04:48 AM

Geust Column:What IKEA, Google and the government have in common,

. . .and ten predictions for 2006-the year of "Do it Yourself."

by Giovanni Rodriguez, Eastwick Communications

You can learn a great deal about a culture's greatest anxieties – i.e., the stuff that inspires all great product development and marketing – by examining its greatest fantasies and asking, "what's the opposite of that?"

Fortunately, you don't have to go far beyond your TV set to gather all the data you need for this exercise. The evolution of the modern-day reality show – a window into American fantasy life – reveals just how much we have changed over the past half century, and where our priorities lie today.

Consider: in 1955, a faux reality show called “The Millionaire” had the nifty plot device where each week the producers would surprise a lucky family with a check for $1 million. The opposite of that was the dominant fear of the 1950's working class...

. . .that you can work forever and never get ahead. Fast forward fifty years, and the most often used reality-show plot device is the "extreme makeover." The opposite of that – perhaps the greatest anxiety of our time – is that most of us today are worried about keeping up, let alone getting ahead.

For better or worse, we are evolving into a “do it yourself” economy -- where individuals need to do more and more for themselves. And nowhere is this more evident than in the world of technology, where vendors continue to automate so many of the things that make self-service a reality (more about that in a moment).

In the past year, tech reporters have fallen in love with numerous self-service products and applications, from the sublimely intelligent (e.g., Google’s AdWords), to the sublimely absurd (e.g., Instasong ). And looking at reporters’ own end-of-year predictions, we expect the coverage to continue and intensify throughout the new year.

But what appears to be missing is a name for the overall trend. Many use the overly broad “personalization” to describe at least some of what’s happening (e.g., the Burger King effect – where Internet companies let you “have it your way").

Others use the term “user-generated” to describe related things (e.g., self-publishing tools from the world of new media, such as blogs, wikis, etc.). We prefer the harsher, more direct -- yet ultimately more inclusive -- "do it yourself” (the Nike slogan, but with a “y”) for at least three reasons:

*First, DIY addresses the root cause: the business imperative. There’s a reason our world is so rapidly embracing DIY. For organizations – from governments to businesses to non-profits – the economic incentives for enabling self-service are substantial.

Anyone who has ever spent a day at IKEA will understand the brilliance of a business model that encourages – in fact, rewards – its customers to do things themselves. From the beautifully designed warehouse where you do the job of picking up your items, to the Swedish-company style cafeteria where you take a "work break," to the easy-to-construct products that you, not the manufacturer, have the job of completing, IKEA has found ways to eliminate costs and streamline operations, while enlisting customers to participate in a one-of-a-kind brand experience.

IKEA may not be everybody’s cup of glogg but the basic idea is being applied to many other business models, particularly in the world of web-based software where DIY tools are enabling all the people that make up their organizations – including their customers – to work more efficiently. Lesson: DIY is a business imperative, and it translates into productivity, efficiency, and scale.

Second, DIY also taps into the spirit of the people – not just the organizations – who are embracing the trend. We’re spawning new generations of workers who want to do things for themselves, and DIY tools represent freedom to do things their way. In 2006, we’ll see an evolution of software-as-a-service to teach people to develop their own applications (the trend has already begun, but with little notice).

In a more speculative field, we’ll see further experimentation in the budding field of DIY product development, a field pioneered by MIT Professor Neil Gershenfeld and the The Fab Labs project. The Fab Labs, which are teaching non-engineers to create their own products, stand out as a compelling reminder of the transformative power of DIY.

Finally, DIY illuminates the dark side of this trend – the "whether you like it or not" inevitability of the self-service world. For many, the DIY world is one where you are left alone to do too many things for yourself (as the reality-show analysis above suggests).

But the dark side of DIY creates opportunities for socially-minded technology vendors. Recently, we’ve seen the emergence of search technologies (e.g., Eastwick clients Groxis and Healthline ) that have made the task of searching for vital information a more manageable and rewarding experience.

2005 was also a big year for collaboration – earning a cover story in Business Week – and the tech companies that are helping to enable it (e.g., Eastwick client Socialtext ). Like the extreme makeover producers on contemporary TV, the most innovative technology vendors will help us get DIY with a little help from our friends. But unlike “reality shows,” this is no fantasy. It’s the real deal.

Naturally, all this talk about the dark side will create new interest in public policy, and continue the dominant trend that we predicted for 2005, “The Year of the Lawyer.” In fact, 2005 was quite a year for the esquires of tech. There were many examples of this (we’ve documented them on our group blog, eastwikkers ), but we knew we were right only when Google announced a new PR chief who not only has experience on the policy front, but a law degree as well. It’s a fitting choice for a company at the center of so many industry transformations, not the least of which is the steady march toward all things DIY.

