Point Solutions vs End to End Solutions

I wrote this on the flight out to the Web 2.0 conference.  I hope it stimulates some interesting conversations.

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One of the central tenets of Web 2.0 thinking is that lightweight "point solutions" that can be stitched together by the consumer are preferable to end to end solutions that are stitched together by the service provider.

I had a conversation with veteran web entrepreneur who challenged that assumption yesterday.

His view, one that I have to admit made me sit back and think, is that the early adopters (geeks) of the web 2.0 world prefer to stitch together point solutions, but that the mainstream web user will prefer an end to end solution.

Further, his view is that the leading portals; Google (I know they aren’t a portal, they are a starbucks store), Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, IAC, etc will stitch together end to end solutions with a combined build and buy strategy.

And it follows from this analysis, that the portals will end up winning the masses and leaving the point solutions either as assets to be purchased or to waste away and die.

Obviously we need to figure out the answer to this question because we either follow the lead of Flickr and look to the portals as our exit strategy or we invest in and build these "point solutions" into viable long term businesses.

I don’t think we have to make this call just yet and we can invest for growth without limiting the option of a sale scenario.

But this is a long term strategic question that everyone starting and investing in web services businesses needs to get a handle on if they want to make the exercise pay off at the end of the day.

Here are a some data points to think about.

Flickr:
Flickr hasn’t improved in any measurable way now that it is part of Yahoo!. In fact, I am finding it to be buggier and flakier than usual lately.  Probably due to scaling issues, but being part of Yahoo! doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet in that regard.

And some of Flickr’s users are smarting from being forced into Yahoo!’s registration scheme.

There hasn’t been any noticeable integration of search, groups, 360, or MyWeb with Flickr yet.  Yet is probably the operative word and we have to watch this closely to see if these integrations, which must be coming, improve the utility and vitality of the Flickr experience.

As a fanatic Flickr user, I tend to doubt it.  I love Flickr for what it does for me today.  I have done the integration that I want, with my Treo, with my blog, with delicious. I doubt that Yahoo is going to give me anything more than what I already get from Flickr.

AOL vs. Google:
AOL is the classic end to end solution.  They built everything inside their walled garden and you can’t integrate any web service with AOL. Of course that is changing, about 10 years after it should have.  But you know what I mean.

Google is the classic point solution.  They built the very best web search engine.

Which would you rather own?

Blogging Platforms:
Each of the major portals has a blogging platform, Blogger, 360, MSN Spaces, etc.

I don’t see any of them taking a cut out of Live Journal, Xanga, Typepad, WordPress, or any of the "point solutions" in the blogging world.  In fact, the platform with the most mojo these days seems to be MySpace.

News Corp doesn’t have any web services to integrate with MySpace and I suspect they are going to get a fantastic return on this acquisition without any "synergy".

Craig’s List:
I just shake my head every time I think about Craig’s List.  It has existed as an island all to itself for years and just gets stronger and stronger.

The best web 2.0 mashup I have seen is Google Maps/Craig’s List.

Google is going to launch a Craig’s List killer sometime soon.  Let’s see how it does.  I have my doubts that it will do much more than Yahoo!’s assault on eBay in the Web 1.0 days.

Wikipedia:
This is my favorite of them all.  The same web entrepreneur who got me thinking about this issue suggested that a better wikipedia might be built with a more commercial model.  No way.  Wikipedia is the bomb.

I read a post today on the Socialtext weblog about the way Wikipedia is slowly taking over Google’s page rank algorithm.

Think about that. No SEO or SEM going on there.  Just lots of link love and internal linking and voila, wikipedia slowly takes over Google’s page rank.

That’s a jujitsu move if I’ve ever seen one.

The fact is that these "point solutions" have a vitality that comes from their authenticity, their simplicity, and their sizable and active user bases.

I heard a user of one of these services talk a couple weeks ago about the "emotional connection" he had to one of these services.

I know what he is talking about.  I feel that way about Flickr, Typepad, Google, My Yahoo!, delicious, and many other web services I use on a daily basis.

I have rolled my own web experience and it is unique to me.  It is mine.

Yahoo!, Google, MAN, AOL, Ask, and anyone else who wants to try is not going to take it away from me.

And its people like me who make this whole Web 2.0 world so vital.  We are the content creators.  Without us, the services will be empty.

Try my Web 2.0 for example.

The launch of Marc Andreesen‘s Ning yesterday makes me think that its quickly going to get easier to build new web services and that we’ll see an explosion of these point solutions over the next ten years which will be even smaller and more lightweight.

So my thesis is that end to end solutions aren’t going to work as well as highly integrated but separate services that build and hold emotional connections with their key users.

And those users will provide the lasting value.

But that is just a thesis. I want to test it.  By blogging it and soliciting comments, links, trackbacks, etc.  And by asking everyone I know what they think.  And by bringing really smart people together to debate issues like this.

As I learn more and develop this thesis or debunk it, I will keep you posted as always.