The Power of the Back Catalog

I was reading a great book, Console Wars, that details the early gaming console fight for dominance. One period really hit me, and that was when Sega was trying to find room in a world of the dominant Nintendo. The Sega Genesis (or MegaDrive for those in the UK!) got a helping hand when Nintendo decided to ship a new version of their console without the ability to play existing titles. This gave Sega the ability to say “hey, you are buying something new, so try us out!”

That is an example of a mistake hurting adoption, but there are also plenty of examples of the opposite. There are times when a revolution is happening and you need to break with the past (going from vinyl to CDs) but it sure as hell helps if you go through a deprecation phase first.

I was thinking about Apple, and how the Web has helped them succeed with a platform in pretty major ways.


When Steve came back, decimated the product line, and then showed us the iMac he was able to get into the game by realizing and selling the fact that the things users wanted to do were mainly on the Internet. This gave us the “i” and the push to market those Macs as the best way to access the Internet. At that time the Internet meant many things, but the majority of what people wanted to do was use the Web. They wanted access to the amazing crowd sourcing of information, and ability to find it all via sites such as Google.

Once the Web up leveled from its birth as a document platform to that of a app platform Apple was set. You didn’t need Outlook when you had Yahoo! Mail. Microsoft, by fighting to win the browser war, ended up helping build an app platform that meant their native desktop application dominance no longer mattered too much.


By the time the iPhone came along, we had been hearing that the mobile Internet was going to be huge for years. At every JavaOne keynote we heard that developers should be cranking on J2ME to build apps for users. That never came to be, and instead it was all eclipsed by the iPhone.

The iPhone was so much better, but many in the industry poo poo’d it. How could you type without a real keyboard (cried those at Blackberry). It’s user interface was leagues beyond the competition though. Steve showed off the importance of how it brought together functionality such as the cellphone, camera, and iPod all in one. He also showed off Mobile Safari, and I feel like this is often overlooked. We finally had the desktop Web available on a mobile device. Not a crappy WAP/WML experience, but the real Web! Sure, it wasn’t perfect. You had to pinch, zoom, and pan around….. but it played the back catalog. This was vital at a time when there weren’t any third party apps.

Then you fast forward to the era of using the Web to create apps and then native applications on the device. This was critical because you need to go beyond the back catalog. A user is buying the latest device to get great access to all of the affordances and power of the new device.

When creating a new platform, it behooves you to think of the role of the Web. As you create something new it can give you massive useful reach, even if it isn’t perfectly tuned to your platform yet.

When I look at something new, I now look for how they are leveraging the Web. Take VR for example. It is one thing to go after the hard core folk to create WebVR with all of its WebGL goodness. But I am also really excited about work such as CSS VR, because it allows traditional web developers to rather simply (via some CSS vs. learning WebGL/WebVR) join the platform. It’s “pinch to zoom” equivalent may be immersing you in a 360 image while overlaying the important content.

At this point the Web has content at an epic scale. It is content that is indexable, allowing developers to add functionality that crawlers and browsers can understand. It is powerful to enable the loose coupling between all of these agents, compared to setting up APIs for each side to interoperate on. I hope we explore more ways in which the Web can bring functionality to scale in an open manner.

*walks off to play some of the back catalog*

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