Tim Bray posts an interesting comment.
I was talking today to this really smart guy named Jonathan Leblang who works for A9, and he said “You know, Google’s success may conceal a death warrant.” I said “Huh?” He said “Well, the most useful Web pages used to be the ones that aggregated a bunch of useful links, and so people would point to those and Google would find them. Nowadays, why would anyone go to the work to put a page like that together if you can just rely on Google to find stuff?” Hadn’t thought about it that way.
Let me pick that apart because it’s both deeply true, but in this case it’s false.
First off it catches my interest because I’m a deep believer in the hypothisis that good things happen in the presence of a rich, deep, complex supply chain of stuff you can cobble together. That a house should be full of stuff, that a brain needs a lot of ideas in it, that a city is better than the country because it’s full of all kinds of stuff. You could say I’m more into the fecundity of clutter than efficency.
One example of this struck me when I went to Paris the first time: the incredible diversity of food products in the markets. How could you possible create a culture of food without that wealth of ingredients? That a rich network of supply of a given kind creates a culture for that kind of activity. This is why cities tend to specialize.
The first half of the insight that Jonathan Leblang is noticing is that to solve a hard problem – like the “find what I’m looking for” problem that Googles is working to solve – you first have to accumulate a huge assortment of ideas for how to solve it. I’m confident that Google and eBay are in the Bay area because the rich culture of ideas, supplies, and other stuff needed to nurture firms of that kind.
Jonathan notes that Google depends on a particular kind of supply; i.e. the supply of high quality pages full of links on a given topic.
The second half of the insight, the bleak half, is that as you solve the problem sufficently then your reward will be to capture more and more of the users. You will aggregate all the demand and this will lead to starving out the supply. As the network effects begin to kick-in the users will start defaulting to your solution and alternatives will die out.
That is what’s happened to food in the US. Industrial franchised food consumes so much of the demand for food that there remains only a very small niche for food that’s not highly standardized. Eatting in the rural regions of the US can be an amazingly consistent dull experiance. You have to work hard to avoid it.
This is just another way to look at what happens as the slope of the power-law curve begins to steepen and standards fall into place. Or to recall the cliche good-enough drives out the better.
Now this is the interesting thing. I think this model doesn’t apply in the case of Google. That in this case we are looking a very common kind of confusion about the nature of “stuff.” Physical-stuff (grapefruits, car parts, computers) is different from information-stuff. The linkages of supply and demand are different. So the arguement he’s making assumes that the supply of pages of aggregated links is somehow connected to the demand for such pages. That is just not true, or at least it’s not true in the same naked darwinian scarcity of niche sense that it’s true for the food vendors.
People are packrats; they create a supply of those pages that aggregate stuff about what ever they are interested in independent of the demand for those pages. So even if Google captures more and more of the traffic of folks looking for stuff; people will still make collections of info-stuff. The specialist blogging pages are a fine example of that. I don’t write this blog for my audience, I write it for me. (At this point we could run off on a subplot that about Google acquiring blogger to incourage supply.)
That’s entirely different than the food markets of Paris. If demand for passion fruit wains the supplier of passion fruit will too. But for info-stuff, a Martin Geddes recently said over at Telepocalypse: “No scarcity, no market, no problem.”
That said, there is a scenario where info-stuff begins to look like physical-stuff; i.e. when it begins to spin up in a strong network effect. Thus Apache’s httpd server (who’s network effect of mindless adoption coupled with it’s rich community of complementary products and services) does drive out other web servers. It drifts toward becoming a physical object because it’s network effect has some physical qualities to it.
Open standards can help temper that effect; the HTTP standard does help avoid the entire web server market collapsing into a singularity. The vicious competitive attempts to make the HTML standard more proprietary go a long way toward explaining the near singularity that developed around Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. If your attempting to create public goods around info-stuff – closed standards enable scarcity, market, problem.