What Not To Build

I get to play a government scientist on the internet. As a result, a large part of my work involves being exposed to new and interesting technologies, whether they are the latest military simulators, academic papers delivered at scientific conferences, or product proposals being promoted by aspiring developers.

My sort of environmental scan is a bit different from what you'll get from consultants and venture capitalists. Don't ask me what companies are developing what products, how industry stocks are performing, or where all the 'smart money' is going. I don't know and I don't care.

What I can tell you, though, is what technologies are working, what technologies are flopping, and what technologies are fads. It's practical, down-to-earth advice. For example, if you are a technology developer, you already know that you should not try to build a new operating system, a new word processor, an online store or an auction site, for example. These have ben built and have established a mainstream presence. You would need thousands of engineers and billions of dollars to compete with them.

The rest of my advice is like that, only more nuanced. It's obvious to everyone that they should stay out of the operating system market, yet much less obvious that they should avoid building a new content management system. It's less obvious, because these things are harder to see, but it is none the less certain.

So, here is my advice on what not to build. Actually, it's a bit more than that: it's a list of what not to build, a list of some things that people are working on now, some fads to avoid, and some indication of what's out there for the taking, if you can get your act together in a hurry. And what lies beyond that? The domain of real innovation and progress.

What Not To Build

Don't build a destination website

People are still building destination websites. They expect to build *the* location to find such and such. It's somewhat surprising to see in 2009, given that every company, every school, every library, every museum, and every other organization, product, service and even many pets have websites. Even if you have an original website idea, your site, unless it is *very* special (like, say, the Dead Sea Scrolls) will quickly be swamped by the noise and verbiage that is the web, your only traffic search engines and spammers. Even if you have original content and original ideas, don't just build a website.

Don't build a CMS

Unless you have an established market of community and content web sites, you have no business building a content management system (or, for that matter, a learning management system). There is a wide range of choices for people out there, everything from Drupal to Blackboard to SiteScape. And people looking for hosted content can use Blogger, WordPress or LiveJournal. And even more to the point, basically every large scale operation that is going to want a content management system aready has one. You will be facing tremendous competition as every new and existing client will be choosing from a range of well-funded commercial and open source products.

Don't build a platform-specific app

2009 is likely to be a year in which everyone is building Facebook apps, Flickr apps, Twitter apps, iPhone apps and Second Life apps. But this is a market you want to avoid. For one thing, it is already saturated. Indeed, any time something becomes popular these days, it is designated as 'a platform' (in homage to web 2.0) and a horde of app-builders descend upon it. The platform remains popular for a while, but as it declines (as it inevitably does) it takes the entire set of platform-specific applications with it. And you risk, a any moment, the platform proprietor building competition for your app and putting you out of business (this applies to Android too, in case you're wondering).

Don't build a Java application

This is a bit of a special case of the preceding recommendation. Java is the original 'platform' application. What that meant was that you had to have Java installed (and, as time went by, the *right* version of Java installed). Java has been around for ages now, and yet most computer users could count on one hand (or, in many cases, zero hands) the number of Java aplications they use. The situation is a bit better now that Java is built into some operating systems. But java's day has come and gone - everybody is into the platform-building game now, and most have learned from Java's mistakes.

Don't build a framework

This is one of those bits of advice tat would not apply if you could actually do it - that is to say, if you *could* build a framework, then it may be worth doing, but for the most part, you probably can't. It's advice the Perl Parrot and Radaku projects should probably have heeded ages ago, advice the Ruby on Rails people should keep in mind today. People involved in those perpetually running framework projects are tossing good money after bad. Basically, if you are working in any well-known computer system - Microsoft, Java, Javascript, Python, whatever - a number of frameworks already exist. Javascript, for example, supports a number of frameworks for doing web 2.0 stuff - JQuery, etc. Now - you may say, the framework doesn't do everything we want. Maybe not. But that's not the lesson. The lesson is, if a framework already exists in your domian, your domain has been commoditized. Get out, get out now.

