Disruptive Tendencies

1. The End Is Nigh!

Early on Day One of Disrupt SF, Silicon Valley legends Peter Thiel and Max Levchin came out on stage with a grim message of doom: “Innovation in the world today is somewhere between dire straits and dead … outside of computers and the Internet, we’ve had forty years of stagnation.” Meanwhile, Startup Alley boasted a large number of trivial, me-too apps, all too often marketed as “Airbnb for X” or “the gamification of Z” or “the business card … reinvented!” The judges were acutely aware of this: one of them dryly commented, re JiffPad, “It’s nice to see people tackling harder problems than restaurant check-ins.”

All true. But this relative stagnation is, at least to some extent, an inevitable corollary of previous innovations. It’s unfair to compare any other field to “computers and the Internet,” since we’re governed by Moore’s Law and have been for fifty years; that kind of exponential growth just isn’t going to happen in any other industry. One subtle side effect is that innovative minds are naturally drawn towards the one domain where exponential growth sheds revolutionary new possibilities every few years. That leaves a thinner talent pool for other fields.

Something similar, albeit smaller, is happening with mobile/local/social. Facebook, Twitter, Apple and Android have opened up whole new territories of innovation, including a new crop of low-hanging fruit, and we shouldn’t be surprised that most ambitious young startups are trying invade and harvest that space rather than tackling harder problems. That’s what looks like a bubble: but a lot of smart people have a more nuanced take, like Indy Guha of Bain Capital, who says, “it’s not a bubble, it’s just frothy.”

Yes, it was really depressing going straight from a keynote interview with Elon Musk, who builds electric cars and spaceships, to an excited announcement of a new platform that “lets you build mobile games for two platforms at once!” Woo. Hoo. Sigh. But we have ever been a species that prefers amusement to exploration. To my mind it’s still a little too early to howl, a la Allen Ginsberg, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Facebook.” But do let’s keep a wise eye on the possibility.

2. Location, Location, Location

VCs there all seemed to agree: if you want to start a company, move to Northern California.

Michael Arrington disputed this onstage, and asked the crowd, who seemed to mostly agree with him … but I think they were wrong. It’s true there are hotspots elsewhere, eg Israel, but every industry has natural centres of power. If you want to make movies, there are plenty of second-tier power centres, eg France, New York and Mumbai, but L.A. still dominates. Similarly, if you want to build a startup, you can do it elsewhere, but Silicon Valley remains our Hollywood.

Now, this won’t always be the case. Bollywood may one day outpower Hollywood. Even as I type this, a Chinese company is apparently planning the biggest Web IPO ever. Eventually the centers of power may shift — but let’s not confuse predicting the future with thinking that it’s already arrived.

3. Hit The Road, Jack

I suspect TC Disrupt will be remembered in part as the event where mobile travel apps finally erupted into the mainstream. I particularly liked Triptrotting, which lets travellers connect with locals who want to meet them, and TourWrist, remote travel via augmented reality. Then there were Trippy; Audience Choice winner Vocre; and Gowalla’s announcement that they are essentially pivoting to become a travel guide. Add that all to last week’s Triposo, and the trend is clear.

This faintly saddens me personally, because it probably means my own WikiTravel / OpenStreetMap mash-up pet project will no longer be the best free Android/iPhone guide-to-anywhere — but at the same time, it’s about freaking time. Of course travel is going to be all about mobile, and of course the future of travel guides is crowdsourced data on smartphones. I’ve seen a bunch of complaints that this only works if you travel with a roaming plan, and many people don’t. That’s true for some of these apps, but look where the puck is going. Roaming costs are diminishing, and eventually they’ll disappear. Yes, I said “disappear.”

4. Shaker, Rattle and Roll

That’s right. Shaker won. Many were appalled. I was not.

Don’t get me wrong — I would have voted for Bitcasa, who I think were head, shoulders, and torso above all the other competitors, and potentially a huge game-changer. I was really disappointed by the judges’ questions during their session, and I wasn’t alone…

…but I still really liked Shaker.

Let me just take a moment to demolish the complaints that there have been other attempts in this space (eg Habbo Hotel) that went nowhere. When the iPhone came out, people said “History shows Apple can’t do mobile devices, look at the Newton.” When Facebook took off, many people were bewildered; didn’t the world already have Tribe.net, Friendster, and MySpace? To be clear, I am not predicting that Shaker as going to be as big as Facebook or the iPhone: I’m saying that “something like this been done before, and it didn’t work” is almost never a valid criticism. The question is, has it been done right?

And Shaker might be doing it right. I had mixed emotions about them at first –

but then I warmed to them:

Obviously not everyone felt the same…

…but for what it’s worth…


5. Grab Bag
A few other things I saw that I liked:

Image credit: JD Lasica, Flickr.