Winners & Losers, By Kieran Levis

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The Independent Culture

Until the Ford Model T – the first affordable, mass-market motorcar – rolled off the production line in 1908, car manufacture was a cottage industry, producing a few vehicles for the wealthy elite assumed to be its only potential customers. Yet by 1920 Ford was making a million Model Ts per year. "If I'd asked people what they wanted," said Henry Ford, "they would have asked for a better horse."

If, in 1990, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos or Sergey Brin had asked us what we wanted, would we have said: a handheld device that contains our entire music collections? An abundantly-stocked virtual bookstore? A catalogue of all human information, instantly searchable from our desktops? No. We would have asked for a bigger Yellow Pages.

In Winners & Losers, subtitled "creators and casualties of the age of the Internet", Kieran Levis presents Ford as a paradigm of the market creator, proving that while today's internet start-ups often operate in uncharted territory, they are still subject to some of the rules that governed business a century ago. Of course, if Levis could really explain the formula for online success, he'd be focusing on his own start-up, not contributing to an antiquated publishing industry. His book is a history, not a handbook. But in this collection of individual tales, he has discerned some patterns.

Those tales are the most compelling sections of the book: breakneck histories of the likes of Amazon, eBay and Google, whose names have all become synonymous with their markets, and of the "casualties": Webvan, IBM and Netscape among them. Though it may seem unlikely now, the story of Apple is one of success and failure in almost equal measure. Like Sony (which created the Walkman but also Betamax), the company's triumphant innovations have been consistent enough to offset its numerous duds and ego-driven follies. Jobs's description of the company's products, "insanely great", could easily be applied to himself.

Internecine conflicts saw Jobs ousted in 1985, but the the company's renaissance – with the iMac, iTunes and iPod – was led by its prodigal founder, who returned as CEO in 1997. Many of the successes in the book came about thanks to a winning combination of iconoclastic creatives and astute businesspeople, such as Masara Ibuka and Akio Morita of Sony. Sometimes, as in the cases of Amazon's Bezos and the reformed Jobs, the two are one.

But not all business leaders were as calculating as Bezos or Jobs: eBay began as Pierre Omidyar's hobby. One apocryphal story suggests he set it up to help his girlfriend complete her collection of Pez dispensers. Google was the result of an ambitious PhD project. When Brin and Larry Page, its creators, were given their first venture capital, the cheque for $100,000 lay in Page's desk drawer for weeks.

One of the book's most pertinent lessons is that being a market creator doesn't automatically make you a market leader. eBay, as the net's first user-to-user auction site, may have benefited from the positive "feedback loops" of its customers. But this theory of "first mover advantage" was disproven by Netscape, which created the internet browser only to be buried by Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Apple invented the personal computer but saw their market lead soon superseded; even Ford's dominance of the early car market was overturned by General Motors.

Meanwhile, many web businesses were so enamoured of their ideas that they neglected to think of their customers. Louis Borders, founder of Webvan, created a brilliant hi-tech system for internet grocery retail, but forgot that people like to squeeze their own grapefruits before buying them. Webvan went bust in 2001.

During the five years it has taken Levis five years to write this book, a whole new generation of winners or losers like YouTube, MySpace, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg or Twitter's "Jack, Ev and Biz" have emerged. As the author points out, these immensely popular sites are "intriguing social epidemics, but as yet unproven business models." But the speed of change remains a problem. Since the book went to press, AOL has parted company with Time Warner; Amazon has released its Kindle 2; Microsoft, which has a history of deposing its rivals, has launched Bing, its potentially "Google-killing" search engine. All could be game-changers. Complete a book on them by July, and it may already seem dated.