There was an interesting article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about the history of electric cars (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/07/magazine/why-your-car-isnt-electric.html ). While the specific focus was the electric car, the general theme of the article was the interplay of markets, infrastructure and technology in the deployment of new products.
It brought to mind one of my own entrepreneurial experiences, this one with a technology product that was – and apparently still is – too much ahead of its time. More than twenty years ago, it was clear that eventually books would become digital. And, even in the early days of the Internet and before the World Wide Web, it was also clear that people could easily become overwhelmed by the amount of information at their fingertips.
With the artificial intelligence boom (yes there was one once) still sort of alive and practical uses of expert systems (even if they weren’t call that) coming into existence, I co-founded Interactive Books™. The company would be dedicated to converting the knowledge found in non-fiction books into expert systems that would make that knowledge quickly and easily available. (Glossing over a lot of technical detail, expert systems not only provide appropriate knowledge given a set of circumstances, but can also explain why it asks for information and how those questions lead to the answers it provides.)
We did ship our first interactive book, one of many we hoped to provide, but talk about the absence of a supportive ecosystem. Almost all publishers, who also worried about digital books, looked on the company “as the enemy” in the words of one executive. It also didn’t help that technology was not as widely deployed among the general public as it is now or that we had to also invent our own windowing system 😉 Ah, the mistakes of a young entrepreneur.
The funny thing is that the concept makes increasing sense. I get too much information, and too little knowledge, each time I ask a question of Google and get back 2,000,000 search results, none of which quite answers my question or helps me understand something that I need to understand. We now have all this stuff to read and no possible way to read it all. Even if we could, we’d end up not necessarily mastering the knowledge we hoped to.
To a degree, Wikipedia helps by having others condense knowledge. But it’s still a lot of reading and not necessarily to the point.
So wouldn’t it be wonderful to have truly Interactive Books™? Yes, but even though the ecosystem is better now, it is not sufficient, so it is likely still too early to bring such a thing to market. But we’re still ready at the first sign of light!
And that’s how you can be right about a product, and still be wrong about a business.
© 2012 Norman Jacknis