But why DIY in 2006 – what’s so special about this year? Like most prognosticators, we’re operating on little more than a hunch. But the hunch is based on three accelerating, overlapping trends: (

1) the unexpected success of Web 2.0 technologies, which are making the Web an increasingly user-friendly platform for computing;

(2) the rapid convergence of communication networks over IP, which is forcing technologists to solve numerous challenges in the self-service economy;

(3) the enormous reception that new media got in 2005, which has given many organizations a good peek into the DIY future. If you were surprised, or depressed, to see your Mom blogging last year, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It's a prelude to a much more interesting story, and we’re betting that story begins in 2006.

Our top-ten predictions:

10. The resurgence of the UI designer. With so many tools and services shifting to a DIY delivery model, the status of the UI (“user interface”) designer in the tech-business ecosystem naturally will rise. In 2005, Jesse James Garrett took center stage by helping the world to understand one of the greatest innovations in Web 2.0 technology: AJAX , a development technique that makes Web-based applications act and behave like the software we already know and love. But also look for vendors who can improve the quality of web-application delivery as part of the overall user experience (e.g., Eastwick client Netli ).

9. Community support/customer support. Expect extreme forms of DIY to inspire creative community remedies. It will not be enough for software companies to provide “customer support.” A community of like-minded users will go a long way toward filling the void that DIY sometimes creates.

8. Alphas emerge. DIY, in its most Darwinian expressions, rewards workers who have been early to embrace the trend. That’s good news for the alpha workers -- the ones who always lead, because it’s in their nature to do so -- not so good news for others.

7. Experts emerge. But the alphas won’t get all the love. In the DIY world, subject-matter experts also have an advantage. For these folks, some of the more creative DIY offerings – e.g., DIY software – offer personal and professional liberation.

6. A new breed of entrepreneur. Just as eBay created new jobs for the e-commerce savvy, new DIY solutions will inspire alphas and experts to go it alone – into business for themselves. And they won’t chase VC funding the old way – the barriers to entry will be far lower.

5. New social maladies. As we noted above, there is a dark side to DIY. In 2006, there will be public discussions on many areas of life where either government or business has abandoned the individual.

4. New personal maladies. Attention Deficit Disorder and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – just two by-products of the pre-DIY world – will get renewed attention in the media. Who knows -- in 2006, we may even get a new disorder on the books. Here's one (our invention): “frame fatigue,” the inertia you feel after (a) too many hours behind a search box, iPod, or TV set (i.e., “frames” in the physical sense), or (b) after one-too-many PR many campaigns designed to reach you in this information-intensive world (i.e., “frames” in the rhetorical sense, as recently popularized by UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff ).

3. Organizations and government compete. As the debate on “abandonment” (see #5) ensues, a number of organizations – for profit and not-for-profit -- will compete with government to fill the void. The challenge will look quite different from the kind of privatization we saw in the 1980s. This challenge will have a moral edge. On the immediate horizon: "deliberative democracy," an ambitious citizens movement aimed at reforming the electoral system by enabling voters to better educate themselves in advance of all elections.

2. Opportunity for the incumbents. The opposite of DIY is DIOW (“Do it Our Way”). For every innovation around self-service, the incumbents in the old world will feel a threat, or respond to opportunity. Expect technology companies to employ a host of different strategies to compete in this new world. DIY is about empowerment on the edge of the organization: employees on the front lines, customers on the check-out line -- and businesses will need to adapt, grow and market at the edge. Fuzzy concepts like SOAs, Web services and open standards will come into better focus as businesses begin seeing them as the underpinnings of the self-service economy. And businesses that used to market themselves on the "inside," will now start to market themselves on the "outside" (e.g., Intel's recent announcement that it will be dropping its venerable "Inside" slogan).

1. The DIY Queen. Yes, someone will emerge as the voice of this new era, and she (we’re guessing it’s a she) will have both the business sense and the humanity to speak to the lighter and darker sides of the issues.

She may or may not have ADD, and she may or may not challenge the government, but we’re betting that she’s a champion of collaboration. And we’re hoping she’ll use the eastwiki for that effort. We’re prepping the site so she can do it herself, but with a vibrant community behind her.

Giovanni Rodriguez is executive vice president at Eastwick Communications, a technology PR agency with offices in Silicon Valley and San Francisco.