Sunday, February 06, 2005

The Economy of the Small

The term "Economy of Scale" has always been used to mean "Economy of Large Scale," but things have been happening -- primarily due to the Internet -- that have changed this. Ebay is an excellent example: it has made money from the beginning, all the way through the dot-com crash and beyond, as if it works in an orthogoal playing field. Which it does: millions of successful businesses, some of them lasting only for a single transaction but successful nonetheless, most of the longer term ones operated as part-time ventures. All stable and thriving.

The big-economy media has only been able to report this through the window of Ebay as a big business; the smaller aspect is occasionally noted but not really seen as an important data point. Because of its skew, the big-economy media has gained its own small-economy bugaboo: bloggers. People are creating their own newpapers using feed readers, selecting their own columnists. "News" is no longer fed only through the controlled pipe of newspapers and television, and we can only hope it will get worse for the big-economy media, who have never had any competition except others playing the same game. This is only getting started; feed readers are still in their infancy and most people haven't started using them yet.

The first time the phenomena of "the Internet has fundamentally changed things" hit me was at the Software Development conference, where I had created and chaired both the C++ and Java tracks for a number of years. At some point I could see it coming: the trade show portion of the conference (where they made the bulk of their money) made no sense anymore in the face of the Internet -- especially because this was software, which people could find out about by going to a web site, and usually downloading a demo. The cost of renting a space and sending a team to man the booth was enormous (especially in terms of lost productivity), and if you could have a 24-hour booth presence on the Internet, why bother? Other conferences were failing, and I did not want to stand by and watch the SD conference, where I had put so much time, effort and emotion, auger in. So I left.

After several years, I checked it out again, and discovered last year that it had not only survived the bloodbath but that I had a really good time. It may be that, because most other conferences of this kind (general, not product-specific) have vanished, everyone is coming to SD.

A central organization can be a good thing in some cases, and whether or not Ebay has an impact on Walmart, I think the two serve different enough purposes that Ebay is not going to threaten Walmart (even if Walmart had any conceivable way to fight back). Another example is Linux, and although Microsoft is doing its best to fight back it seems like they are operating in different spaces, and so, short of a completely fascist government outlawing open source (not entirely impossible in the current climate), it would seem that Microsoft must eventually adapt or die. Adaptation is certainly possible; Microsoft has value worth paying for and that value just needs to shift. Not all software can be free, because some of us need to pay expenses.

In any case I'm speaking at SD again this year, and really looking forward to it. As a speaker, I'm able to attend the pre-conference tutorials as well as the sessions, and everything looks fascinating. You can find details on the calendar.

After having some experiences organizing private conferences based on Open Space technology, this year I'm holding two small public conferences. Like comparing Ebay to Walmart, these are quite different from what SD even could do, I think, because they are topic-focused, inexpensive ($300 for a three-day conference), and a completely participatory experience, and Open Spaces are so energizing and engaging that they don't fit in a more formal conference like SD. Obviously I think the formal conferences are still important (as I said, I'm really looking forward to SD), but my experience of Open Space conferences is that the energy that you come away with is completely different, and that's why I want to hold them -- I get at least as much energy and excitement out of the conferences as everyone who attends, because it really is a group learning and sharing experience instead of one person giving information to a group (which still has its place). You can't really believe it until you've experienced it, because it's kind of counterintuitive. But in every single Open Space event I've participated in or held, people come in saying "I don't believe it," and come out saying "this is one of the best things I've ever done!"

You can see the topics on the calendar: Building Better Software and LAMP Patterns & Practices, but you'll also see that I have no links or signup forms yet. That will happen sometime after TIJ4 is completed.

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