Don't build an educational game

This bit of advice is pretty specific and probably does not apply to most people (since most people would not dream of doing this in the first place). But the question to ask yourself is, what is a game doing for you that a straight-forward presentation of the information is not? If it is specifically an *educational* game, the answer is, "nothing." You're not getting new users, you're not presenting material in any way that's easier to understand, you're not adding to motivation. You're simply disguising the old 'teach and test' methodology as a game. Nobody will be fooled well, except maybe purchasers of fad educational products.

Don't build a new standard

People are still proposing to develop, or work on, new standards, be they metadata languages, vocabularies, application profiles, and the like. back in the days when no standards existed, this may have been a good idea. But today, the standards landscape is full. There are standards for every domain under the sun. Things that probably should not have standards - like carrier pigeon messages - have standards. What's worse, few of these standards projects made any effort to work with or cooperate with existing standards. So the standards landscape is a mish-mash of convoluted over-engineered and competing standards. Unless you absolutely have to, don't add to this landscape. Work with what's there and extend it (even if the rules say you can't).

Don't build a new social network

First we had several dozen social networking sites, like Friendster and Orkut and MySpace and Facebook. These became platforms (see above) and then we had social network multiplier sites, like Ning. And now (so-called) social network websites are multiplying like, well, websites. These social network sites are nothing more than reworked mailing list sites (like Yahoo Groups and Google Groups) and content management sites. And the blog-based social networking sites, like MyBlogLog, have already been commoditized. The irony is, as he number of these social network sites increases, their usefulness decreases. How many people are now refusing invitations from new social networks? Right - that would be everybody.

Don't build a wiki

This is a special case of the social network site. A wiki requires a community of people to work together to provide a common base of content or services. In order for a wiki to work, the contributors have to massively outnumber the spammers and the griefers. This works well if (a) the site is sufficiently massive, like Wikipedia, or (b) the site is sufficiently obscure. The Wikipedia project could be duplicated a few times before the pool of potential contributors is sufficiently diluted. That time has ling since passed. Your wiki will be either (a) obscure, or (b) filled with spam.

Don't build a travel site

This is another special case. What it refers to is not the travel site specifically - though this market is saturated with the likes of Expedia - but the web services sites generally. The 'travel site' was always the paradigm example used to promote web services. But, just as it would be foolish to try to build another travel site, so also it would be foolish to try to build most web services applications. The point is, when you choreograph multiple applications, the market fills up very quickly. One travel site, for example, basically has a lock on hotels, airlines and car rentals. Web services sites are category killers, and most categories have already been killed.

What is there? Stuff everybody is working on

These are not things I would say you should avoid outright. The market is not saturated, there is room for innovation, and new products will be appearing over the next few months. But beware - a lot of people are already working on these things. If you have to start from scratch, you will have a lot of difficulty catching up. Your best bet right now is a niche play somewhere at the margins.

Alternative interfaces

Nintendo scored a huge hit last year with the alternative Wii interface and their success is drawing a lot of attention. People are now looking at all sorts of ways to control a computer game or computer interface. Webcam interfaces appeared a few years ago. Motion-sensitive and orientation interfaces are featured on things like the iPhone. I've seen gesture-based interfaces (with and without data gloves). I played a game with a heart-beat monitor last summer. And I've even seen a game based on a brain-wave detector.

Portability / cloud / smart cards

Cloud computing has attracted so much attention recently that it's a candidate for fad status. But behind the fad is a set of concepts that have legs - the idea of computational portability. By this I don't mean mobile devices (though obviously they play a role) but rather computers that can plug into other computers to allow you to move your data, software, authentication, and whatever else you want. We have smart cards in our credit cards now, but why can we have our web browser, email application, and social network in our smart cards? The answer is: we will.

Calendaring / coordination / events

There is a range of applications we might call Kantian applications - they depend on time and place. Historically, Apple and Microsoft have kep calendaring to their proprietary little selves, but this logjam is breaking, and calendar-based applications are becoming available in our personal lives as well as our business lives. Which is good, because everything from social events to concerts to television listing to anniversaries depend on time. Finding new uses for time - that's an opportunity that will not go away any time soon.

