Today in Tedium: When a big company launches or acquires a tool well-suited to its most faithful users, it can go one of two ways. First, the company can invest in the tool, improve it, and help build up the audience for that product. Or, after a couple of years, with shifting priorities and maybe a departure or two at the executive level, that niche idea might be allowed to die an unceremonious death—even with a quietly dedicated fan base behind it. And it happens over and over, with power users feeling disillusioned in the end. I have been on the receiving end of this “niche app by a large company shuts down” routine more times than I’d like to count, and I feel like, every time it happens, it just ends up hurting a broader ecosystem. It’s something I think about a lot when a big acquisition hits, such as Twitter’s recent buy of the newsletter tool Revue this week—the odds that something goes south and a big company ends up burning some incredibly passionate users. With that in mind, today’s Tedium speaks up for the power-user experience. Someone is holding a candle for Google Inbox somewhere, and it’s me. — Ernie @ Tedium
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“What we see is a pattern that cuts across many industries—increasing externalization, increasing involvement of the consumer in tasks once done for her or him by others—and once again, therefore, a transfer of activity from Sector B of the economy to Sector A, from the exchange sector to the prosumption sector.”
— Alvin Toffler, the writer and futurist, laying out the basic concepts around the term “prosumer” in his famed 1980 book The Third Wave. While at times this term has been suggested to mean semi-professional consumer use cases, Toffler’s definition refers to those who both consume and create—in practice, a good basis for framing who a power user is.
Where the heck did the power user come from, anyway?
Power users have been both a major goal of many tech companies and, alternately, the bane of their existence. They both foster deep interest in what a creator is doing … and test the limits of what that creator’s tools can do.
They are the weekend warriors, the stress testers, the overly ambitious creators, the ones who will break things because they don’t care about limits. They are your best resource for quality assurance and your worst nightmare on a holiday weekend.
They are the power users, the ones who know every detail in every menu and three ways to do the same thing in every app.
And they most likely are the invention of a marketing department in the early-to-mid 1980s. A quick analysis of the Internet Archive finds that the term suddenly exploded in use in magazines such as Byte, Popular Computing, and PC Magazine in the fall of 1984. The earliest such use I can find comes from an April 1984 issue of InfoWorld, in which Robert M. Carr, chairman of the company Forefront, dropped the term to describe a user who accesses menus in multiple ways.
By the last few months of 1984, the term was everywhere in the tech press, to the point where John C. Dvorak—in the pages of InfoWorld—had described the phrase as a “dubious new buzzword” in his 1984 Dubious Achievement Awards:
Each year, I reserve a special category for dubious new buzzwords, or catch phrases, which should be avoided at all costs. This year’s grand prize goes to power user, which refers to a supposedly abnormal computer nerd who likes to impress people with convoluted computer commands. It was coined by a marketing guy who couldn’t figure out how to get a directory listing on an IBM PC. (Hint: DIR.)
The funny part about this is that, a couple weeks after Dvorak gave his award out, an InfoWorld reader pointed out that the trade magazine was largely responsible for its overuse—with one article in the very same issue using the term seven times.
“Here’s to Dvorak for his tongue-in-cheek style and to your article for playing right into his hands,” wrote Jay K. Joiner.
It’s worth remembering the software of this time often came in a box and relied on printed manuals to teach you much of what you could do with said software. When you bought a piece of software, you were likely going to be living with it for a while. The financial motivation was different back then—but not too far off what you might find from a modern SaaS tool, except for the fact that, shareware notwithstanding, you weren’t getting a chance to kick the tires on a shrink-wrapped tool.
Muscle memory was the goal, and that encouraged tools to have some depth. Think of classic word processors like WordStar or WordPerfect, for example. These text editors, complex by today’s standards, fostered superfans who knew multiple ways of doing everything, giving them flexibility and encouraging future upgrades. The problem? If you changed the app too much, you risked making those power users upset and unwilling to upgrade—which might explain why WordPerfect was purely text-based well into the GUI era.
But with the rise of the internet and large monolithic companies, power users increasingly became a liability—in part because many of the tools that they used were offered for free or low-cost, without a business model, meaning that every new app was a risk, whether or not it was a success in the long run.
