Tech journalists are bored with Facebook. I learned this last week when I read an editorial in a magazine I usually appreciate for the quality of its journalism. The piece I read was in the technology section of the online edition. The author described how tech journalists are burned out with the mobile-local-social startup scene and expressed the hope that a new technology paradigm would appear soon.
I’m sure he’s right that journalists have thoroughly exhausted the subject of mobile Internet convergence and the social web. It’s not just tech journalists and bloggers who are bored with the topic either, everyone is bored with hearing about Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Instagram and their hundreds of clones. Everyone except those in the late majority who’ve just discovered them, that is. He’s also right that most social media startups are remarkably alike; there’s little new.
Despite the truth in this, I was annoyed.
I’m not going to name the author or link to his article because I used to enjoy reading him, and I don’t want my reaction to be taken personally. My quibble is rather with the logic. The argument went something like this:
For the last five years, the goal of consumer technology has been the same: get users to import a network of friends from a big social network and let them rate and share things like photos; focus on connections between people, places and things; create a user experience that lets the device understand who and what the users care about in the real world, because that’s what will generate valuable information for advertisers.
He went on to address mobile Internet devices. Again, I’ll paraphrase:
The mobile phone tool set hasn’t changed in the last five years either. The iPhone 4 has the same components as the 2007 iPhone: audio, a touchscreen, a camera, a GPS, an accelerometer, and Bluetooth. App developers have run the gamut of what’s possible with this palette, and there aren’t any new amazing applications being developed anymore.
Finally, a throw-away remark to top it all off,
Although there have been lots of ambitious startups in areas that deserve attention like energy, healthcare and education, there just aren’t any compelling new technology startups whose goal is to allow regular people to do something new in their daily lives.
My reaction to all this was “Wait, what?!” It sounded to me like the author was caught up in a paradigm.
We’re stuck in a rut with the same social media feature set in consumer technology! What? When did social networking become the raison d’être of consumer electronics?
All social media startups look the same! Well, duh.
Consumer electronics innovation has stalled. See? There aren’t any new revolutionary iPhone apps! Huh? When did smart phone apps become the sole objective of consumer technology?
The only innovation that counts is that which will give us new hardware on our iPhones so we can get inspiration for new apps. What planet is this guy on?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that as long as there’s easy money to be had copying someone else’s idea and social media business model, scores of companies are going to try to cash in. By definition, most of them will look the same, too. If that’s gotten boring to write about, well, then look somewhere else. Get out of the echo chamber! What exactly do these guys think the energy, healthcare and education startups are trying to do if not allow “regular people to do new stuff in their daily lives?”
Not everyone lives 24/7 on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+. In fact, most real people don’t. Log off Facebook for a while and go meet some of these people.
Maybe the problem is that once you’re stuck in the paradigm, you can’t see past it. This is a problem innovation managers and product designers are frequently confronted with. Ask users what they want, and most of them won’t be able to tell you. They’ll give you ideas for incremental improvements on existing products, but they haven’t been trained to think about what they don’t know. They also seldom have the vision to see how seemingly small innovations in individual product features or hardware can sometimes lead to transformational changes in the way the device is used.
Another explanation is not so pretty. Could it be that tech journalists are themselves dependent on this ad-driven business model? Perhaps the problem is that innovation outside of the latest social media startup isn’t happening fast enough to crank out enough original posts per day to drive those users to click your links, share them on Facebook and reap the rewards of those CPMs.
Amazing innovation is everywhere.
To name a few examples from mobile devices alone, over the past few years consumer electronics has seen live traffic updates for GPS devices, light field imaging cameras like the Lytro, and affordable pico projectors. Most disruptive change in consumer electronics devices is relatively slow. It took well over a decade after instant cameras for digital cameras to appear. Mobile phones went mainstream in the ’90s but it wasn’t until the 21st century that smartphones did. I don’t find anything unusual about the fact that for the last five years the main components of a smartphone have stayed more or less the same.
Forget the mobile Internet in the smartphone form factor. Some really cool tech is not far off, and it’s going to radically change the way we interact with things in our everyday lives: Organic electronics; wireless power. Within the next two decades we’ll be interacting with everyday objects in ways we haven’t even begun to imagine. Every object will have a self-powered onboard computer. Now that’s something that will drive innovation in exciting new directions.
That smartphone isn’t going to be a smartphone forever, either. Along with advances in power, miniaturization, and materials that phone will become less clumsy, easier to interact with, better adapted to human morphology and sensory perception. Visual output will be augmented with other types of sensory output. It will start with tactile screens. They’re coming. In the not-so-distant future phones will have screens with different textures you can feel. That alone will open up a whole world of interesting possibilities. Next we’ll be wearing our phones too, but they won’t be like those nerdy alien bluetooth earpieces or paper presses stuffed into velcro arm bands. They’ll be unobtrusive, flexible, small, light and elegantly integrated into our clothes or accessories.
The innovation is there. If you’re tired of writing about mobile social, well just stop and look around. There’s plenty out there if you can get your nose past your own Facebook stream.