). But at the same time, there’s some real underline malice and bigotry in that game too. Well, I’m not going to preach — you have to make up your own mind on these matters; but personally, as someone looking for a career in the games industry, I wouldn’t proudly put that kind of thing forward as an example what this medium is capable of.

There’s also quite a good article on IGDA which considers GTA3 from various different morally philosophical viewpoints.

Save 6Music – an open letter to the BBC

When faced with outrage and injustice, most Brits generally respond in one of the following ways:

  1. Mind their own business and hope the problem resolves itself.
  2. Find a queue to join and complain about the weather until they forget what originally annoyed them.
  3. Write a stern letter of complaint.

I chose the latter.

…and got a pre-written response back about how it’s still just a rumour, nothing’s confirmed yet.  But still, it’s the principal that matters here.  I believe that British music is one of the few cultural threads we’ve got left these days, and something worth fighting for.  Moreover, I can’t help but feel that if we let this issue slide, pretty much anything is forfeit in the coming years.  The Rage Against The X-Factor thing was a bit of fun, but arguably this is much more important.

For further details and to show your support please join the facebook group  Save BBC 6Music and write your own letter of complaint.

Dear sir/madam,

I’m writing to complain about the recent announcement to close 6Music, the Asian network, as well as other related cutbacks and layoffs.  Personally I think 6Music is by far one the best radio stations being broadcast in the UK, let alone on the BBC network, and I am confident that it would gain much larger audience figures were it available on FM radio and not just DAB/internet.  Not only would it be a mistake to pull this station from the airwaves, but it would be an outright betrayal to your customers.

To be perfectly frank, I can’t believe you’d even consider this when you’ve managed to recruit so many high profile musicians to DJ the station.  In particular, Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour and Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service are exceptional programmes, representing the best of BBC programming, with wide ranging, eclectic playlists.  Likewise, Chris Hawkins’ concerts and sessions programmes are fantastic — fully utilising the (largely wasted) BBC archive.  From what I understand, it’s precisely these kind of programmes that have helped 6Music build not just a dedicated audience here, but a strong, critical reputation overseas as well.

In addition, I’m also very concerned about possible cuts to the BBC internet/web services.  Although not directly related to daily programming, I’ve found the BBC Languages site to be a wonderful resource, and invaluable in helping me learn French. To pull the plug on these and similar services would be a thoughtless and wholly unnecessary mistake.  Likewise, the In Our Time and Woman’s Hour archives are an amazing resource of information, and I would be incredibly disheartened to see them go.

Guy Garvey

Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour – arguably the best music programme on the radio right now.

What’s most troubling, however, is the fact that it’s plainly obvious that these proposed closures and associated layoffs are merely a gesture of good faith towards the Conservative party, in the run up to the election.  More than anything else, I find this incredibly insulting and a betraying.  I have to ask you if this is a stark warning for things to come?  I realise that the economic situation is particularly trying right now — for all of us.  Nevertheless, if the BBC are willing to buckle under the slightest political pressure without defending or even asking for the views of their customers, then I honestly have to ask myself whether they have the licensee’s best interests at heart anymore.

I’m sure there would have been a bigger outcry had you shut down Radio4 or BBC4; but all the same, this action clearly demonstrates that the executives of the BBC have lost interest in everything it used to stand for — a dedication to high quality programming, British culture, impartiality, and representing both majority AND minority interests.  To be blunt, it’s been heading down this path for several years now; however I used to be content paying my tv licence knowing that, even though most of it was being wasted on celebrity presenters, at least some of it was going towards truly worthwhile channels and stations like BBC4, Radio4 and 6music.  However, in light of recent events, I seriously wonder if the BBC wouldn’t be better off funded through advertising and sponsorship, because apparently the license fee is going to be wasted entirely on cheap, disposable, mainstream programming from now on.

I would strongly urge you not to make this tragic mistake.  If the audience figures really are as low as you claim, then perhaps some kind of on demand service can be arranged?  For example, instead of hosting an entire radio station, make the most popular programs available as podcast/iplayer exclusives?

I realise some of this may have been written in anger, but I am, like many listeners, extremely passionate about preserving high quality stations like 6music, and I trust that you will take my views, criticisms, and suggestions seriously.

Yours faithfully,

Jon Hallier

Further reading:

Killing BBC 6 Music would be a slap in the face to licence-payers

BBC to close radio stations, shut half its website and cut staff

Don’t ditch 6 Music

Google Chrome – the first Web-based OS?

Normally I’m not interested in tech news, but it’s nice to be proven right once in a while.  Back in March I wrote quite a theoretical post about whether it was possible to take on Microsoft Windows, and if so how.  You can read the full article here, but in a nutshell my main suggestion was:

“Look at the trends with technology and the Internet. Everything is done on the internet these days and not locally — webmail (Gmail), pictures (flickr), music and video streaming (lastfm, youtube, etc), gaming, and more. Everyone has a website, or a myspace profile, or a facebook page, or a blog — a lot of people have all of those and more. What I’m getting at here is that if you’re going to take on Microsoft, you have to be prepared to take a leap and do something no one else is willing to do.

