Sunday, November 28, 2010

Facebook & the Original Idea

After watching an interesting movie, I make it a point to go online to read the articles & points of view that are presented on it. It helps to know the 'various versions of truth'. Movies, after all, burnish specific positions in order to segue into a particular outcome. While that works well on screen where a five year period can be compressed into a slick & compact 120-minute capsule, life events are much slower and more nuanced. Last night, it was time to watch 'The Social Network', the excellent film on the founding of Facebook and adapted from the book 'The Accidental Billionaires', and do some follow-up reading.

Mark Zuckerberg is indeed a genius. You don't have to watch the movie or read the book to tell you that. For those of us that long looked for a delightful, easy-to-use application to express our thoughts, stay in touch, post pictures, and see what others are up to, Facebook is a beauty. It has kept content clutter-free and exquisitely easy. The Wall is your canvas to post your musings. Boxes allow you to diversify and add color. The Search helps you pull out long lost friends out of the forest. In short, Facebook is everything what you want it to be.

But what was niggling about the movie and various articles was Mark Zuckerberg, the person. Now I really don't care that his earlier application Face Mash was written to spite his (ex)-girlfriend. Nor do I care much about the fact that he once read mails of other Facebook members. People do stupid things, and one's actions at the age of 21 must not really frame one's character.

But my specific grouse is with the ownership of ideas. Very clearly, Facebook was NOT Mark's original idea. He heard it from fellow Harvard students, the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra. They wanted him to join them and build this application that would keep Harvard students connected. Equity ownership was discussed. Everyone agreed to them. There were no contracts, but for heaven's sake, this is college life when one still experiments. No one thinks of contracts as much as wanting to build something cool.

Right after hearing the idea from them in December 2003, the movie depicts Mark Zuckerberg telling him as being hard pressed for time while building Facebook in the background. And in an incredible two months, is launched. Records in public domain present a slightly different - and a more devious - picture. Mark actually told his 'partners' for a while that he was building their application. There were even white-board sessions where he outlined some code. In short, he was keeping them close so that they would not go to a different person to build this application. And once his code was finished, he just turned around to tell them that the idea would never take off while launching his own site with the exact same idea.

Bill Gates also faced a lot of public criticism while he built Microsoft. His testimony during the anti-trust trial against Microsoft was widely panned. The contribution of Microsoft to the demise of the original browser, Netscape, was deemed heavy-handed. There were also lawsuits about ownership of code. But say what you want, nobody accused Microsoft of stealing the idea that constituted very core of the company.

And that precisely is Mark Zuckerberg's problem. The perception in the public domain is that he is a cheat. That he did not give credit to his Harvard mates who came up with the idea, and that it took him ages to share the profits. He may be the world's youngest billionaire, but it is clear that from now on, he needs to do a lot of incredibly good things for the rest of his life to erase this blot. For now however, my respect of him has been lowered by miles.


Jaideep Rao said...

Eventually a trusted oral contract broken and a 65 Million out of court settlement between 'friends'..and one more thing, these days one's actions at the age of 21 sometimes really defines one's character. Good one Arun-keep them coming

Arun Kumar said...

Thanks Jaideep. I agree. Also, the $65m settlement is being contested since the twins now say that the value was a lot less than what it was presented to be. Apparently they thought they were given preferential shares that do not dilute in value but they ended up with common stock that did dilute. I think we are yet to see the last word on this saga.

mahesh thipparthi said...

I did watch the movie recently.Though a greta fan of facebook...can't be fan of youngest billionaire.