Facebook and Google: Predictable and Inevitable Innovation Journeys

If Larry Page had never met Sergey Brin would the world have had an internet search engine? The answer is a predictable and inevitable yes.

If Mark Zuckerberg had not been asked to develop an app for social networking at Harvard University, would social networking platforms exist? The answer is a predictable and inevitable yes.

Not to underplay their entrepreneurship, there is a degree of serendipity about the success of Larry, Sergey and Mark. Similar or equivalent products and services were at some point inevitably going to become accessible to global markets.

It was only a matter of when, not if.

The Start of the Journey

The seeds of innovation in social media and networking were planted in 1989 when Tim Berners Lee developed the first web browser client and server communication using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) over a network of networks, known as the internet or World Wide Web.

The first tool for searching this internet for content was Archie – its name based on Archive without a ‘v’. Then, in 1991, Gopher created an indexing system for files that made search faster and easier to scale.

Once Archie, HTTP and Gopher were established, the exponential development of products and services for social media and websearch became, put simply, an inevitable series of adjacent possibilities. It was only a matter of time before the small steps along the innovation journey led to the creation of global social networks and search engines.

Google and Facebook were not the result of eureka moments, just stepping stones resulting from decades of digital evolution. 

Google was not the first company to develop a search engine – in 1993 there were four search engines; W3 Catalog, Aliwqeb, JumpStation and WWW Worm. Then, as internet search caught on, these were followed by better and faster engines including Lycos, Yahoo! Search, Excite and Ask Jeeves.

Google was only launched in September 1998, creating a new search engine with just one defining unique feature. It ranked search results according to popularity. 

And what about social media? Computer bulletin boards systems (BBS) started appearing in 1973. These were dial-up point-to-point platforms where  users could upload and download software and data, and share messages and news. They took off in the 1990s with the development of smart modems that were dedicated to private email and messaging.

As modem speeds increased, so did the use of BBS’s for applications such as online magazines – but BBS’s then declined as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provided many-to-many connection capabilities that overcame the limitations of point-to-point systems. This unlocked the door to creating social media platforms.

Early platforms in the late 1990s included SixDegrees, Yahoo Messenger and MSN Messenger, followed by LinkedIn, Myspace and Skype. Friendster, launched in 2002, gained 3 million users in its first months. It looked like being the market leader.

But then, Facebook launched in 2004, followed by Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, Snapchat in 2011 and TikTok in 2017. 

So why were Facebook and Google so successful?

In business, context and timing are all important. What is often referred to as early-mover-advantage, or late-mover-advantage, are just points on the continuum of the whole-market innovation journey.

In the case of Google and Facebook, the parallel increase in broadband speeds, reliable technology infrastructure and a network of consumers that had already started to use a variety of social media platforms, were key innovation enablers.

They ensured that Google and Facebook could avoid other’s mistakes at the same time as knowing that consumer demand would inevitably grow – it was already an established trend. Added to their intuitive user-friendly interfaces and functionality, the ingredients for scaling that attracted investment to reinforce their market positions were in place.

And with scale at a global level came the inevitable phase of market consolidation, with both Google and Facebook acquiring other platforms.

And Google’s scale and ubiquitous technology capability has allowed them to explore new products and services in new markets as diverse as health, biosciences, quantum computing, aviation, robotics and autonomous cars – enablng the development of Google Pixel, Nest, Fitbit and Glass.

What does this tell us about innovation?

Ideas, no matter how good, do not always lead to the creation of sustainable value. Context and timing matters in terms of:

  • Enabling technologies need to be sufficiently mature, available, and scalable to remove barriers to adoption such as a poor customer experience, unaffordable costs, or limited access. Widespread low-cost fast networks combined with real-time access to data has unleashed innovations in app development and user engagement.
  • User adoption forecasts should recognise that the patterns of growth in markets are often similar in shape but inevitably vary by supplier, solution, and timeline. Early entrants and late entrants have no guarantee of success. Success is usually determined by the timing of the market entry point which is rarely first or last. This means the actual point of market entry on the whole-market user adoption curve is often more influential than product or service functionality thresholds. A single unique selling point at the right point on the user adoption curve can be the trigger point for exponential growth. This does not depend on technology.
  • Marketing innovation is a key ingredient to ensure that strategies are attuned to customer’s and society’s wants and needs at the time of market entry. A marketing strategy must be based on a narrative that is relevant at that point in time – context is all.

What does this mean for you?

Great ideas are no guarantee of successful innovation. At any point in time, markets have multiple actors, each capable of creating adjacent possibilities that move the dial along by developing new products and processes.

Establishing a threshold capability with a small point of differentiation and building on early trends at the right time, means small differences, such as ranking search results by popularity or ensuring a user-interface gives an intuitive, reliable and consistent user experience, can make the difference between exponential success and potential failure.

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