It’s a weird time in Silicon Valley.
VCs still have lots of money to invest in startups, and many big companies have a ton of cash to spend on acquisitions, but nobody’s quite sure what to bet on.
In several recent conversations, I’ve heard a kind of wistfulness about the early days of the smartphone.
Back in 2009, it was easy to see where technology was going. You could tell the first time you used an iPhone: Some time soon, everybody in the world would be carrying an incredibly powerful device that connected to the internet from almost everywhere. It would change everything, from communications to shopping.
There were a lot of wars to be fought and questions to be answered along the way. We didn’t know who’d end up owning the dominant platform (Apple and Google). We didn’t know which incumbent companies would adapt too slowly to the change (Yahoo), which would play it just right (Facebook), and which new opportunities would arise or who would capture them (Uber).
But everybody agreed that smartphones were going to change everything, and there would be a bunch of $10 billion and even $100 billion companies to come out of the shift.
That’s all done now.
So what’s the equivalent of the 2009 iPhone today? Some candidates:
- AI and chatbots. The biggest tech companies and some entrepreneurs are betting heavily on artificial intelligence and chatbots, which could provide a new way for us to interact with technology. Instead of typing in a search or opening an app, we’d just ask a piece of software to accomplish a complicated task, like “Help me figure out what to bring to my brother’s house for dinner.” Better yet, they’d remind us and tell us what to do before we even asked. Here, the big obvious opportunity is getting consumers to upgrade all the devices and software they will need to use new bots, and getting marketers to pay to reach customers through them.
- Robots and industrial automation. The “Internet of things” hype cycle has passed, but a lot of VCs and big companies like GE are making bets on hardware that fits into this broad category, mostly for businesses rather than consumers. Think drones (and anti-drone defence — watch that space!), robots to help in warehouses, industrial sensors and the analytics software to help companies make sense of all that data, and so on. Here, the obvious opportunity is selling equipment to companies who are moving too slowly and in danger of being disrupted.
- Transportation. Apple, Google, and Uber are all working on self-driving cars, but even before we get there — which could take a decade or more — there’s lots of opportunity in interim steps that move people away from car ownership. Think car-sharing services, or services like Uber Pool that could replace car ownership. And that doesn’t even get into business transportation like deliveries or long-haul trucking. In addition to the huge long-term opportunity, Detroit carmakers are running scared, which could provide nice short-term exits for clever startups — like Cruise, which GM bought for a price tag reportedly over $1 billion, more than 10x its last valuation.
- Computers you put on your head. Whether it’s virtual or augmented reality, the tech industry is obsessed with the idea that we’ll someday walk around with a computer strapped in front of our eyeballs. The “nerd” factor seems a lot higher than it did with the iPhone — seeing someone with an Oculus strapped to their face tends to inspire pity rather than envy, although as the devices get smaller and sleeker that should disappear. Plus, there are a lot of opportunities that haven’t really been explored yet, like realistic virtual meetings where everybody can actually hear and see the people in other locations, or remote education opportunities that are more exciting than Sal Khan explaining maths concepts on a digital blackboard. (Sadly I can’t get my daughter excited about Khan Academy no matter how I try; personally I think he’s great.)
But the trouble is, none of these fields has had their mind-blowing “I just played with an iPhone for the first time” moment yet.
We’re all waiting for the first self-driving car that can pick us up at home and drop us at work on time, or the first intelligent assistant that can warn us when our mother-in-law’s coming to stay and send a courier pick up that exact Chardonnay she always expects to be in the fridge.
Until then, as one investor put it, the tech world is at sea, dog paddling and waiting for the next big wave to come.