The people who say Web 2.0 apps are garbage are completely right -- and utterly wrong

The backlash against "Web 2.0" has been underway for some time now, with many very insightful analysts and reporters pointing out the surplus of overlapping products, the uncertain business models, and the relentless hype. I think many of those critiques are right on -- a lot of the Web 2.0 companies are pointless and won't ever make money. Maybe even most of them.

But that's not the whole story. When you step back from the individual trees and look at the forest, I think the things happening in web apps today are really and truly revolutionary. If anything, the changes are a lot more profound than most people realize. And I believe they're just getting started.

As I've mentioned in other posts, the Web isn't just a place for publishing content, it's also rapidly maturing as a platform for developing new software applications. (Quick definition: in Silicon Valley-speak, a platform is a technology on top of which people build other products. Windows is a platform, as is Linux.) To me, the most important thing about the Web 2.0 sites is that they blur the distinctions between web pages and applications. Most of them don't just present information, they also let you create or manipulate it, as would a software program on your PC. Google Maps isn't just a website, it's an application for searching maps. Ten years ago, you would have bought it on a CD-ROM and installed it on your PC.

Participating in the blossoming of a new software platform is one of the most exciting things you can do in the tech industry. I've been lucky enough to be in on it twice now (Macintosh and Palm OS), and it's great because you get to work with a lot of smart developers who produce cool and surprising stuff. The excitement is infectious (thus the hype about Web 2.0).

But despite the attention people put on platforms, the way a new platform develops is not well understood in the tech industry. I think that's why people are getting confused about the fate of the Web 2.0 companies.

For example, here's a quiz -- do you know what the following names have in common? (No fair using Wikipedia; you have to do this on your own.)

Ann Arbor
Silicon Beach
Living Videotext

If you said they're some of the most prominent early software developers* for the Macintosh, you're half right. The other thing they all have in common is that they're long gone -- out of business, sold off, or just plain faded away. In fact, other than Adobe and Microsoft, virtually none of the prominent early Mac developers are still independent businesses.

The melancholy fact is that the vast majority of the early developers on any platform fail.

This carnage of the early developers happens because a new platform is by definition unexplored territory. The developers are basically trying a series of experiments to see which types of applications will sell well. Their hit rate is better than playing the lottery, which is why VCs are willing to fund them, but inevitably most of the experiments fail.

That doesn't make the platform a failure, and it doesn't mean the applications were a waste. The successful experiments make a ton of money, more than enough to make up for the failures. And even the applications that don't survive long term often teach us new concepts and business models.

I think the same sort of shakeout is going to happen with the current crop of web apps. Most of them will eventually die or get merged into other things. That's no big deal, it's how a platform works. What matters is what we're learning through this Darwinian process. And from that viewpoint, the Web applications world is shaping up as a stunning success.

I think the three most important developments we're seeing in the web apps world are:

1. We're learning how to create new communities rapidly and focus them on useful tasks.
2. The Web is spawning new forms of media at an unprecedented rate.
3. The Web apps platform is starting to evolve exponentially.

I know the Web apps world is overhyped, so I say this very carefully and very sincerely: I think any one of those trends would be enough to drive major changes in the tech industry and the world beyond. The fact that all three are happening at once is, to me, quite remarkable, and I think it's going to have an enormous effect on our lives in the next 20 years.

I want to talk about each one of the trends, and then wrap up with some comments on overall implications and what to watch for next. Unfortunately, this post started to get waaay too long, so I'm going to do it in stages. I'll start with communities in the next post.

In the meantime, here's an example of what happens when somebody starts to sense what's happening in web apps. This is from Mike Rowehl, a software developer in the mobile phone industry, commenting on what he saw at the 3GSM telephony conference in February 2007:

"I was forced to realize that the mobile world won’t end up changing the online world like I had assumed it would. It really looks like the innovation is going to flow the other way around. People who are already working in mobile have had all semblance of initiative and innovation beaten out of them. You can lay a new business model down in front of them and explain in detail how it works, and generally they aren’t able to grasp it unless it looks enough like something they already know. However, people coming from the online world and looking to expand into mobile generally are accustomed to a shifting environment and taking in new opportunities and integrating them into their mental framework.... The stage should be set for mobile to completely subsume the online world. But instead it’s the people from the online world staggering out into the sun and realizing there’s no one trying to grab the potential of the new medium and just picking up the pieces waiting for them."