Location-specific applications

The second group of Kantian applications are those that are taking advantage of publicly available GPS to create location-based services. These should become widely mainstream as mini-GPS systems are built into cameras, phones, PDAs, laptops, cars, belt buckles, keychains, and more. I personally could have used a GPS based keychain locator this month - I don't even know what city my keys are in. And keeping track of children, vehicles and pets will pass from quirk to mainstream over the next few years.

Intelligent apps / recommenders

We want in our everyday lives what is already available in some aspects of our professional lives - the ability to pick the best product or service in a given environment. Expedia, for example, allows me to pick hotels quite efficiently, and while it can be fooled by unscrupulous proprietors, the service is getting better over time. No such system exists - reliably - for consumer electronics, for rental accommodations, for cars, for food. Imagine, for example, a system that created my grocery shopping list for me, so I simply didn't need to figure out what I needed and wanted. Or that reliably recommended (and delivered, for free) books and music. Moreover, there is not only room for an extended range of recommenders, but there is also scope for increasingly reliable recommenders.

Connected applications (walls, desks, fridges, toasters)

OK, maybe not toasters, unless you really value weather maps on your morning toast. But with ambient wireless in an increasing number of homes it has become feasible to connect appliances to the internet. This creates a whole range of possible products - paper-thin displays that hang on walls, desks with smart, interactive surfaces, fridges that keep track of your food, automatic light switches that switch off when the room is empty, health monitors, and more. And it's not just that these applications are connected to the internet, it's that these applications can access your data, remember choices you've made, and interpreted and project your needs. What needs? That is where the room is for innovation.

Sensor networks and sensor data processing

A lot of work is being done in the field of sensor networks these days. There is a number of obvious emergency-related applications: fire sensing, flood sensing, intruder detection. Weather reporting should evolve in short order from a small number of central weather sites to a dense grid of home and business weather stations - and these, in turn, by making their data public will allow businesses to better manage staff, stock supplies and anticipate markets. Sensors already manage the flow of traffic in cities, and will increasingly manage the flow of goods and people. Room for innovation here includes coming up with new things to measure and developing algorithms that analyze and understand large grids of related data.

Summarizing, data extraction, decision support / workflow support

Business intelligence services already monitor and analyze web and internet traffic in support of corporate and military intelligence. But there is room for personal intelligence services - wouldn't it be nice to know about that patch for your Zune, for example, before it suddenly freezes? And there is a need for people to be able to make sense of an increasingly diverse information space - especially as the traditional media can no longer be trusted (if it ever could) to describe events fairly and faithfully, or to report on obscure or unpopular disciplines.

Predictive data visualization

Data visualization will become even more useful when it becomes predictive. We already have a sense of this: we use predictive visualization every day in order to understand what the weather will be like (and despite widespread criticism our weather predictions are surprisingly accurate). Being able to predict crowds, shopping trends, stock prices, fads and fashions, and more, will become an increasingly lucrative industry. Imagine how Air Canada could respond if it had a reliable way to visualize the mess that would develop as holiday travel merged with a series of blizzards.


Green computing

Green appliances have been identified for a number of years with an "energy star" designation, a system that worked mostly because there was little business advantage to proclaiming oneself green. That has all changed. Consequently, titles and labels will be of little value as being "green" becomes a marketing ploy rather than an indicator of energy conservation.


The key sign that the iPhone is a fad is the fact that most of the attention being paid to it has to do with applications and games, not telephony. In addition, the market for iPhones saturated itself within a few months of its initial release: pretty much everyone who wants an iPhone has one. Finally, other vendors - and in particular, Research In Motion, which has survived American patent protectionism - are matching (and sometimes exceeding) Apple point for point with product and service.

Cloud Computing

The interesting thing about cloud computing is that almost nobody in the public knows what it is. This makes it ripe for fad status. But to survive, cloud computing will have to actually be used - and people who don't know what it is won't be using it.


