Back in January, Tech Crunch published an article on this subject called Stack Fallacy, written by Anshu Sharma of Storm Ventures. Then today I read this Business Insider article on the reason why Dropbox is failing and it is the Stack Fallacy. Sharma describes Stack Fallacy as “the mistaken belief that it is trivial to build the layer above yours.”
Many companies trivialize the task of building layers above their core competency layer and that leads to failure. Oracle is a good example, where they thought it was no big deal to build applications (watching the success of SAP in the ERP layer initially built on the Oracle database). I remember a meeting with Hasso Plattner, founder of SAP back in the early 1990s when I was at Oracle. He said SAP was one of the biggest customers of Oracle at that time and now Oracle competes with them. For lack of any good answer, we said that we are friends in the morning and foes in the afternoon and welcomed him to the world of “co-opetition”. Subsequently SAP started moving out of Oracle DB and was enticed by IBM to use DB2. Finally SAP built its own database (they bought Sybase and built the in-memory database Hana). Oracle’s applications initially were disasters as they were hard to use and did not quite meet the needs of customers. Finally they had to win the space by acquiring Peoplesoft and Siebel.
Today’s Business Insider article says, “…a lot of companies often overvalue their level of knowledge in their core business stack, and underestimate what it takes to build the technology that sits one stack above them. For example, IBM saw Microsoft take over the more profitable software space that sits on top of its PCs. Oracle likes to think of Salesforce as an app that just sits on top of its database, but hasn’t been able to overtake the cloud-software space they compete in. Google, despite all the search data it owns, hasn’t been successful in the social-network space, failing to move up the stack in the consumer-web world. Ironically, the opposite is true when you move down the stack. Google has built a solid cloud-computing business, which is a stack below its search technology, and Apple’s now building its own iPhone chips, one of the many lower stacks below its smartphone device”.
With reference to Dropbox, the article says that it underestimated what it takes to build apps a layer above (Mailbox, Carousel), and failed to understand its customers’ needs — while it was investing in the unimportant areas, like the migration away from AWS. Dropbox is at a phase where it needs to think more about the users’ needs and competing with the likes of Google and Box, rather than spending on “optimizing for costs or minor technical advantages”.
Not sure, I agree with that assessment. Providing efficient and cost-effective cloud storage is Dropbox’s core competency and they are staying pretty close to that. The move away from AWS is clearly aimed at cost savings, as AWS can be a huge burden on operational cost, plus it has its limitations on effective scaling. In some ways, Dropbox is expanding its lower layers for future hosting. It’s focus on enterprise-scale cloud storage is the right approach, as opposed to Box or Google where the focus is on consumers.
But the Stack Fallacy applies more to Apple doing its own iPhone chips, or Dell wrongfully going after big data. At Oracle the dictum used to be, “everything is a database problem – if you have a hammer, then everything looks like a nail”.