Mike, you ain't seen nothing yet.


*Here's a key to those old Mac developers. Even though the firms and most of the products disappeared, many of the product concepts, and the people, went on to great success. I expect the same thing to happen in web apps.

Cricket Software. Creator of a series of Mac graphics programs, including Cricket Graph, Cricket Draw, and Cricket Presents (one of the first presentation programs -- a category that Apple called "Desktop Presentations" in an effort to duplicate the desktop publishing phenomenon). Cricket was run by Jim Rafferty, a really nice guy who went on to found and co-found several other companies. I couldn't figure out what he's doing now; please post a comment if you know.

Paladin Software was creator of Crunch, a Macintosh spreadsheet program that went head to head with Excel and lost. I thought Crunch was much easier to use than Excel, with an innovative icon bar for commonly used functions. Microsoft kind of borrowed that feature later (check the screenshots here).

Aldus. Creator of PageMaker. Adobe gets the credit today for driving desktop publishing, but PageMaker was the greatest page layout product of its time, easy to use and very powerful. I believe it was the program most responsible for making the Mac a commercial success. Aldus was run by Paul Brainerd, an extremely nice guy who told his company to respond to requests from small software developers like me. Thanks, Paul! He's now a philanthropist.

Ann Arbor Softworks developed FullWrite, which claimed to be the first fully WYSIWYG word processor, and which was also one of the most notoriously prolonged instances of vaporware in computing history.

T/Maker was one of the early developers of Macintosh desktop publishing software. Heidi Roizen, CEO of the company during its Macintosh days, was a deeply respected Macintosh software entrepreneur, and later became VP of the developer relations team at Apple. She's now a venture capitalist.

Living Videotext. Produced the ThinkTank and More outliners. Run by a guy named Dave Winer. And yeah, he was just as outspoken back then.

Silicon Beach Software. Mention "Silicon Beach" to an old-time Mac user and they'll probably just sigh. The company was responsible for many of the most creative Mac programs of its time, including a game called Dark Castle and SuperCard, an early hypertext development environment that extended Apple's HyperCard in wonderful ways. Some Silicon Beach veterans later founded Back to the Beach Software, whose name is a tribute to Silicon Beach.

Going to the Emerging Telephony conference

I'm going to the Emerging Telephony conference February 27 to March 1. If you're going and want to meet there, drop me a note. You can find my contact info here.

The rise of the information ecosystem: How mobile devices, personal computing, media, and the Internet all fit together

Fair warning: This is going to be one of those philosophical posts on strategy. If you're looking for quick gratification, I recommend browsing the archives here.

Anyone still reading?

Okay. The other day I got a bit of flak for posting a note about Hollywood's view of the Web. "Your weblog's about mobility," the comments said. "Stay on topic."

I sincerely appreciate the feedback, but it was a surprise. As far as I was concerned, I was staying on topic. But then I realized that I've never actually explained what I'm trying to accomplish in this weblog, and so of course people might confused. I'd like to fix that right now.

I started this weblog to comment on the mobile industry, but as time went on and my work at Rubicon exposed me to a wider range of tech companies, I found that the boundaries of mobile were getting harder and harder to define. I'm now convinced that you can't understand the mobile world as a separate industry, because it's deeply interconnected with three other industries that deal with information: the Internet, personal computing, and the media (including video, print publications, games, and so on).

All four industries like to think of themselves as separate. But in reality, they depend on each other heavily, and the connections are deepening all the time. In each industry, it's commonplace for people to be blind-sided by unexpected changes, or for major initiatives to fail dismally. I think that's a symptom of the growing connections. Because we can't yet see all the connections, success and failure become more a matter of luck than skill.

The idea that those industries are merging has been around for years -- I remember a colleague making that argument at Apple back in the early 1990s. But I think "merging" or "convergence" isn't the right metaphor. What's emerging is more like a tropical jungle where a rare tree is the favorite roost of a bat that's fed on by a mosquito whose larvae are eaten by a fish that secretes the cure to cancer in its skin. Everything's connected in subtle ways that we don't understand.

Call it the information ecosystem.

Some very bright people have used the term "information ecosystem" in the past to refer to the Internet or Web 2.0, but I think it encompasses all four industries.

That ecosystem is what I'm trying to map in this weblog, because that's where the opportunity is. I don't pretend to have all the connections mapped yet; nobody does. But what we can see so far suggests that we're still in the early stages of the new ecosystem. I think the big changes are still to come.

