Waiting for a Chasm-Crosser

This is the first of several posts where I am revisiting CommonsWare, my long-time business and current “hobby with a logo”. I thought it might be useful to some to see how all that came about, the decisions I made, and so on.

The series:

Often times, when I explain my adventures as a self-styled independent developer advocate for Android, I’m told “you were really lucky to get in on Android so early!” And, that is true: I did benefit from some luck, and I will point one prominent instance of that a few posts from now.

However, in entrepreneurship and many other facets of life, you make your own luck.

By 2007, I already had started and buried two businesses, one pathetic enough that it doesn’t even make my LinkedIn profile. I was focused on identifying a business model and an area to apply that to. I will get into the business model more in the next couple of posts. It turned out that I had been thinking about the area to apply it to for far longer than I had expected.

In 1995, I co-founded a firm named, at various times, The Sapphire Group and Firewater. We attempted to sell a Web application engine and IDE called PageBlazer.

(branding is hard)

In 1996, I stumbled upon a firm named Unwired Planet. They were partnering with AT&T Wireless on cellphones that could connect to the Internet. While nowadays that is ridiculously common, back then the Internet itself was fairly new to most people, and we were happy if our cellphones could reliably place voice calls. Unwired Planet created the Handheld Device Markup Language (HDML), which described stacks of cards, each designed around a few lines of text, and each supporting soft buttons for navigation between cards. AT&T Wireless created a cellphone that could get to the Internet via a gateway, hit a Web server that served HDML, and render the results. Effectively, Unwired Planet created a “Web” browser, just based around HDML instead of HTML, and designed around simple text interfaces that supported the screen technology used by phones of that era.

I adapted PageBlazer to support HTML and HDML from a single set of source code, in hopes that we could ride a mobile Internet wave. My business partner and I knew that one year, mobile Internet would become huge. 1996 was not that year. The phones’ battery life was best measured in minutes and IIRC never hit the market. Unwired Planet’s HDML eventually formed the foundation of the Wireless Markup Language that in turn was part of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), which enjoyed modest success.

After that, I kept tabs on mobile communications technology, waiting for something to show up that I felt would capture mainstream interest — “crossing the chasm” in Geoffrey Moore’s terms. Many candidates popped up but never reached that sort of attention:

Then, in January 2007, Steve Jobs debuted the iPhone. It was obvious to me at the time that the iPhone was going to be big… but you couldn’t really write apps for it. They had some Web technology that could be used, but it never really took off.

Later in 2007, though, two announcements rocked my world:

  • In October, Steve Jobs announced that they would release a real honest-to-goodness SDK for developing iPhone apps in early 2008

  • A month later, Google announced the formation of the Open Handset Alliance and shipped the first preview release of Android

At this point, I knew, without a doubt, that one or both of those would “cross the chasm” and become mainstream, and that I could build a business supporting one. But, which one?

I’ll get to that decision a few posts from now. But before that decision would be meaningful, I needed a business model. And before that would be meaningful, I needed to address a fundamental problem: I absolutely suck at marketing. How I planned to get past that will be the topic of the next post.