I saw this tagline a few weeks ago in a TV commercial for a cell phone company. The message is clear and meaningful: cell phone companies power the communication layer in our lives. They provide the technology that allows us to communicate, but short of censorship what we choose to communicate is out of their hands.
Before the Groupon acquisition, we thought of Hyperpublic in a similar light. We powered a data layer on which developers built location-aware applications. The inputs into a final product were (1) our data and (2) a variable in the form of a developer’s decision to build something cool/fun/useful/boring/simple/etc. We had direct control over the first input - the data sources, their quality, how they could be accessed, etc. - but the second input was largely in the hands of HP’s users.
I’ve been thinking about this dynamic a lot recently, both from the perspective of product makers and product users. Makers churn things out with the expectation that people will do something cool with them. Sometimes, though, the unexpected happens (Airbnb’s vandal scandal is an extreme example). Makers should expect variability in how their products are used and be prepared to adjust accordingly (the ever popular “pivot”).
For product users, web and mobile apps can improve facets of our lives, but no app alone can solve all of our problems. Even the hottest new social dating startup can’t change the fact that, at some point, a date seeker will have to close his computer, put on a nice shirt, and buy someone dinner in the real world. Same goes for job seekers, shoppers, artists, and every other class of user I can think of.