Crossing the Chasm & Gothic Cathedrals

Byron Davies
Sat, 21 Mar 1998 18:26:13 -0700

During the past year, while a partner and I were trying to start up a new
Lisp company, I gave a lot of thought to what might make Lisp "cross the
chasm" into the mainstream of computing.  My conclusion was, "It's the
apps, stupid", but we were too focused on the technology -- which we didn't
own -- to make use of the conclusion.

The notion of "crossing the chasm" came from Geoffrey Moore's book of that
title, which I recommend heartily.  The book is about taking a high-tech
product into the mainstream by paying attention to principles of technology
diffusion.  The basic idea is that adopters of a new technology form a bell
curve, with innovators and early adopters at one end, the mass market in
the middle, and late adopters at the other end.  The chasm that companies
fall into is between early adopters and the mass market: they've got a
product that the innovators (the "techies") and the early adopters have
fallen in love with, but they can't get a critical mass of customers to buy
the product.  The generic solution is to define a niche market for which
you develop a "whole product", and use this as a lever into the mainstream,
much as Apple did with desktop publishing.

Moore's second book, "Inside the Tornado", talks about what a company
should do once it crosses the chasm and its product starts selling like
hotcakes ("just ship").  His third book, which I haven't seen yet, is "The
Gorilla Game: An investor's guide to picking winners in high technology".

All this serves as an introduction to the following message, from the
"Crossing the Chasm" discussion list.  The thread it refers to began with a
flame against existing email solutions.  The message itself has an
interesting discussion about products ("Gothic cathedrals") that die
because they start out with TOO MANY features.




Date: Sat, 21 Mar 1998 08:59:50 -0700
From: Bill Meade <>
To: "CROSSING THE CHASM discussion list" <>
Reply-To: CROSSING THE CHASM discussion list <>

This thread on email has gotten me thinking about 2 things.  First, the
idea of "universal inbox" has a strong case of creeping elegance.

Creeping elegance:

A couple years ago I worked as a marketing director at an email software
company that had a product (that won Comdex's best product award) that
was a "universal inbox" because ... it could download email from any
(AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy, etc.) online service.  Clearly a different
paradigm than the Netscape/Cooltalk or MS Netmeeting paradigm that has
been evoked in response to Chris O'Leary's musings.  What changed the

I had an experience when working with an engineer friend that gave me a
clue.  While we were using Cooltalk's white-board, I became bored in
about 5 minutes.  I said "This isn't as useful as email." to which my
friend replied "Whaaaaaaaaat are you talking about!"  And from there we
drilled into why I was bored and why he was thrilled and how both could
happen on the same internet connection.  Bottom line: working style.

I'm an asynchronous person.  I want to think up, write down, send, and
forget.  My friend on the other hand, is from a long tradition of
engineers arguing while they scribble equations or technical diagrams on
the same piece of paper.  In short my friend's working style is very
synchronous.  Email is what bores him.

I think this is a clue in addition to Chris O'Leary's observation that
the frictions are so great that drawings are practically impossible to
use in the email paradigm.  What we have here are requirements without a
burning mission critical business process to serve as a poster child for
a solution.  The internet may be the doorway to friction-free capitalism,
but on the way to the net we have to deal with myriad small frictions
with computers (Get a Mac!), applications software (email), and probably
worst of all communications demons.  Anyone else ever had a modem that
isn't demon possessed?

So what?

This makes me think of the second idea harping back to my pocket theory
of gothic cathedrals.  The thumbnail of this pocket is that because
market requirements are for fully transformed products, and because
designers must iterate toward redefinition by successive stepping-stone
approximations, initial introductions are usually overly complicated
(i.e., designers are in denial about not knowing true requirements)
gothic cathedrals of functionality.  Favorite examples are Lotus Agenda.
The world's most overcomplicated PIM.  The thing was so powerful that it
collapsed of its own weight once you had about 2 years worth of contacts
in it.

After the gothic cathedrals like Newton, come the "cherry picking"
designs like the PalmPilot.  After Agenda came Lotus Organizer (bought
from outside because Lotus was in denial about the gothic cathedral being
too complicated).  The big implications of gothic cathedrals in general
are that:

(1) Cathedrals crush all competitive architectures.  No cherry-picker product
    can be developed IN THE SAME ORGANIZATION as a gothic cathedral.

(2) If cathedral products are not managed into cherry-picking products
    they ruin the market.  This is what happened to pen-based computing.
    In particular, premature declaration of a mass market will set up
    a gothic cathedral to be gradually killed (death from 1000 cuts)
    by a cynical media.  It is not pricing that ruins high-tech markets
    it is promising.

(3) The only people who learn from the experimental trials of a gothic
    are the cathedral's competitors.  The organization putting the
cathedral out
    (and this may be an object-oriented proof of predestination) will ALWAYS be
    too much in denial to learn.  Perhaps because there will be so much
    interpersonal turbulence that nobody dares collaborate for fear of
    backstabbing. *Note* Once you've worked in a company with this turbulence
    you too will spell backstabbing as one word.  ;-)

(4) Creative people won't stay at companies selling gothic cathedrals because
    the turbulence and denial are effective innoculants against creativity
    being harnessed, appreciated, or condoned.  Hello Chris!

(5) Investors hate gothic cathedrals because they want to fund cherry-pickers
    but don't know them when they see them.  So, gothic cathedrals get funded
    by people that hate them ... and it shows.  This is the true cultural
    confict of capitalism.

(6) People with gothic cathedral products love to read Geoffrey Moore because
    they hope to recombine the building blocks they've opened veins to
    develop.  The dream is to "get it right" and come "roaring back" into
    a tornado.  I've never seen this happen though it does seem possible and
    if I had a gothic cathedral product I'd fall into the same death magnet.
    I think that if you've opened a vein to develop a product, it can become
    a family member and no decent parent will cut an arm off one child and
    stitch it onto another.  The market however, waits for the whole product.


Now I think that email has a bunch of gothic cathedrals right now.
CC:Mail (which looks dormant and unrevised) is one.  IMAP is another
which nobody with an installed base who paid, has endorsed.  Eudora is
becoming a gothic cathedral (anyone sent voice email lateley?).  It seems
like every new internet capability like HTML and RealAudio gets nominated
as "the missing link" between where email is today and the whole product
that will come roaring back into a tornado.  However, given the
synchronous/async way people work and the fact that functions we know
belong (like drawing) are not expressive options, I'm guessing that we
won't see a cherry-picking product for a while.  Why?  Because there is
no burning mission-critical business process to motivate the amputation
of the false arms and legs that email packages have grown.

Bill Meade
(208) 938-0272 H
(208) 396-3145 O

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