Inevitability in technology

'The statesman's task is to hear God's footsteps marching through history and to try and catch on to his coattails as he marches past'


One of the lenses historians sometime apply to history is the counterfactual - if something fairly small had happened differently, what would have changed? If this battle had gone the other way or that statesman or general had died in infancy, would the whole period have looked different, or not?

At a shallow level this can look like ‘should-have-could-have’, but actually it reflects some pretty basic questions about how history works - how much was this event driven by ‘vast, impersonal forces’, with humans swept along, 'catching on to the coattails', and how easily could it have looked very different?

A good example is Waterloo - Napoleon Bonaparte really could have won, and it was very close. He wouldn't have needed completely different circumstances, just a few different decisions over the previous few days. There was no inevitability to his defeat. But if he had won, what then? Would he have been able to reach a settlement and place a Bonaparte dynasty on the throne of France for a century, or had Europe changed since his heyday, and would the allies have rallied, raised another army and crushed him a few months later? Probably the latter. This is the answer to a lot of counterfactuals - if the Ottoman Turks hadn't captured Constantinople in 1453, they'd have captured it in 1454. But on the other hand, suppose Lenin had died in a bank robbery in the early 1900s. There would have been chaos and revolution, but Bolshevism would be an obscure sect, filed next to People's Will, and Russia might have gone down a much less bloody path.

The point here is that there are some cases where what looks like the decisive moment really just crystalised the underlying situation: sometimes the forces in operation are so strong that if by chance they had failed on this occasion, they'd have won another day. But there are others where things are balanced enough that different luck on the day could have changed everything. 


'Give me generals who are lucky'
Napoleon Bonaparte


Technology has much of this issue. There are very strong deterministic forces that drive the industry forward - Moore's Law, network effects, economies of scale, migration of value up the stack and so on. But there's also a strong element of chance and luck. Great talent and execution and great ideas are part of the mix, but sometimes you're also in the right place at the right time.

All of this came to my mind when I looked at this slide that Facebook showed at F8.


Since WhatsApp, earlier in the year, disclosed that it has 40bn messages a day, this means that Messenger 'only' has 20bn. Now, consider that with slightly different timing and personalities, it would have been perfectly possible for Google instead of Facebook to have bought WhatsApp. Both, after all, have the freedom of action that founder control brings. In parallel, consider that with different timing and personalities, Twitter could well have bought Instagram. At that point (and assuming continued execution post-acquisition, of course), Facebook's position in mobile social would look quite different, and much less dominant.

Aggregate MAUs across social apps (m)

That is, Facebook's successful purchase of WhatsApp and Instagram was not inevitable - it did not flow out of a great preponderance of industry dynamics. Indeed, the dynamics were against Facebook, since the shift to mobile brought new dynamics to social that removed the winner-takes-all effect that it enjoyed on the desktop (push notifications, the shared address book and photo library, and the home-screen icon model all make it much easier to use more than one network on mobile than on the desktop). Facebook didn't have inevitability on its side. 

There's a similar observation to be made about the Chinese Internet. One can look at the dominance of a few large conglomerate/portals ('BAT') and say 'well, that's because it's an isolated market that blocked the global category killers' (or that language and culture kept them out), but one could also suggest that this is what would have happened elsewhere if AOL and Yahoo hadn't gone to sleep for a decade.  We think of the portal model as a dead-end, but half a billion Chinese Internet users suggest that it could have been otherwise. The Chinese internet is a great way to challenge your thinking on what's inevitable in technology - it's a living counterfactual.

On the other hand, one can also look at RIM and Nokia's failed reaction to the iPhone and suggest that actually, they were doomed a long time before the iPhone launched. The problem was not that a few senior executives looked at the iPhone and didn't get it, but that they had committed to a software and component model five years or more earlier that made it structurally impossible for them to match the iPhone (or its Android cousin) in time. In other words, sometimes the issue is not 'what if they'd taken a different decision that day?' but rather 'what if they'd been a whole different company for years earlier?' Perhaps, like Bonaparte in 1815, Nokia and RIM were doomed no matter what decisions they'd taken in 2007 - it was far too late. 


'Mad, is he? Then I wish he'd bite some of my other generals'
George II of James Wolfe (apocryphal)


The key thing, I think is that we have both those deterministic drivers of change and also luck, skill and brilliance. These can take you to different places. I wrote earlier this year about what you could have said in 2001 to be right about how mobile would develop. You could have got perhaps 90% there with the right determinants and vision, but would you have put a had-been computer company that had just launched a music player at the top of the heap? Steve Jobs supposedly said, returning to Apple, that his plan was to stay alive and grab onto the next big thing - to listen for the footsteps. He tried video, and a few other things, but he got there in the end. But he might not have.