Artery Calcification

There were two very large pieces of news in the tech world last week: Google cancelled Reader, its RSS feed reading service, and Mailbox, an innovative mobile email client, sold to Dropbox.

These are both interesting news items to me for primarily the same reason. Let me explain through the Google Reader example. There’s a lot of angst in the tech community about this decision. Those of us who use Reader use it avidly and its disappearance leaves a huge hole. The problem, though, is that Google has stopped any innovation in RSS feed readers years ago.

Big companies, in my opinion, are like plaque in an artery. They enter a market, clog it, and then stop letting anything get through. The shear size of these big companies clogs all innovation and we, as consumers of these products, are left wanting more. Google with Reader isn’t the only example. Microsoft has done this for years with Outlook and Office. Intuit has done this for years with Quickbooks. PeopleSoft did this for years with CRM software. In each case, these solutions calcify until some major change happens to blow things up. Generally this change occurs around a shift in technology. In the past 15 years that has been a rise in the web and a rise in touch, mobile systems like smartphones and tablets. In Google Reader’s case it is Google blowing it up. When these changes occur we see amazing innovation with new winners. Eventually, of course, those winners calcify, too. We get Twitter, Facebook, and, for instance.

And that leads me to Mailbox. In the old days a company like this could never compete with Microsoft’s Outlook. They could have built an email client that sucked in Outlook data, even streamlined and improved it, but to compete? Wasn’t going to happen. But because of the web and mobile over the past 15 years, Mailbox has a chance. In just a few short weeks 1.3 million people joined its waiting list and the company received multiple acquisition offers, with Dropbox dropping as much as $100 million to own it.

The combination of web as plumbing and mobile as front end is doing that to a lot of software areas now. We’ve mostly seen this in social and pure consumer apps, Instagram for example, but that’s temporary. It will happen to productivity apps, too. The key is looking at the old problems and old solutions in a brand new light, re-orienting around the customer and the problem he is trying to solve but utilizing usage paradigms perfected in the technology generations before. Mailbox didn’t look at email and see it as solely a communication tool or CRM tool as Google and Microsoft had done before. Mailbox looked at email as a way to organize the things you need to do instead, realizing that a lot of people use their inbox as a task list.

This pattern is very straight forward and has occurred every time the technology changes. First we get solutions which are the same as the old platform but now available on the new platform. Think the email client on every mobile device today. Then you see innovation around those ideas, Mailbox as an example but there are others, too. Then one of these solutions becomes dominant and, over time, solidifies its control of the market, overserving it, and slowing innovation. Finally, technology changes and the cycle starts all over again.

When markets change and technology change, that’s when real innovation occurs. Google canceling Reader is a huge pain in the short term. But in the long-term this creative destruction is the only way things get better.