Why Software Is Eating The World

Although from last year, this WSJ piece by Marc Andreessen, is still very relevant.

Marc (co-author of the first widely using web browser and Facebook board member among other tings) argues that software will become the foundation of all successful businesses. Either by forming the foundation on which they run, or through software services that deliver to customers. Marc cites some (often US-centric) examples of this trend:

  • Book retail with Borders disappearing while Amazon soared
  • Video rental with Netflix eclipsing Blockbusters
  • Media and music companies reinventing themselves as services – from iTunes to Pandora & Disney buying Pixar
  • Video games as the fastest growing entertainment category
  • Photography – just look at Kodak
  • Telecoms where Skype is the fastest growing company in the sector
  • Recruitment moving to services like LinkedIn

Increasingly, he agues, industries based on physical products (those, like food, that we haven’t yet figured out how to turn into digital bits) rely on software to power their businesses.

One of the areas that Marc calls out as yet to be impacted by this change is education:

Health care and education, in my view, are next up for fundamental software-based transformation. My venture capital firm is backing aggressive start-ups in both of these gigantic and critical industries. We believe both of these industries, which historically have been highly resistant to entrepreneurial change, are primed for tipping by great new software-centric entrepreneurs.

The view of education as an industry expressed in the quote above got me wondering about which aspects of education are most likely to follow this shift soonest. Looking at the objectives for education below (from Stop Stealing Dreams) which areas are more likely to benefit from entrepreneurial software-led change?

To create a society that’s culturally coordinated.

To further science and knowledge and pursue information for its own sake.

To enhance civilization while giving people the tools to make informed
decisions.

To train people to become productive workers.

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Discovering Books

One of the problems with the long tail is discovery. It’s all well and good for the internet to enable you to access 1,000,000’s of [insert type of content here], but how do you discover content that’s relevant to you?

Tech Crunch quotes Otis Chandler:

Chandler notes that “the publishing industry has a huge discovery problem, because books are going digital” and brick-and-mortar bookstores are disappearing.

(My emphasis.)

I love my local book shop. Why? Because I can wonder in and discover interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining things to read. The shop has limited shelf space – no long tail here – and so must carefully curate what to fill the shelves with.

As we move more and more to online book retailing and eBooks who’s going to perform that curation? Is it only going to be friends and acquaintances making recommendations through real and social networks? Is it going to just be the retailers automated ‘other readers like you liked…’ recommendations?

My local book shop doesn’t have a web site. But they have been known to order books in for me via Twitter. How can they continue to offer that valued curation service in an all-digital world?

One option might be through services like Good Reads (Otis, quoted earlier, is the CEO of Good Reads). I could imagine a Wallingford Book Shop group on something like Good Reads as a way of extending that valued curation service beyond the physical walls of the store. Likewise, an extension of the school library via a group that recommends and discusses books for students.

Somewhere in there there’s a business model. Someone, I’m sure, already has it nailed.

Free hacker school

Here’s an interesting model. Programmers get to go to school, for a very specific education, for free. The provider, in this case Hacker School, gets paid by taking a recruitment fee from the employer…

Hacker School is free as in beer. This is possible because startups pay us to recruit. If after Hacker School you want a job, we will help you find one. If you don’t want one, or you’d prefer to search on your own, that’s fine too.

It looks like a great way for start-ups to build a pipeline of appropriately skilled talent. From the other side the model also helps ensure that as an educator you’re providing students with exactly the skills and attributes a subset of employers need.

Reading about the model, I was reminded of the talent pipeline Microsoft built, hiring straight from college (university) into big impact product teams like Windows and Office. No better place to learn and hone a skill set.

Small companies and start-ups don’t have the recruitment power and internal strength of companies like Microsoft. So Hacker School’s approach is a nice twist.

I’m not sure how well this translates to secondary schools in the UK. How would you feel if your school budget was based on hiring decisions of local employers? Would you feel any different if it also factored in offers from college and university admissions tutors?