Online instruction system

It has always been the holy grail of the e-learning industry: a totally automated system that manages instruction for you. There will be no end to the number of people who say teachers are indispensable, but if the social function of teachers can be replaced by community, and the informational function by software, then a stand-alone online instruction system is possible. And that's what we're seeing people try to build, step by step, with learning objects, competences, and the rest.

Distributed systems

The idea here is to have a thing - a concept, an idea - that rests on, and floats above, a non-specific computing environment. This was the thinking behind the connectivism course we ran last fall. The idea is that the 'course', via its constituent teachers and students, simply grasps whatever computing environment is convenient and available, creating communications channels between those environments, and hence establishing a virtual presence above those environments. Most human organizations can exist in this way, and become much more robust and flexible when not tied to a specific system.

Out there for the taking

By its very nature, most genuine innovation can't be predicted. But there are some obvious targets out there for the taking - extant problems which, if solved, would revolutionize the marketplace.

Marketing that works

To be clear: marketing works already. That's why vendors pay millions of dollars to television channels and radio stations. But as these media shrink, and as marketing money becomes more scarce (the demand from R&D is ever increasing) vendors are looking for a new definition of 'works': marketing that is welcomed, even requested, by potential customers, marketing that is not wasted on people who will not buy, marketing that is viewed as positive and helpful, not vile, crass and commercial. Product placement (been thinking of Cherry Chapstick lately?) is the new nirvana, but is still hit and miss.

Intelligent radio/television (live conversation / events)

Television and radio had show a surprising resilience in the face of the internet onslaught, and the reason for this is that they're easy. Turn it on and it will entertain you without pause until you turn it off (or until it shuts down for the night, an oddly archaic practice that still exists). Shows featuring online content - such as CNN's replaying of YouTube videos - have been, well, awful. But there's so much out there, and so much we could do for ourselves. If we had internet-enabled television or radio that programmed itself, that was personalized, that let us interact with it (in a meaningful way), imagine the future. Talk radio, for example, that is a conversation with people around the world that you find interesting.

Personal presence / personal health / personal learning

Personal heath records, personal learning environments, personal publishing and printing, personal presence: all of these are ways of imposing the personal on the technical, about making these tools about *you* instead of about them. This is essentially a combination of technologies - of smart cards and their mobile ilk, of content analysis and presentation, of connected applications, of distributed systems. From the point of view of the internet, 'you' are a concept - the one thing in the whole system that isn't actually a part of the system. How to leverage that will be the stuff of genius and innovation.

Simulation / immersion

It's easy to do simulation and immersion if you have a lot of money. I have been in flight simulators that are absolutely convincing. But they cost millions to build; nobody is likely to have one in their living room any time soon. But in the field of affordable immersive simulation is a wealth of opportunity - imagine being able to experience 3D environments from the *inside* (and not just viewed through a screen) without leaving the house. We had reading rooms and TV rooms in the past: the device that creates the Sim room of the future will make somebody rich.


The problem ith representative democracy is that your representative is often looking out for someone else's interests. Often his own. Internet technology creates the possibility for direct democracy, but this in turn requires a way of rethinking how we manage society. We want to connect people to government - but only those parts that affect them directly. We want to create mechanisms that allow people to govern themselves - but not to govern others. Collaborative and community-oriented systems for resource management and decision-making will be a fertile field in the future.

Energy nets

As energy becomes increasingly scarce, we will look not only to alternatives in power generation, but also better ways to manage transmission. We already have an energy grid, but as events have shown, the grid is unstable and liable to cascade failures. It also depends unreasonably on a small number of very large power sources, such as coal or nuclear powered generating plants, hydro dams, and the like. We want to be able to manage energy nets of the future using distributed sources - wind and solar powered, for example. Such systems would be tasked to minimize transmission load, insulate against cascades, and promote diversity of sources.

Dead tech


By the 'telephone' I don't mean voice-to-voice communications generally - people will always want to talk to each other - but about telephony in particular (and in particular, dedicated lines and switched services). The reason is simple: it is simply too much overhead to maintain an entire infrastructure premised on the possibility that any given person may require a direct audio link to any other given person. We want to use the wires for other things. And the overhead required to support switching is immense and expensive. The closest thing we'll see in the future is something like bandwidth guarantees for specific services .


