If you’re an entrepreneur looking to change the world it all seems to start with a simple little idea. It may seem as if the idea sprung up instantly, but it’s most likely a compilation of building blocks. Over the course of history new building blocks become available, which allow us to build companies that weren’t possible before. The crucial part to changing the world as an entrepreneur is to use these new building blocks to build what had previously not been possible. When looking at an idea it’s useful to ask yourself: “Would it have been possible to build this company 12-18 months ago?”
Over the past 18 months I’ve noticed an immense new set of building blocks emerge that will define the companies that shape our world over the next decade. In discussion with fellow entrepreneurs I’ve started to call these building blocks “The Future Stack”. Some may be obvious and some may be immature. The key is not to look at them alone, but look at them as pieces that can be put together to create something truly fascinating.
Not only will phones be location aware, but devices such as tablets and even laptops will be location aware. The introduction of HTML5 allows modern browsers to use location as contextual information. Most phones and 3G tablets will have built in GPS capabilities, which allow for pinpoint accuracy. Companies such as SimpleGEO or MixerLabs allow applications to now have access to rich location aware data at a reasonable price. Any application you build can now be aware of its location and most importantly the context around it: people, places, events,etc.
The Kindle app from Amazon and Dropbox are early parts of this vision. If I read a book on my actual Kindle, pick it up on my iPhone, and finish it on my desktop PC, it will have synced my location+bookmarks effortlessly. Dropbox also allows the same to occur with file storage. The “different data on different devices” syndrome is now a thing of the past as the ability to have synced data exists. When building an application, you should think across all screens (laptops, tablets, ereaders, phones, tvs,etc.), but most importantly you can now build the same data across all devices.
Having Facebook Connect or seeing which Twitter users you follow on an app used to be something to tout as an innovation. Now this is becoming the standard. With 500 million users and growing, Facebook has built a very important part of the future stack. They allow applications to be built with an automatic social graph. If you think back to even three years ago, each new application would have to recreate your social graph. That was a huge barrier to entry and point of friction. Facebook isn’t the only player here. Messages from Twitter and professional information from LinkedIn provide additional insights into who a person is. If you combine the three together, you start to get the social context of who a person is. From day one, an application can have access to the full social context of who a person is and who resides within their social graph.
Two billion dollar+ companies, Zynga and GroupOn, may not have been possible without Facebook. The same model as GroupOn had been tried with Mercata, but ultimately failed back in the Web 1.0 days. GroupOn could still meet the same fate, but it doesn’t seem likely. Their ability to get to where they are today can be heavily attributed to Facebook.
Touch Over Click
The world is moving towards touch interactions, even on the desktop with devices such as the Magic Mouse. This requires redefining the interfaces we build (ie- no dropdowns/hovering), but it’s certainly for the better. This is also a much more intimate form of interaction for a user as there is no boundaries between their physical action and what happens on screen. If I swipe a piece of content, it automatically transitions to the next article or if I touch a link on a page it automatically changes. It used to be the user’s physical presence => the mouse => the gui. Now there is a direct relationship between the user
Not only do phones have rear facing cameras, but they are now starting to have front facing cameras. Over the past three years webcams have become the standard on laptops allowing for cheap video conferencing and self expression via apps such as Daily Booth. My hunch is also that Microsoft Kinect type interactions will come to all devices in the next five years as well. Check out some of these demos to see what is possible today in that respect.
These are just simple demos. I’ve seen some more advanced ones as well. We may soon see Minority Report type interfaces much sooner than later.
Transactions <= .99
Microtransactions used to be a pain in the ass. The fees were high and it was often unprofitable for developers. Small transactions are now possible with the new PayPal X API, Mobile payments via Venmo, Amazon FPS, and many more. Virtual goods are one part of the micro-transaction trend, but content whether it is music, video, or text easily fit into this category. Users are now trained to pay .99 for something. Use that to your advantage.
Assume The Device Is Portable
Desktop computers will be around for a while, but my belief is to make a bet on what is emerging, not declining. If you are building an application, assume the device that they are on will change location and frequently. My phone changes location multiple times a day, with my iPad and laptop following. Portable also means able to last a long time due to low power consumption and better developed batteries.
Zero Delay Information Flow
The point in which a user would access information used to have a significant delay. Go back a century and it was measured in days due to the lack of widespread telephone usage. Go back a decade and it was measured in hours. Devices weren’t portable, email wasn’t always-on/always connected, and SMS did not have widespread adoption. Also throw in push notifications and real time updates from applications such as Twitter. The delay of information received by a user is almost impossible to measure and probably somewhere in the average range of seconds. Think of it like this: If 9/11 happened in 2010, how much different would it have been? The delay of information flow would have made it a completely different experience for the general public. I remember the day perfectly, as I lived 20 minutes outside NYC + my high school lost 8 alumni that day. It took forever to know what was going on as the channels of TV and Radio weren’t fast enough. The web wasn’t ubiquitous and the ability to publish as fast as today was not there.
