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Giving it all away

February 8th, 2011

Gather around children and let me tell you a story about life a very long time ago. This was before DVDs and MP3s and MOV files and even before the internet. It was before cell phones and laptop computers. It was back in the day when cameras used film instead of digital technology to store their images. It was a time when news was delivered printed on paper and the only way to find your current location was with a compass, a map, and a sense of direction.

In this dark and scary time (known as the “Mid 1970s”) a brilliant company named Sony developed a fantastic medium for recording, storing, and watching video. They called it Betamax and it was amazing. A movie could be stored on a single casette reel of tape small enough to almost fit in your back pocket (very impressive in those days). But Sony kept their Betamax format exclusive and allowed no one to create tapes other than Sony.

So JVC came out with a new format called Video Home System (VHS) and allowed others to manufacture the tapes. The result was that a flood of tapes became available at no cost to JVC. One of the primary reasons people want video players is to watch videos (duh!) So in no time at all VHS dominated the market even though the tapes were almost twice as large as Betamax and the quality was noticably poorer.

Before you dismiss this brief history lesson as archaic trivia, let me remind you that for more than twenty years video tape technology was the ONLY way to record and rewatch television shows. It was the ONLY way to inexpensively record home movies. It was the ONLY way to record audio and video together in an inexpensive format, and it was the ONLY way to watch movies of your choice in your home. And for more than twenty years VHS dominated the market; a market worth more than a trillion dollars over that time period.

During those two decades I was a young lad raised on Macs (back before Macs even existed I was working on Apple II, Apple II+ and Apple IIe). After college (Apple IIgs) I owned one of the first and very smallest laptops ever (Macintosh Powerbook Duo 230) and eventually I got a Macintosh LC and after that upgraded to an iMac which I kept for years.

But before you think this is an article from another Mac-evangelist talking about how Steve Jobs can walk on water I have to confess that several years ago I traded the Mac platform and became a PC owner and user.

That’s not the normal trend. Generally people are raised on PCs and move to the simpler, more user-friendly Mac platform. But I was tired of the decades of never having access to software. Software writers just wouldn’t write programs for Mac and if they did they didn’t support them.

The same was true for hardware. Anytime you’d buy something that was supposed to work on both Macs and PCs it was great having a Mac because things almost always worked exactly like they were supposed to straight out of the box. But if not, you might as well hang it up because finding a tech support person who understood Macs was harder than finding a music store that still sold eight-track tapes.

My timing is horrible however, as Jobs has clearly learned this lesson. Upon opening up the platform for software developers to create and sell applications for the iPhone, he quickly made a fortune for his company as well as for the monoply carrier notorious for dropped calls: AT&T. Once again proving that people will take usable variety over quality of service.

But remember that the variety didn’t come from Apple or Steve Jobs and it definitely didn’t come from AT&T. It came from their collective absence. It came from them stepping back and just allowing others to create on their behalf. It came from releasing the stranglehold of opportunity. When you are willing to let others make a little money when you make money it’s amazing how many people will line up to partner with you.

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