Zero Sum Game

  • May 17, 2011
  • Scott

Marco Arment’s Instapaper could come under the Apple’s guns in the next version of Safari, which purportedly will offer a “Reading List” feature.

Marco (rightly) concludes there isn’t much to worry about.  First, what is an instapaper competitor?

  • Saving articles to read later — timeshifting — like a DVR for the web.
  • Synchronizing the reading list between computers and mobile devices.
  • Presenting the articles in a stripped-down text format on those mobile devices for optimal reading on their screens.

If another product doesn’t implement all three, it’s not really an Instapaper competitor.

His take is that the first version is likely to implement bullet 1, and maybe bullet 3.  Perhaps the next version will be an Instapaper competitor.  As he says, Safari already has too much going on in its UI, and Apple tends to be conservative about making changes to it.  But what if Apple *does* build this Instapaper competitor?

Marco has spent time building his defenses:

  • Supporting other browsers (on other platforms).  Safari features really won’t play in audiences that prefer to use Firefox or IE or Chrome (especially on non-Mac systems).
  • Integration with other apps – this is analogous to putting down roots in the space that other apps can take advantage of, but which feed back into keeping Instapaper alive and relevant.

He also understands that he doesn’t need to win the market to make a fortune (he estimates 1% would be a fortune).

When you’re in this situation, you’re really rooting for more visibility.  A small market-capture or increase in publicity and attention can have a big effect on your revenues and fortunes.  It sounds a lot like the BPM world, actually.  A rising tide…

His next point is about Starbucks – the number of coffee shops has increased dramatically since Starbucks came along – and although they place their stores aggressively near other coffee shops – the *good* coffee shops actually do even better.  The less-good shops tend to go out of business or change their business model.

Marco’s words:

My biggest challenge isn’t winning over converts from my competitors: it’s explaining what Instapaper does and convincing people that they actually need it. Once they “get it”, they love it, but explaining its value in one quick, easy-to-understand, general-audience sentence is more difficult than you might imagine.

If Apple gets a bunch of Safari users — the browser that works best with Instapaper — to get into a “read later” workflow and see the value in such features, those users are prime potential Instapaper customers. And it gives me an easier way to explain it to them: “It’s like Safari’s Reading List, but better, in these ways.”

This is exactly the problem the BPM vendors have had-  it wasn’t beating the competitors so much as it was explaining what BPM can do for you and convincing people that they need this BPM thing.  This is not a zero sum game when the market is a long way from being saturated. And in that respect, the BPM market and the “Instapaper” market are very similar.

And this explains a lot about why BP3 works well with partners that outsiders would probably look at as competitors.  Philosophically, we believe we’re growing the pie rather than competing over how big each slice is.

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