Television is so close to being over we can almost taste it. Once digital television comes into households (2009 in the U.S., 2012 in Canada), the previous monopoly owned by the cable companies will be broken. Televisions will no longer be tubes, they will no longer have channels (increasingly, we'll just program numeric selections), and we will no longer watch networks (increasingly, we will watch providers - Fox, Gawker, Google, CNN). Yes, we will continue to have background audio and video displays in our room - often more than one - but we will no longer be 'glued to the tube'.


Radio is rapidly ending its life as an electronic transmission medium. Today, it is almost as common to listen to 'radio' stations online (through iTunes, for example) as it is to pick up signals from the air. As broadband becomes ubiquitous, we will more and more frequently simply pick up ambient internet and stream audio - whatever that entails. Satellite radio was the last harraugh of a medium that depended on mass broadcasts.

Print / paper

Paper is a resource-intensive industry and will become more and more expensive over time. Already, we are seeing the shut-down of pulp mills in remote regions of Canada, ostensibkly because they are "inefficient" but in realiuty because the market simply isn't there for their product. Bookstores are filling their shelves with trinkets, DVDs, toys and games. newspapers are losing subscribers in droves (mostly as they die off). The affordability of electronic combined with the wastefulness of paper makes this an easy prediction.


It has for the last few decades been cheaper to transport goods around the planet than to manufacture them where resources and labour are more expensive. Similarly, it has been cheaper to transport people from their pleasant homes in the country (or pseudo-country) than to live and work in the same location. This all changes as transportation becomes increasingly expensive. We will live and work in closer communities again, which means that systems that support local self-sustainability will be in demand. Can we build apartments that are as comfortable as homes? Can we grow our own grapefruits and coffees? Can we design specialized production systems that do not depend on cheap labour?


  1. Spot on, except for the "iPhone as fad" - while the 'iPhone' as a brand my have lots of faddishness to it, it was hugely important for two of the very reasons you indicated, "Alternative interfaces" (not just its touchscreen, but its gyronometer or whatever they call it) and "Location-specific applications" (with its GPS) (and ostensibly too "Portability"). So even despite its relatively closed platform (one of the reasons I still hesitate to get one) expect to see increasing innovative apps built on top of that device. Like the wii, it demonstrated how seemingly small 'tweaks' to interface and usability start to get computers to work how people work, and not vice versa.

  2. You suggest that the "...social function of teachers can be replaced by community"

    This is very interesting. Would you care to elaborate or point us to further information?

    Thanks for a(nother) thoughtful post.

  3. I'm inclined to agree with the iPhone as fad idea. My DSLR has GPS capability. I think that rather than one unit that does multiple things not all that well or elegantly, we need multiple things that can communicate with each other and us effectively. I don't want a universial widget.

  4. Excellent article, thought provoking and optimistic for the New Year. Confirms many of my thoughts, and redirects some others.

    I see the iPhone as more of a mobile media access device than a 'phone, and it would be just one of a number of similar ones. A friend just chose a Storm as Vodafone offered it here in the UK, and is quite as happy as if it was a iPhone.

    Well Done, I shall spread the link. Mike.

  5. Stephen - disagree that the iphone is a fad but for a slightly different reason than simply acting as an Apple apologist.

    When I look at the iphone I think that has done 2 remarkable things (in addition to Scott's comments) - 1. it is continued to push the envelope of a small device that can play video, music, etc. (thus opening up all sorts of opportunities for a mobile learning, just-in-time information provider, etc.) 2. It has created a growing new software sector (Apps) and, more importantly, created a simple marketing mechanism (itunes) for small creators to gain market access with limited cost.

    In doing so it has pushed RIM and others well outside of their complacent boxes to become more innovative and I think this is a good thing. It is worth noting that RIM created BOLD in response the iPhone not before. The early Blackberries were pretty crude in the ways that they handled text and images.

