There’s a lot of talk about how mobile is dead and no longer interesting for startups. Investors are already looking towards the blockchain as the next revolutionary technology. The platform wars have been declared over. Turn out the lights, the party’s over, mobile has no more room to run.
I’m not convinced.
If you read one technology book this quarter, it should be The Second Machine Age by MIT’s Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. It covers the exponential growth of the last 20 years worth of technology benchmarked against previous eras of innovation going back to the Industrial Age.
One of the more interesting chapters covers two competing theories of innovation. The first theory states that innovation is essentially low-hanging fruit that’s discovered in the metaphorical forest of ideas, that’s “picked” once and benefits everyone right away but becomes less useful as it gets depleted. In other words, a rapidly depreciating asset.
The second theory is that of recombination or recombinant growth. In this context, the value of innovation is in re-combining old ideas with new technological solutions. In other words, progress isn’t a resource with a finite supply capable of running out: as each development becomes a building block for further innovation, progress continues to accumulate exponentially.
Of course this isn’t a brand new concept. Kirby Ferguson’s “Everything is a Remix” video series that went viral a few years ago chronicles the remixes and adaptations inherent in popular culture, be it music, movies and even technology, using (surprise surprise) the iPhone as its canonical example. Now think of the recombinant innovation that’s taken place in mobile: Waze. Instagram. Maps and photos weren’t new concepts. What was different was the hardware that made it possible to leverage network effects to facilitate the kind of rapid growth that resulted in billion dollar businesses and subsequently, billion dollar acquisitions.
So what does all of this have to do with mobile’s perceived maturation? Simple. Just because the mobile ecosystem may be maturing doesn’t mean there isn’t a long cycle still to play out in mobile innovation. While the hardware question seems to have been settled, there are plenty of immediate questions that have yet to be solved:
How will work get done on the small screen? I’m using an external keyboard to type this out on an iPad but am going to need to move this first to IA Writer on desktop, and then into WordPress’s desktop version. Why? The formatting I can’t do on the iPad version of IA Writer (e.g. incorporating external links), the posting options that don’t appear on the iPad WordPress app, the copying and pasting that requires infinitely more effort on a tablet than it does on a desktop or laptop etc. How will this shake out in a few years? Will work change? Ben Evans and Steven Sinofsky of A16Z recently did a great podcast on the subject, advancing the (somewhat paradoxical) theory that work habits will ultimately change to fit the device rather than the other way around.
–Will the relationship between apps and the mobile web become more seamless? Apps aren’t going away. I think that much is clear. What isn’t clear is how the closed ecosystem of the app world and the open web will communicate. Can we bridge the two in a more meaningful way? Can we find ways of sharing content between the digital divide? Facebook’s attempting to do this with the AppLinks open standards project but there’s still a long way to go before the idea takes traction amid Apple and Android’s collective landscapes.
–Where do tablets fit in the overall mobile landscape? Are they an extension of the smartphone? A different beast entirely? Will there be a glut of tablet-specific apps at some point? And what are people using tablets for anyway? So many of these things still have yet to play out.
–How will the smartphone revolution ultimately impact developing nations? Particularly those whose first computers and first experiences with the Internet are smartphones? These are people who have skipped past the PC age completely and are already utilizing things like mobile payments in ways that people in the Western world have yet to embrace. What new use cases will come outside of Silicon Valley (and indeed Western culture) once smartphone penetration reaches a sizable figure in those countries?
We’re in the beginning stages of a very long cycle that has a lot of time left to play out. While there’s no denying there are better, greater technologies ahead, it would probably behoove us all to take a step back and let that take place before abandoning it in the wake of the next shiny new thing.