VRM: Make a gesture, create a market.

What do you get when you turn proprietary data silos inside out?

Users in control.

Doc Searls has been advocating VRM for a while (here too). What’s nice about his thinking — in addition to the open source/open standards approach we’d expect from a senior editor at the Linux Journal — is that he’s working the problem through the entire technological spectrum:

I don’t think VRM should be confined to a browser, either. I think this is something that should work through a cell phone, a card, or any other device or representation that works for the individual.

Not only are the vendor’s silos being turned inside out, so are the technology and network providers’.

My mindset has been stuck in the browser, perhaps with an accompanying helper application that does nice things for users, but still basically software on a personal computer. At the core, SwitchBook’s innovation is useful in larger contexts, but it won’t start out that way. Our strategy in simple:

  1. Make it work with current search habits.
  2. Augment IE and Firefox.
  3. Expand to other OSes and browsers as quickly as possible.
  4. Push the underlying API and data format as an open standard.
  5. Open the tool for customization as widely as possible.
  6. Open source the code for “built-in” customization

But are we going to take the time now to make sure it works in cell phones or datacards or iPods or anything other than a computer? There just isn’t enough bandwidth for that in a bootstrapping startup.

Fortunately, Doc’s VRM work as a Fellow at the Berkman Center gives him the freedom to invest in a solution of that breadth. A VRM solution that is bigger than any one company, technology, platform, or medium. Say goodbye to the silos.

It has also given me a fresh way to think about Complex Search. Much of VRM — as I understand it — is designed to be automagic. Specify your needs, receive bids from selected/qualified vendors using a tool that makes it easy to manage those relationships. But before one can specify needs, most people need to spend time discovering their needs. For all but the simplest purchases, that’s a Complex Search.

For example, take Doc’s latest VRM “Gesture

I want a phone that is GSM-based (so it works overseas as well as in the U.S.), works across as much of the U.S. and Canada as possible (Verizon has been a disappointment in this respect), has a GPS, and has an easy-to-use UI. I don’t care about PDA functions, ringtones (I like the old Western Electric bell ring, though), or camera functions. I like keys that are easy to read and use, and an address book that’s easy to synchronize with a computer. It would be nice, for personal reasons (I work for Linux Journal), if it ran on Linux. I’d rather it not (for the same reason) run on Windows. Mostly I just want it to be a good GSM phone with a GPS. And I’m willing to let the GPS function slide, just to get a good phone.

That’s a mouthful. Doc is famous enough in the blogoverse to get feedback without the VRM infrastructure. He may not have a vendor make an offer directly (although a smart vendor would seriously consider sponsoring Doc), but he’ll probably get enough direction from peers to narrow down his vendor choices. With a fully operating VRM, the fulfilment side of that gesture will be streamlined and automated so that any vendor who wants to can cost-effectively make Doc a competitive offer, perhaps even a bundled package that leverages their unique value-add. That will take a lot of work, but the potential value to everyone in the transaction is clear.

Compare that to the broad, politicized, unfocused brush strokes of the AttentionTrust and you can see why I think the AttentionTrust goals are still too blurry and ambiguous to generate much success. VRM is working with Intention. It is highly focused. Its output is clear. The benefit to users and vendors is evident. AttentionTrust is stuck thinking about everything, all the time, and only online, then mashing that into some anonymized goulash from which magic is supposed to emerge. Bah humbug. I’ll believe it when I see it.

I think Doc is on to something, though. The Internet so radically drops the costs of so many different modes of communication, it will continue to restructure our society for another couple of decades, at least. Most of the success to date has been based on one-to-many marketplaces, such as Amazon or many-<aggregated-as-one>-to-many marketplaces such as eBay. VRM lets us create inverted “many-to-one” markets. Markets of one. Make your gesture, create a market. That’s powerful.

And yet, Doc’s gesture — as every request for bids must — also contains a treasure trove in the form of Doc’s requirements, a wealth of needs Doc learned the hard way. He’s a power user with heavy demands and he pushes technology to its limits. He is fed up with his current options and, having experimented enough, he knows just what wants. But he’s lucky to have that experience. Most people have no idea what the deciding factors could or should be for the products they want to buy. (Can you say megapixel?) Doc is anything but a typical consumer.

Consider what it was like when the web started taking off in 1994/5/6. At that time, I was out selling Internet marketing services and helping companies figure out what to do online. Overwhelmingly, time and again, smart, capable, professional people asked “How much does a website cost?” Well, what kind of website do you want? Their question was inherently non-sensical, but people didn’t understand that yet.

First, you have to figure out what you want, then, and only then, can you send out an RFP to get bids on it. Sure, you scale your RFP based on what your budget is — and unless you have deep pockets, it pays to be prudent in what you include in your request — but at the end of the day, only a detailed specification provides enough direction for vendors to submit a bid. The result of these conversations was often a small strategy and/or requirements engineering contract to distill their needs into just such an RFP.

So how does that work with VRM? How do people develop enough expertise and understanding of their needs so they can present a request like Docs? How does VRM work for regular folk?

In short, they search. They explore. They learn.

From friends. By reading reviews. Going to various manufacturer’s and vendor’s websites. By learning from people like Doc, either through blogs, reviews at CNET or ThisNext, pricing at PriceGrabber, Google, or through direct conversations. By trying out products. Even from advertising and retail stores. I happened to learn about Verizon’s data services in the Verizon store. Imagine that.

This is Complex Search. People aren’t going to rely on any one vendor or reference point, unless they have an absolutely trusted guide like a brother or daughter or college roommate to point them in the right direction. They are going to check out different sources, browse multiple websites, collate and corollate a lot of information from a lot of different places. Then, after they have searched and narrowed their needs down to the details, they can put it in the form of a digital RFP and see the power of VRM kick in. Zing! A Market of One.

VRM is still evolving. Questions and answers of many varieties must work their way through the community, from people’s and companies’ needs to draft technological frameworks, APIs, protocols, and working code. Good stuff.

Somewhere in there, I’m confident Complex Search will meet VRM and lots of real value will be created for people, vendors, and innovators alike.

Doc will be at the Identity Workshop in early December to discuss VRM and Identity with all comers. It should be a great opportunity to figure out where VRM is headed and how we can contribute. I hope you can make it.

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2 Responses to VRM: Make a gesture, create a market.

  1. Pingback: The Eclectic » Blog Archive » Choice is Good: The Future of Digital Networks and Consumer Markets

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