The Mobile/Social/Local/Cloud Land Grab Is Over

This was my second TechCrunch Disrupt, and what a difference a year makes.

Not this year. I mean the year that began in July 2006, when Twitter launched. Two months later, Facebook finally opened up to everyone worldwide; in June 2007, Dropbox was founded; and one month after that, the first iPhone went on sale. Since then nearly everyone else has been playing in the space opened up by those four pioneers.

Oh, I’m not saying they were the first social networks, or the first cloud-service startup, or even the first smartphone. But they were the first to win truly mass appeal, the first to reveal the riches available in whole new continents of unclaimed territory — mobile! social! local! cloud! Since then, legions of copycats and competitors have rushed in to stake their own claims in these undiscovered countries where the streets seemed paved with gold.

Not any more. That land rush is over. And this is a very good thing.

Oh, there may be a few Shangri-La valleys left in the more obscure and inaccessible regions–for instance, increasing battery life will open up new space for always-on apps like Highlight and Chronos–but the vast majority of this new territory has now been mapped, surveyed, claimed, and occupied. It’s not nearly enough just to take an existing market and go after it with an app and/or a cloud service powered by social-media-crowdsourced data. Not any more. Because over the last five years, the free market has worked its magic, and what was once terra nullius is now thick with incumbents.

Last year I wrote, “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.” Well, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor (and the uncomfortable neocolonial overtones of land grab), that low-hanging fruit is gone. Software startups now have to start climbing the tree.

Which in some sense is bad news for them. They’ll have to work harder, and be smarter, and struggle longer, and they may need more people. The days of one-(wo)man-band operations like Instapaper and DuckDuckGo may be over…although I’m less certain about this, seeing as how the tools of development do keep getting simpler, better, faster and more powerful.

Regardless, it’s good news for the rest of us. I’ve been lamenting sugar-water startups for some time now, and I am pleased to report that the prospects for such nonentities are finally beginning to get grimmer and grimmer. The last five years of software startups have (mostly) been little more than the shockwave emanating from the big bangs of 2006-07. Now, at last, we can start getting ready for the next eruption.

Because there’s a new one coming. Software continues to eat the world–but I believe the name of the next big boom is hardware. Somebody a few years hence will write an article much like this one, looking back on the incredible hardware boom, and it will begin with a brief history of Arduino, MakerBot, and TechShop. We saw it simmering at Disrupt this year; Lit Motors won runner-up, and I found Hardware Alley more interesting than almost all the software startups. The hardware cycle is slower than that of software, so its boom may take ten years to peak, rather than three or four…but it’s coming. My advice is to get in and stake your claim now.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons