Catching The Next Wave

April 8, 2008

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Every now and then a set of technologies gets twisted together by a small group of dedicated people, and a new industry is born — a watershed event that demonstrates a new way of thinking about things, and throws out a lot of old rules.

There are a three that are coming together to trigger another watershed.

The first is open, popular, mobile Internet devices.  Think Blackberry, iPhone, or the slew of new MIDs that Intel showed off a few days ago in Shanghai.   These are built around the assumption of ubiquitous access to the Internet, high resolution displays, multimedia capabilities, and a bit of horsepower under the hood.  Any college student can get their hands on the Android or iPhone or Windows Mobile SDKs and build a hot little application in their spare time.

The second is web services.  It doesn’t matter if it’s WS* or REST or XML or JSON — the point is being able to query and manipulate data at a distance, with open protocols across public and private networks.  Pick your web framework of choice … building a web service is almost a drag and drop process today.

The third and final piece is cheap and scalable cloud computing.  The physical infrastructure capable of serving billions of transactions is available to anyone with a credit card and a little spare time on the weekend.  Amazon’s Web Services, Google’s App Engine, and a slew of smaller providers sell scalable computing and bandwidth by the hour and gigabyte.

These three fit together to form a fundamentally different picture of mobile computing:  light weight applications that fit in your pocket that take advantage of the local hardware, but seamlessly tap into “Internet scale” computing power and storage.

I’ve talked with a dozen entrepreneurs in as many months who are exploring these waters.  Streaming media (push and pull), information discovery and analysis, mobile social interactions, and location aware applications all depend on this trinity of capabilities.  I’m just one guy in a groundswell of people who are looking at the landscape and thinking “hot damn!”

What makes this so exciting is how easy it is to do today.  You don’t need a dozen engineers and a multi-million dollar budget.  You don’t need to negotiate with a corporate gatekeeper.  You don’t need to pitch to VCs.  You don’t need to wait.

2009 is going to bring a wave of media rich, location aware, always connected mobile applications to hundreds of millions of people.  I’m confident we’ll see a real forehead slapper by the end of 2008 — a tool or service that is painfully obvious, but fundamentally changes how we think about a day to day task.  It’ll make a millionaire or two, at the very least.

This will be fun.  🙂

Airplanes are Magic

February 6, 2008

At the moment I’m about 30,000 feet above the ground, speeding away from Portland at close to 600 miles per hour. This is essentially a magical phenomenon.

I use the word “magic” because it’s outside the bounds of our narrow range of direct human experience. We’re higher than the peak of Everest, and moving ten times faster than a motorcycle speeding down the highway … but I can’t hold my hand out the window, or feel the bite of the cold on my cheeks. I can look out my little peep hole, but I can’t interact with the world outside because I simply wouldn’t survive it.

So we can only talk about flying in mathematical abstractions — and yet, here I am, streaking through the sky with a bunch of tired commuters in a little aluminum tube.

I can understand why doctors and engineers have historically been considered magicians (or witches), lumped in with the superstitious clergy. Today we’re (mostly) enlightened to the distinction between science and the supernatural, but that doesn’t address the deep disconnect between our experiential intuition, and our modern world. We are still required to have a kind of faith when casually interact with the mechanical, chemical, and biological marvels around us.

I think the foundation of this faith in technology is complexity — or, rather, our incapacity to fully understand the complexity of our world. If we look at the first age of technology, we can comprehend the entirety of almost every particular device: guns, winches, pianos, looms, and so forth. They existed within the “human” scope of nature, where a single individual could potentially observe, understand, and reconstruct any given device. It certainly required genius to conceptualize and create these things, but the scope of technology was mostly limited to an individuals capacity.

Things are a little different today. The airplane I’m riding in is the result of trillions of calculations, tens of thousands of people, and dozens of companies. The blades in the turbines, the plastics in the windows, the fuel in the wings, the avionics, the control surfaces — each of these are the result of thousands of hours of research, testing, and development.

So, it’s simply not possible for any one person to fully comprehend, much less reconstruct a modern commercial airliner from it’s elemental components. From this perspective, commuting to San Jose is essentially a magical experience for the individual, a faith based initiative of sorts.

Of course, there is a fundamental difference between faith in technology, and faith in the supernatural: this airplane does not exist or operate because of mystical hand waving and incantations, rather, those tens of thousands of people, as a collective, fully comprehend this aircraft and continue to reproduce and improve upon it’s design.

I guess “magic” might not be the best word for this experience, but it sure feels like a good fit. I remember watching magicians as a kid, cajoling them to pull the rabbit out of the hat, or make the quarter disappear. It feels the same when I get on an airplane, or when I see one fly over head — something special is happening.