I Have One Word for You, Son: Timing!

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It is said that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. While that is meant to refer to who takes credit for successes and failures, I believe in a parallel version:

Failure has many causes, but success needs everything to happen just right.

Other than the poorly structured English in my phrasing (Winston Churchill would be appalled), there is a truth here that every entrepreneur knows in his or her blood. For success, a very large number of things must happen exactly right; for failure, any one of a thousand things can fail: target markets, operational execution, supply chain, financing, recruiting, sales director, incentive compensation plan, choice of technology, and especially: timing.

Even the best of ideas can fail if the market simply isn't ready. For example, Apple's Newton, arguably the first PDA and therefore forerunner to the tablet, was ahead of its time. Ironically, Apple itself re-created tablets a successful market 17 years later. Sure, the combined advances of hardware technology and wireless Internet made the tablet possible, but in many ways the people simply wasn't ready. Computing was something one did at their desk.

Back in the 1990s tech boom, a number of companies tried to "contextualize"  Web pages. Words that had meaning beyond their immediate sentence were highlighted and either clickable or even brought up a pop-up when hovered over. Almost none of those players still exists, with the exception of a few advertising companies that bring up annoying ads when you hover over highlighted words.

People were simply not ready a decade ago for contextualized Web content. We went to Web sites for a single purpose, usually defined by the site owner. Even the hyperlinks to outside content were embedded by the site owner, who created the context.

At this juncture, there are behavioural changes by Web readers that may lead to a better potential market for contextual add-ons:

  1. Google: The ease of searching for information has accustomed people to "Google it." Whether you are watching a movie, preparing an academic paper, or reading a book, you will switch contexts - or at least pause - to go look it up on Google. Context switching is accepted.
  2. Information: The amount of information on any one topic now vastly exceeds that of the actual source. I may read Mark Suster's or Fred Wilson's blog articles on running a startup, but as good as they are, I can easily access much more in-depth data on any one subject. Information is available.

Neither of these, however, changes the reality that context-switching is expensive, whether for CPUs or human beings, and so it we are less likely to bring in the information we need.

A small startup in San Francisco is attempting to bring what I call "automatic contextual expansion" (ACEing?) back to the Web. They want to make it easy for readers to get additional information on any topic, without needing to leave your current environment.

They are improving on previous efforts in two key ways:

  1. Unobtrusive: The information is provided when you click or highlight, not when you hover, making it at the user's convenience (and not some advertiser's).
  2. Integrated: For the publisher (like me) the integration is easy, just a single line of html to embed in your site or WordPress, and the user need install nothing.

At the request of the startup, this blog is a trial (guinea pig?) for their service. Look for any words that are underlined with a broken-line and click, or highlight an interesting word, e.g. San Francisco, and click on the little "i" information icon that appears.

I am convinced the timing of 2013 is far, far better than previous efforts. I do not yet know if that is sufficient, but wish them success.

Is this service helpful to readers? Let me know in the social media feedback or (as most readers do) by private message.