“What’s the next big thing?” I get asked this a lot, and a lot of VCs get asked the same question too about what’s the next big trend/device/web-service/… and that always makes for an awkward detour in whatever conversation preceded the question. The truth is “I don’t know.” And it’s a great answer, because none of us do.
The next big fill in the blank only becomes apparent in hindsight. It’s not that I’m not smart nor anyone else who gets asked this question, it’s just that you can’t really tell. Sure, I’ve got favorites (twitter is now at the top of my list, but I wouldn’t have said that a year ago).
Remember when Google actually was in beta, in 2000? It began appearing on people’s desktops where I worked at RealNetworks. We thought it was cool and efficient, but there were ZERO people talking about it being the next big thing.
Last Thursday’s NY Times had an interesting article about the rising popularity of “netbook” computers, and how these are a big emerging phenomena enabled by a structural technology shift in the computing landscape: we no longer need Microsoft, and probably Intel. The next big thing? Maybe. More on that in a second. Let’s look at newspapers.
Clay Shirky did a phenomenal job explaining the collapse of the newspaper industry on his blog, pointing out it too results from a structural technology shift – the internet. Clay references Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, where she observes that during these technological transformations the only obvious effect in the moment is the destruction of the status quo. What transcends the status quo takes time to emerge. Clay sums this up well: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”
In the case of netbooks, we’re about to see a lot of old stuff get broken, but it’s not clear if netbooks are the transcendent replacement, or just one of the convulsions of the revolution.
But netbooks are significant because they’re exploiting the growing vulnerabilities of Intel (price, performance) and Microsoft (price, legacy support, integration) at the low end in the same way that Apple is (more elegantly) exploiting them at the high end.
Netbooks have traction because they focus on where people spend the majority of their computing time: web-based documents and services, and the consumption of digital media. That’s it.
Whether or not someone buys one, netbooks educate the average citizen that GoogleDocs and a browser are all you need, and that MS Office is both irrelevant and overpriced. My belief is the impact of netbooks will not be felt so much in unit volumes, but as catalysts speeding the unraveling the Office franchise.
But wait, there’s more. How much distance will separate the Office franchise “unraveling” from prying MS’s grip off the operating system? Apple can’t do it, and is smart enough to steer clear of this outcome. Will Android and Linux be good enough at the low end?
We’ve already seen the indifference that’s greeted Windows7, and the reluctance to even adopt Vista, with people scrambling to stick with XP. My family did exactly this in February when our five year-old XP home computer died, and we scrambled to find someone who could sell us a new XP machine (we succeeded). It was an intelligence test. XP or Vista…hmmm.
Maybe this reveals a nuance to Clay’s “revolution” observation. Perhaps the path to destruction takes you through the terrain of irrelevance. What netbooks show us is how irrelevant the once mighty Microsoft and Intel platforms are to the needs of people today. They may be lucrative businesses but they just no longer point to the future like they used to. They’ve become what’s broken in the revolution.
It’ll be exciting to see the new stuff that’s put in place. I’ll be sure to blog about it, after we all see what it is.