My idea is simple but a little scary — integrate the operating system with the Internet. So instead of using Firefox, or Chrome, the entire OS is the browser. I don’t mean like that crappy active desktop feature in windows, I mean 100% full integration.”  David vs. Goliathsoft

And, big surprise, yesterday Google announced that they’re adapting their Chrome web browser into a fully-fledged operating system (initially for netbooks, mind).

“We designed Google Chrome for people who live on the web — searching for information, checking email, catching up on the news, shopping or just staying in touch with friends. However, the operating systems that browsers run on were designed in an era where there was no web. So today, we’re announcing a new project that’s a natural extension of Google Chrome — the Google Chrome Operating System. It’s our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be.

We hear a lot from our users and their message is clear — computers need to get better. People want to get to their email instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them. They want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files. Even more importantly, they don’t want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware, or have to worry about constant software updates. And any time our users have a better computing experience, Google benefits as well by having happier users who are more likely to spend time on the Internet.”  Introducing Google Chrome OS

As I said before, for many people, Google = The Internet, so I think it makes natural (marketing) sense for them to take this step.  Whether it’s the right step to take, is another matter entirely.  Like Microsoft, Google are dipping their toes into a lot of different markets (it’s been speculatated that they’ve lost between $174m-$470m on YouTube this year), and honestly, I would have preferred an outsider to have taken this step.

That said, I swear by GMail, and someone needs to give Microsoft a run for their money, so Google is as good as any.

To be continued…

David vs. Goliathsoft

As a competitor, I don’t need to be sold the OS, I need to be sold the market strategies that will overcome the entrenched titan.

This means don’t respond to me with lofty theories and vague action plans filled with wordsmithing. I already know I have to be able to offer something cheaper, stronger, quicker, and without a system shock changeover. No shit, Sherlock. Tell me how I can do any of this better than Microsoft without referring to more dictionary terms or vague statements. Best of all, and really the only pertinent thing: Show me who has done it before given similar, analogous circumstances.

I’ve been wanting to respond to this comment since it was posted; but every time I try, the post mushrooms into business and marketing rhetoric, and I know Raveness has a strong intolerance for bullshit. Sadly this attempt ended up in the same way, but screw it, I’m posting it this time. Like it or lump it.

Short answer – if you’re gonna take on the leader of any business, you have to do the opposite of what they’re doing. Do what Nintendo did with the Wii, and laugh as Sony and MS blatantly struggle to catch up. Otherwise you’re a follower, and by definition, followers do not lead. Whoops, it’s already begun…

Okay what the hell, here’s the loooong answer:

Find a future

Look at the trends with technology and the internet. Everything is done on the internet these days and not locally — webmail (Gmail), pictures (flickr), music and video streaming (lastfm, youtube, etc), gaming, and more. Everyone has a website, or a myspace profile, or a facebook page, or a blog — a lot of people have all of those and more. What I’m getting at here is that if you’re going to take on Microsoft, you have to be prepared to take a leap and do something no one else is willing to do.

My idea is simple but a little scary — integrate the operating system with the Internet. So instead of using firefox, or chrome, the entire OS is the browser. I don’t mean like that crappy active desktop feature in windows, I mean 100% full integration.

Now, I’m not a hardware expert, so you’ll have to humour me on the technical side of things. I’m not interested in whether it’s possible now, with current technology and architectures. That’s the wrong approach. I’m interested in whether it’s conceptually possible in the future – ten, twenty, even thirty years on from now, and what steps would we have to take to make it happen. Even if it means building a new computer to support it.

So to flesh it out a bit. Instead of a main hardrive, all of your data is stored on separate severs (like how gmail works) [it would be necessary to have a small disk drive for the basic OS to work with, but the core idea is that 90% of data is streamed from and stored online]. For example, instead of opening a ‘My Pictures’ folder, you open a window which plugs directly into your flickr account. Instead of a music or video directory, you would just be plugged automatically into last fm, itunes, youtube, amazon, or whatever else you fancy. Likewise, software would be run server side — you’d have a licence for photoshop, and it runs via the net, like SumoPaint. Same goes for games (the technology is nearly there). Lastly, instead of web pages, you’d just have windows (that can be tabbed, scrolled, etc, like you’d expect). ‘Bookmarks’ would be accessed from icons on the desktop, and from the equivalent of the windows’ start menu.

