08 December 2014

Assume: Ass, You, Me

Some years ago, in the age of the Web 1.0, I worked for a sort-of start up (it was really owned by a long existing parent company). This was back in the days when servlets were built much as described in Jason Hunter's first edition. So, a while ago. But that's not quite the point.

Thanks to this bit of moaning on simple-talk (to which I'm considering adding some bile), I read this other bit of moaning which gave me this bit of spleen:
Perhaps more importantly, if you join or start a startup, you can knock the engineering out of the park and still end up flat fucking broke if the marketing people don't do a good job. But you're probably not going to demand that your accountants or your marketing people jump through bizarre, condescending hoops every day. You're just going to trust them to do their jobs.

Another, shorter sentence from the post, has joined the ranks of signatures. Coming to a browser near you soon.

Anyway, back to Web 1.0. This servlet implemented app was intended to be an extension to an existing app, made by some folks who bolted when the start up had gone belly up a year or so earlier. It got resurrected. Now, the original app built so-called course packs at Cornell (and Olbermann has just skewered it in worst person in the sports world, his alma mater; who knew?), which is to say articles and book chapters by professor/course. The notion was: let's make a web app which allows Joe Sixpack to build the "book" of his design. We'll have the content (or links, more often) and deals with storefront printing operations. Joe wants a "book" on Egyptian dynasties, so he picks a chapter or two from six books and five articles from journals. Sends the list to the storefront printer, and walks home with his "book".

What's wrong with this picture?

Now, this was before music publishers were bludgeoned by some Big Corp into disintermediating albums and pop music albums only have one or two songs that you want, anyway, right? The start up and the parent were teeny, tiny little fish in the publishing pond; no leverage. And most of the books were expected to be textbook types; possibly trade non-fiction but not novels. The notion was that these sorts of publishers, covetous of their copyright, would be willing to sell off bits of books, rather than the whole enchilada. Whether authors might benefit wasn't part of the discussion.

While the system got built, lo and behold, publishers refused to play nice. Why should they sell off for pennies what they could demand for dollars? It was their expectation, which turned out to be true at that time, that selling bits of books wouldn't offset the cost of slicing and dicing the books nor loss of the sale of whole books. The business model was never vetted; just assumed to work because the academic prototype worked. Never assume. Times have changed a bit. Perhaps someone will resurrect the app?

While Kevin Costner got famous for saying it, it ain't true, "if you build it, they will come". Sometimes, they just stay home and watch football.

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