The Butterfly Effect

The $19B purchase of WhatsApp by Facebook topped the tech headlines this week, and while the economics of that deal are beyond me, I did want to comment on the historical what-if reporting.

In particular the assumption that you can change aspects of the past and all else remains the same.

In this case, marveling at the great loss by both Facebook and Twitter that they turned down one of the founders of WhatsApp when he came looking for a job.

The Guardian, for instance, called this an “expensive mistake for Mark Zuckerberg. A $19bn (£14bn) one to be precise.”.

The assumption being that if they had hired him he would have created WhatsApp scale user levels for the messenger product for Facebook. Alternately, perhaps they would have simply stopped him from creating a messaging competitor to Facebook, and that vacuum (which notably was of people who were attracted to an anonymous, lightweight, decoupled messaging product. Pretty much the opposite of everything Facebook has been about) would have been filled by Facebook.

Either is absurd.

It was Acton and his entrepreneur partner’s hunger, driven by rejection, that drove them to succeed. A hunger that seldom appears in an employer/employee situations. And had they not pursued the project, how the market would have filled the void, particularly in the hundreds of millions of extremely low value users of an app like WhatsApp, would almost certainly not be in Facebook’s favor.

The confluence of events, as they happened, yielded the current reality, and barring a quantum computer that can simulate the entirety of existence, we simply have no idea what would have happened otherwise.

Our guesses are almost certainly wrong, as there are an incomprehensibly large number of possibilities. The one thing we can be sure of is that things would be different.

Equally ridiculous is the notion that apps like WhatsApp “cost” carriers, as many have claimed. Such nonsensical scenario envisioning is how many self-destructive strategies are formed.

Such “all else remains the same” reporting is certainly not rare, and in the same week we also heard that “Samsung Could Have Bought Android but Laughed Idea out of the Boardroom.”

Again, the prevailing theme being that boy did Samsung lose out, because look at how successful Android is today. They could have bought in on that success early.

To go back for a moment, Android in the early days was not a compelling OS. Indeed, while I adopted it based upon future promise, on merits it should have failed, and for a good period of time it seemed likely that it would.

It endured solely because of the integration with the compelling, excellent Google services.

Had Samsung bought it, Android would likely have been DoA.

But they would have kept it out of Google’s hands. That would benefit Samsung…somehow?

Probably not.

There was a period when iOS seem poised to own 100% of the bonafide smartphone market, and indeed this fear was what drove the creation of the ragtag Open Handset Alliance. Had the fracture between Google and Apple not developed…

…who knows what would have happened. Maybe WebOS would have had succeeded. Maybe Windows Mobile would have had a better shot. Maybe iOS would be limited only by Department of Justice decrees. Maybe Google would have started from scratch and created a more competitive alternative at the outset.

Who really knows. The reality we live today is the result of countless seemingly minor, incidental interactions, so it’s quite remarkable when we think we can wholesale replace significant events in the past and predict the resulting present with any accuracy whatsoever.