Soylent started in 2013 as a Rob Rhinehart crowdfunded experiment in food replacement. The name and food replacement angle attracted lots of enthusiasm, for example see what happened when I ate only Soylent for 30 days. Answer: farts. Evil ones. With the 2.0 version coming out in Sep 2015 as a prepackaged drink, I bought some to try it out. On my Friday commute I often listen to Ben Thompson and James Allworth’s Exponent podcast, and their latest episode covered disruption in the internet age. Drinking Soylent while listening, the two seemed (somewhat) related. Let me explain, finishing with my Soylent review.
In September Apple announced the iPad Pro, which supports a keyboard cover and stylus. Then in October Microsoft announced their latest Surface Pro 4 and new Surface Book. Inevitably they were compared, with many claiming Apple copied Microsoft. Business Insider “Apple just admitted Microsoft is right”. And the Verge “Everyone is copying Microsoft’s Surface“. From that piece: “Apple missed that consumers were attaching keyboards to its iPad tablet, but Microsoft took advantage and saw an opportunity. Now everyone else is following in its footsteps, but Microsoft is already way ahead.”
Tomorrow is September 9, Apple’s fall event where they’ll announce their new iPhones and Apple TV. The new Apple TV is expected to be a large break from earlier versions, supporting an app store and providing better gaming capability. It’s been widely anticipated for years. In fact most of my posts about Apple TV date from 2013 and 2014. So while my timing was off by a few years (Apple Watch may have had something to do with this), I think those Apple TV posts hold up well enough they’re worth revisiting. So let me quote from them below, and then add a few updated thoughts at the end.
Like many who spend a lot of time reading on the internet, I love twitter. It’s an invaluable source of information. One especially prized by journalists and infovores. But the product has stagnated. In particular casual users have struggled with it. One billion people have tried it (!) but only about a quarter of those stayed with the product. So it was no surprise when twitter announced in early June current CEO Dick Costolo would step down.
When taxi-like service Uber (order a car instantly from your smartphone) first became successful, it created a trend for copy cats. These companies were marketed and mocked as “Uber for X“, e.g., Uber for flowers, Uber for shopping, Uber for laundry, Uber for pizza. You get the idea. But Uber’s explosive growth had another side. The company fought tooth and nail, lawsuit by lawsuit, against entrenched taxi interests to expand. And as Google unleashes the full potential of machine learning (especially talking computers), it risks a similar battle on privacy, becoming an “Uber for lawsuits.” I’ve mentioned this in previous posts, but as an aside. It’s worth exploring in more depth.
With Apple’s announcements at WWDC and Google’s announcements at Google I/O, there’s a reasonable case to be made that 2015 will be looked back on as the year we transitioned from the mobile tech era into the machine learning era. To be clear, that’s a huge oversimplification. Smartphone mobile tech is still changing rapidly (watch versus phone) and machine learning is itself tightly coupled to mobile’s rise. And there’s plenty of other technology vying for a similar claim: solar, genomics (CRISPR), Internet of Things, Bitcoin, 3D printing, other big data and cloud, etc. And yet. The world is so complex. Honing in on a single simplifying theme can provide insight. So let’s run with this one to see where it leads.
Ben Thompson starts off his Peak Google post saying “Despite the hype about disruption, the truth is most tech giants, particularly platform providers, are not so much displaced as they are eclipsed.” By this he means old platforms and companies don’t fail or go away. They continue to dominate their old platforms. It’s just that new companies create new platforms that are so much bigger they eclipse the old ones. His examples are IBM mainframes being eclipsed by PCs, and PCs being eclipsed by smartphones. I want to pause here to note that both of his eclipse examples are driven by the invention of new and more personal input methods. Yes, it’s true PCs continued using command line input at first. But once PCs shifted to mouse/keyboard and graphical interfaces, IBM dropped out and PC use exploded. We entered the Microsoft era. For smartphones of course the input shift was moving to touchscreen interfaces, where Apple iOS and Google Android now dominate. History seems to show that computer platforms have such strong lock-in the original owners never lose control. Instead what happens is new entrants have a window of opportunity to eclipse old platform owners when new and more personal input methods become technically feasible.
Even though it’s only April, it’s already clear 2015 will be looked back on as the year cord cutting (replacing cable TV with internet streaming) started going mainstream. HBO is finally allowing non-cable customers to stream HBO content without requiring a cable subscription. Apple is expected to launch a TV streaming service later this year. Existing internet streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, Sling TV, Hulu are all growing rapidly. Netflix alone already accounts for a third of all US internet traffic. Just this week Verizon got so aggressive in how they unbundled ESPN they’re getting sued for breach of contract. Not a move a company like Verizon would have attempted even a few years ago.