"There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning."
-Louis L'Amour in Lonely on the Mountain
Gartner Hype Cycle
In preparation for an upcoming event, Scott Kirsner, columnist for the Boston Globe and observer of the local high tech scene, challenged participants to come up with what they thought were some of the biggest growth opportunities right now in technology.
My first thoughts were to look to life sciences and clean energy, but both require enormous capital outlays, which are in short supply these days, and/or scientific breakthroughs. That seemed to put the time horizon beyond Scott's "right now" requirement and led me to William Gibson's observation that the future is already here - it's just unevenly distributed. I just needed to sort out where various things were on the Gartner Hype Cycle. So in preparation for answering Scott's question, here are some thoughts on the hot areas of the moment:
Social Media. Mary Hodder may regret having popularized the term now that it seems everyone you meet is a "social media consultant," your Mom is on Facebook, Ashton Kutcher has a 1.5 million Twitter followers and Oprah is catching up fast, but Twitter and Facebook don't seem to be anywhere close to their peak. Sure it's possible that some new company will improve on the concept and eat their lunch (anyone remember Alta Vista?) and Twitter will probably get sold for a billion dollars before anyone figures out its business model, but people will always want to keep up with their friends and, more importantly, tap into a web of people they trust to find information and make decisions. A local company that I am advising, Daily Grommet, is applying this concept to e-commerce, which may be the way someone finally figures out how to make money with this stuff.
Cloud Computing. The idea that the heavy lifting of computing could be centralized and professionally managed has come and gone and had more variations than anyone can count: mainframes, time-sharing, client-server, thin client, Application Service Provider (ASP), Software as a Service (Saas). Most of these never took off because they couldn't match the responsiveness of a personal computing device given the available bandwidth. Cloud Computing is different in that instead of trying to persuade the end-user to give up his PC, it is aimed at getting the IT manager to give up his server. The advantage is not just the economy of scale but the convenience of being able to quickly ramp up that scale without making major capital investments. I knew cloud computing had arrived when one of the engineers I'm working with decided to postpone installing the server he was building and just pulled out his credit card and put the app he was building on Amazon's EC2. Boston has always favored IT infrastructure companies and should offer plenty of opportunity as IT managers everywhere look for ways to manage their applications in the cloud. We'll know that cloud computing has finnaly reached the Plateu of Productivity when Google either abandons its proprietary platform or opens it completely to the outside world.
Voice and Video over IP. Boston has a long history in the telecommunications industry, going back to Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. As I wrote previously, voice and especially video has been through multiple cycles but now that bandwidth is cheap and easily available it is taking off. The opportunity here is not just in saving money over plane tickets or toll calls but also in the integration of communication into everyday applications. VSee Labs, is in a good position to do both. While it is mainly a west coast company, I am holding down the Boston office.
Mobile Computing. This is another area that plays to Boston's strengths. The tight control the wireless operators have traditionally exercised over the platform has made innovation difficult, but Apple's iPhone and Google Android have started to open things up. There is still the problem of how to make money - although there are thousands of apps in the Apple App Store, they don't sell for a lot of money and the average user doesn't use most of them for long, but as mobile platforms become more powerful they will supersede the PC for many applications, especially for advertising and commerce.
When in doubt, keep in mind what Roy Amara, past president of The Institute for the Future, said:
Thursday, June 25, 2009 from 6:00 PM - 8:30 PM (ET)
School of Management
595 Commonwealth Ave.
Boston, Massachusetts 02215