Innovate or Die

Bianca Bosker‘s article on the fall of Microsoft made me think about the whole innovation dynamic, how quickly fortunes can change in the tech world, and how this gets played out in the library.

Case in point: just a year ago, in my previous position at Adobe Systems, the concern over Microsoft’s probings into Adobe’s turf with products like Silverlight and the new, beefed-up, quite Photoshop-like features of the latest Office, were sending worried looks across the tables during market intel briefs. There was confidence that Adobe would still be able to out-maneuver its larger competitor, but also a measure of unease.

Then came Apple’s assault on Flash and Flex, and ultimately, on the Adobe brand entirely. That was enough to put the Microsoft issue into perspective. Indeed, after my departure, there were enough Steve Balmer sightings at Adobe’s San Jose HQ to suggest that, at the very least, Adobe and Microsoft realized they had to work together if Apple was to be put in check.

This particular alliance got me chuckling, which, granted, was easier after my departure. The makers of the notoriously clunky Internet Explorer were going to join forces with the makers of the notoriously bloated Flash platform to retake the tech world. Sure.

Of course, Microsoft is not only badgered by Apple. It also has to contend with Nintendo on the game scene and a host of others in the Enterprise Architecture market. But its biggest nemesis, is clearly Google, which is coming at Microsoft from multiple angles, most notably from its stronghold amongst the clouds.

What a difference a year makes. Google is poised to take on the Windows OS with its visionary Chrome OS. Apple has replaced Microsoft as the largest tech firm in the world. And now, we have Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg defining Microsoft as an “underdog.”

Nobody should be really surprised by this. I think that even in their heart of hearts, the proponents of Microsoft that used to get so ruffled by “I’m a Mac” ads knew that Microsoft was just coasting…Windows is really lagging in functionality, security and reliability, IE is now the slowest, buggiest, most featureless browser on the planet, Windows Mobile is just plain insignificant and Office, that cornerstone of Microsoft’s profit margin, is being out-flanked by the cloud.

All of this reminds me that innovation is no longer an option. Companies like Google, Apple and Facebook are overwhelming traditional computing models, by simply thinking outside the box…in fact, it’s thinking outside the box as a business model.

And this threat to the establishment also applies to libraries.

As information resources themselves, libraries compete for eyeballs just as much as any other online service. And if Google does search better (or perceptively better), then people will abandon their libraries. Add to this picture other aspects of Google’s business model, like eBooks, mobile search, Google Scholar, etc. and, yup, libraries should be worried. As the Microsoft model illustrates, change can happen quickly and before you know it, the whole information paradigm has been overthrown and once-confident entities eat humble pie.

Already, you can see this innovation dynamic playing itself out in the library tech market. Go to any public library and you’re bound to see relics of the 1980s still being used in public interfaces. Even in the most cutting edge libraries, you’ll find software that looks like it was designed for Windows 95. Today, I got a kick out of working in a jobber’s interface that violated so many information architecture and usability basics that I had to ask Mr. Peabody to take me back to the future before I split a rib from laughter.

Meanwhile, a host of library-tech upstarts are innovating with a vengeance and quickly becoming worries for the traditional library software vendors, whose main business model has simply relied on libraries perpetually renewing their legacy technologies. In my library, we have a mixture of the bad-old days and the glimpses into a hopeful future, including LibGuides and Digital Commons. Like Microsoft’s foes, these vendors are largely cloud-based, forward-thinking, API enabled leaders.

Which brings me to my final point. Given the current, fluid state of hi-tech and the dangers for any technology that stands still, it behooves libraries to start acting more like tech firms and online services than what they have traditionally done. This means, innovate or die.

Let’s face it, libraries are applications, just like Facebook or Google Maps, or any other online service. It’s a cruel-form of darwinism underlying the competition for eye-balls, so you better have the best, coolest and most engaging service possible. That means a few things, which I think we can learn from the innovators in the computer industry:

  • nurture a culture of innovation by rewarding experimentation (fail to learn!)
  • institutionalize entrepreneurship by creating organs of innovation within your library
  • capture and cultivate local talent and expertise (not just in IT, but in your library)
  • partner with others like your life depended on it (it takes a village of desperate developers longing for fame!)

In practical terms:

  • model your library around likely future models like the cloud, mobility, etc.
  • rid yourself of legacy platforms, including failed technologies from the tech losers (Microsoft comes to mind)
  • hire a measure of visionaries (not only pragmatists)
  • create programs with your community to outsource innovation

This is what I’m aiming to do at my library. Most of these initiatives are still in the works, but watch this space for announcements of our successes (and failed experiments!). The point here, is to model your library application more like a tech leader, than a Microsoft.

Happy Innovating!

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