Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Expect the Unexpected

OnLive Desktop brings Windows 7, Office apps to your iPad

I was going to write about how this is the latest sign that we're all inevitably going to be sucked into the cloud, and how at last we're seeing the realization of that vision from about five or ten years ago of network devices accessing our data and programs via the interwebs, when it occurred to me that this is actually the least interesting angle of this story.

What's truly interesting about this story is that it illustrates how innovation works. Namely, it's largely unpredictable. No one can tell me that, when they were drawing up the plans for the original iPad, anyone in the room ever looked up and said, "And then someone will start streaming application data directly to your iPad, and you won't even need to have Office installed!" No one saw this happening, because services like OnLive don't make any commercial sense until there's already a ready installed base of iPad-like devices waiting to be served. It's a chicken waiting for an egg.

There's a concept that Steven Johnson writes about in Where Good Ideas Come From, called "the adjacent possible." This is the idea that innovation from A to B to C to D, which in retrospect looks completely inevitable and self-evident, is in fact quite unpredictable, because A made B possible, and B made C possible, and C made D possible. The pathway from A to D did not become evident until each intervening step was worked out, and all those business professors writing articles about how corporate leaders failed because they didn't see D coming are benefiting by hindsight; within the moment, we're all equally blind.

In short, we couldn't go straight from the idea of network-capable devices to "Office in the Cloud" because the idea of putting Office in the cloud depends on the network effects of there already being a large installed base of people who might want that sort of service, and that didn't exist until the iPad became the first mass-market tablet device. Apple didn't see this coming; they were too busy making the iPad something that you and I might want to buy on its own merits. OnLive, I'm pretty sure, didn't see this coming; they were too busy building a video game streaming service, then later porting that to iOS devices, and then someone looked up from the table and realized that there's another market out there. A lot of adjacent possibles needed to be worked out before this became a viable marketing opportunity.

It still might fail, mind you, but it's undeniably cool to see the ecosystem evolve in this way. We live in strange and wonderful times.