For the Week of November 14, 2005
One of the most pernicious trends of our time is the dominance of brands in every area of business.
What started with product brands, such as Coca-Cola and Nabisco, which required size in order to deliver great value, has spread in our time into all areas of service, areas which don't require scale.
The service you get from a Geek Squad may be adequate but it's unlikely to be superior to what an individual entrepreneur could deliver if he had a chance of getting into the business. The same is true for chain dentists, chain pharmacists, or chain dog groomers.
What happens in all these cases is that marketing replaces labor costs, and branding replaces quality. You can see it in your suburban TGI McFunster's (as author Anthony Bourdain calls these cookie-cutter restaurant chains). Cookie-cutter ingredients are cooked in a cookie-cutter way by the equivalent of fry cooks. You get what you pay for, but no more. It's much better, and more gratifying, to "discover" an individual restaurant, where the kitchen is getting the bulk of your money. Even if they're taking apart their own carcasses they may be delivering first-rate chow.
But there is a risk. Many individually-owned restaurants are lousy. You could get sick. It's safer to believe the promises of the brand. So most people do, and you get the blanding of America.
The concept of The Long Tail is that technology can level the playing field, making small-unit sales profitable. That may work if I came up with an updated edition of The Blankenhorn Effect , although right now that's more promise than reality. But the result is still that the only profitable businesses are those which scale, and which replace work with machines - as Google, Amazon and eBay do.
The challenge today's Web based businesses have not yet taken on is to deliver for small businesses and local organizations. For the most part they've just created new brands.
There have been exceptions. Craigslist scales classified ads so that they can reach their individual targets. The genius of eBay is to scale the reach of your yard sale to reach the entire globe. Companies like Judysbook have tried to do this for small business recommendations, but most have failed.
The problem is that, like all Web 2.0 start-ups, these are just databases in which individuals collectively build for the boss. The institutions that make any place a community have no real place, and derive no real value.
Instead small businesses of all types are being bypassed by today's Web, and their potential customers are being bypassed as well.
I have sought to build a business which changes that. The idea of voic.us is that we will build services for use by organizations - businesses, churches, publishers, community groups. Each will be able to use our tools, free, to express their Unique Selling Propositions, and we hope to scale our outreach so that we can help folks figure out what that is.
While the bulk of the work on a Web 2.0 site is done by machines, I want to build a site where the bulk of the work is done by the community, and which pays the community back for that work. By delivering both tools and a business model to small businesses and groups, which can deliver the results either inside the site or with their own URL, I want to rebuild the idea of community and the real links between people that we need to thrive.
This has been my goal since I started in journalism, perhaps 35 years ago. As a teenager I delivered a column about my high school to a small chain of community newspapers, and to a local radio station. My idea, and it was quite nascent, was to sink these businesses' roots deeper into the local community. In the language of our time, I was a blogger and a podcaster.
What many analysts don't understand is that such papers continue to thrive. In the transit station near my home I can get free copies of a local sports weekly, a local entertainment weekly, and a variety of other publications. My lawn is home to a local ethnic publication and two community papers. There are, in fact, several chains of community papers in the Atlanta area, and even more individual efforts like the Dunwoody Crier.
I think that delivering these publishers the tools they need to make money online, and to become immediate rather than periodic, could prove a good business. I also think that churches, neighborhood associations, and simple clubs deserve the same support. What they need to get started is a working business model they can implement at no cost, and with minimal risk. That's what I want to deliver.
If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere. But can we do it here?
I've got a new job. I'm now editor of Atlanta voic.us, a Web start-up aimed at building a community Web platform with a real business model. I'm also all alone in writing the Open Source Blog for ZDNet. (When this started there were three of us.)
My last non-fiction book, "The Blankenhorn Effect" won the Computer/Internet category in the 2003 Independent Publisher (IPPY) awards. Write me for a PDF copy of my latest novel, "Baptists are for Dunking."
On my Mooreslore blog I've written a new novel, "The Chinese Century." It's a story told in real-time, with real characters, but entirely fictional, dealing with the consequences of the falling dollar. I'm beginning a sequal, "American Diaspora," exploring the themes of the first book but with more fictional characters. It's a true alternate history, but set in the present day.
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Best of the Week
Guy Kewney reports that Westchester County in New York is seeking to force all "public" WiFi hotspots to register in the name of security.
Instead of attacking Windows, Linux, or the Mac, today's hip, new virus writers are going after the anti-virus programs.
Republicans who once preached deregulation are now micro-managing the market and defying science. Democrats who urged regulation are now calling for it to end and embracing technology.
Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher wonders why bloggers haven't joined the White House Press Gaggle.
A better question might be, why haven't others left?
"It cut the fiber optic deployments in 13 states, California, Texas, SNET Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, etc. and in all all of the states, the companies got billions extra in higher phone rates, higher USF (Universal Service Fees), tax breaks, etc. And they all promised fiber to the home, 45mps, 500+ hannels. And when SBC merged, every fiber optic service was cancelled."
How popular must an uprising become before it becomes impossible to take down? Put in terms of more ordinary crime, how many must oppose a law before it becomes virtually unenforceable?
Frankly, Mr. Whitacre is an idiot. There are many reasons why net neutrality, and not paid content access, will triumph in the U.S.:
Despite the excitement both sides feel toward political minutia, politics is still generally driven by the economy. Without profound economic change there is no real political turmoil, just the appearance of such created by politicians, pundits, and a press that demands stories.
Dr. Richard Smalley passed away last week. Few men have ever transformed an institution as profoundly as Dr. Smalley transformed my alma mater, Rice University in Houston.
The latest "great mind" to join the collection is Elliot Schrage (above). He follows Vinton Cerf, "the father of the Internet" (so called) and Dr. Schmidt himself, the "father of Java" (also so-called).
The collectors like those kinds of titles. They like credentials. They're Stanford guys. They want proof of quality. Credentials are proof of quality.
Like Frankenstein's monster, AT&T is coming back from the dead.
I'm not talking about a phone that costs $50 to make (that retails for $250). I'm talking a phone that costs $50 or less retail.
The American Diaspora
ZDNet Open Source
Clued-in are the people of Rice University, especially former President Malcolm Gillis, who capitalized on Richard Smalley's Nobel Prize brilliantly.
Clueless is anyone who buys an "open source insurance policy."
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