I also want to note that there are plenty of ambitious startups in energy, healthcare, and education, areas that sorely need innovation. But fascinating technology startups, companies who want to allow regular people to do new stuff in their daily lives? Few and far between. Take a look at Paul Graham's ideas for frighteningly ambitious startups. Now take a look at the last 30 or so startups on Techcrunch. Where are the people thinking big? What I see is people filling ever-smaller niches in this "ecosystem" or that "ecosystem."
FROM FACEBOOK TO FACEBOOK CLONES
Certainly, some of the blame for tech startup me-tooism is just the tendency of startups to cluster around ideas that seem to be working. Social networks? Here's 500! Mobile social plays? Here's another 500! Social discovery apps? Behold 1000! Perhaps that's inevitable as dumb money chases chases smart money chasing some Russian kid who just made a site on which men tended to flash their genitals at web cameras.
But I think the problems go deeper. I don't think Silicon Valley and all the other alleys and silicon places are out of ideas. But I do think that we've reached a point in this technology cycle where the old thing has run its course. I think the hardware, cellular bandwidth, and the business model of this tottering tower of technology are pushing companies to play on one small corner of a huge field.
We've maxed out our hardware. No one even tries to buy the fastest computer anymore because we don't give them any tasks (except video editing, I suppose) that require that level of horsepower. I remember breathlessly waiting for the next-generation processor so that my computer would be capable of a whole new galaxy of activities. Some of it, sure, is that we're dumping the computation on the servers on the Internet. But the other part is that we mostly do a lot of the things that we used to do years ago -- stare at web pages, write documents, upload photos -- just at higher resolutions.
On the mobile side, we're working with almost the exact same toolset that we had on the 2007 iPhone, i.e. audio inputs, audio outputs, a camera, a GPS, an accelerometer, Bluetooth, and a touchscreen. That's the palette that everyone has been working with -- and I hate to say it, but we're at the end of the line. The screen's gotten better, but when's the last time you saw an iPhone app do something that made you go, "Whoa! I didn't know that was possible!?"
Meanwhile, despite the efforts of telecom carriers, cellular bandwidth remains limited, especially in the hotbeds of innovation that need it most. It turns out building a superfast, ultrareliable cellular network that's as fast as a wired connection is really, really hard. It's difficult to say precisely what role this limiting factor plays, but if you start to think about what you could do if you had a 100MB/s connection everywhere you went, one's imagination starts to run wild.
LESS MONEY, MO PROBLEMS
But more than the bandwidth or the stagnant hardware, I think the blame should fall squarely on the shoulders of the business model. The dominant idea has been to gather users and get them to pour their friends, photos, writing, information, clicks, and locations into your app. Then you sell them stuff (Amazon.com, One King's Lane) or you take that data and sell it in one way or another to someone who will sell them stuff (everyone). I return to Jeff Hammerbacher's awesome line about developers these days: "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads."
Worse yet, all this stuff is dependent on machine learning algorithms that are crude and incredibly difficult to improve. You pour more vast amounts of data in to eke out a bit more efficiency. That's great and all, but let's not look at that kind of behavior and call it "disruptive." That is the opposite of disruptive.
The thing about the advertising model is that it gets people thinking small, lean. Get four college kids in a room, fuel them with pizza, and see what thing they can crank out that their friends might like. Yay! Great! But you know what? They keep tossing out products that look pretty much like what you'd get if you took a homogenous group of young guys in any other endeavor: Cheap, fun, and about as worldchanging as creating a new variation on beer pong.
Now, there are obviously exceptions to what I'm laying out. What I'm talking about here is the startup culture that I've seen in literally dozens of cities. This culture has a certain logic. There are organizing principles for what is considered a "good" idea. These ideas are supposed to be the right size and shape. There is a default spreadsheet that we expect ideas to fit onto.
But maybe it's time that changed.
So what's the future hold then? I have a couple of ideas, even if I'm not sure they're the right ones. One basic premise I have is this: More money has got to change hands. Free is great. Free is awesome. Halloween, for example, is my favorite holiday. I love free stuff. But note this chart from the Pinboard
blog, comparing what happens to free sites and paid-for sites/services when they experience growth.
|Stagnant||losing money||making money|
|Growing||losing more money||making more money|
|Exploding||losing lots of money||making lots of money|