Wednesday, May 26, 2010

In which I do not invent the PIM:

I’m an optimist. Mostly. But not when it comes to entrepreneurialism.
On May 12th, I blogged about a company’s errant attempt to get funding to develop an invention, unaware that far greater and more powerful companies were already working on the same thing: the ability to broadcast speeches and other audio wide-spread, over the web.

I asserted that I had avoided similar traps. Each time I thought of an exciting software invention, I considered whether other companies might be working on the same thing, better financed and with greater people-power. Usually I decided, correctly, that I was not alone in thinking of the invention, and it was unwise to compete.

Let me remind you how the great myths work in this field. One person, or a few people, put all their spare time into their invention, eventually creating a new and exciting company that makes their fortunes. You’ve read about some of these, and the stories are newsworthy, because they are rare. The more common experience is that all that labor comes to naught, leaving its “inventors” trying to remember how to get a life.

Of the several inventions I considered and set aside, my favorite is the PIM: the Personal Information Manager. Quite early in the history of the PC, it became obvious to me that people would pay for a good program to make it easy to keep track of contacts, phone numbers, action items and appointments. I even did some trial programming, making a skeleton PIM for my own use. This application fascinated me, because a great deal of the challenge lies in the user interface: you have to make it ridiculously easy to enter contact and appointment info, or it will never get entered into a computer in the first place. That means that you need to let the user scribble as little or as much as desired, and the computer has to analyze the user entries to figure out what they mean. Try writing a few free-form appointments, and think about how easy they might be to parse for time, place, date, names, etc. And if you work with a modern calendar program: how many formal fields do you have to fill in to make an appointment? Very few, if it’s a good program. Even today, some PIM software requires too much user “discipline,” and I suspect such programs are under-utilized.

My own estimate was that I could develop really good PIM software in about fourteen months. I would then have to round up a crew to form a company to publicize it, support it, and keep it evolving. I decided that I needed too much time. The desire for a PIM was too obvious to belong to me alone.

About sixteen months later, the market was flooded with PIM products backed by well-known software companies and their large marketing departments. None of them benefited by getting there first; they just fought it out for years, while the concept of how to manage personal information evolved into new kinds of programs. If I had developed a PIM product, even a good one, I’m sure I would have been lost in the shuffle.

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