    The iPhone may never be the dominant player in this massive global market but for consumers that is not really important. If it can push RIM, Motorola, Nokia and others to mimc the iPhone and introduce new features we will all benefit. (and I would hope these other providers think about the value of third party apps and central location to access apps as a key part of their strategies)

    Rather than a fad I think the iPhone has changed the game in a way that will may be as profound as the graphical user interface. It will stimulate innovation (by all players not just Apple) in the cell phone/pda/mobile computer space in ways that we don't yet see.

  6. Stunning, Stephen, the breadth of your advice. Lots of fun things to mull over. Thanks.

    Here are just 2 quick points.
    1. "How" is just as important as "what". There's a parallel to What Not to Build that might be called How Not to Build.
    2. There's one feature of the web that nobody has come close to solving. That feature is it's monstrous size and it's pulsating rate of growth. For example, consider search. Google Search is woefully inadequate in the face of the web's size and growth rate. Alternatives like the federated searches (eg, on science.gov) are better but still provide inadequate coverage and features. There must be a hundred or more companies in the search business, and I'm certainly not suggesting that anyone create another one (this might be worse even than building another OS). But the web desperately needs some kind of middle layer of data systems that can be used by ordinary people. I'd say that the major entrepreneurial and socially constructive opportunities await builders of the web infrastructure.

    Cheers. .... Gary

  7. Very thought provoking. Perhaps I was must surprised by this:

    'Don't build a wiki!'

    Do other people agree? It seems their is still a great deal of potential for websites that don't focus on encyclopedia-style articles; user-collaboration on other types of learning material. And the base of possible contributors for such projects is still growing, as web-access and education generally are spreading.

    For example, a website featuring math exercises - contributed, edited, and rated by users.

  8. Hi Stephen,

    I was with you 100% until I got to the comments about telephony being dead. Those of us who live in rural communities are really in trouble if this is true.

    I don't have the option of cable or any other type of Internet connectivity other than dial up or satellite (I have both; the former is a cheap emergency backup, and the latter is "pay through the nose" for the upload speeds I need to work from home). We also do not have cellular phone service. If telephony is dead, I hope they resurrect the Pony Express because it may be the only way we have to communicate.

    I actually had an experience with dead telephony this week. After 2 feet of snow fell on top of the 2 feet we already had on the ground, I picked up the phone on Wed. night to the sound of nothing. No dial tone. No beeps to let me know I had voice mail. Nothing.

    OK, we are used to this type of thing where I live...frequent power outages and resignation to the fact that we survive with outdated telephone switching that probably was ripped out of some developing country before being installed here. I am resourceful.

    The next morning I looked in the phone book and saw that I could report the need for repair via email which I did using my satellite Internet connectivity. Much to my astonishment, I received a response immediately (albeit a very funny form letter asking for a phone number where I could be reached...duh, didn't I just tell you the phone isn't working?).

    I issued invitations to a dinner party and arranged a ski outing using email. These are things I normally would do by phone. One of my work colleagues sent an IM asking if he could phone to discuss something. I typed "LOL" and exlained why he could not, and we used VOIP in Elluminate instead.

    Not long after, the repair guy drove up our driveway in his 4-wheel drive van, put on his snowshoes, and strung new cable from the pole to our house. I was back in telephone communications within about 3 hours of reporting the problem (kudos to Telus, and those don't come often from me).

    Some of us depend on our landlines. Please don't rip them out or declare them dead just yet.

  9. I agree with Ellen's comments about the telephone. I would expand on that far beyond phone. My experience is that the 'future' web or internet or connectivity experts predict, even the present they claim exists, bears no relationship to life and society in my rural community in Ireland. Even the kids don't really know what Facebook is. And if people have appliances that do health checks, it will be because they are the only ones in the shop, not because they want the functionality.
    For at least 80% of the people in my area, what happens in the online world is completely irrelevant for both the present and the future.

  10. Stephen, I'm probably biased, but I may disagree with "Don't build an educational game". I think that there are sounds answers to your question: "what is a game doing for you that a straight-forward presentation of the information is not?" Specifically, deep practice in understanding relationships. It's more than a simulation, it's setting specific goals in the simulation, and tuning the experience to be optimal for learning (and engagement). With the one caveat, that may be what you really mean here "You're simply disguising the old 'teach and test' methodology as a game." Well, when I say educational game, I very specifically do not mean tarted up quiz show drill and kill. 'Frame' games are not of interest. If that's what you refer to, we're in agreement.

