Thursday, March 29, 2007

Smithsonian For Sale

It is so easy to pick on the Smithsonian right now.

Verizon Foundation Announces $31 Million Investment in Thinkfinity.org - From the newswire, it seems Verizon is investing in wireless technologies to aid and reinforce learning and one of their newest partners will be the Smithsonian.

“Smithsonian's National Museum of American History was announced as Thinkfinity's 11th content partner. The museum's electronic outreach program creates experiences that incorporate qualities of a museum visit with the flexibility and interactivity of online tools. As a partner, the museum plans to help create family and after-school offerings on Thinkfinity.org.”

Wow, technology, educations, kids and museums... does it get any better? And the name, doesn't thinkfinity sound so much better than Verizon? Much less corporate.

Sarcasm aside, this newest deal with Verizon underscores their greater management problems. The current (and now former) executive team has time and time again failed to understand how public institutions can serve the public in the online and media world without selling vital resources and programs to private interests. As a management decision falls into the same traps that the institute has stumbled through before - misunderstanding the relationship between the public and private sectors (see examples such as content licensing, exclusive corporate access and for-profit tourism partnering) What makes me uncomfortable in this whole stream of services is that the institute continues to hand over viable program mediums to private entities.

In this case, wireless infrastructure and technology are a promising emerging opportunity for organizations to create their own footprint and level of service, not sell it to the first bidder.

So what if this is being routed through a corporate foundation. Given Verizon's vested interest in the infrastructure and direction of the wireless world, I am a little cynical about this "investment" and the idea of philanthropy here. Why the cynicism? In 2002 Verizon effectively abandoned the opportunity to provide wireless coverage of New York City; its parks, citizens, students and museums. Apparently, it was neither visible nor profitable enough to pursue? Why the about-face now?

Two reasons, 1) the Smithsonian undervalued its brand, audience and services and 2) the growth of WiFi has lit a fire under the communications company. As wireless service reaches a critical saturation, the next communication medium (WiFi) is the newest frontier. How better to corner that market than to make kids think Verizon when they education, museums and WiFi services. Remember Apple's committment to education 20 years ago? It was a brilliant strategy for fostering a grass-roots user-base and brand recognition that is paying dividends today. Verizon has taken a page from their books. Great marketing it is, philanthropy it is not.

The Smithsonian should have known better; hopefully increased government oversight will.

9 comments:

Lost Wizard of the Gorn Empire said...

I would like to cite this article about a great mashup and a wireless network in mumbai as a really good example of how we are nowhere near our wireless saturation point yet. Our providers are nowhere near the point where they are offering what _can_ be offered wirelessly, and the ones hinting at it are talking triple digit subscriber fees by the end of the month!

In the US, telco regulation and big business collaboration/price fixing stifles innovation and competition in the emerging technology market. This creates an environment ripe for "helping" non-profits, in order to gain toeholds, or throw towers up in hard to saturate places.

I agree with you that Big V is doing this for its own reasons, rather than philanthropic ones. No corporation of any kind wants free wifi propagated in any widespread area of any major city in the US. Everyone wants to be making as much as they possibly can off subscriber dollars.

Look at New Orleans, and how it was set up to enable communication for a community in need, and then immediately disbanded as soon as there was enough infrastructure presence to justify making people pay for internet/phone service again.

Linking back to the purpose of your dialog, imagine what organizations not in the US (you have cited some good examples since I have started reading) are capable of, when they don't have to play to the tune of the corporate shops here.

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