If anything, in 2013 it became even more fashionable for some of our fellow scribes and righteous founders to lament the lack of innovation in Silicon Valley. A lot of that has to do with the lack of a whiz-bang device, a new earthshaking iPhone (or Apple product) or a big new platform. This public handwringing is brought on by a myopic view of what counts as technology and is reflective of a somewhat limited idea of innovation. Many view the world from the lens of “consumer and web technologies” and thus are often overcome with dismay and disappointment when they fail to see anything new and shiny.
The latest such example is a piece in Quartz, a sister publication of The Atlantic. This article, under the headline 2013 was a lost year for tech bemoans Silicon Valley and all its failures, has turned intellectual trolling into high art. It is fairly easy to focus on the lack of whiz-bang technologies like the iPhone or the Kindle. It is pretty easy to focus on the tech-NSA nexus, which I agree is deplorable. And it is also very easy to focus on what some think of as pointless apps.
But to label 2013 a lost year for technology is hyperbolic, to put it generously. What’s more distressing to me is that other smart folks are simply echoing the headline. I look at the world around me, and I find a technology landscape that is blooming. How can you not be excited about the idea of sensors, apps and data turning our phones into a doctor’s virtual proxy. (I live with a disease and my phone is as much a part of it, as my meds.) Helium-filled disk drives that can store more and more data? Breakthrough or boring. Depends on how you look at the world — as someone who loves technology or someone who loves the shiny interpretation of technology.
Do you know your tech?
Even if you ignore the predetermined narrative of the Quartz piece, the article today and many such articles before this one simply reinforce the point that no one — and that includes bloggers like myself, high-brow/super-successful venture capitalists and writers for mainstream intellectual publications like the Atlantic — have little or no understanding of independent spirit of innovation and disruption. Innovation happens in different places, in different sectors and follows a different time scale that only a handful really comprehend.
Back in March 2006 when Amazon (s AMAZN) launched its s3 cloud storage service, there weren’t very many of us who had an idea that it would one day become the key component of an economic engine that would jump start entrepreneurial activity across the planet. No one thought that little storage service was sexy! Today, if you ask Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, he will have a few billion reasons to think of AWS as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Yeah, that joke of a service will soon be a multibillion dollar business that has put everyone from Oracle, Dell and HP on thin ice.
In 2006 when Twitter (s TWTR) launched, it was a joke and somewhat misunderstood (including by myself). Seven years later, it has turned into the digital heartbeat of our planet and now vies for attention with hundred-year-old media behemoths.
Both Amazon and Twitter are examples that show innovation and its impact are not bound by an investor or a publication’s sense of time, say, a year. Quartz bemoans Google Glass (s GOOG) and labels it the standard bearer of disappointment in tech in 2013. Google Glass might earn you the sobriquet “glasshole,” but the reality is that in the future we will have a much improved derivative of Google Glass in our lives. It might not even look like Google Glass, but the wearable computing and personal compute fabrics will be a reality in the not-too-distant future.
Innovation moves in mysterious ways
Not a single breakthrough product was unveiled. If it’s in the nature of progress to move in leaps, there are necessarily lulls in between… Here are all the reasons 2013 was a great big dud for technology as a whole. (QZ)
Quartz lamented that smartphones became commodities in 2013. To that I say, what’s wrong with that? Chris Anderson, the former editor of Wired, often talks about the peace dividend of the smartphone wars — cheap sensors, cheaper processors and other technologies that are becoming affordable because we are selling hundreds of millions of smartphones.
Those cheap components are the reason we have drones, robots, smart thermostats and intelligent irrigation systems. Maybe not today, but soon enough, these connected devices — many based on chips and sensors made cheaper by smartphone boom — will change how we live.
Remember Baxter, the robot from Rethink Robotics that was announced in 2013? Well, thank your Androids and iPhones for that. Quartz might not think of Baxter as a breakthrough, but I certainly do — it has a huge implication for society, both in a good and a bad way. And there were other breakthroughs with long term implications — such as Willow Garage/Unbounded Robotics’ $35,000 UBR-1. Those robots might not have gotten the screaming headlines of an iPhone, but who is to say that the technologies — mostly software — being used in these robots ends up in other devices.
Forget robotics, and let’s focus on the rise of contextual computing. Sure, not everyone was impressed by the new iPhone 5S, but to me the best part of the device was the M7 chip that is essentially a dedicated processor for all sensor inputs. That chip can make the software and apps smarter, and provide the necessary inputs for what we believe is the next evolution of computing: contextual computing. The M7 chip and Apple’s very much underhyped iBeacon technology together open up new opportunities for retail.
Based on low-power chips, the MotoX’s touchless controls are a breakthrough whose implications we will understand sometime in the future. There won’t be any big bang, but very quietly our applications that run on the commodity smartphones are going to become smarter and more adaptive to our needs.
Technology is best when it is invisible, and from our perspective many of the real technology breakthroughs of 2013 focused on that. Take for example the multicore fiber technologies that could result in a petabit network pipe. That’s a breakthrough that happened in 2013, and it will be a few years before it becomes an actual commercial product, but it is a technology that you can’t hold in your hand, put in a box or simply label it as the pinnacle of technology. Yes, we will experience it collectively; perhaps in a decade, or even less. It will allow millions of us to send big fat files from our phones back to Dropbox, and stream 3D video games and watch videos.
Today, we don’t think twice about launching our apps on Amazon Web Services and the cloud. How does Amazon make its infrastructure hacker-proof? How does it all work? All those silent releases that Amazon did during 2013, do they count as breakthroughs? Well, they might not be Kindle Paperwhites, but they sure makes Kindle Books, Dropbox and other cloud services work securely.
Data is a four letter word
Managing “big data” became the growth plan of companies like IBM, despite the fact that most companies aren’t handling data that’s anywhere close to “big.” (QZ)
I know it is fashionable to lament “data,” but such comments not only make no sense, they show compete lack of understanding about the role of data, which is caught between labels that range from big data to hyper data. Whatever way you label it, data — when put to work smartly — is going to shape most of our connected experiences in the near future, something we’ll talk about in great depth at our Structure Data conference this March in New York. The size of data, the type of data and what to do with data — those are nuances that are missed in the screaming “big data” headlines.
While I don’t expect to see an end of these type of articles, it would be good for folks to take a step back, think for a moment and stop looking at innovation from the singular lens of consumer apps and gadgets. Instead think about the fact that we have more bandwidth in more places, we have more apps that seem to read our mind and that we can quickly get restaurant recommendations from our phones without as much as thinking. A lot of that happened in 2013, just without fanfare.
So, next time when someone says, “2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it: Silicon Valley,” remind them to actually do research before making that statement.