The Inexorable Logic Of Infrastructurization

The Internet Giants — Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Google — turn breakthrough tools into infrastructure, and consolidate competition.

I’ve written a great deal about the out-migration of users from the overly plowed territory of social collaboration technologies. In Understanding The Failed Promise Of Social Collaboration, I wrote

Work — in the basic sense of getting things done, not the place we go to do it — is a combination of focused individual activity, focused joint activity (working together with others in real time), and cooperative and coordinative activities (working asynchronously with others on framing and planning of work, like chatting online about deadlines and features in a product development cycle). Social collaboration tools overemphasize the last of these three categories of work, and de-emphasize — or ignore — the first two. The reason? Perhaps one reason is that the last category is the province of old school managers: those who were charged with managing others.

My sincere belief is that we are seeing a shift from social collaboration tools toward alternatives — like work chat — where the first two categories of work are supported and the last category — overseeing others’ progress and managing what others do — is significantly de-emphasized. We are moving to smaller social scale, starting with the individual, and then on to small cooperative groups, or sets.

Just as we are seeing a shift toward chat in the ‘consumer’ web, the same is going on in the workplace, and we are seeing the continuing displacement of social collaboration exactly where work chat’s value proposition is strongest: focused joint activity on work in small teams (or ‘sets’ as I spelled out in The Rise of Work Chat Anti-Hype).

So this is one megatrend: the widespread adoption of tools based on the chat design metaphor across the board in personal and work life. Chat is the new normal for communication, displacing both email and social collaboration tools.

Chat is the new normal for communication, displacing both email and social collaboration tools.

Adoption of a technology at this scale has led in the past to the Internet Giants paying serious attention. The Internet Giants — Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, and Google — turn breakthrough tools into infrastructure, and consolidate competition.

We’ve seen that with email — now provided mostly by Microsoft, Apple, and Google — and most other competitors wiped out. Today we’re seeing that trend with distributed core (or what is called file sync-and-share), which started as a tool — like Dropbox, or the dozens of other startups scrambling to offer a virtual distributed file system — but is really a patch to the operating system, which is why Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are baking it into their stacks.

We’re seeing the same with so-called ‘productivity’ tools (Microsoft Office, Google Docs, Apple’s Pages/Number/Keynote), which are now part of the baseline operating environment those companies offer, and which have killed off most small fry competitors.

So, applying the inexorable logic of infrastructurization (yes, I went there), the Giants will roll out a spectrum of chat solutions integrated with other elements of their infrastructures.

Arguably, Apple and Microsoft might think that their current messaging tools — Messages and Skype — fit that slot, but they don’t for business purposes (for a long list of reasons). Skype’s really for calls and meetings — real-time conversations — although chat is built in.

Siri should just be another being I am communicating with via chat.

I expect to see versions of iOS, OS X, and Android where the user experience is increasingly chat oriented, with text and voice approaches. This is something like what I do on iOS when I ask Siri to set an alarm or open Shazam. But imagine if the default iOS or OS X screen was Messages-like chat rather than the Mac finder or iPhone apps. I don’t need to see my hard drive icon everyday, or even care much about my directories. And Siri should just be another being I am communicating with via chat.

Google tried to get social a dozen times, it seems, and Orkut, Wave, and Google+ just never got very far. Hangouts — spun out of Google+ — is doing much better, partly because it’s integrated with Gmail. For reasons that totally escape me, Google has not yet built in Hangouts into Google Drive, which would be the natural place for supporting discussion about work. More to follow there, I bet, and some AI there, too.

For reasons that totally escape me, Google has not yet built in Hangouts into Google Drive, which would be the natural place for supporting discussion about work.

Microsoft’s Groups — baked into Office 365 — is leaning in the social collaboration direction, so they’ll need something else. But Cortana is a step in that direction.

Facebook is the first Giant to build its infrastructure without a dedicated hardware section of their stack ( which is where Microsoft is headed, too, as the Windows monopoly unwinds). Facebook for Work is potentially the biggest new challenge that social collaboration vendors face, right behind Slack*.

Watch Out For That Wave

The tsunami is about to hit. The water has pulled back from the shore, and the massive wave is about to wash over the land. And the social collaboration vendors are headed for the hills, hoping to find a niche where they can survive the damage.

So we will see the broad promises of social collaboration scaled back. Instead of ‘transforming your company’ we’ll see ‘become more connected to your customers’ as some vendors shrink their ambition into customer community outreach. Or more of a focus on discovery and management of talent across corporations, or during mergers. And less of an emphasis on the work of small teams — focused joint activity — and instead trying to meet the needs of HR staff or managers.

And the core capabilities for people communicating, sharing structured and unstructured information at their desks or on mobile, those capabilities will be provided by the Giants, and soon.

* Sub-question: Will Slack become a Giant, or be acquired by one? Any of the existing Giants would be smart to buy it, with Microsoft and Google having the most obvious motivations. (But I wouldn’t rule out Amazon from anything, these days.) What happens to Slack if and when the Giants all roll out something intended to match it?

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Originally published at stoweboyd.com.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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