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Two streams of digital product delivery

If you look at typical software development effort there are two streams that can be distinguished over a longer peroid of product lifecycle. 1. Cleaning – this means typically bugfixing, but I also put here stabilising the system, harmonising its functionality and user experience but also fine tuning services even if they are not broken (but can for instance bring more conversion). I call it RTB (running the business). 2. Leaping – this means typically implementing game changing features, greenfield projects as well as pioneering functionality that has never been touched on before. This means innovating, creating new opportunities and services. I call it CTB (changing the business). Now, as with many things in life successful software development is about keeping the balance. You cannot be adding services without improving existing ones and you cannot close yourself to an innovation in an endless loop of fine tuning your existing offer. You can see examples of failures in grand scheme of stories of Sony and Nokia. I’ll take Sony as an example of going too far on the edge of changing the business and Nokia going too far on the side of running the business. Sony (CTR extreme) has been developing a wide range of products, some of them hugely innovative, like the PlayStation, PlayStation Portable – game consoles, Sony Vegas – video software and even their range of Sony Alpha cameras. All of them good or with great potential but not all of them really fine tuned and focused enough to be just great. As a result products are good but the integration of the services behind them, some user scenarios are just lagging behind. Some of the glue being so behind that in fact is now impossible to implement, like the music store that could span across walkmans to playstations grabbing every single hi-fi in between. It’s just missing and clearly expected, even if in existance in the past. Sony Music Stage just hasn’t been integrated smoothly enough in any of those products (not a single one) and had to be dropped, even though Sony had all the portable and stationary music hardware along with huge music label in one hand. The experience just never got tuned to the point where it would be acceptable. There was no time as Sony was constantly pushing for a new versions of their Walkman range along with countless models of hi-fis, tv sets and what have you. Nokia (RTB extreme) on the other hand went to the other extreme. Once settled in the mobile phones market on the top spot started focusing on the quality of existing ranges, careful improvements of 20 year old operating system to the point where it was impossible to start afresh. Odly enough I remember Nokia being able to do that in the past. Over 15 years ago I was a happy customer of their 7700 (or whichever) model. The phone was the first Symbian device and in fact was so different to their existing offering that no one could recognise it as a Nokia product, if not the clear logo on their case. They’ve done it once by replacing three line monochromatic displays with a wide full resolution colour screen powered by a multi-tasking operating system that was capable of running third party apps. And then they stopped innovating and have been fine tuning this experience for over 15 years not brining a single innovation to the table. Even the model I bought 15 years later, the latest (and the last) Communicator E90 wasn’t in fact much different to the original 7700. It was pretty clear for a number of years that Nokia has stalled and that made then vulnerable to innovators like Apple who captured the market by bringing an innovation to the table, even though Nokia had all the capabilities to provide the same offering years earlier just by making a leap instead of locking themselves in an endless circles of fine tuning existing Symbian devices. On the plus side I remember Microsoft doing this over 20 years ago. Few might remember but Microsoft used to have two independent software lines for their flagship product – Windows operating system. As crazy as it may sound Microsoft had a separate team responsible for Windows 95, 98, 98SE, Me for a number of years. Few might remember that along with the “consumer” version of Windows they’ve been offering Windows 3.1 Win32s, Windows NT, Windows 2000. For a number of years most of their clients were receiving fine tuned versions of their original hit – Windows 95. Subsequent versions were just slight improvements (usually just enhanced with a new set of drivers, bugfixes and a new version of Internet Explorer). At the same time Microsoft was making huge leaps with “New Technology” (Windows NT) being made ready for the next generation of high-res displays, multi-core chips and plenty of memory. Windows NT was in fact a “worse” Windows to a consumer for a number of years because of its limited range of drivers, lack of support for 3D games, etc. Microsoft knew back then however that Windows NT will take over the Windows 9x team and they had done that with Windows XP (internally called 5.1) being descendant version of Windows 2000 (internally called 5.0) and superceded with Windows Vista and Windows 7. Same leap have happened with Windows Mobile 7 on the phone, essentially being the first leap, completely rewritten version of the dreaded Windows Mobile 5 and 6 (incremented many times). There are lessons to be learned from both Sony and Nokia experience as both companies are in big trouble now. The important note is the balance. You have to keep doing both even if it means lot of conflict and lot of things happening in parallel. Sometimes you have to be tweaking your Windows 95 or Windows Mobile in parallel with working with the next big thing like Windows NT or Windows 7 Phone. Each product manager needs to maintain their path touching on both sides of the wide road, balancing RTB with CTB. At the same, don’t panic and rush into too much change and don’t stall continously worrying of offending existing users.

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