The new information ecosystem

Back in ancient times (around 1975), the old information ecosystem looked like the diagram below. Most information (and I'm using that word very broadly to include everything from written words to movies to photographs) was passed through a distribution hierarchy that filtered and distilled it down to the most marketable items. Delivery of information was generally through mass media -- bookstores, magazines, newspapers, television stations, etc. The prevailing metaphor was one-to-many, with information flowing from a relatively small elite of creators to the population as a whole. People also communicated directly between one-another, of course, but most of that communication was one-to-one or one-to-few via letters, meetings, and phone calls.

Even before the Internet, this old ecosystem had already started to erode. For example, computer-based desktop publishing in the 1980s made it much easier for small groups and individuals to create newsletters and magazines, giving them some of the power of mass media (although their creations still had to be printed and distributed through traditional mechanisms).

"Freedom of the Press is guaranteed only to those who own one." --AJ Liebling
"Let's give everybody a press." --Simultaneous thought of several million Internet users, sometime in the 1990s

The new information ecosystem. It was the rise of the Web that really challenged the old structure. Although we're still in a transitional period, I think it's clear that the new information ecosystem will look something like the diagram below. In the new system, the filtering role of the publishers and commentators is radically eroded. Any information that anyone wants to share can be fed directly into the Internet. Tools like the personal computer make it much easier for people to create information, and mobile devices are also starting to play a minor but important role in info creation as well (for example, at the end of 2006 a cellphone video of the execution of Saddam Hussein created worldwide news and intense political debate). The net effect should be that information flows faster, and between more sources, than ever before (by the way, that's an assumption I want to test in future posts; I'm not sure it's correct).

The diagram shows why mobile devices can no longer stand alone as a separate industry. As soon as they get any data capabilities, they're embedded in the larger ecosystem. Want to add apps to a mobile device? You need to understand the trends driving PC and Internet app development. Want to tie your customers to you more closely? Make sure you know how online communities form (and why most of them fail). Want to play content on a mobile? Don't link yourself too closely to a content company that was part of the old ecosystem -- you might be pulled down by the suction when it sinks.

What's the most important part of the ecosystem?

A lot of people would tell you that the center of the ecosystem is the Internet; that the other industries are just appendages. On the other hand, many mobile enthusiasts would tell you the dominant part will soon be the mobile phone, and I'm sure Microsoft and Apple would tell you that it's the personal computer. But I think they're all wrong. The most important part of the ecosystem isn't any technology, it's the ideas themselves: the articles and music and essays and videos and memes that we use to make decisions and entertain ourselves. The Internet and the servers that hang on it like Christmas ornaments are the storage and transport mechanism for those ideas. PCs and mobile devices are capture and playback systems, and the software programs we run on those devices are the tools that we use to create and work with the ideas.

Meanwhile, the publishers, producers, editors, and critics who used to control the idea factory are struggling to find relevant roles in the new world. I think some will succeed, and many will fail.

The real mobile opportunity

So I know it'll feel irrelevant to some people, but I'm going to be writing more about subjects like web apps and communities and Hollywood, because they're all part of the same system. I'll try to label the posts that focus on the broader ecosystem, so you can skip them if you want to. But if you're working in the mobile world I think you should tune in. You need to understand the whole ecosystem or chances are you'll be left twisting slowly in the breeze by a competitor who does get it.

The real mobile opportunity of the 21st century isn't mobilizing technology, it's mobilizing ideas.

That's what this weblog is all about.

Vote for the mobile post of the year

The folks who run the Carnival of the Mobilists are running an online poll to select the best mobile-related weblog post written by Carnival participants in 2006. If you're not familiar with the Carnival, it's a weekly collection of weblog articles on mobile-related topics.

Authors nominated their favorite posts, and then the Carnival folks picked the ten finalists. They are:

Casual Mobile Snacks for Everyone speculates that the intensely personal nature of mobile devices will lead to the development of very personalized types of games.

The big '07 Forecast surveyed 32 mobile gaming executives on what they expected to happen in mobile gaming in 2007. I was surprised by how little they agreed on. About the only opinion most of them shared was that they each think their own upcoming product releases will be critically important watersheds for the industry.

The Mobile Web Grows Up is an overview of mobile data news from 2006.

Nokia N91 Kills the iPod is an article claiming that the Nokia N91 music phone is much better than an iPod.

