Of Ecosystems and Handcars

Maybe because of my books the last few years, but I have become much more aware of a large community of developers, musicians, authors, SAP Mentors, Oracle Aces. They share a common trait – they are not entrepreneurs or employees in a traditional sense, but are the key components of ecosystems around big brands like Apple, Google, publishers, music and film studios. They are somewhat invisible in the media – think of how many stories have been written about Apple’s China labor issues versus those on the App Store community which has delivered over 600,000 apps in a few short years.

And the companies at the center of these ecosystems themselves treat them with ambivalence. My new book describes the stunning turnaround at Apple:

Dan Wood is founder of Karelia Software. His company logo shows two men pumping a handcar—the kind used to maintain rail tracks and resolve other right-of-way issues. The story behind the logo goes back to 2002.According to Mac Observer, “You could see people mouthing the word Watson when Sherlock 3 was demonstrated at MACWORLD
New York on July 17. Watson, an Internet services application, was originally released by Karelia Software back in November of 2001 as a complement to Apple’s Sherlock search software.” Wood had been called in to Apple prior to MACWORLD and shown Sherlock 3. On his blog he describes his reaction: “I drove home, gradually realizing what I had just witnessed, and sent off an e-mail to my contact at Apple Developer Relations expressing my unhappy sentiments.” An hour later, Steve Jobs called me. “Here’s how I see it,” Jobs said—I’m loosely paraphrasing. “You know those handcars, the little machines that people stand on and pump to move along on the train tracks? That’s Karelia. Apple is the steam train that owns the tracks.” So basically the message was: Get out of the way, kid; this is our market.

Fast-forward to 2011.Answering a question at the company’s shareholder meeting, Apple’s leader of iOS development, Scott Forstall, pointed out that Apple has, in the iOS App Store, “created the best economy in software in the history of the planet.”

But for every Apple which has gone one way, I see so many others piss away this huge asset that is their ecosystem. I hear about musicians and filmmakers auditing, even suing studios for accounting disagreements. I hear SAP mentors complain about legal issues getting licenses and other access to new technology. It’s easy to dismiss Joe Konrath’s litany of complaints against book publishers as one from an unhappy author, but the 230+ comments it has drawn shows a deeper angst about how poorly publishers are managing their author ecosystems.

Ecosystems, communities – call them what you want. They are a vibrant organism which deserve far more ink from all of us. And they need professional managers at the companies at the middle who nourish them and not just treat them as railcars to be hustled away whenever inconvenient.

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CEO of Deal Architect, a top advisory boutique recognized in The Black Book of Outsourcing, author of a widely praised book on technology enabled innovation, The New Polymath, prolific blogger, writing about technology-enabled innovation at New Florence, New Renaissance and about waste in technology at Deal Architect.  Previously Analyst  at Gartner, Partner with PwC Consulting. Keynoted at many business and technology conferences and has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, The Financial Times, CIO Magazine, and other executive and technology publications.