That meant it was the end user rolling the dice, whether or not they realized it at the time. And sometimes those power users bet wrong.
A few years ago, I got really into this text-editing tool called Editorially, which I found to be a great solution to managing a copy editing team with a digital-first approach. (Also helping: The people that made it were really good designers—and despite their site not being touched in about six years, it still looks like it could have been made yesterday.) The problem was that the company never had a business model, and eventually the company chose to shut down via acquisition rather than create one. Startups are a risk, and sometimes a risk doesn’t pan out.
The problem is that, in the modern day, this is even true of large companies. Like Google.
The number of bottles of Tabasco hot sauce that fans of the TV show Roswell sent TV executives for The WB in a three-month period, out of concern of the show getting cancelled. (It worked—for one season.) When it became clear the show was getting cancelled the next year, the fans sent 12,000 bottles of the hot stuff to the folks at UPN in a successful effort to save the show for another season. Power users are kind of like the software version of Roswell fans.
Five examples of power-user apps killed by big companies
- Facebook Paper. A more visuals-heavy experience for Facebook launched in 2014, this version of the app your entire family is on was widely seen as a design triumph, a great version of a social network that is generally seen as a perverse form of work. But after the departure of a key visual staffer, Paper was allowed to die on the vine, and in mid-2016, it had shuttered for good.
- Google Inbox. In much the same way as Facebook Paper, Google Inbox rebooted a familiar experience—that is, the default Gmail inbox, which was a popular target of external reimaginings for a time. Also born in 2014, Inbox stuck around for nearly five years before Google swept it up like yesterday’s trash, inspiring a former Inbox designer to clean up the Gmail interface using browser extensions.
- Final Cut Pro 7. Apple maintains Final Cut Pro, of course—any review of an Apple laptop on YouTube is required to mention it, of course—but Apple’s decision to reboot the app with Final Cut Pro X in 2011 led to an entire generation of video editors who stuck with old machines and old software essentially to avoid Apple’s revamp of the popular app, which was missing a ton of new features upon launch. Apple has fixed many of these issues, but it took a while, leading to some older Apple machines to live on at film studios around the country.
- Windows 10 Control Panel. It’s not dead just yet, but Microsoft has slowly been removing its old-school charms in favor of the more modernized Settings menu. It’s already leading to some workarounds.
- Adobe FreeHand. As I wrote a while back, the illustration tool FreeHand had maintained a large fanbase years after Adobe shelved it after a merger with Macromedia in favor of its in-house tool Illustrator. In that case, FreeHand users fought back, going so far as to get involved in legal action to protect their beloved app. They didn’t win, but they gained some concessions from Adobe.
The death of Google Reader may have been a turning point for how companies perceive power users
People still remember what happened to Google Reader, in part because it was so unexpected that it could have gone a completely different direction.
The murder happened almost eight full years ago, a quiet mention in a blog post announcing “spring cleaning,” but the pain of the loss of Google Reader, the RSS reader du jour, hangs heavy on a whole lot of users, even all these years later.
Depending on who you ask, you might hear arguments that it was the moment that the internet changed for the worse.
I’m sure, if I was a Google executive, I probably could validate the reasons for getting rid of it. It discouraged people from using tools that could potentially make Google more money, or Google tools that were more modern and centralized. (Looking at you, Google+.) It was very sticky, but it was hard for Google to figure out quite what those users were sticking to.
And the financial benefits of offering advertising to bloggers within their RSS feeds perhaps weren’t as lucrative as other options.
But in many ways, this betrayal forever changed the relationship that many dedicated users had with Google, and likely damaged content consumption models for years after the fact. Some people will say it was a necessary shift, that RSS readers in general were on their way out.
The solution, to lots of other people, seemed obvious: If you can’t justify keeping the tool around for free, charge people money! But some noted that it simply didn’t seem to be in the Google ethos. Writer Ben Brooks, in a post titled “When Even Billions of Dollars Won’t Support Free,” noted that years earlier, he made the case that Google wouldn’t be immune to even shutting down popular tools like Gmail if they didn’t meet their business goals. And Reader proved it.
