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Tech Talk

Mining outside innovators for gold

2/10/2016

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the best way to improve a product is to let others tinker with it. “Two heads are better than one” may be an annoying idiom, but there is actually some sound logic there, especially when it comes to collaboration and product development. Nearly every commodity, good and service is the outcome of a collusion of ideas. Whether it’s writing a song or designing an automobile, anywhere from a handful to thousands of collaborators worked as a team to create something new. Currently the undisputed champion of collaboration is the technology sector.tech 2.11

As of December 2015, more than 12,000 people are working for Facebook. That means if Facebook was a unit in the army, it would equal 12 battalions. Of course, 12,000 servicemen rarely are working on the same project, whereas the overwhelming majority of Facebook employees are focused on improving the world’s No. 1 social network. This situation is not unique to Facebook. Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn and many more web services focus their employees’ time on one major product.

But Facebook rode another common form of tech industry collaboration on the path to success — opening itself up for third- party development. The quickest way to build a group of product advocates is to have outsiders sell your product for you, and when the smartphone application revolution hit, dozens of forward-thinking tech companies saw an opportunity. Instead of paying legions of app programmers to reinvigorate their service, companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter opened up their source code — or application program interface (API) — to allow eager programmers to innovate on their platform. In this scenario, developers get to sharpen their skills and gain notoriety, and tech firms get free marketing and new services to offer customers.

The most recent example of a tech product riding the third party development gravy train is Minecraft. In 2014, Microsoft bought the video game Minecraft for $2.5 billion. Known for empowering players with the ability to build the gameplay universe, Minecraft shaped its popularity on the outsourcing of creativity. Beyond gamers, programmers can interact with the Minecraft development interface and build gameplay universes.

More than allowing incredibly unique gaming, third party tinkering has helped expand the very definition of what Minecraft is. Just this past month, a group of education-minded Minecraft programmers sold a modified version of the game to Microsoft in which students visit real world locations inside the game. Cleverly titled “Minecraft: Education Edition,” the game offers teachers an interactive field trip opportunity that is part gaming, part computer science, but is focused on learning. Students can learn about foreign wonders from the safety of their classroom and also learn about the scope of the pyramids of Egypt or Paris’ Eiffel Tower. More than simple tourism, the modified version offers teachers lesson plans in farming, engineering, physics, agriculture and much more.

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While the education edition of Minecraft is just starting to become an official version of Microsoft, it’s actually been available to schools for years, which is one of the secret benefits of third party modifications. Twitter users could check real time conversations on Tweetdeck years before the social network acquired it, and Intrepid Facebook users could privately message each other years before the company rolled it is billion-user “Messenger” spinoff application.

It seems almost criminal that “genius” founders get the credit for a product’s ongoing success. Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs and the like may have had the initial ideas that started their companies down the path to success, but it was collaborators and third party innovators who truly made the products we can’t live without. CV

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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