  11. Loved your article - very thought provoking. I agree pretty much with all you have said.

    I am surprised you did not mention privacy and identity management. The internet has struggled with these concepts and "just get over it" has not cut it with consumers. Several cutting edge businesses, Credentia, Glynx, Tor, etc. are trying to give people back control over web businesses of their online identity but the future is far from certain in this area.

  12. Hi Stephen,
    Congratulations on a list of topics that I'm sure will generate lots of noise and debate. Although I'll have to think a bit about whether I agree or disagree with each item, I've got to side with Clark regarding game development. I am not a game or sim developer, but have been involved in several projects using game-based learning (as both student and facilitator) and have definitely seen the benefits. Of course, I'm not talking about gameshow style memorization tests. Any activity that puts the learner in a simulated situation (where the result of poor decisions or judgement is not readily apparent) qualifies as a game in my book, whether it's a full-blown flight simulator, a Formula 1 driving sim, or a "reality" game where activities spill over into real everyday activities.

  13. What you wrote about Java applications is misleading.

    I think the number of people writing Java application's for desktop computers can be counted on one hand.

    The number of server side applications that use Java is an entirely different proposition. In this situation it's a perfectly acceptable platform.

  14. Your advice on not building an educational game counters the research that we've been doing on Gen Y. To answer your question "what is a game doing for you that a straight-forward presentation of the information is not?" is that games can engage a user through interactivity and games can simulate real life experiences. These can lead to deeper learning. Also interactive applications can measure user activity/responses which is great for profiling. Imagine teaching a child using a powerpoint or a game...

  15. I disagree about games, unless the games are simply "level up" kinds of contests, in which case I agree. Invitations to play, to imagine, to inquire--these can also be in games, and the game can spring folks out of their usual patterns into something more creative, I think.

    I think I disagree about online instruction systems as well. I still can't imagine being a cognitive apprentice to the kind of CAI Ted Nelson slams in "Computer Lib."

    Distributed systems? You bet. I think this hard-to-grasp but easy-to-do idea will be the real revolution. A personal learning environment on steroids.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  16. Dude, I know this took you more than 30 minutes to write. This is the best thing I've seen online in a long, long time. Thanks,


  17. Steven,

    coming atcha via Hacker News.

    Anyway, thanks v. much for your insights here. As someone who's been kicking around a few development ideas lately, with a view to building something "soon...", I found them extremely useful.

  18. I am an educator and yah I wouldn't develop an educational game because that is not my job. However, when you teach for 15 years a game can liven things up a bit not only for the students but also for the instructor.

  19. Great post, thanks for compiling this.

    Only quibble I have is one which somebody else raised, which is that Java is a great server-side platform. Especially when coupled with cloud computing ;)

  20. Interesting to see these points a year later. Some were dead on and others were not so. Cheers for another year ahead!

  21. Like Paul Buchheit would say, your "advice" is actually your limited life experience expressed as one enormous overgeneralization.

    By your advice, millions of founders should drop what they've been doing to work on things you feel are obvious targets. Page and Brin should have stopped working on backrub because the market was obviously dominated by the likes of excite and overture. Bob Parsons should have never started godaddy - there was already a dominant leader in a crowded field, and gmail was a retarded idea in the days of hotmail and friends.

    I have a problem with people preaching like this. If it was really this simple, VCs would have success rates upwards of 90%. And since your post is written with a tone of authority, may I ask what gives you such authority ? It's pretty easy to pass judgment while watching from the sidelines.

  22. If you shouldn't build a destination web site, how come you have a link to one (http://www.downes.ca) at the top of your blog?

  23. > If you shouldn't build a destination web site, how come you have a link to one (http://www.downes.ca) at the top of your blog?

    Because it was built in 1995.

  24. Other things not to build:

    -ToDo list/GTD apps
    -back-up software

    The market for both these is so saturated you have next to zero chance of getting noticed.