One of the main advantages of this setup is that your operating system and files would be independent from the physical computer you’re using. So whether you’re using a desktop, laptop, palm, or mobile phone (I said this was in the future, right?), you’d have direct access to the same content. Facebook is along these lines — you have a home page, and you can ‘install’ applications into it (like poker, for example). You can then run them on any computer that gives you access to facebook. That’s similar to what I’m getting at, but on a much grander scale.

Now, I realise that the technology is no where near ready to take this kind of strain. But we’re already seeing steps towards this future, and who knows maybe 10-20 years we’ll see something like this happen. There’s also the whole Big Brother thing which is a serious concern, but that’s another argument for another day.

Make the competition obsolete

Whether you like the above idea or not, my main point is that to take on Microsoft, you have to do something radical and a bit crazy. Above all, you have to do something different. I can’t stress that enough. If your gut reaction was “Ick, I don’t like the sound of that, where will I hide my porn…” then I say GOOD. If everyone, especially Microsoft, are saying “That’s insane, it’ll never work” you’re probably onto a good thing. Because you can’t beat them point-for-point on stability and features alone — it doesn’t work that way. Most people expect quality and reliability as standard.

Lou Gerstner of IBM once said about Microsoft:

“Our biggest competitor in software is not a very good technical company. But it’s one of the best marketing companies I’ve seen, and I’ve spent twenty years in marketing.”

Everyone knows that Linux and Mac are more stable, and have a better design & features than Windows. I know this because every time I speak to a Mac or Linux user, they insist on telling me about it. Everyone still uses Windows regardless. Why? Because Microsoft introduced the concept of windows to the world — not the OS — I mean the idea of having resizeable boxes that can display and store content in them.   Even now,  right now, you are reading this text inside of a window!  The genius of this is that we take them for granted. It’s ingrained in us. Even on Mac and Linux, we still call them Windows. Children are taught at school how to use Windows. No matter what you think about marketing, this is powerful psychology at work here.

So to beat Microsoft at their own game, you have to do two things, simply put. The first thing is that you have to envision a future that embraces technological, cultural, and business trends, and presents it in a way that fundamentally rejects the entire concept of windows.

Windows..? ” your marking slogans should run, “Are a two-dimensional concept from the 1980s.   We invite you to step outside of Windows, into the sunshine, and embrace the future.  We believe that future is…” whatever.

A world without Windows? Are you nuts!?” The clue is in the username, but let me elaborate. This is exactly what Microsoft did to the precursor of Windows — DOS. DOS was a command-line OS, which Windows made obsolete by introducing a graphical interface and the concept of windows, icons, menus, and scroll bars. It also introduced a new input device — the mouse. What Windows did to DOS, we have to do to Windows. Now, I realise that I’m not offering a concrete answer here (if I had the answer I wouldn’t be writing this, I’d be out making my fortune), but lets look at the Nintendo Wii as an example.

A success story – The Nintendo Wii

After the Snes era, Nintendo got trounced by backstabbers Sony and their new Playstation generation. Nintendo’s audience had grown up, and wanted something a little more adult — like Metal Gear Solid, Lara Croft, Tekken, Resident Evil, and Grand Theft Auto. Unfortunately, Nintendo were divided on this and weren’t able to adapt quickly enough to the market. Before they knew it, their old time rival Sega had been replaced by none other than Microsoft. Nintendo limp-in with the Gamecube and get eaten alive. Game over for Nintendo? No – the situation is now reversed. Ignoring Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony became so preoccupied with out-doing each other on the hardcore market, that they never saw the monster curve ball coming around the corner…. “A console that isn’t graphically superior to its peers? That uses a remote control as its primary input? Are they nuts!?”

And the result? As of December 2008, the Wii has almost sold more units worldwide than the Xbox360 and PS3 combined. Moreover, unlike it’s competitors, the Wii doesn’t lose money on its hardware production costs (that would normally be recouped in software sales). Nintendo realised that the future wasn’t with the hardcore demographic, but the rest of the world. Being the Disney of the games industry, it was no problem for them to cater to this market, which is what they’re also doing with the DS (you can laugh at those cooking book ‘games’, but they’re selling like hotcakes). In other words, Nintendo rejected two fundamental norms about the games industry — that the primary audience are males, 15-30, who like games about sex and violence; and that graphics and raw processing power are the driving force of the industry (as opposed to creative and innovative use of technology; which is fundamentally what videogames are all about).

Save the cheerleader Destroy the brand, save the world

To beat Microsoft, like Nintendo did, you have to reject the norms they’ve ingrained into everyone. You have to make the notion of windows conceptually obsolete so that Microsoft can’t just integrate your new ideas into their own OS model (e.g. tabbed browsing, desktop widgets, etc). So not only would they be forced to redesign their operating system from the ground up, but they would also have to consider renaming it as well, because the word ‘Windows’ itself becomes obsolete. Basically what I’m saying is that to beat Microsoft, you can’t just beat the product, you have to destroy the Windows brand as well.

