Jeff Bezos explains why gatekeepers are a brake on innovation

Regular readers will no that I’m a long-time fan of Jeff Bezos and Amazon and also that I have a keen interest in the evolving roll of gatekeepers in the internet age (see here and here for two recent posts). For these reasons I was very interested to read the following quote from Jeff Bezos recent letter to his shareholders (reported on Techcrunch):

even well-meaning gatekeepers slow innovation. When a platform is self-service, even the improbable ideas can get tried, because there’s no expert gatekeeper ready to say “that will never work!” And guess what – many of those improbable ideas do work, and society is the beneficiary of that diversity

Whist Bezos is talking his own book here and I suspect the timing of this statement has a lot to do with the ongoing legal battle between Amazon’s self service book publishing platform and the traditional publishing industry, I think he is on the money here. The ‘gate’ that traditional gatekeepers are ‘keeping’ has always been distribution, in the case of book publishing that has been the ability to get books onto shop shelves, and in that environment there is little incentive to innovate. Staying with the book industry as an example – publishers and retailers want reliable sales, and as a result they lack the tolerance for failure that is a pre-requisite for innovation.

As Bezos says, in a self service world there is nobody stopping innovators from trying their experiments. In fact self service platform providers typically encourage experimentation as they benefit from the successful ones and don’t suffer with the failures.

It isn’t all happiness and light though. In this self service world there are new gatekeepers and they are the companies with large audiences – Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google. For the reasons explained above I think these gatekeepers will be more pro-innovation than the businesses they seek to usurp, but they are still self interested companies who will seek to maximise the rent they extract. Worse, some of them may end up in quasi-monopoly positions.