Jonathan Rick is a social media strategist in Arlington, VA. You can follow him on Twitter @jrick and read his blog at JonathanRick.com.
The pace and power of web-fueled innovation is stunning. One day we’re swearing by Outlook, the next, we can’t live without Gmail. These changes exemplify the beauty of the Internet — the possibility that greener pastures are but a click away.
On the other hand, the list of tech innovations that could have been is quite long. Before we get into those, a few caveats:
- Some of the companies below may not have missed the boat so much as skipped the ride. Oftentimes, these businesses simply chose to perfect their core businesses instead of tacking on new features.
- None of these companies has been “MySpaced.” To the contrary, each remains well-regarded and innovative in its own right.
So, how did tech companies miss the boat?
1. Google Docs missed the SlideShare boat.
Sure, Google Docs can display PDFs and PPTs, but documents are slow to load, maximized by default, and can’t easily be shared or embedded. By contrast, SlideShare is known as “YouTube for documents” because it’s fast, user-friendly and social.
2. Google Docs missed the Dropbox boat. The search giant passed on adding synchronization to Google Docs (or GDrive). Meanwhile, Dropbox pioneered this feature, for which it’s now the gold standard. And, in an ironic twist, during a five-day, company-wide hackathon, Dropbox developed the ability to sync its accounts with Google Docs. (Although Google may soon unleash a Dropbox killer.)
3. Microsoft Office missed the Google Docs boat. Only after companies, governments and non-profits had “gone Google” did Redmond release a cloud-based, collaborative version of its cash cow, Office (along with a few videos that contrast Office with Docs).
4. iTunes missed the Spotify boat. Apple cornered the digital music market years ago, but besides the all-important $0.99 per song price tag, Cupertino never really innovated with iTunes. Specifically, the software’s lack of social and streaming services created massive opportunities that Spotify — and Pandora, Amazon, Google, and Facebook — pounced on. Apple now is playing catch-up with Ping (pathetic) and iCloud (promising).
5. Mapquest missed the Google Maps boat. When I was in college, “Mapquest” was so popular that we used it as a verb. Today, it seems the only people who use this site are those who still have an AOL email address. The reason: thanks to relentless innovation (mash-ups, Street View, GPS-enabled mobile apps), Google Maps has presented itself everywhere you want to travel.
6. Google Latitude missed the Foursquare boat. Ironically, the founder of Foursquare was a former Googler who left because Mountain View wouldn’t allocate enough resources to his team, “leaving us to watch as other startups got to innovate in the mobile + social space.” Google still hasn’t made it with Latitude, whereas Foursquare’s points system, partnership with American Express, and merchant features have generated growth of a million users per month. (Perhaps this is why Google may want to buy Foursquare instead of compete with it.)
7. Facebook missed the LinkedIn boat. When I learned of LinkedIn, I thought, can’t you already do this with Facebook? Well, yes, but not without some hassle. Reed Hoffman, LinkedIn’s founder, recognized that, while we want to be hip in our personal lives, we strive to be practical and maybe even a little boring in our careers. This is why we use one email address for pleasure and one for business, and why we use Facebook to socialize with friends and LinkedIn to network with colleagues. Recognizing this, Facebook continues to hype its business pages, while such professional credibility comes naturally to LinkedIn.
8. Facebook missed the Twitter boat. When I learned of Twitter, I thought, can’t you already do this with Facebook? Indeed, at its core, Twitter is merely the Facebook status update. Yet Facebook lacked Twitter’s simplicity and pith, a void that ascetic Twitter founder, Jack Dorsey, was keen to fill. Apparently, 100 million people agree.
9. Blogger and WordPress missed the Tumblr boat. Finally, when I learned of Tumblr, I thought, can’t you already do this with Blogger or WordPress? Just write shorter. Again, you could, but not with Tumblr’s base-bones simplicity, dynamic community and effective reblogging feature. Microblogging, it turns out, is different from blogging. (No doubt, this is why Blogger just announced Dynamic Views.)
10. Yelp missed the Foodspotting boat. Even though Yelp remains the top social network for restaurant reviews, it overlooked an essential facet of the dining experience: pictures. Foodspotting seized this opening, made it mobile, and now is expanding its focus beyond foodies.
So why do these examples matter?
The beauty of the web is that it dramatically lowers the traditional barriers to entry, so an entrepreneur can penetrate an already saturated market. For instance, despite heavy competition from the likes of LinkedIn, Yahoo, Facebook, Google-owned Aardvark, and Answers.com, Quora plunged into the Q&A fray. In short order, it carved out and capitalized on a niche.
Examine the above list and you arrive at an under-appreciated conclusion: Internet innovation is so fierce and constant that it undermines the notion of zero-sum market share. Instead of vying for a piece of the same fixed and static pie, webtrepreneurs bake whole new pies. Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos insist that the Kindle comprises a “different product category” than the iPad. Just because a company maintains a seeming monopoly on a market doesn’t mean the market is devoid of opportunities. When there’s an innovator, there’s a way. With the web, Goliath is always vulnerable.
Sure, tech giants are somewhat limited. Just reference the lawsuit from the Justice Department, the investigation from the Federal Trade Commission or the hearing from Congress.
Internet innovation comes in tidal waves, big and bold. By contrast, when’s the last time your microwave got a radical upgrade? Or your shower head? And how’s that electric car coming along?
In the end, the web’s rising tides lift the only ship that matters: the user’s.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, aluxum