It seems in the world of computers and the Internet there is always a steady stream of new things on the horizon, as well as a steady stream of new products and services. It’s been this way for many years at this point.
There are always winners and losers. Winners can win big, and losers at worst fail to make any marketplace splash or even a ripple and end up in the tech dustbin of obscurity with few people ever knowing that the product or service ever existed.
What is it that makes for a successful product? Why is it that some products and services that seem very similar to other products and services end up becoming household names, while others end up being cancelled domain name landing pages?
It’s obvious there are a variety of factors that come into play. If it were easy to predict these things, we would have a lot fewer losers. Why did Twitter become a household name, whereas similar services such as Plurk and Jaiku languish in the shadows? What enabled Facebook to steal most of the MySpace thunder?
New products and services that end up being successful frequently incorporate elements and principles of previously-existing successes, but package them in more compact and useful forms.
Initially when Twitter came along a couple of years ago, I heard people talking about it, but I was a bit resistant to sign up. I felt like I had plenty of ways to communicate with people, so why did I need to add yet another account to a service that would steal away time I already had filled, only to ultimately let yet another account go dormant? I finally signed up for Twitter, and after I began using it I began to understand the value of it. With a service like Twitter, the more people that are using it, the more valuable it becomes.
About the same time I signed up for a Twitter account, I also signed up for a Plurk account. After a few visits to the Plurk website over a period of a month or two, I haven’t been back to the site since.
I believe what is valuable about Twitter is that 140 character limit per Tweet, forcing people to be succinct with their wording. Twitter and Tweet are cute names. The site design is simple, the blue bird logo pleasing to the eye, and the developers kept the API and name open to other developers, allowing an entire ecosystem of ancillary products and services to develop around it at the same time it was rapidly increasing in popularity. Twitter is very much like chat, which was already well established, but it had the added value that it either could be in real time, or not, able to be accessed from a vast array of devices beyond the Twitter website. Twitter also allows you to subscribe to just the people you want, and ignore or even completely block the rest. Twitter also allows you to reach out and touch people, and it allows you to monitor what others are up to whose lives are at once very similar to your own, yet often radically different. You can spend as much or as little time as you wish interacting with the service. Another thing that turned out to be incredibly useful with twitter is the vast 24/7 real-time data stream that it generates. Real-time Twitter data mining has proved to be quite valuable to many people.
To be honest I have always thought that many MySpace pages were often monstrous, unbelievably cluttered messes that often took a long time to load. Nonetheless, MySpace became popular because it obviously served a need with a younger demographic.
I’ve always thought Facebook’s interface is somewhat confusing, though allowing for far less cluttered and confusing-looking profile pages. I still don’t quite understand what got Facebook to the level of critical popularity – perhaps the less-cluttered, faster-loading profile pages gave it the critical edge over MySpace.
It should also be noted that Facebook allowed for an open API, allowing a myriad of interesting and often useful applications to be plugged in to its interface.
However it did it, Facebook managed to get to a critical mass of users where it became THE thing to sign up for and THE place to be to stay connected with family, friends and business associates. Something interesting has happened with Facebook that has never happened before – everyday, non-geek people who had never built website profiles in all the years they had been doing email and web browsing were suddenly signing up for Facebook in unbelievable numbers. Mothers, dads, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, etc. were suddenly showing up on the same service with their kids, nieces, nephews and grandkids. Once the ball rolled, Facebook became an incredible success.
I started noticing a while back that many people were starting to use Twitter and Facebook to communicate with each other in lieu of email. At this point I find myself getting pulled into that trend myself. These services don’t offer the relative privacy of direct email, but they allow for easy, frequent public conversations and easy sharing of personal media such as photos between friends and family on a global scale.
What I take away from the success stories versus the less-successful competitors is that oftentimes the differences in design and implementation can be slight, but those slight differences can offer real, tangible advantages to the end user. If those often-slight advantages can somehow help get the product or service to a critical mass threshold, they can find themselves catapulted to the point of planetary awareness.