I just finished Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages. First thought: not for everyone. It’s big picture tech cycle theorizing about economic history. Yet I found it first rate, and can see why it’s popular with some Silicon Valley investors. In particular Marc Andreessen cites Perez so often, I finally bought the book. It got me thinking. Our current tech cycle is well captured by Andreessen as software is eating the world. And software is highly prone to monopoly. Reading Perez, I found it hard to avoid the conclusion monopoly is eating the world. Attention must be paid.
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.”
Above are reconstructions of three famous fossil hominins by paleo-artist John Gurche. From left to right: Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), Homo erectus (Turkana boy) and recently discovered Homo naledi (paper). The Homo naledi announcement last month of fossils discovered in a cave in South Africa was a blockbuster for human origins. Even better, two more big origins papers were published in the past two weeks. The first on the oldest modern human teeth found in China, pushing the date of modern humans in Asia from ~45,000 to 80-100,000 years ago (paper). The second on the genome of a 4,500 year old Ethiopian (paper).
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.
Last week Adam Ozimek posted an interesting piece Big Data Versus Hayek. He noted how centralized algorithmic price setting, for real estate, airlines and hotels, was displacing local and decentralized decision making. Because it works better and is more profitable. And how this development was very “un-Hayekian.” Friedrich Hayek of course famously arguing centralized planning and pricing could never do as well as the man-on-the-spot in taking into account local conditions.
Hugo award winning science fiction author Greg Egan complained recently about science fiction movies, starting his post with the line “Why is almost every contemporary science fiction movie irredeemably stupid?” He digs into three movies: Her, Ex Machina and Interstellar. Regarding Her, he noted:
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.