February 28, 2018

There’s always a bigger fish

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Hall One at Mobile World Congress – a single space more massive than most conference centers in major cities – contained only a few displays. Although a quarter of the room housed small phone and mobile manufacturers, Huawei controlled the rest, creating a walled-off compound patrolled by women in folk costumes from many lands.

The Small World After All jollity stopped at the gates. This was Huawei’s war room. Mere mortals were not allowed to tread its hallowed ground as the ladies at the gate kept out all but the invited and kept folks from crossing through the booth. Sure, whatever lay behind those electronic gates were simply phones and the company recently bungled a carrier deal in the US but the company also recently surpassed Apple as second biggest phone manufacturer in the world.

If I were Samsung I’d be quaking in my boots. But it should also be a lesson to startups attempting to take on giants and giant ideas in the next few years.

There’s always a bigger fish.

I bring this up while thinking about the future of technology and, more specifically, incumbent companies. If there is anything we have learned about modern tech it’s that everything is in flux. Today decentralized applications are considered crypto moon shots or, worse, moon bat fiction. In a few years – I’d wager by 2020 – they will be a valid alterative to centralized data storage and application control. Today the token economy is a white-hot mess. In the future it may be the de facto standard for early company-building.

There are waves that pass through the tech industry that are, if you’re looking, quite visible. Some years it’s a color – piano black was quite popular before the financial crisis – and some years it’s a true innovation. There haven’t been many clear waves of late as CES was a dud and MWC was essentially an attempt for small app and service providers to make a little extra money this year, but I sense a change in the air that I last felt when Linux was slowly entering the mobile space.

Back during wind-up to embedded Linux you saw Microsoft and Nokia fighting mightily to become de facto standards. They created smarter and smarter phones, bolting on worse and worse experiences onto a platform that should have been running on ATMs rather than mobile phones. In about 2000 I wrote a piece about Linux on PDAs, sacrificing my Compaq iPad to the gods of homebrew. The result – a PDA that wasn’t nearly as usable as it had been – was thrilling. It meant that I didn’t need to buy a Windows license to use my devices and it also meant the end of Windows Mobile and, ultimately, Nokia.

There is always a bigger fish and many companies don’t see it coming. Samsung is sitting pretty now but give it a minute. VC is sitting pretty now but give it a minute. Old guard technologies are sitting pretty now but give it a minute.

Because the seeds of creative destruction are being sown. It will just take a moment for them to bloom.

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