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Another nail in the coffin of the fragilista way of life

Posted March 21st, 2013 by Andrew Goodman

Many of us make our app and platform decisions based on a certain calculation: go with the large, integrated provider that has momentum. The alternative is inconvenience, a lack of integration, possibly clunkier functionality, lack of “cool factor,” and in some cases, cost.

For example, our company recently adopted Google Apps for Business, joining the legions who have already done so. It hasn’t been without its issues. But our old way of doing things was worse.

For various tools, though, I’ve often felt that a less efficient mix-and-match approach was somehow healthier. I arrived at this view based on my belief in something I call the Single Overlord Adoption Threshold. America itself was founded on the basis of checks and balances. It’s an ideal; an ideal of multiple centers of power and influence so none gets too big. It’s such a valuable ideal to so many, that Americans put up with a lot of political gridlock, for fear of the alternative (tyranny).

People are starting to get it.

Om Malik has recently declared that he’ll never use Google’s new competitor to Evernote because of how arbitrarily they shut down the much-valued Google Reader… even if it’s better.

That’s sort of why I still like and use Basecamp from 37 Signals. Anytime a more impressive, integrated alternative has come along, I’ve wanted less integration… less “impressive.” For some reason. Probably for reasons similar to what Malik and the American founding fathers had in mind.

Better-integrated, more impressive, cheaper systems developed by a single overlord have many advantages, but if they can all be snatched away, that syncs up perfectly with what Nassim Taleb criticizes as “fragile” systems.

Adopting non-Google solutions for mission-critical business and personal use, by contrast, may make your life more robust, if not anti-fragile.

So I’m really not sure — when the case is so obvious in this “Evernote-competitor” instance — why people are so unwilling or unable to see the same dynamic in action on other fragile, all-in Google moves of a more far-reaching nature — like Android? At a plenary session at this week’s SMX Toronto, I just heard a roomful of Canadians (all but two) essentially swear they’d never get another BlackBerry. But if the OS is as good as Android or iOS, and there are many other attractive reasons to use the non-overlord product, why the paranoia that somehow life won’t be as optimized or integrated if we don’t rush into a Google environment?

The funny thing about this is — this is exactly how many people used to behave with “Microsoft stuff” before Apple, Netscape, Google (and others) became the clever upstarts that toppled them. Of course, in many cases it would have been absurd to suggest people even had a choice. To stick with Corel Wordperfect for documents (once the leading word processing software) became, at a certain point, “impossible.” (But was it, really? What about all those Apple users who for years didn’t use Microsoft’s Office products? Remember the years where document format translating companies made a ton of cash helping people convert stuff?)

And Google’s behavior — “embrace and extend” and try to play even in verticals where it doesn’t belong or doesn’t truly have its heart in — resembles that which was once so vilified in Microsoft.

Certainly, when it comes to project management, note-taking, etc., we have credible alternatives to the overlord products.

In other areas where many of us have left ourselves vulnerable and fragile — Google Analytics, say — it can seem tougher to easily replace or at least “back up” our data and workflow so that we can be covered if some Black Swan event occurs. But maybe we should be thinking harder about, if not replacing Google Analytics, then at least implementing a backup. BUBGA (Before Urchin Became GA), only a small percentage of business owners were site analytics mavens, but that percentage tended to dig deeper into the field, willing to deal with cumbersome logfile analysis software of various stripes… so that they could have more control over their own data. Now, most of us are just handing over the keys to that kingdom – directly to Google.

(As an aside, I still feel it was quite a blow to us when Microsoft abandoned Gatineau, the code name for its direct competitor to GA.)

I think it’s food for thought. We too easily race for the convenience and integration of the leading products, ignoring their risks. Largely that’s out of herd mentality, and a wish to conform and avoid criticism.

When there truly are credible alternatives — such as the Blackberry 10 OS — it’s time people realized that it’s worth trying out those alternative… even if it’s simply on principle.

In many of these areas, Google is the new Microsoft. Does that mean, then, that they will someday also fall out of favor and become “tired,” like Microsoft apparently did? Not necessarily. There’s no law of nature that says that will happen.

(And of course, how tired is any company worth hundreds of billions of dollars, really? A friend was telling me today about how much he loved his Surface tablet. I suppose some blog commenter will want to explain to him that he is just “wrong!” The point is, it’s his choice, and he’s made it! “Logic” of a certain sort says he shouldn’t have. The price point for the version with a keyboard makes no sense in the mass market; nor does the positioning — do I need a laptop that works with a tablet, and why pay for a third or fourth device? But most of those calls are made by people thinking about what people “should” or “will” want, in the context of a belief that (say) Google or Apple are basically all-knowing and either inevitable or impossibly cool. And yet, when someone picks up a Microsoft or Blackberry product and likes it, their positive reactions are genuine, and the dollars they’re willing to spend are genuine. There is no “inevitability” in any of the current trends.)

Overall, many people are underestimating the “Founding Fathers factor” here: a populist will to stop simply adopting everything Google is already gradually emerging, as evidenced in Om’s rant about Reader. Over time, I believe many more people will begin joining this “on principle” rejection of “better, cheaper” Google products.

Anti-Microsoft sentiment, at one time, was so widespread you could answer the doorbell and hear your mail carrier talking about open source and how he was going to get a “Linux box.” The sentiment is out there, and if Google pushes too far… it will return in force. All people need is alternatives.

Bye for now,


P.S. This post and blog are powered by WordPress for one reason, primarily: after we’d been using it for six years, Google drastically reduced support for Blogger.

One Response to “Another nail in the coffin of the fragilista way of life”

  1. Great essay, thanks. Hadn’t thought about it this way before in this depth


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