Media outlets love to highlight the next big thing. Trend spotters love to say they know about it, and investment bankers love to bet on it. As a twenty five year Silicon Valley veteran, I’m always astonished on how often they miss what’s big. That’s probably why, when the next big thing comes out, most of us are shocked since we think the technology came out of nowhere.
Currently the press is talking about drones, robots and smart watches. These technologies are real, but are they the next big thing? Are they life changing? Not really. They simply are prevalent and easy to understand.
The next big thing isn’t the next big company; it’s the next big enabling technology that will change our world. The next big new company will either provide that enabling technology, or more realistically, provide a new product or service by riffing off or re-adapting that technology. To understand the next big thing, it’s easiest to look at past big things and investigate what really happened.
Twenty years ago Netscape exploded onto the scene. Everyone outside of Silicon Valley (and worldwide technologists) were blindsided and blown away by the internet. Those of us working in the technology world all said, “What’s the big deal? We’ve been using the internet for years.”
Netscape capitalized on the simultaneous maturing of a number of technologies including ubiquitous TCP/IP, low cost PC’s, color monitors, and especially graphical user interfaces being applied to everything most importantly browsers and Windows, which made it easy for people outside of technology to participate.
What couldn’t be understood by Silicon Valley, or anyone else at that time, was how the internet would change our lives. Life changed when technologists began riffing off these initial technologies. Examples of companies that successfully riffed off of the internet are Google, Amazon, and Facebook.
The next big thing was the Smart Phone. For years everyone was saying, “why can’t we combine the phone, camera, MP3 player, and PDA’s (e.g. iPod) into one device?”
It took until 2007 for the technologies to mature so these applications could be combined and a Smart Phone could be created. On launch, Apple didn’t allow non Apple applications to run. It took “Jailbrakers” hackers, who broke into the phone to run their own apps, to show Apple the real market.
Smart phones were the enabling technology, but apps and the maturing of WiFi and low-cost ubiquitous cloud servers allowed for new applications to riff off of mobile phones. The confluence of enabling technologies really changed our lives. New companies that riff off of phones are Uber and Square.
Today, the hottest hiring in Silicon Valley is for big data. The two most obvious applications for big data are advertising and genetic sequencing. Companies have established data farms full of data, but we don’t yet have the tools to understand this information or take advantage of it.
Some of the most progressive technology companies are skimming the surface of this data potential to provide better information. But the information derived is mostly regressive. For example, if a consumer views shoes in an online store, advertisements for shoes will appear on screen when the same consumer surfs the web — even if he or she bought the shoes.
Predictive technologies are the current holy grail, but they are considerable more difficult to develop. Highly progressive companies like Facebook are starting to deploy predictive technologist. For example, based on your “Likes,” Facebook can use big data to accurately predict your sex, age, political views, sexual orientation, and a number of other metrics about you. All this predictive information can be used to more accurately target advertising.
A few “forward thinking” media writers have nominally identified big data as the next big thing. And these writers have reported that engineers who work on advertising applications are in big demand, and tend to get promoted into senior level positions.
Their conclusion: advertising is a hot field to be in. What they miss, however, is the BIG BIG trend. Big data is the next big thing and people with any sort of big data experience are highly sought after.
Of course, the next question asked is: how will big data change our lives? That’s why the media doesn’t cover the really big trends until they are upon us.
Currently, we can say superficial things like, big data will provide better predictions for what people want, and this will result in more accurately targeted display adds. Or, improved health information can be provided since we can better spot health trends. In areas like genomics, faster and cheaper sequencing will allow us to create custom health solutions.
The real answer is this: harnessing big data will change our lives. Not this year, and not even next year — but soon. And it will change our lives in ways we can’t imagine. That’s because the killer applications that will riff off of getting information out of big data haven’t yet been conceived.