After five years pursuing the social-local-mobile dream, we need a fresh paradigm for technology startups.
We’re there. The future that visionaries imagined in the late 1990s of phones in our pockets and high-speed Internet in the air: Well, we’re living in it.
“The third generation of data and voice communications — the convergence of mobile phones and the Internet, high-speed wireless data access, intelligent networks, and pervasive computing — will shape how we work, shop, pay bills, flirt, keep appointments, conduct wars, keep up with our children, and write poetry in the next century.”
That’s Steve Silberman reporting for Wired in 1999, which was 13 years ago, if you’re keeping count. He was right, and his prediction proved correct before this century even reached its teens. Indeed, half of tech media is devoted to precisely how these devices and their always-on connectivity let us do new things, help us forget old things, and otherwise provide humans with as much change as we can handle.
I can take a photo of a check and deposit it in my bank account, then turn around and find a new book through a Twitter link and buy it, all while being surveilled by a drone in Afghanistan and keeping track of how many steps I’ve walked.
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 gotknown 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.
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|
The point is that every user of a free service costs the service money. Whereas every user for a paid-for service generates money. What that means is that a growing free site is an acquisition waiting to happen because its developers are burning through ever more cash.
Free applications and services get driven to do other things, too. They must grow quickly and they must collect vast amounts of data and they must acquire your social graph somehow. Even if those things were all good, they would still reduce the variety of startups that seem possible. The only metric that seems to matter with startups is the number of users it has been able to skim from the masses. (Partially because so many can’t get anyone to visit them and partially because so few of them make money.)
It’s not that I think paid software and services will be necessarily be better, but I think they’ll be different.
Speaking of hardware, I think we all better hope that the iPhone 5 has some crazy surprises in store for us later this year. Maybe it’s a user interface thing. Maybe it’s a whole line of hardware extensions that allow for new kinds of inputs and outputs. I’m not sure what it is, but a decently radical shift in hardware capabilities on par with phone–>smartphone or smartphone–>iPhone would be enough, I think, to provide a springboard for some new ideas.
I have some of my own, too. The cost of a lumen of light is dropping precipitously; there must be more things than lightbulbs that can benefit from that. There’s vast amounts of databases, real-world data, and video that remains unindexed. Who knows what a billion Chinese Internet users will come up with? The quantified self is just getting going on its path to the programmable self. And no one has figured out how to do augmented reality in an elegant way.
The truth is, though, I’m a journalist, not an entrepreneur. I know that my contribution is more likely to be distilling a feeling that is already broadly felt rather than inventing the future. Still, I want us to get back to those exciting days where people were making predictions about the affordances of the future that seemed wonderful and impossible. No doubt the future remains unevenly distributed but now, when you get your bit, it seems as likely to include worse cell reception as it does seemingly magical superpowers.
This isn’t about startup incubators or policy positions. It’s not about “innovation in America” or which tech blog loves startups the most. This is about how Internet technology used to feel like it was really going to change so many things about our lives. Now it has and we’re all too stunned to figure out what’s next. So we watch Lana Del Ray turn circles in a thousand animated gifs.
ALEXIS MADRIGAL – Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He’s the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.