About 20 years ago a student called Marc Andreessen arrived in Silicon Valley. After looking around a bit he concluded that he had arrived too late. It was the days of HTML. Mind you, his first success was as founder of Netscape.
Now, of course, Mr Andreessen is one of the best known Venture Capitalists in ‘the Valley’.
What he discovered, according to a talk by Ben Evans who works for him, is that platforms create the S curve, and riding the S curve, by creating the applications that work on the platform, are where the billions are made.
Look at the early days of the smartphone and the applications that were wheeled out to demonstrate its capabilities were email, weather and stocks. What the smartphone actually brought us was Uber, Snapchat and Instacart. There is probably more to come.
Evans believes that there are three phases to bringing technology to market, and he equates them to building a new skyscraper in the middle of a city. For a long time nothing seems to happen, except machines keep moving huge amounts of earth around and generally making a mess. This equates to the phase where you are making sure the tech works.
Then, almost overnight it seems, the structure of the building goes up. This equates to the phase where you are constantly improving the technology and working out the market positioning.
The third phase, when the lights go on and tenants are being recruited, is the phase that Evans refers to as “pouring on the rocket fuel”. That is the phase when the cost comes down and the innovation and cool, new, billion-dollar ideas emerge.
So, it turned out that Andreeson didn’t miss out. He was just in time for the mobile – then smartphone – curves and the unexpected innovation that they brought.
The question then becomes what the next curve is – the next platform.
And Evans believes the answer is AI.
He concedes that AI is almost always described badly. He believes that AI should be referred to as machine learning to better understand it. He thinks the same about automation. Ask a colleague what the impact of automation will have on the business and the question conjures images of robots.
And this is flawed.
A washing machine is a robot, but it just does one thing. So is a dishwasher. So were typewriters. A horseless carriage was, to begin with, just a carriage without a horse. Soon, the shape of the carriage itself changed out of all recognition.
Once the autonomous car becomes a reality, then the shape of the vehicle will change out of all proportion. A ‘car’ can become a meeting place that takes you from one place to another, or a café, or a place to sleep.
Evans believes that the camera could become a platform in itself. Imagine having a camera on your ear, one that you can ask what the badge of the guy you met yesterday said, or where you left your keys, or one that can tell you what the fashion trends in London are, based on what people were wearing six months ago compared to today.
Computers that can see and compare and do all the things that machine learning makes possible – and communicate with you – may well be the next platform that creates the next S curve and enables applications that not even Mr Andreessen cannot predict.
What we can predict is that he will probably have a stake in some of the applications and people that will be tomorrow’s billionaires.