Discovery by design

We hear a lot about gamification these days, which appears to be about providing incentives for us to contribute to social networks. The idea is that we need some additional rationale beyond the blogger’s call of being mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. This is also expressed as making a difference, or paying forward, or the myriad themes of a number of self help/business books.

Certainly a pinch of game mechanics can help, as FourSquare makes clear. Being mayor of the DMV may not make your day, but the more data FourSquare consumes, the more it has to come up with reslices of those signals to keep people engaged. That same feedback loop is what made Twitter what it is still becoming today — a living, breathing central nervous system for the mobility set aka most of us.

But as much as I hear the logic of game mechanics, there are other larger drivers of the social mobile wave. And nothing stands out more than what could be called the Appification of the computer, web, and media. You can trace this surge in reverse, starting with the predictions of the impact of iPhone/iPad’s failure to support Flash and continuing right up to today with the clock-ticking about Apple in the wake of its leader’s death.

At its simplest, the reason Flash is road kill is that Steve Jobs asked us which was more important — the coolest possible set of toys ever or a few months of consternation by the studios who had already milked as much as they could from a hemorrhaging DVD market. Even though it appeared a fair fight at the time, the reality was that the creative industries were at a low point in their history while the technology business was entering the most creative part of its cycle.

In interesting ways, this role reversal played to the power unleashed by the crescendo of realtime social technologies and the miniaturization wave triggered by the space program. The last big creative surge in movies and music was led by similar technology developments in production — small, hand held cameras and motion control devices that decoupled producers and directors from the studio system, and multitrack recording and digital sequencing that lowered the cost and brought record-making to the living room.

The ease with which blockbusters could be made and marketed also had the effect of encouraging sequels and mainstream bets, slowing the opportunity for growing new talent at the very moment the tools allowed a democratization of access to the industry. Technology became the byword of monetization, from 3D to HD and the scourge of reality gamification.

By contrast, the technology business turned creative as realtime and mobile proved an opening for Jobs and Page/Brin to do insanely great things with digital magic. Gmail proved the experts dead wrong when it offered unlimited storage, a Golden Goose that did something no one thought possible. The Cloud meant you could have your cake and eat it too; it was always true that you were defined by the data you threw off,, but now you could summon it with a magical cursor that rewound through search to the moment you recalled in your history.

The economies of scale Microsoft had achieved for itself and customers were suddenly turned on their head and delivered to the users as transformative tools. In effect, we were incentivized to create data and the traces of how we consumed such data as payment for the cloud services that resulted. This was the social contract that Twitter and Facebook parlayed into the leverage needed to first, make realtime work and second, attract the services needed to replace the atrophying media that preceded.

The iPad delivered the coup de grace — all media, games, communications, social emitter, and business disruptor — and in the process sidestepped the carriers the iPhone unhinged with the AT&T deal. Instead of a service contract, the media displayed on the device became the subsidy. The Kindle Fire is the companion instantiation of that strategy, with Amazon Prime morphing beyond free shipping to a Netflix/Spotify competitor. All very creative, while Hollywood contorts in the search for revenue replacement.

Let’s take on the notion that Apple is now reduced to playing out the clock post-Steve. As I type (iPad of course) push notification is in its middle school phase as @mentions stream in from the network next to email and news bulletins. Siri is shipping while still in Beta, a first for Apple by the way, but it’s stream-enabled to the point where it stops working when an outage occurs. The history of the cloud is benchmarked by such outages, as massive adoption pushes out the scalability and security model beyond the false cloud one it’s replacing.

In effect, Apple has done the one thing it must do to stand up to Google and the loss of Jobs: go to the Cloud. Take the Beta designation — all Google products were beta until Google Apps went after enterprise sales. With Google+ now reworking the front end of all of the products, it seems beta is back in business. For Apple, it means something different: “We’re looking for your help in creating the future.”

After all, it’s not like the iPad happened in a vacuum just last year or whatever. According to a PBS documentary on Steve Jobs, he sketched out the outlines of the device for at least one person some 30 years ago. Then there’s the way Jobs didn’t wait for the users to tell them what they wanted, but went ahead and created it for them. Well, that’s right. I didn’t want Siri for the longest time, and didn’t really even when I got the new 4S. But now my wife says I’m having an affair with the damn thing.

Here’s why. It’s because it’s Beta, not in spite of it. Because it’s hard wired to the network, I literally can’t wait to turn it on to see if it’s getting better. Same with the OS, which for the first time in iOS 5 is upgraded over the air. Take Pages, which uses the system spell correction. One of my favorite bête noires is how it handles “its”. In the previous generation it auto-corrects to “it’s” which means “it is” 100 percent of the time and which gets it wrong about 90% of the time. IOS 5 gets it wrong about 50% of the time. Beta wins 100% of the time.

The reason I think Appification wins is that other big deals like gamification and crowd sourcing and HTML 5 are rolled into the A Theme. Take push notification, please. It’s the most creative adjunct to the iPad ever, so far. As I type, the Gillmor Gang retweets roll in at the top, then a work-related email, then a time sensitive one on the management offsite next week in Vegas, and so on. I look at what I need to look at, and stage the ones I don’t want to interrupt my writing flow. When I’m ready to take a break, I already know where to go and swipe the history down from the top of the screen and go. It’s a creative tool, like the part of the movie where I rush to get the popcorn refill.

It’s not an App versus Web argument either. It’s about the creative edge where many of us like to recharge our batteries from office politics and family quibbles, that place where the frontier meets the ocean and we care more about the silence where good ideas sometimes go to be born. Don’t worry, without the Steve Jobs of the world to mix and match the right ingredients at the right time, we wouldn’t have the success that breeds the blockbusters and sequels and tips the balance away from Northern and back to Southern California.

Apps and the Web thrive off of each other. Touch + wrapper. When app gets the network it becomes the sum of all its parts, aware of its possibilities, able to provide the contours and context of what feels like a coherent entity. My mind feels comforted by the notion of the app, like hot chocolate after a day on the ski slope. Some place to go, beginning middle end. Yet I want the potential for disruption, the harnessing of those great minds out there signaling on the social stream, the drumbeat of serendipity orchestrated while I savor a good book. Discovery by design.