The question is, as it has always been: now what?
Decades ago, the answer was, "Build the Internet." Fifteen years ago, it was, "Build the Web." Five years ago, the answers were probably, "Build the social network" or "Build the mobile web." And it was in around that time in 2007 that Facebook emerged as the social
networking leader, Twitter got known at SXSW, and we saw the release of the first Kindle and the first iPhone. There are a lot of new phones that look like the
iPhone, plenty of e-readers that look like the Kindle, and countless social networks that look like Facebook and Twitter. In other words, we can cross that task off the list. It happened.
What we've seen since have been evolutionary improvements on the patterns established five years ago. The platforms that
have seemed hot in the last couple of years -- Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest -- add a bit of design or mobile intelligence to the established ways of
thinking. The most exciting thing to come along in the consumer space between then and now is the iPad. But despite its glorious screen and extended battery life, it really is a scaled up iPhone that offers developers more space and speed to do roughly the same things they were doing before. The top apps for the iPad look startlingly similar the top apps for the iPhone: casual games, social networking, light productivity software.
For at least five years, we've been working with the same operating logic in the consumer technology game. This is what it looks like:
There will be ratings and photos and a network of friends
imported, borrowed, or stolen from one of the big social networks. There will be an emphasis on connections between people, things, and places. That is
to say, the software you run on your phone will try to get you to help it understand what and who you care about out there in the world. Because all that stuff can be transmuted into valuable information for advertisers.
That paradigm has run its course. It's not quite over yet, but I think we're into the mobile social fin de siècle.
It slipped into parody late last year with the hypothetical app, Jotly, which allowed you to "rate everything" from the ice cubes in your drink to the fire hydrant you saw on the street. The fake promo video perfectly nailed everything about the herd mentality among startups. Its creator told me to watch for "the color blue, rounded corners, SoLoMo [SocialLocalMobile], ratings, points, free iPads,
ridiculous name (complete with random adverbing via 'ly'),
overpromising, private beta, giant buttons, 'friction-less' sign up, no
clear purpose, and of course a promo video."
And then, the hilarious parody ate itself and my tears of laughter turned to sadness when the people behind the joke actually released Jotly as a real, live app.
That's the microversion of the state of affairs. Here's the macro version. Thousands of startups are doing almost exactly the same thing, minor variations on a
theme. Tech journalists report endlessly on the same handful of well-established companies. Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and
Microsoft's dominate pieces of the web, and they don't appear to be in shaky positions. Good, long-time tech journalists like Om Malik are exhausted. He recently posted
this to his blog after much ink was spilled over who Twitter hired as a public relations person:
Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts [I] often
wonder to myself, have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel
compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?
There have been three big innovation narratives in the last few years that complicate, but don't invalidate, my thesis. The first -- The Rise of the Cloud -- was essentially a rebranding of having data on the Internet, which is, well ... what the
Internet has always been about. Though I think it has made the lives of some IT managers easier and I do like Rdio. The second, Big Data, has lots of potential applications. But, as Tim Berners-Lee noted today, the people benefiting from more sophisticated machine learning techniques are the people buying consumer data, not the consumers themselves. How many Big Data startups might help people see their lives in different ways? Perhaps the personal genomics companies, but so far, they've kept their efforts focused quite narrowly. And third, we have the daily deal phenomenon. Groupon and its 600 clones may or may not be good companies, but they are barely technology companies. Really, they look like retail sales operations with tons of sales people and marketing expenses.