  25. Nicely put, although the iPhone (brand) is a fad, I think the smart-phone concept is inevitable. I thought I was in for a ride about the musings of a cantancorous old man, but alltogether you got the targets spot on.

  26. It is very disheartening to see that you are discouraging people from getting innovative. I do not believe that any field is saturated. Nobody has seen the future. Who had thought that we would have a phone with everything on it? I strongly believe that there is always a room for creativity and I understand the skepticism people have for things and ideas not yet formulated.

  27. Wow, completely wrong about the iPhone. I wonder what else you are wrong about. Hey, throw everything on the wall and see what sticks, eh?

  28. Wikis have a niche among communities that develop open source operating systems and applications, for keeping a manual for their current versions. They're not an end-all, be-all, but they do serve a great purpose in these instances. Building a wiki just to build a wiki is pointless. Building a wiki to support your work just makes sense.

  29. The jury isn't back yet on the iPhone. Let's check in a few years to see how app developers for the iPhone are doing.

  30. I think this is a pretty one dimensional view on the world of innovation. You say "dont build an operating system", but you also say "do build cloud computing technologes" - but what if the operation system was designed specifically for cloud computing, or for decision support systems?

    Why not build a better auction website? In your world would businesses still be doing manual payrole because 'we shouldn't innovate'?

  31. “All progress depends on the unreasonable man. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.”
    — George Bernard Shaw

    QED - Tumblr for CMS. The teenager who built it didn't know that "unless you have an established market of community and content web sites, you have no business building a content management system" he just knew his own online community of artists and musical/visual youth in NYC didn't have the right kind of easy-to-use-but-highly-configurable platform for personal expression. So he built one, and whaddya know, turns out 3.5MM people a month (to date) agree he was on to something.

    I think the real point here is that if you're talking about CMS (or any other) software, we have not yet reached the point where the optimal personalized user experience (for user and/or audience) is commodified, and until that point, you can build a perfectly viable, scalable, exit-able business segmenting that commodity market and giving your niche the product they can't get from the commodities market unless they do huge amounts of custom work on their own.

    QED # 2 - Posterous.com just launched group blogs. I challenge you to find ANY commodity CMS moving faster to meet its users' needs. In software, where the barriers to entry are so low, this velocity is exactly what makes the impossible possible for all the davids out there.


  32. Great post!

    I can't agree though on what to built and what not.

    If you have a groundbreaking technology or algorythm no matter how saturated your niche is you have a chance to become the one.

    On the other hand, mediocrity, duplicates and clones will always loose no matter how perspective is the market.

  33. Hi,
    Definitively an awesome post, that will make my network have nice dicussions. Thanks for that!

    I agree with most of the things I read. Only some details can be added and there is always the context to consider, but the post is already long enought and people smart enough to understand that you wanted to give your opinion based on what you seen and that it shouldn,t be took as gold :)

    I agree that new social network sites and Cellphones market are already saturated, but I think there is still a lot of opportunities ine developping apps for it. All is about making money, getting popular for a time and answer a need. You just have to find an empty or not well adressed spot.

    I think that environment developments and initiatives that will bring the human back to the center of the preoccupation will succeed in this new Information Age.
    Massive consomation society is dying and company doing cheap large scale product will have hard time in the futur. Service oriented on the human that will help take decision with the enormous amount of information that Internet offers will have attention and chance to raise.
    As someone said, local communities will raise again.


  34. you are conflicting yourself when u said no more wikis but expect that teacher's role can be diminished through use of community in e-learning.

    On the educational games, I also disagree that it is not doing anything than " disguising the old 'teach and test' methodology as a game". Games can motivate and engage learners while enhance learning.

    In language learning, games can provide a break from repetitive lessons which can be boring.

  35. agree with last comment on educational games that seem to fall outside of what you know anything about, and you seem to be reffering to a limited subset of educational games (AKA Edutainment). Lacking any real knowledge of what they can and cant do. I will give you that there is a lot of educational crap games out there (like books, movies and similar).


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