Unsexy and Unstoppable

A couple of years ago, I had a chat with a retired executive. He had worked with Ericsson for many years and had seen a lot of changes in the telecommunications industry. We began to talk about the Internet and all the radical changes that were occurring in society and business. At one point he shook his head.

“Things are moving too fast,” he said. “Product development is not focusing on customer needs. People don’t like complexity. More than ever, the average person wants simplicity. Whoever makes it simple will be the winner in the long run.”

He was a fan of music and he told me about his Bang & Olufson audio equipment. It was very expensive, yet had very few features. It was very simple to use. Bang & Olufson concentrated on one core feature: sound quality.

I began to think a lot about simplicity. As I did I saw simplicity at the heart of the Internet. The Internet concentrated on one core feature: communication. The World Wide Web concentrated on one core feature: publishing. The combination of communication and publishing is at the heart of the Internet revolution.

Around 1994, AOL was the company the Internet was going to destroy. Among the Internet elite of nerds and academics was an unbridled contempt for AOL; for them, this was a “dumb” company. I remember a debate on one email discussion list about whether people with AOL addresses should be allowed to join, because it was assumed that they would have nothing of value to contribute.

Last year I read an article in Wired magazine that described AOL as “unsexy and unstoppable.” How right that article was. You see, the driving vision of Steve Case and AOL has been to make things as simple as possible for their users. Twenty million Americans later, only a few begrudgers would doubt the correctness of that vision.

Surprise, surprise, AOL figured that most people just want to talk about sex. Not politics, not war, not nanotechnology… just sex. Now what is wrong with that? William Butler Yeats once said that the only two subjects worth writing about were sex and death. James Joyce spent a lot of his time thinking and writing about sex.

AOL has triumphed because it fundamentally understands the customer. No, it doesn’t always get it right. Nobody has ever always gotten it right. AOL has made huge mistakes, but it has never wavered from keeping it simple for the customer. The customer has responded, because while many of us parade a hip complexity, below the surface the vast majority of us crave a simple life.

Those of us who seek to serve the customer should carefully learn the lessons that AOL can teach us. The Internet is a place where people come to find out things and find company. The Internet is such a wonderful place because it shows that the human race is hungry to reach out and communicate – to share information, fantasies, dreams, in the hope that somewhere, sometime in this giant throbbing network, someone else will connect and respond.

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