Having a 5-year-old son who’s suddenly into science and technology has made me realise that Peter Thiel was on to something with his famous quote: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
My son talks all the time about inventions he wants to build when he grows up. A time machine. A teleporter. A car that can fly and bypass traffic. A spherical shield made up of lasers.
Sure, OK, he’s five. These are not just big ideas, they’re almost impossible. (Until they aren’t.)
But these statements made me reflect on the technological advances I’ve seen in the last couple of years. I’m suddenly sad to realise I haven’t seen anything truly groundbreaking in the field of information technology since the iPhone in 2007.
By groundbreaking, I mean a technology that changed society, changed every other industry in the world. The World Wide Web was groundbreaking. The internet was groundbreaking. The personal computer was groundbreaking.
Think about all the biggest startup trends of the last few years.
- The “on-demand” economy startups like Uber are nice to have, and they’re not trivial to run — they face some very complicated logistical challenges, collect interesting data, and so on. But they’re not groundbreaking. They’re simply taking advantage of a new channel (ubiquitous smartphones) to sell services, just like e-commerce took advantage of the web in the 1990s to sell goods.
- The neverending cascade of trendy social and messaging platforms are just new ways to communicate, not particularly different from Skype, or text messaging, or email, or the telephone. Even enterprise collaboration darling Slack (which I use every day and like a lot) is just domain-specific IRC with a pretty face. Again, people like these products and they’re not easy to build or run, but they’re building on the big platform shift of the smartphone. They’re not groundbreaking.
- Cloud computing is simply a shift from owning to leasing the computing infrastructure necessary to run a business. These leased data centres run by huge providers like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and others take advantage of a lot of innovation over the last 20 years, particularly the ability to move things that used to require expensive new hardware into software (like server and network virtualization), and new ways to store and munge data. Plus, the hardware itself gets cheaper and more reliable every few years. But the cloud is really just the continuing evolution of internet, again.
There are other areas that seem promising but haven’t really lived up to the hype yet, like:
- The Internet of things. Everything’s going to be connected to everything else and throwing off data all the time. So what? This might help businesses run more efficiently, but the consumer applications don’t seem to work very well yet (see these awful Dropcam and Nest experiences) and I haven’t heard or seen a killer scenario that makes me want to upgrade all the devices in my home.
- Wearables. Having an iPhone on my wrist or in front of my eyes doesn’t seem groundbreaking.
- Drones. Cool toys. Apart from taking great video, what will they do for me?
- The explosion of new kinds of data analytics services — nobody ever seems to be able to explain clearly what’s really new and different about each one, and I suspect there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors here and a lot of these products will end up being the cloud era’s equivalent of shelfware.
- Virtual and augmented reality. It demos well, and my kids were excited when I told them about seeing Minecraft superimposed over the real world with Microsoft Hololens. I can’t wait until real people can afford them. What, two more years? Three? (Caveat: The devices all look ridiculous to everybody not wearing them. That could remain a problem.)
- Self-driving cars. OK, this will rule when it finally becomes real. Five years? Ten?
Honestly, the most exciting technology I heard about this year wasn’t from information tech at all — it was biotech, a technology called CRISPR that will basically allow scientists to edit genes.
Incremental improvement is important. Making something a little bit better in a concrete way is sometimes better than aiming for the moon and missing. You need both.
But right now, I’m on the side of Larry Page, who rolled out an entirely new company structure for Google/Alphabet so he could pursue moonshots. I’m with Elon Musk, who’s trying to save the world from carbon emissions AND create privatised space travel. I’m with Peter Thiel. I’m ready for the next moonshot.
So my challenge for Silicon Valley startups and their funders in 2016 is: show me something that my five-year-old son would think worthy of invention. Something we’ll look back on in 10 years and wonder how we ever lived without.