re-solved problems (mini-📝 45/100)

After the vegas trip, I was looking through the Google Photos shared album we had set up, and I was incredulous to find that they have added an entire new chat interface. It basically looks like a social network for photos now, chock full of all those traditional features: read receipts, instant messaging, comments and likes. It feels as if people at Google wanted to give Google+ another try... or maybe replicate the tens of other messaging solutions that Google has implemented. Given the prior history here, it was comical to run into this bloated feature in an app that I use often for a very clear need.

I’m not saying it isn’t useful—of course, it’s useful to just be able to chat within the context of your photos, but it’s not really where you want to be talking. It’s trying to take over a job that will never be fulfilled by Google Photos because Google Photos is a photos app, not a messaging one and people will always turn to dedicated messaging and social apps to fulfill that job. Another example that has stuck in my mind when I was shopping teams at Airbnb is what one of the executives of their payments org boasted to me.  They said that they serve more payment volume than Stripe and as a result, have built a more robust system and might even consider spinning it out as a standalone product. Well, it’s been a couple years since then, and it seems like that proposition never pulled through. I’d imagine it’s nice to talk about in theory, but creating something in the context of “this is a means to an end for a main product and company identity” will always frame the new platform as second-class, even if it is better than any dedicated third-party out there. It shows that generalizability and universal accessibility for software solutions is crucial to how impactful they are to the broader society. Elegance doesn’t matter if it’s not being enjoyed by a broad group of people.

I wonder what it looked like to start development on this project from the inside. I started imagining the product teams that had to work on that and the play-by-play that went through their head. Were they thinking about how the many Google messaging attempts before (Allo, Hangouts, etc.) had solved this already and they were rehashing the same problem again, or did they dive in with blissful ignorance about a "hard, engaging, impactful" problem? It’s pretty frustrating that so many solved problems are re-solved because they are done for a different company (or in this case just in a different part of the company in a different context). It’d be fine if we lived in a utopian world, but it’s even more frustrating that we have many unsolved problems that are the reason for our race’s impending doom.

In the end, we end up with a bunch of "SaaS" providers that try to solve that problem generically for different providers and people, but they are one-size-fit-all solutions to very specific problems. Ideally, we’d be able to support personal, situated software, so that companies and individuals could build on existing solutions (perhaps open-sourced?) that the community has built to fit their specific needs (one of our driving theses at Coda). In this way, we could continue growing and building upon our knowledge, compounding our returns. It’s the same concept as digital gardening, where you cultivate your knowledge over time as you would take care of a garden. How did we end up in a place where some of the smartest people in our society are stuck re-solving the same hard problems and re-implementing the same solutions we’ve seen before?

Is it that we idolize hard problems but not useful problems? Does the incentive for copyright and intellectual property driven by profit-seeking companies discourage any sharing or community-building? How do we push society towards a more neighborly commune that supports our shared progression?

I’m heartened by the growing momentum around pushing for open source and community-driven governance models (like DAOs) as well as the growing momentum around personal software and personal data ownership.

This is the 45th installment in my experiment of publishing raw, lightly edited mini-essays every day towards achieving 100 public pieces. Check out the rationale and the full list here or view my evergreen, longer pieces on my website.