[Ben’s note: I don’t like to beg, but after publishing “The Two Worlds of Data Infrastructure“, I resorted to outright begging my friend Neville Crawley to reinstitute the regular note he used to write for Epsilon Theory, a series called “Rabbit Hole”. Luckily for my self-esteem, Neville has relented, and I am SO pleased to announce that we’ll be getting a new “Rabbit Hole” note every week or so. These notes on the nexus of government, society and technology (and how we might think about it), will change your worldview. I know they’ve changed mine.
PS. When he’s not writing guest posts for Epsilon Theory, Neville Crawley is the CEO of Kiva, which is an amazing company that you should get to know.]
I’ve been thinking a lot about product strategy and ‘control points’ recently.
I used to work on strategy with semiconductor manufacturers back in the day and the smartest ones only ever really had two strategy questions:
- “What’s going to have chips in it 10 years from now?”
- “What’s the control point?”
If you’re a semiconductor manufacturer “What’s going to have chips in it 10 years from now?” is a pretty obvious question to ask, and relatively easy to think about, build models around, etc. (although much harder to get right in terms of scale and timing … sitting in 2008 it was very hard to call relative scale and timing of adoption for VR, IoT, machine learning etc. etc. a decade out).
The more interesting question though, I think, is around control points, and how this relates to product strategy. What I mean by a ‘control point’ is that sometimes, for some period of time, a piece of an ecosystem becomes dominant and ‘controls’ the rest of the ecosystem, and typically sucks in most of the economic profits.
In personal computing, in the Western world, I’d argue that, over the past 25 years or so, the control point shifted through Windows OS, through to mobile OS (with iOS hardware integration creating a particularly powerful control point), through to application layer personal data collection – with Google and Facebook dominant.
Clearly, application layer personal data collection is the control point right now.
I sit here now typing this Rabbit Hole column in Google docs (which I will end up writing on 3 different hardware devices as I grab a minute here and there through the day), before doing some light fact checking for it in Google search, before sending to Ben via Gmail, and then looking at another device to check my Google calendar to find a lunch meeting that I will navigate to via Google Maps.
Honestly, given the amount of data I’ve given Google today (and over the past 20 years) I should just let Google order lunch for me – their external algorithm probably has (or at least could have) a better sense of what I should eat for lunch today than my human ‘internal lunch decision algo’ does. (Yuval Harari writes very convincingly on this point in Homo Deus).
But, my bet is that, despite the convenience of Google knowing I should have the bisque and saving me from the club sandwich, we are coming up to a shift in control points whereby the next control point is going to be around personal empowerment of control over personal data and authorization.
GDPR points in this direction (in a very EU legislative kind of way) and in technology circles this is currently being hotly discussed in terms of ‘wallets’, ‘self sovereignty’, ’encryption keys’ and ‘data distribution’.
I’m not advocating for any one particular system, and don’t have clarity on exactly how or when this shift in control points will happen, but I do think that there is a strong chance we (in the Western world, at least) are going to see this shift in control points over the next 5 – 10 years, and see similarly large changes in personal behavior and value creation.
Here are some links that I think point in the direction of control over personal data and authorization.:
- This NY Times piece is a long, fascinating account of how Alastair Mactaggart, an Oakland, California resident, “became the most improbable, and perhaps the most important, privacy activist in America” … a great read on a super important topic that gets into the nuances and quite some details.
- Profile of Tim Berners-Lee / Solid project here and a direct link to Solid which aims “to change the way Web applications work today, resulting in true data ownership as well as improved privacy”
- A short (blockchain centric) primer on Self Sovereign Identity.