Of course that’s easier said than done. The problem is that windows is such a damn good idea that it’s hard to imagine anything else (my own OS idea above, clearly uses it as a frame of reference).   It’s like trying to imagine a car without wheels.  Maybe a 3D OS with portals instead of windows? A few attempts have been made, but we need a revolution, not a gimmick. That’s why, as a stopgap, I’m moving for the internet integration as the primary hook, rather than the interface itself. But again, let me repeat: to beat Microsoft, you need to kill the windows brand. Portals, Doors, and TV channels are all effectively the same as windows (if it looks like a duck…) so they’re hardly the knockout punch we’re looking for.


Assuming you do figure out your brilliant, revolutionary concept, you’ve got to deliver it — when they least expect it and when it’ll do the most damage. Given that Vista is faltering, to the extent where it’s starting to parallel the epic disaster of New Coke (Hilariously, Microsoft are even doing blind taste-tests, called the mojave experiment ); and Microsoft are distracted in the games industry; NOW would have been a really good time to launch a brand new, arse kicking, all singing, all dancing, Operating System from a fresh, hip, and unknown software company (I was going to say ‘think of microsoft in the 80s…’ but they weren’t). For now, lets call it OS Awsome.

Microsoft maintain this “Anything you can do, we can do better” attitude which can be clearly seen in the thinking behind Silverlight (Flash) and XBL avatars (Miis). So the second thing you have to do to beat Microsoft, is you have to bring your vision of the future to the mass-market before anyone else does. You have to be “Firstest with the mostest”. Otherwise forget it. After Neil and Buzz, do you know the names of the other men who walked on the moon? (without looking it up). History remembers leaders, not followers. Also, if you’re the leader, you have an edge, because you’re the one making the moves, while everyone else reacts.

Apple iPod is the textbook example these days. There are plenty of rival MP3 players out there (I myself use a creative zen stone – quality audio on a budget ), but Apple are the most successful because they were the first to bring their iPod brand to the mass-market. Not only that, but they followed through with iTunes, making mp3s popular and kick-starting the whole legal mp3 download trends (getting backing from the major record labels in the process). They lead the market because they saw a growing trend (rising popularity of mp3s) and they went in for the kill with the marketing equivalent of guns, tanks, and missiles. Firstest with the mostest. It’s a horrible violation of the English language, but there’s no better way of putting it.

And that’s exactly what you have to do — be different and be first. If the competition is going left, go right. If the competition going right, go forwards, or inside out, or daffodil, or meringue. Yes, Microsoft are a large and powerful corporation. No question. But they’re getting to that complacent stage where they’ve got loads of money and don’t know what to do with it — expanding into new markets that have nothing to do with pc software or operating systems. This will make them vulnerable — like IBM in the late 80s, and GM today. So if you want to take a Goliath like Microsoft down with a single stone, wait until he turns his back, or trips up, or starts to juggle too many balls — and then aim for his nuts and throw as hard as you can!

And that’s it. Easy huh? Think I’ll start working on OS AWESOME tonight…

Oh and I don’t think it’s going to be Google that does it (although for many Google = The Internet, so who better to launch an internet based operating system like I suggested).

Incidentally, I’d like to just neuter this entire post by saying I’ve got nothing against Microsoft, Windows, or Games, or the people that work there. They’re a great company and they make good software. I’ve met some of the guys at MGS, and they’re cool guys – very engaging and open minded.  So for me, this is merely an interesting thought exercise…. /trademarks OS AWESOME

Glad I got that off my chest.

show spoiler


(For those that bothered to actually read all this)

It’s also worth noting that iPod wasn’t the first portable MP3 player on the market. The MPMan was. The lesson here is that you don’t win a race by being the first to cross the finish line. Races are won by being seen to cross the finish line first. Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first to discover America, but he’s the one we all remember. Likewise, when Google release the worlds first Internet driven OS, do you think I’ll get any credit? No.

Why hasn’t Apple repeated their success with iPod? Lets see… iMac, iPod, iTunes, iPhone… What’s next? iDunno? iWalk? iTalk? iLaugh? iLove? iThink therefore iAm? iPod was a success because it came at the right time, captured the imagination of a generation, and it took off. Not because Apple are wizards at marketing.

Apple Macs aren’t sufficiently unique compared to PCs and Windows. Sure iMacs look chic, but under the bonnet, there’s no real surprises. Nothing revolutionary. And certainly nothing that could dent the windows brand (like I said earlier, we still call those boxes windows).  If they can’t be the leaders, then they need to be ‘the alternative’, not ‘second best’.

I honestly don’t rate the iPhone either, but that’s another story.
Oh and Macs only have one mouse button – so annoying.

Further reading

Most of the marketing side of this is based on Ries & Ries ideas; so credit where credit is due: