Once upon a time, I was 30 or so years younger, and had just sold my angel-backed tech company to a VC-backed company, stayed six months, and then left to start something new. I was young, successful, a minor tech god in Silicon Valley, the whole world at my fingertips. And I wanted a job at Apple.
My success had come from being one of the first to ship a product for the Mac in 1984, and then having the ability and courage to stick with it through a couple of bad years. This had endeared me to people at Apple. I knew a lot of the top execs there. They all used my software. It seemed natural to me that I'd continue my career at Apple, instead of as an outside developer.
I knew the reality that the world didn't, that being independent was a precarious existence. It was either feast or famine, but mostly famine. I wanted the security of a regular paycheck, health plan, an office, a boss even. And I wanted the benefit of shipping my software to all those people who used Macs. Instead of reaching a small fraction of the users, my software would reach them all, I reasoned. I envied the people who worked at Apple. (I would find out much later that they envied me too.)
One of my Apple friends, a top exec named Jean-Louis Gassée, said I should not work at Apple. A witty Frenchman, he explained I would not like to see how the sausage was made. He said it in a funnier way. It would be better for everyone he said if I continued to be independent. But I persisted. And nothing good came from that persistence. As convinced as I was that I should be "inside," the big company culture at Apple, contrary to the hype, prevented individuals from being powerful. Even if people were brilliant and driven, there was only so much a person could do.
A few years later, after developing a product that should have been system software, and being copied by Apple, my small team of three people met with the team at Apple that was doing what we did. We sat in a corner of a supersized conference room. The Apple people filled the room. There must have been 30 people there who did less than what we did. No matter, we eventually had to give up. There was no way to co-exist. They didn't want us there, even though they said they did. And when the platform vendor doesn't want you there, you won't be.
I tell this story now, as I'm getting ready to go to a journalism conference in Italy, six timezones away. I see journalism making the same mistake I made in the early 90s. They look at the advantages what they call the "platforms" have over trying to make a go of it independently. They want those advantages. But also like me in the 80s, they want to keep their independence. They want to be mavericks, Woodwards and Bernsteins, and, at the same time, be paid by the people and companies they will have to challenge.
I know tech culture now in a way I didn't then. Gassée probably thought I'd have to learn the lesson myself back in 1988, but he shared the learning anyway. There was no way to bring independence into a large company. It just doesn't work that way. If you want to be independent, you have to make your own way. Independence means the same thing no matter what direction you approach it from.
I know I can't convince journalism to give up on getting the tech industry to make it easy for them, so I'm pitching a different idea. Have a backup plan, in case it doesn't work out with Facebook. The open web is here for you to use as an alternate distribution system. It's nice to have Disneyland and Yellowstone. Time-Warner Center and Central Park. Corporate-owned spaces and open spaces. They need each other. And journalism, done right, belongs more to the open spaces than the corporate spaces.
Facebook and the open web.
The web can't give journalism the money Facebook can, if that's what Facebook did. But we can find a way to make journalism work in the open context, one that supports independence, and imho is much closer to the way journalism, when it's done right, works.
PS: In hindsight, I couldn't have developed blogging, RSS and podcasting inside Apple. Unthinkable. Apple came at the web from the opposite direction, viewing the world as elite creators providing vision and products to a mass of consumers. My philosophy, more in line with the original Apple view, and the original vision of the web, was to view everyone as both a creator and a consumer. I think this is the struggle inside journalism as well, long-term. And the reason Facebook has all the money, imho, is that they embraced the non-elite view, that the technology enables.
PPS: In 1995, one of my first blog posts attempted to define the word platform. Mostly people had been using the word intuitively. Powerful idea. Worth understanding.
PPPS: A couple of years after that I came to see the Internet as the platform without a platform vendor. It's the only place the platform vendor can't screw with developers, because there is no platform vendor. I went ahead and did all the things I wanted to do at Apple, for the web. In the end it worked out.
PPPPS: But there's still more work to do.