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Technology’s Next Big Thing

By August 27, 2003web-tech

The August 18th edition of BusinessWeek has a series of articles about “The Future of Technology.” One in particular grabbed my attention: The Quest for the Next Big Thing. Of course, NBT is what we used to call “the killer app.” (One day I’m going to write an article called “The Myth of the Killer App” but I digress).

I suppose asking what the NBT will be is a good way of getting some provocative reactions, which is exactly what Robert Hof got from the tech luminaries that he was able to interview. Here are some highlights.

Don Valentine, a VC of Sequoia Capital fame, isn’t willing to talk about the NBT, but he is willing to gripe about what recently brought down the House of Tech. He grumbles that the recent tech downturn can be blamed on “extraterrestrials” (i.e. amateurs and outsiders) who came searching for “the Next Big Thing.”

Marc Andreesen, when asked if he has glimpsed the NBT, responds in the negative. “Nope. Almost by definition, I won’t. When it emerges, it’s likely to look deeply fringe.” Of course, this is straight from the pages of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive technologies.

Howard Rheingold (of Smart Mobs fame) is interviewed and has a chance to explain that new social models will arise from technology, but that’s not really the pure tech answer that the writer is looking for.

But, actually Rheingold’s idea that pervasive connection through the internet will be a catalyst for change is probably most common element in the responses of the interviewees. For example, Jeff Immelt of G.E., when asked what kind of technology is the key to the future responds “wireless could have a huge impact…Wireless is going to be the key to us.”

Jeff Bezos, of Amazon, was also interviewed. What technology most excites him? “Wi-Fi. You’ll be able to be wirelessly connected the whole time. Anything that lets people be more connected more easily to the Internet is great for us.”

So perhaps in a way, we already know what the NBT is. It’s connecting people. Wireless is obviously a quantum leap in that direction. So that’s easy to spot. How it will evolve and what effect it will have on society is harder to assess.

What about other innovations? Or what about innovation in general? Paul Saffo of The Institute for the Future was asked about this. In particular, he was asked if there are any obstacles to innovation. Yes, he replied. “We’ve got a couple of gorillas holding back innovation. Microsoft is a big intellectual roach motel. All the big minds go in, but they don’t come out.”

All in all, the articles are entertaining and worth reading. But, I still think that is is largely a waste of time to try to figure out what the Next Big Thing is. Part of the mystique of the Killer App and The Next Big Thing is that it revolutionized some part of society. And revolutions are never predictable or comprehensible, except in hindsight. I do think, though, that we are entering an era of major change. As always, my primary interest is in observing how we habit-clinging humans react to the increased pace of change.

P.S. If you appreciate these kinds of observations, you might want to read this as well.
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