Big wave surfing and the internet

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The Endless Summer is one of the most famous surfing documentaries ever committed to film. It involves two surfers who leave the relatively cold winter waters of California and go around the world surfing in exotic locales and spreading the surf gospel. Robert X Cringely used the analogy of surfing when he described the technology sector in his book Accidental Empires.

If the surfer paddles out too early he just exhausts himself paddling against tame swell and doesn’t have anything to ride, too late and he gets caught up in the undertow, but hitting it just right allows him to have ride the tube and have an exhilarating experience.  The problem is that once the wave breaks on the shore its gone.

Success in the technology sector is about hard work, innovation and serendipity. That serendipity breaks down into:

  • Timing: not only hitting the wave at the right time, but catching the right wave
  • Critical mass of customer demand
  • The ability to take advantage of it

So what does this mean for the technology sector?

  • Great ideas fail. Mainly because they depend not only on them being a great idea, but also need the serendipity. Push technology failed, but RSS took off. Avantgo never really went anywhere yet iPhone media applications have taken off and from personal experience it is quite surreal seeing the social search concept I worked on at Yahoo! becoming into its own at the moment
  • Once you’re done, your done. Like the big wave, once customers are over your offering they’re over it. Technology companies rarely if ever have a second coming. IBM did mainly because its first downfall was financial, rather than customers being over mainframe technology. The company managed to remake itself as a services organisation. That’s the reason why Friendster, Myspace and Yahoo! haven’t managed to crawl back up the greasy pole
  • Hitting the right wave is a challenge. Orkut was a well-designed social network backed by the Google organisation yet went down the rabbit hole that meant it was only big in Brazil and India. Its also the reason why Japanese brands like Sharp and Panasonic who have long dominated consumer electronics are nowhere in the global mobile market as they concentrated on the needs of their home-market customers for too long. Conversely, Baidu correctly realised that the Chinese market was large enough to have a custom solution to search rather than the badge engineering done by Yahoo! in the marketplace