Scaleable To Billions
1 million users used to be something to celebrate as if you were king of the world. It then became 10 million users. Now we’re at the point where many companies are making 100 million users the new 1 million users. Facebook is at 500 million ACTIVE users and I’m certain it will grow to cross 1 billion. Even if you’re a service with 50 million users, the amount of records and data per user will put you in the range of scaling “something” to billions. With computing resources such as AWS available as a utility and the NoSQL Movement it is entirely possible at a reasonable cost.
I remember the first day I had High Speed Internet in high school. It was a world of new possibilities. What took 20 minutes, now took a minute. Sadly, I was limited to my desktop computer. Then I remember my first smart phone type device. It was before the blackberry and called the AOL Communicator. I now had access to my email and ims anywhere. Sadly, I was limited to my ims and email. I remember May 16, 2010. That was the day I picked up my iPad 3G. I now had high speed access to anything, anywhere I went (ATT actually works well for me). With 4G popping up in various cities across the country, it’s fair to assume that the dream of ubiquitous high speed internet is not too far away. The phone in my pocket has infinitely faster Internet than my desktop computer from ten years ago. I know many people are still sadly stuck without broadband, but it’s coming and soon I hope. Regardless of that timeline, it is now possible for your app to follow your users wherever they go.
Zero Barrier Distribution
Getting initial traction used to be really hard and really costly. If you were a creative type you needed a record label and if you were an app developer, you need to cut deals with portals. All of that is gone now. Artists can do most things themselves and distribute with tools like tunecore and CDBaby. Writers can self publish to the Kindle or sell print copies via LuLu. App developers can place their mobile apps in the Android and/or iTunes app store.
Everyone can leverage the power of social. If something is good enough, it can be seen by hundreds of thousand of people for a cost of almost nothing due to the accelerant that is social sharing. In the past month, this site alone has been viewed by over 70,000 people. I haven’t spent a single dime on marketing and don’t plan to. Good content with the right distribution now makes it possible to be heard. You don’t need a record deal or a Series A round to be heard.
Anything As a Service
Recurring revenue through Subscriptions is a beautiful thing. Netflix has toppled Blockbuster with it, and it’s starting to change the software world as well. The thing is, it’s not limited to digital goods. https://www.bagborroworsteal.com/g/member PThe infrastructure for turning anything into a service is now possible due to the likes of companies such as Recurly, Chargify, and Zuora.
HD is the Standard, Not Exception
I remember when I first watched a DVD movie. It was ~1998 and I had just received a black Compaq Presario with a 17 inch CRT monitor + DVD drive. I was floored with excitement and bought the first DVD I could find, Scream 1 (Yes I know, horrible choice.). Now high definition video has become the standard. My phone can record 720p video and studio quality 1080p cameras are affordable for even the most amateur film maker. All major video sharing sites now support HD Video, with YouTube now supporting up to 1080p video. Two years ago I remember complaining that I couldn’t find a good provider to upload a 720p demo video to. All new monitors/TVs do 720p now, with most doing 1080p. Easy to create HD video, easy to deliver it, and easy to consume it.
It used to be that you had to buy the entire album or the entire season on DVD. Now the great big bundle is being broken up and replaced with customers being able to choose what they want. Only want these features? Sure. Only want the three good songs? Sure. Only want the two episodes you missed? Sure!
Direct Access To Customers
It used to take a long time to get through the feedback loop with customers. Maybe you had their email addresses, otherwise you would have to conduct expensive research sessions. Now you can not only talk with existing customers, but with potential customers as well. Want to get feedback from 24-32 year old women that are single in NYC? Try targeting some facebook ads. Want to engage anyone talking about Django? @ message them. Want to talk to your existing customers? Skype them, send them Wufoo surveys, or even do an visual heatmap test for a fraction of the cost.
On the flipside, a shit storm can erupt very fast and you have to be even faster to respond to it. There’s certainly a downside, but if you’re built upon a culture of customer service, you can actually contain the outbreak way faster than you could before.
I have a certain sensation these points are just the ones scratching the surface. There are most likely a fair amount that I overlooked, and maybe even some that shouldn’t be on the list. Would you like to see me constantly update this piece/turn it into a short psuedo-book with more editing/examples/interviews with companies,etc.? If so, email me firstname.lastname@example.org
Use the building blocks above that make sense to you, stop building what was possible yesterday, and start building what wasn’t possible yesterday. It’s what moves society forward.