Youth Mobile Trends Summary is a mashup of four blog posts exploring the use of mobile phones by young people.

Qualcomm: An Empire Under Siege is an enormous overview of Qualcomm's status and all the legal actions the company is involved in. It's a long read, and I don't agree with all the analysis, but I think it's still a very valuable overview.

We Interrupt This Broadcast
is a very enthusiastic discussion of the prospects for advertising on mobile phones.

Coltan and Your Mobile discusses the social problems created in central Africa by the mining of tantalum for use in capacitors (including the capacitors used in mobile phones). I was not aware of the tantalum situation; you can read more about it here.

The Mobile Web Phone calls for the creation of a mobile phone optimized for web browsing.

We need a new mobile platform. Sort of. is something I wrote exploring the faltering sales of mobile applications. It suggests that instead of trying to fix the mobile operating systems, we need a software layer that runs on top of all mobile devices. I nominated this article because it's an issue I feel very strongly about. I'd like to thank the Carnival folks for making it one of the finalists.

You can vote for your favorite post by clicking here. You'll see a screen that makes it look like you need to register, but that's not necessary. You do need the survey password, which is: mobilists

And even if you don't feel like voting, check out the Qualcomm post. It's very interesting.

Even in Japan, there's no one "killer" mobile data application

As reported by What Japan Thinks, a recent survey of 1,000 Japanese mobile phone users asked what features would be important when they upgrade to their next phone. The results matched what we've seen in the US and Europe -- there's no single feature that all users want. In fact, there isn't even a data feature that a majority of users want.

This chart shows the most important findings:

When upgrading your mobile, which features are important? (Multiple answers allowed.)

I left out some generic features like "memory card." Other than those, no feature got a thumbs-up from more than about 20% of the users, which is very similar to the sort of results we've seen among mobile users in the US and Europe.

I did think it was interesting that mobile TV got a pretty good score, as did the e-wallet features that some Japanese operators have been pushing. E-wallet functionality has been a gleam in the eye for mobile companies for at least ten years; it's nice to see someone implementing it.

It appears that Japan, like the US and Europe, has a segmented mobile data market in which different users want different, conflicting features. The best way for a manufacturer to tackle that is with a line of products targeting different user segments, rather than one all-consuming super smartphone.

Although mobile feature attitudes in Japan aren't as different as many people might expect, attitudes toward mobile brands are enormously different. That's because Japanese mobile phone companies don't focus on the export market, and overseas brands don't do a good job of designing for the Japanese mobile operators. Sharp is by far the most desired mobile brand in Japan, for good reasons because it makes really nice mobile hardware. The top brands in the US and Europe -- Nokia and Motorola -- are also-rans in Japan.

What brand of mobile handset do you desire most? (Only one answer allowed.)

The operators' "secret" plan to destroy Google. Yeah, right.

By now you've probably seen the reports that six European mobile operators plus AT&T are planning "secret" talks to set up a mobile search engine to rival Google. The Telegraph reported that the secret seven might team up with an existing search engine, or might set up their own shared search engine and advertising sales team.

The idea is for the operators to capture the majority of advertising revenue from mobile web search.

It's possible that the report is false, but the Telegraph had some quotes and details that sound credible. (Besides, if it's not true then there would be nothing for people like me to posture abut online.)

As you'd expect, the report is already attracting a lot of commentary online. I won't bother repeating what everyone else is saying, but I'd like to make a few quick observations:

1. Have any of these high-profile operator consortia ever been successful? It's a sincere question, not rhetorical. I can't think of any of them that lived up to their hype. But maybe I missed one. Please post a comment if I did.

2. I don't think the threat to create their own search engine is credible. The investment in infrastructure is too large at this point. So the real play would be to partner with one of the current search companies and squeeze money out of it. Let's see, who's desperate for search share and has a ton of cash? Hello, Redmond.

3. Who starts secret negotiations by leaking the fact that they're being held? Only someone who's inept, or is posturing to create leverage in their discussions with Google.

4. All of this presupposes that the operators can continue to maintain closed gardens, preventing users from going to whichever search engine they like. That worked soooo well for AOL and MSN, didn't it?

5. Why can't these guys negotiate with Google the traditional way, by threatening to sue them?

6. I hope eventually someone will realize that unless we figure out how to make mobile browsing a lot more useful and compelling, there isn't going to be any pile of riches to divide from mobile search.