With Tech, What’s Old Is New Again

When you watch the technology industry long enough, you begin to see some of the same ideas recycled. Maybe they didn’t catch on the first time because they were too early, or maybe someone out there today believes they’re smarter or can throw more money at the problem and succeed where others couldn’t.

Technology tends to run in cycles, and as it evolves some early failed attempts might be worth another look in the context of more modern infrastructure. In several instances lately, whether streaming video or meal delivery, everything old has become new again.

Streaming Video? Been There, Done That

Meerkat meerkat

Let’s start with video streaming darlings Meerkat and Periscope as a prime example of this phenomenon. These apps take advantage of increasingly sophisticated mobile phones, better mobile broadband and higher-quality cameras on your smartphone to broadcast whatever you’re seeing

For all the hype driving these apps, you would think it’s an innovative idea, but it’s not new. In fact, several companies like Qik and Flixwagon tried this way back in 2007. The founders of these services understood the power of broadcasting from a cell phone. They were just a bit ahead of their time.

In fact, I wrote about these video streaming tools in a feature on Streamingmedia.com in September, 2008:

“Cell phones and cheap video cameras have put the means to create and broadcast video instantly into the hands of ordinary people. When you compound that with new online tools that make it dead-simple to upload video or stream live from a cell phone, virtually anyone can broadcast their own lives or what they are seeing in the world around them. Whether this has any real commercial potential beyond novelty and narcissism is still very much open to question…”

Skype bought Qik in 2011 for $150M and Flixwagon is still out there (although its case study examples on its website date back to 2008). Meerkat and Periscope have captured our imagination as though they were some amazingly original idea. The founders of Qik and Flixwagon could be called the smartphone video pioneers, who just came up with the idea too soon.

Information Rights Management Makes A Comeback

Back in 2008, just as the cloud was beginning to edge into people’s consciousness, companies tried to protect documents on the move (which at the point usually meant email) using a concept called Information Rights Management. It was essentially digital rights management, but instead of trying to protect a piece of digital content like a song or a movie, it was trying to protect a document on the move outside the firewall.

The idea was sound, but in reality at that point in time, it required that the document phone home to a server to check on its status. Is the document still valid or have the rights been revoked? As I wrote in an article in EContent in May, 2008:

“IRM enables an organization to build policies around document types and user groups and to apply a set of rules to ensure that you can apply an element of control when employees share documents. This guarantees that, for instance, a document will expire by a certain date or that only a trusted group can even open a given document. And because the document is always controlled at the server level, it means you can always revoke rights if the situation warrants it,” I wrote at the time.

Well today, a startup called Veradocs, wants to apply the same types of protections, but instead of going through a server behind the firewall, it’s going through the cloud where it’s much simpler and more practical to apply. It’s taking that old IRM concept and applying it in a more modern context.

Bring Me The Food…Again

Instacart BagsWhat was once the butt of jokes can quickly become today’s hit. WebVan is often held as a symbol of the excesses of 90’s Tech Boom. A startup to bring you groceries on demand? What decadence!

As Peter Relan on wrote on TechCrunch in 2013:

“Webvan is well-known as the poster child of the dot-com “excess” bubble that led to the tech market crash in 2000. Business schools around the nation study Webvan’s overly ambitious rush to the biggest IPO to date in Silicon Valley, as a prime example of what to avoid doing while scaling,” Relan wrote.

And now, Instacart, years later, has raised hundreds of millions of dollars at a multi-billion dollar valuation. Kicker: The company was founded in 2012, less than three years ago. That means Instacart has raised more than $2 million per day since it was born. You could say that with smarter phones, better broadband and cheaper cloud services, the technology is in place for an approach like this today. Back in the 90s, you had to pick up the phone or order through a website (which was a fairly radical idea at the time).

Another Try At Messaging Platforms

Then we have the Facebook messaging platform. Some may see this has the height of creative thinking on Facebook’s part, but actually it’s not. It’s a variation of an idea that many companies were trying around instant messaging platforms back in the early 2000s.

Back in those days, you couldn’t go to a conference that didn’t have several corporate instant messaging vendors trying to convince everyone that IM was going to be the center of enterprise computing. You would build your enterprise infrastructure on top of your IM platform. It didn’t happen of course, but at the time there companies devoted to this like FaceTime Communications, which later became Actiance and pivoted away from IM to archiving, governance and compliance.

I wrote an article about this phenomenon back in 2003 for EContent Magazine called Getting the Message: Enterprise IM Goes Mainstream.

“Beyond communicating in real time, the instant messaging system provides the ability to take advantage of what is called “presence awareness,” which is the ability to see that someone is online and accessible. You can extend this concept, so that not only people can see who is online, but applications can do this as well. According to Jeremy Dies, offering manager, Presence and Instant Messaging for IBM Lotus software, IBM is beginning to see a movement away from simple messaging ability to more sophisticated uses that take advantage of presence awareness,” I wrote at the time.

Now Facebook wants to build a consumer platform on top of Messenger that sounds pretty similar to this approach from the early 2000s. It may oriented toward consumers (although Zendesk is one enterprise company using Messenger to let their users talk directly to customers), but it’s a comparable approach in terms of building more sophisticated applications on top of the base communications platform.

Computing Power Here, Computing Power There

iPhone 6+

My personal favorite instance of the ebb and flow of technology trends is where computing power is located. Before PCs, computing power was inherently tied to large, immobile installations. Later, personal computer made their way into the homes of billions, decentralizing processing power.

Next, the Internet made it possible to access computing power located in other places. The rise of the cloud, and its inherent centralization of processing power, has blossomed at the very same time that smartphones have put powerful computers in the pocket or purse of an increasingly large portion of the planet. 

But the irony doesn’t stop: Those same smartphones, with their speedier processors, faster networks, and increasing size, depend on datacenters all the same — the apps that smartphones run often lean on compute power stored off-device. So while we can’t live without the cloud, and can’t live without our smartphones, we’re really just seeing, and enjoying, the seesaw of the balance of compute-location continue to gyrate.

Can Recycled Ideas Work?

Just because an idea isn’t original doesn’t mean it won’t succeed. The world may be more ready for these concepts than when the early companies made their first attempts. When it comes to streaming video, it’s still not any clearer how these companies will make money than it was back in 2007, but surely users, the technology and the infrastructure are more prepared for this type of tool. 

Technology has evolved in a big way over the last 10-15 years. We have smarter smartphones that are truly computers in our pockets. We have a developed cloud infrastructure that as recently as 2008 was still in its infancy. And we have much faster broadband with 3G, 4G and LTE connections driving use cases that were once on the edge of plausible, and creating businesses we hadn’t even imagined.

And let’s not forget the evolution of the app ecosystems and social networks, which also have acted as a driver of much of this technology, letting people share their ideas and bring their friends along — all driven by the ease of apps, the availability of our smartphones and the connection to the cloud. Meerkat became a phenom last month riding a viral wave on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, social systems that were just taking off or didn’t even exist when much of this technology was developed.

All of these technologies have one thing in common. They were tried before and the results weren’t great, partly because the world simply wasn’t ready and the technology infrastructure wasn’t in place. That’s why we’ll continue to see older ideas recycled like this because when it comes to technology, what’s old becomes new again — and maybe this time the world will be ready.