Surrender, finally, in a standards war

The benefit of owning a standard is that you get to control the fate of it’s community of complements. With luck and hard work you can use your whatever you want to call it, (ownership, leadership, power) to do a number of things. You can use that control to shape where the market goes. You move the immovable, i.e. the installed base forward. That’s key because it helps you to avoid being displaced by tech. innovations. Of course in the best scenario, for you, you get to draw off a tax from the market that spins up around your standard. Owning the land a city is built on, so to speak, and charging some rent.

So you get land grabs, attempts to move really quickly to define a standard and get a community of complements to appear around it. For some entrepreneurial startups this is the whole business plan. It’s a pattern that can demand a lot of capital, so it’s synergistic with the VC approach. Sometime this approach goes like a firework and nothing is left but an echo. Sometimes you get the walking dead. Sometimes you almost make it. Palm is a beautiful example of almost making it.

So you get war. War to control the land where an market is emerging. The wars tend to unfold more slowly. To get a standards war you need some big players who are locked in. On the one hand they need a huge installed base that ties them down. On the other hand they must see that movement is inevitable. Finally you need a rich prize, or at least the impression that big prize is in play. It makes for interesting times. Handheld computing has just this structure.

So Palm managed what the other fast movers didn’t. The Newton didn’t make it. Go didn’t make it. Magiccap didn’t make it. The first N rounds of Microsoft’s tablets haven’t. None of the calculator companies crossed over. None of the phone vendors have managed much.

Palm created a standard for how to keep your handheld in synch with the rest of your junk. A rich network of complements emerged around it. They pulled off that rare success, the land grab.

But this that standard is the slow moving kind. The cell phone industry, in particular, but also the rest of the consumer electronics industry, have huge installed bases which they can’t walk away from. So they have to fight it out.

These gorillas’ response was Synch ML. Slowly but surely they have been winning. So it’s a forgone conclusion that Palm would be forced to capitulate at some point. And now they have.

It’s curious how what was once their treasure becomes their albatross. They need to force the migration of the existing community of compliments without laying waste to their installed base. Few companies know how to do that.

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