Damn my college Marketing 201 professor. Jack, do you remember that guy? (Jack was my college roommate. He's an IT guy now). My polysci professor had a nickname for me. It was his majesty's opposition. I never went along with anything. Especially the idealistic crap he shoved at us about US rightousness. There was only one explanation for everything. By the end of one semester, my right tricep was buldging from holding my hand in the air for 89 minutes at a time. Finally, the 90th minute would arrive and he'd say, "And now class, it is time for a word from your majesty's opposition. You have 30 seconds before the class is over. Make it quick." Me? Make it quick? 30 seconds to think outside the box?
I liked to argue with my marketing professor too. Back then, in 1981, I didn't buy into his theory that sooner or later, all cars would look the same. Now, I marvel at how all cars look the same. How did he know? OK, not all cars. Saabs still have a trace of non-conformity (but Volvo lost it years ago). And then you have your boutique cars like the Prowler. Porsche has a car that looks like a Toyota and Toyota has cars that look like Honda cars, which bear a striking resemblance to several models of Mercedes.
Sometimes, such imitation covers the finest details. I'm reminded of how the tailights were one of the most distinguishing features on a Mercedes until Ford copied them (I forget which model that was). I used to be able to tell cars apart by their tailights. Not anymore.
As my marketing professor described it, designs invariably aggregate around demand points. Almost 25 years later, his words echo on the display in front of me. Not just on Honda's and Toyota's Web sites. Ranking first among Web portals, Yahoo had nearly 115 million unique monthly visitors in April 2005. Microsoft's MSN and America Online came in second and third. With 78 million "uniques" or "UMVs," Google came in fourth. Newsflash. Google might be copying Yahoo. Or maybe it's just that history is repeating itself (is that newsworthy?). Remember when all search sites looked like the original AltaVista? A lot of folks don't even know what AltaVista is. Oy.
[Sidebar: In describing the Web site's personalization features, Google VP Marissa Mayer, who denied copying Yahoo, said. "We want this to be a walled garden--a good way to start your entree to the Web." I wonder if she knows what the phrase walled garden connotes. Walled gardens are never a good way to start anything.] [Editor's Note 5/23/2005: The quote from the original news story was corrected to say "We don't want this to be a walled garden." Therefore, we can be assume that Mayer is aware that walled gardens are never a good way to start anything.]
Today, AltaVista looks like Google. Google published search APIs. Then Yahoo did. Yahoo News apparently just passed CNN in UMVs. Demand will continue to drive design and imitation. Even though it's not entirely clear from their actions, Steve Gillmor reports that when it comes to RSS, Google gets it and so does Yahoo and even Microsoft. At least internally. I had to laugh. Boy. Wait until they really get it (and they will). Then, they'll really look the same (in our RSS readers). Imagine if, before taking delivery of your new or used car, it had to go to Maaco for an extreme makeover that for all cars involved one color of paint and one kind of taillight.
Damn my marketing professor. He was right. Always has been.