Free RSS Readers
Not long ago, NewsGator announced that all of its client RSS readers would be free. Someone asked me why they’d do that. My response was that NewsGator’s management probably decided that free RSS readers would help drive demand for their more profitable enterprise services. But, Joel Spolsky, in his Strategy Letter V, explains the complementary product thing much better than I can:
Demand for a product increases when the prices of its complements decrease.
The Chicken or the Egg?
I think it’s kind of interesting that years ago a small software company actually used the proliferation of its complementary product as the vision for the company, “a computer on every desk and in every home.” Regardless of what you think of Microsoft, in the early days of the company, I think they did a great job of communicating their “change the world” vision by emphasizing their complementary product.
I suspect that most new technologies face the same chicken and egg problem that micro software faced 30 years ago. I’ve been working with semantic markup (microformats and RDFa) lately and I see the same sort of problem with the semantic web stuff. In order for semantic markup to be useful, there has to be content made available as semantic markup. In addition, users (or computers) need something that can “read” and possibly interpret semantic markup. I’m seeing signs of life in both areas; Technorati and Yahoo seem to be leaders with semantic content and there are several Firefox add-ons for micoformats. Also, according to rumors, IE8 will be able to recognize microformats.
Not Implicit Enough
Currently, most semantic markup is “read” by a browser plugin, and once the markup is identified, it’s up to the user to do something about it (i.e. add an hCard to your list of contacts). But I don’t think content and reader are enough for the semantic stuff to work well. And, I think that’s one of the problems with the current state of the semantic web, it’s not implicit enough; users have to take some action. Semantic markup is certainly better than nothing, but there’s still a wide, gaping void between providing content that a computer can recognize and process (i.e. semantic markup) and improving the user experience by implicitly using and consuming semantic markup.
I think the killer complementary product or service for semantic markup will be a tool (add-in, application, web service, whatever) that not only recognizes semantic markup, but also interprets and processes the information on the users’ behalf. I don’t think that capability requires artificial intelligence; I think it can be something as simple as tracking attention and user preferences much like RSS readers do today. Twine is probably a good start.