“So if faced with charging for Reader or shutting down Reader, shutting down Reader fits the Google mantra better than the former,” Brooks wrote.
If there’s any cold consolation, it’s that Google eventually understood the importance of charging for services people used—be they Stadia, Google Drive, or YouTube Premium—but it was still not enough to save a tool with a dedicated fan base, no matter how many petitions were created. With every new initiative, Google has had the shake off the reputation that, when it gets bored, it will kill something people like.
But back then, at least, the Google Reader saga gave the impression that Google didn’t charge money for its tools because it made it easier to let go of something that didn’t fit the company strategically. That because it wasn’t selling anything, there was nothing users could get upset by if they could no longer buy. (Right?)
But just because there was no shrink wrap doesn’t mean that this theory was true. Even with worthy replacements like Feedly or Feedbin, people still lament this loss. Google broke our hearts.
I think what Google didn’t understand at the time this whole saga started was that power users aren’t just needy. They’re powerful.
What I mean when I say that is that these users gain deep sophistication for a reason. Often, their work is such that they need deep access to powerful tools, because they’re doing suitably powerful things with that access.
Let’s put this into the perspective of technical hardware: Not everyone needs a $10,000 workstation with loud, whirring fans, but the people that do often are using that power to make popular movies, to do scientific research, or to build designs for complex things like vehicles. They know they need it because the work they do requires it. And that work often has broader benefits beyond just themselves.
This works in less technical contexts as well. George R.R. Martin may have been a WordStar power user decades after that meant anything to anyone, but he used that status to create A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series behind Game of Thrones, something that created tons of pop-culture value.
Likewise, not everyone needed a tool as powerful as Google Reader, but the people that did were often folks like editors or researchers who needed access to a wide breadth of information to ensure they weren’t missing anything. Not everyone needs that kind of access, but the people that need it really need it.
Think about a tool like Google Reader as a halo of sorts, a tool for the prosumer—yes, it was a consumption tool, but the people consuming all of those blog posts and text entries were also creating things elsewhere in the ecosystem, and that benefited Google, as those people created information that bolstered its search engine. They were consumers of Google Reader, but prosumers of Google itself.
But social media was happening, and Google wanted a piece. Instead of nurturing a clearly useful symbiotic relationship through this niche tool, Google favored a more broad approach that scaled better, that potentially reached a broader audience, and that was more up to date, in the form of Google+.
(Google was slow to admit this, but eventually a former employee did.)
Google+ was more directly prosumer—even average users create and consume by equal measure on social networks—but the value was more limited to within the network itself. Google had to pump up the value of Google+, which meant that it was unnecessarily tied to the company’s search results. It did not have a halo effect, at least not the same kind of halo as Google Reader did.
In the end, Google+, while a great network, failed to reach the scale of its competitors. Worse, it ended up in embarrassment for the company as all the changes the company put in to accommodate for Google+ created data-sharing vulnerabilities.
In reality, Google might have been better off nurturing its RSS reader, or at the least charging for it, to help nurture the power users who were secretly making its search engine better. Perhaps that meant ceding social to Facebook, but it also would have made Google better.
You could follow this thread to extremes—this rant was in part inspired by a discussion I had with fellow writer Owen Williams the other day in which he at one point argued that the loss of Google Reader harmed the internet as a whole—but I think the point in many ways speaks for itself.
There are lots of other stories about lots of other companies that ditch tools that influential people find useful, or try to mainstream their audience at the cost of their most dedicated users—Apple’s efforts to revamp the MacBook Pro in recent years, rumored to be in the process of a rollback, are seen by some as Apple’s attempts to broaden the appeal of a power-user tool. In the end, it may have turned off the power users, some of whom left the Mac ecosystem entirely—bad news, given the value they create elsewhere.
Not every audience has to be the most mainstream audience possible. Perhaps a hungry cult of power users that bring intrinsic value to the rest of your company is what you need.
Maybe the world would be better off if we admitted niche tools for niche users have an important niche.
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