Bundle, unbundle

Jim Barksdale claims that there are “only two ways to make money in business: One is to bundle; the other is unbundle.” An example of this comes from Marc Andreessen’s and Jim Barksdale’s appearance on a HBR podcast:

“The way I think about it is — at least in the world that I work in, sort of tech and Internet media — bundles emerge as a consequence of the current technology. And so the newspaper bundle, the idea of this slug of news and sports scores and classifieds and stock quotes that arrives once a day was a consequence of the printing plant. Of the metro area printing plant, of the distribution network for newspapers using trucks and newsstands and newspaper vending machines and the famous newspaper delivery boy. That newspaper bundle was based on the distribution technology of a time and place.

When the distribution technology changed with the internet, there was going to be the great unwind, and then the great rebundle, in the form of Google and Facebook and Twitter and all these new bundles. I think music is a great example of that. It made sense in the LP and CD era to put eight or 10 or 12 or 15 songs on a disc and press the disc and ship it out and have it sit in storage until somebody came along and bought it.

But, when you have the ability online to download or stream individual tracks, then all of a sudden that bundle just doesn’t make sense. So it collapsed apart into individual MP3s. And I think now it makes sense that it’s kind of re-bundling into streaming services like Pandora and Spotify.”

Another example is provided by this image, which demonstrates the unbundling of Craigslist:

craigslist unbundling

As you can see, Craiglist served as a one-stop shop for a tonne of disparate services—until a swathe of companies realised that they could do one of those things way better.

This is a relatively straightforward concept in business, and I do not want to belabour it. Instead I want to highlight that bundling/unbundling is a concept applicable to more than just business.

First up, consider the paper, “Driven by Compression Progress”. The central idea is that understanding is correlated with succinctness. The greatest examples of this are the laws of the universe—Newton’s Laws of Motion, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and the like. In a few lines, with a few symbols, they condense decades of research and thought.

Compression, in this sense, could be likened to “bundling”. And similar to the business world, bundling is only half the game. Equally important is the unbundling, the splintering of domains and ideas and effort. For example, the bundling that is a universal insight requires long and dedicated research over many years in multiple domains. Only upon such a foundation can a compression or bundling take place.

Another area to which bundling/unbundling can be applied is writing. Consider any longform essay or non-fiction book. It is structured as an undulation between compression and an exploration of the compression’s constituents. For example, a book usually starts with an introduction, an overview of its components and trajectory. The following chapters then deconstruct the components in great detail, before the books ends in a conclusion which reaffirms the main idea and sometimes lends it a new level of insight.

Business; knowledge and the scientific process; writing. All these, and perhaps more, cycle through their own phases of divergence and convergence, bundling and bundling.