Malone's Laws of Technology

I introduced this 'law' in this column in 2003, right smack in the middle of one of the biggest consumer electronics booms ever -- and have used it as clever explanation for just about everything ever since. It has the nice characteristic of also being true: Every day we read about some new technology that supposed to show up at any moment -- digital music, smart phones, handheld computers, digital television, nanotechnology, etc., etc. -- but always seems to take forever to arrive. And then, suddenly, one day it's here, destroying entire industries, creating new companies and new tycoons, disrupting everyday life -- and despite years of warnings, we always seem to be totally unprepared for it.

OK, it's now been six years since that last law. What's happened in the intervening years should be self-evident to everyone: the rise of online social network, the so-called Web 2.0 -- MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and hundreds more. Everywhere you look in places like Silicon Valley, start-up teams are racing to create products -- applications -- not just for these communities, but even more (in the hundreds of thousands) for that defining Web 2.0 personal portal of our time, the Apple iPhone.

It is the dream of every one of these teams that their product will take flight and become a world of its own, filled with millions of customers linked together in their own social network. But the truth is that for nearly all of them -- let's say 99.99 percent -- a dream is all that it will remain. But that doesn't keep them from pretending that they are a community, nor from deluding themselves that this is so.

Hence, my latest law, designed to puncture some pretensions and provide a devastating comeback to anyone being pelted by a little too much Web 2.0 P.R. I came up with it while writing to a very promising new start-up.

I've mentioned in the past that I was helping Qik, a fast-growing service that enables people to port videos from their cell phones directly to the Web. Qik was growing exponentially until it got blind-sided, like everyone else, by the crash. Still, it is testimony both to the company and the tenacity of its management that, against all odds, Qik just closed a new round of venture capital investment. A few days ago, I wrote to congratulate the management team -- and as an afterthought, added a P.S. with a warning. I only realized later that it is my fourth law:

Malone's Law No. 4 -- Until you're a community, you are only an app.

Just because you call yourself a social network doesn't mean you are one. Building Web 2.0 communities is hard work, and it requires close-up dealings with your customers and learning their needs -- not to mention continuous maintenance of the site. If you aren't doing that, you are just a tool.

I'm thinking about making T-shirts ...

This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

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