The Work

If it’s not your job, don’t assume a level of ease (or difficulty)

So this is interesting. Earlier today, I was reading this New York Times report of the Google settlement with the FTC. A piece of that report is no longer online, but I am reproducing it here:

Mr. Wyden also said there was plenty of evidence that adequate competition exists in the search business. He cited the recent introduction of competitors like DuckDuckGo, which has a no-tracking privacy policy inspired by some consumers’ complaints about the tracking of consumer behavior that Google and other search engines perform.

“Compared to almost any other market in the history of antitrust regulation, online search has effectively zero barriers to entry,” Mr. Wyden said.

This would be Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who has done quite a bit of legislating on the internet and technology issues. But something about his statement stuck out to me – the assumption of “zero barriers to entry”.

As we know in publishing, it is all too easy to assume ease (or difficulty) when it comes to digital anything. For years pundits told consumers that ebooks should be priced very low because “they cost nothing to make”. There are plenty of people who are actually doing the work of ebook production and conversion who would beg to differ. They might cost nothing to ship, but shipping is not making, and was never the biggest manufacturing cost in the first place.

And as I pointed out yesterday, while online search is not complicated, it is in fact very arduous. It requires a lot of resources, a lot of time (iterative time, allowing the algorithms to do their work and organically surface results), and therefore a lot of capital. No, it’s not a railroad. But who’s trying to break into the railroad business these days?

One thought on “If it’s not your job, don’t assume a level of ease (or difficulty)

  1. There are two aspects of “make” that tend to be conflated. There’s the making of the original book to the point where it’s ready for printing, which involves a huge time investment and a non-trivial amount of money. Digital might bring some savings there, but probably not all that much.

    Then there’s the making of additional copies. This is the one where “it costs nothing to make”. The cost to make another digital copy is so low these days it would probably be measured in micro-cents. So low it’s effectively zero.

    With physical books, it’s not just shipping, it’s also printing. You can’t directly compare the up-front costs with the printing and distribution costs, because one is fixed and one is variable. Their ratio depends on the number of copies made.

    Similarly with search, the incremental cost to serve another set of search results is vanishingly small, effectively zero. But the cost to gather, store and analyze the search data is huge.

    Although DuckDuckGo is a one-man operation with no ads, and no selling of data on your searches, that’s because it actually just passes the search on to Google, Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha and possibly a few others, then analyzes and presents the results. He doesn’t have to bear the costs of the thousands of servers actually doing the heavy lifting. So that’s not a fair comparison.

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