RIM’s song has been sung before

As I built a Christmas playlist for a party we’re hosting tomorrow night I scanned the online news and settled on yet another story of the free fall of Research in Motion. It’s been one heck of a year for all kinds of reasons and for all kinds of people but it’s strangely fascinating to observe the arc of RIM’s year. The firm seems to be hurtling uncontrollably into the dark of night.  As a customer told me over lunch on Monday when the three of us were calculating how many Apple devices each of us owned, “It’s just so sad to watch a once great company virtually disappear in one year”. By the way, each of the three of us owns at least six Apple devices while only two RIM devices are in our collective possession.  You can do the math.  It might not be a 9:1 ratio across the globe but it’s probably pretty close.

Of course we know that the sort of business implosions RIM is experiencing do not happen overnight, nor are they due to things entirely beyond their control.  When the Harvard Business Review or University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business get around to doing an autopsy after the firm’s flesh goes cold and the buzzards have picked the choicest pieces, it shouldn’t come as a shock to learn it was likely hubris that did them in. As a student of history I can safely say that throughout time much larger forces and personalities have been done in by the exact same failing.

Data ownership; keeping individuals in the Internet game

A fascinating discussion took place last Thursday evening at the University of Toronto’s  Rotman School of Management.  It was one of a series of moderated talks at the school dealing with a variety of topics.  What hooked me into registering and attending were the speakers, Jaron Lanier and Tim Wu (who, BTW, grew up around the U of Toronto campus). If you’re knowledgeable about their histories, you’ll know they are original and controversial.  Each is famous, Lanier for being widely acclaimed as the inventor of virtual reality and leading critic of Web 2.0, and Wu for not only coining the term Net Neutrality, but for being part of the Obama administration as advisor to the Federal Trade Commission.  The talk was wide-ranging but what I want to highlight here is the topic of data ownership, the notion that data should belong to whoever produced it; that an article, a blog, an email, even a tweet should be considered as perhaps possessing original thought and if so, should qualify it to be owned by its creator. This idea stems from the concern that the Internet, as we know it, is increasingly at risk of becoming a closed environment, controlled by a very few massive corporations and governments.  These entities are blurring the boundaries between content providers and carriers.  In some cases, they have combined to become both.  This development may seem benign on the surface but it will likely end up stifling the openness and expansiveness of the Internet.  

What may forestall that is if, among other things, original thought in the form of data is owned by individuals who could, if they choose, sell it.  The belief is that individual ownership of data will thwart a worrying trend we see today where data is increasingly produced and carried by corporations, and thus crowds out individuals.  As well, the data produced by one person is often rehashed and reused by others, with no credit or acknowledgment given to the former.  Owning and selling data sounds simple, right?  The actual technical functionality to make that scenario workable is already in place today.  By utilizing search algorithms and massive server farms, along with correlation and tagging (in other words, what Google does every second of every day), associating unique writings with specific individuals is possible.  As Lanier said, “It’s a computer. Complexity is a no-brainer.”  What’s not simple is figuring out how to fairly monetize the data.  And that means not only figuring out how to spin your data in ways in which others will decide there is enough value to pay for it, but to also determine how much they should pay. And that’s a topic I won’t broach here other than to say it may end up looking not much different from the way musicians today are compensated, in theory, each time one of their songs is played on commercial/satellite radio.