Software Tree of Life follow up

Whiteboard from #LeanCoffeeKL 74

I presented my idea of the Software Tree of Life at #LeanCoffeeKL #74. It was a pretty high concept session but I think it challenged everyone that attended. It certainly challenged me as the attendees brought up a number of interesting points I had not thought of. If you look at the full-sized whiteboard photo you will notice on the right a list of “Other Factors.” Other than the industry specific factors of which I alluded to in my last post, most of the points can be summed up into two considerations: 1) competition, and 2) capital.

I mentioned the red ocean of competition in my last post, but it was brought up that in the Regulated Enterprise Kingdom, there is are often very few competitors. The market is yours if you can get into it. If you already have an in, this will seriously impact your opportunity assessment calculus. Further to this, it was proposed that there is such a thing as a Regulated Consumer Kingdom, for example customer-facing software for banking or telecoms. An excellent point.

Capital wise, some branches of the tree take much more initial capital in order to enter. This could mean cash, physical capital and even knowledge capital. R & D costs to understand the domain before building a solution can be exorbitant for some industries. Having domain expertise on your team will be a must, and could be a high barrier to entry for you in these cases.

The final point that I would like to highlight from the session is something that I have talked about at length previously (eg. Getting customers in the enterprise) but did not make the connection with regards to the Tree of Life. It is the consumerization of the enterprise. This is a recent trend in technology and it is still far too early to determine whether or not will be all encompassing. However it is intriguing to consider the possibility of all of the top level branches of the Software Tree of Life merging into a single hybrid (note the green dotted lines on the whiteboard).

As entrepreneurs it is always beneficial to share stories and discuss the intricacies of daily startup operations. I maintain that it is also worth examining how the innovation ecosystem works as a whole from time to time. I think that is the part of being an expert in the field.

The Software Tree of Life: Finding the shortest branch to success

The Premise

Software is often described as a “living thing,” something that grows and evolves. Each point release offers a new evolutionary adaptation, spurred on by complications in the production environment, and sometimes a competitive business environment.

One might discard this metaphor outright simply due to the common job title of software designer. Life has no designer, and evolves through competitive and climatic constraints over geological time — software can hardly be considered the perfect result of divine will, no matter what your sales department claims. Software is not developed in a perfect vaccuum. Much depends on the (un)natural selection of frameworks and libraries, harsh environments such as server and regulatory requirements, not to mention the various pressures on the developers actually creating the software. The bugs, shortcuts and hacks that riddle any newly shipped piece of software are reminiscent of the vestigial legacies of human evolution: the appendix, coccyx and wisdom teeth. It is a closer analogy than one might first realize.

Which leads me to think of the possibility of a sort of Linnaean taxonomy of software. In 1735 Carl Linnaeus split organisms into three kingdoms (animal, plant and mineral) made up of a number of classes. Since then there has been much evolution in biological taxonomy, including such complex descendants as the recent genomic Tree of Life.

Why should we want to classify software in such a manner? Surely the categories on the iTunes store are be enough? No, that taxonomy serves a different purpose. Our purpose would be analyze software in terms of rate of evolution. In biological studies differences in evolutionary rates can be found within and between phyletic groups. Reptiles, specifically crocodiles and alligators, are identified as being the least different compared to their prehistoric ancestors. In the startup world, knowing the rate of change in a sector is key to opportunity assessment.

New software products are often trying to introduce speciation within a certain software class or business, usually by attempting disruptive innovation. When thinking strategically about developing a new startup business or product, consider which branch of the software tree you are operating in. Some branches might be more amenable to success than others.


A topic that comes up often at #LeanCoffeeKL is not to bite off more than you can chew, especially when starting your first venture. PayPal Mafia capo Elon Musk started with a simple content management system long before he started revolutionizing the civilian space industry. Paying your dues and gaining experience is important to your odds of success when you are tackling big ideas.

When planning your first move, consider if the industry you are targeting is ripe for disruption. Note that I did not say deserving of disruption. Education and health startups may be “cloaked in nobility“, but they are notoriously resistant to change. On the other hand, consumer startups also have a difficult time as there is so much noise and such a rapid rate of (relatively minor) adaptations in the market that it is difficult to make an impact. If government regulated industries are the “dinosaurs”, consumer markets such as games are the “insects” of the startup phylogenetic tree. That is not to say creating a successful business in these sectors is outright impossible, it just requires a lot more perseverance and luck than the unsexy enterprise market, which is recognized as being probably the easiest sector to attain an early success.

If Consumer, Regulated and Non-regulated Enterprise are the three industry kingdoms of our Software Tree of Life, what are the subcategories? I am unsure of where to proceed here, as I think it might be a matter if identifying characteristics rather than a bifurcated tree model.

People buy software in order to achieve something. In this sense all software is a tool — regardless if it is Photoshop or a fart app. From this perspective I tried to develop some extremely wide types of software:

  • information retrieval (browsers, info terminals like wiki, weather, maps, dictionary, etc)
  • entertainment (games)
  • pure content (books, magazines, movies, music)
  • creative tools (productivity)
  • communication tools (email, messaging, social)

The above categories are debatable, and at one extreme could be cut down to just two types: consumption and production. But I think information retrieval is not captured by those two categories, and for cultural/business reasons games are different from other types of content. This is just a first pass and I am open to your suggestions.

The next step is to categorize business models, to see if certain software types lend themselves to certain business models. Some common models include:

  • direct sales (one-off payment)
  • distribution control (pay-to-access, subscription)
  • marketplace (a cut)
  • engagement (ad driven)
  • platform (licenses)

Traditionally software used a direct sales model: pay once to use your copy as much as you like. With the internet transforming software distribution, subscription based models became more viable. For example, subscription-based electronically distributed games and content like magazines became possible, and pay-to-access has been a sort of last bastion for content that cannot be DRM’d. Even traditional creative tools are moving toward subscription models (ie. SAAS). Communication tools have traditionally been subscription or free online, supported by ads (eg. Facebook). Marketplaces are a type of communication tool, joining sellers and buyers and taking a cut (and are notoriously difficult to get off the ground). Similarly, finding the right business model for software platforms has been tough (how much to charge for API access?), with those types of applications falling back on an engagement model. Each of the above models has its own pitfalls.

Which industry, type and model offers the shortest and/or surest route to startup success? This preliminary thought experiment is far too rudimentary to offer a conclusive answer. Other factors such as sales cycle, churn and adoption rates, and other industry-specific characteristics should be considered. As an exercise the Software Tree of Life offers an unorthodox analytical framework for opportunity assessment.

Negative 3D — A technical review of The Hobbit

I finally saw The Hobbit in 3D HFR. The experience overall was a good one. Watching the regular 24fps previews and then the actual film was like night and day. You could tell right when the Newline Cinema logo floated onto the screen that this would be different.

I would recommend reading Kevin Kelly’s explanation of why the movie looks different. I can confirm that it looked very smooth, the amount of detail was amazing. I originally saw the film in 2D at the regular frame rate and thought it looked beautiful (see my initial reaction here). I think this version was much more sharp.

One thing I feared was that the HFR would reveal shoddy set production, much like HD first revealed every little imperfection of newscasters on television. Lower resolution gives cinematographers the ability to “hide” things. It is all about the illusion. Yet the designers of The Hobbit proved to have amazing attention to detail: the props and sets looked to be of high quality — this was revealed moreso by the sharpness of the high frame rate version.

Interactions between live characters and CG characters was sometimes weak, and for some reason Weta still can’t make wargs look believable, but they hit it out of the park with Gollum this time around. The lighting issues from the first series seems to have been solved.

Quick camera movements were jarring. There is too much information on screen in 48fps and any jerky movements, or unsteady camera work didn’t look very good. It might simply be a matter of what we are used to, but I doubt if you could film a “shaky-cam” film in HFR.

My biggest complaint was sound. It was not “big” enough for all the extra dimensions and frames of the film. Maybe it was the theatre I was in, but the sound was very tinny (I noticed this in the 2D version which I saw in a different theatre, especially during the dwarf meeting at Bilbo’s). This tinny sound combined with overlighting (see Kevin Kelly’s article) I think contributes to the sense that one is “on set”, especially during interior scenes.

Watching The Hobbit this time in HFR I really noticed something: overcrowding of the frame. It is common practice to position people and objects much closer to one another than in real life. For example when filming two characters having a conversation, oftentimes the actors heads will be extremely close on set, however on the screen it looks natural. Because of the “realness” of the HFR, I think this trick no longer works. The troll battle scene is an example. The set seemed way too crowded. This might be used to good effect, such as in the dwarf council meeting at Bilbo’s, but I think we might see a change in technique.

3D In-N-out

My final point is related to the 3D. I have seen a number of films in 3D but this time I really noticed something related to the overcrowding point mentioned above, and it has to do with which way the 3D goes.

Think of the movie screen as neutral space and the 3D elements as active space. When sitting perpendicular to a 3D screen, the “active” space is between the viewer and the screen — this contributes to the “popping out” effect. However it narrows the field of vision, blocking off what is happening in the neutral space which adds to overcrowding effect mentioned above.

Rather than using the gimmicky “pop out” effects of current day 3D, I would like to see the reverse: placing the active space beyond the screen, widening the field of vision. Think of a photo shot with a fisheye lens versus a wide angle lens. IMAX screens achieve a wider perspective simply by using much larger screen areas, but enhance the effect with a concave shape. Imagine this being even more enhanced “negative 3D.” Then we would get the amazing vistas and the sense of being “in the action”, rather than the sense that the action is outside of us, but periodically invading our space.

I am no film professional and am not sure if this is even possible. Maybe it is already being done now and I am just not seeing enough films in 3D. Hopefully someone can chime in with some reasons why this is a terrible or impossible idea.

Regardless, go see The Hobbit in 3D FPS. It is brilliant.