Published in 1995, The Road Ahead was Gates’ contribution to the ever-popular activity of crystal ball gazing. At the dawn of the commercial Internet, it was clear that great change was afoot, but nobody was quite sure what it would all mean, despite some people claiming otherwise. One of the great things about predicting the future is that it’s such a popular activity that no one really bothers to check back to see if any of those predictions were in any way correct.
Let’s test Mr Gates on a few of his predictions:
“One of the many fears expressed about the information highway is that it will reduce the time people spend socialising”
Really? Oddly enough, Gates spends a fair proportion of the book talking about a house he was having built at great expense with every imaginable tech gadget. You can imagine that almost all of those gadgets became obsolete within a couple of years, but he was clearly caught between the idea that home was going to be so great that you wouldn’t want to go out and the fact that humans are intrinsically social animals and would still go to the cinema as often as they did before. Cinema audiences in the US did decline in 2013 … to the level they were in 1995, so Gates was partly correct. But Gates completely fails to foresee something called the social network. And a little site called Facebook.
“virtual dating via video conferencing”
Gates has unparalleled credibility as both tech-geek and businessman, but I’m not sure that you’d want to date him. Gates recounts the story of a woman he was dating in another City. To solve the problem of a long distance relationship (and probably Gates working the whole time), he recounts how they would pick a movie, chat on their cell phones on the way there and then review it on the way back. Gates gets quite excited at the thought of including video conferencing into the equation to create a ‘virtual dating environment’. Tinder it ain’t……
You’ll be able to chat with others when playing video games
Given that computer games were already wildly popular in 1995, this was an easy spot, but even Gates didn’t realise that this would be THE way that teenage boys communicated with each other circa 2014. World of Warcraft and Call of Duty have probably generated more teenage male communication in the last ten years than took place previously in the entire history of humanity.
Today’s Financial Times carries a strangely insightful piece on the difference between failure and giving up. Failure has long been lauded in the start-up community as a precursor to eventual success, but as Lisa Pollack points out, what about the people who just give up before achieving either success or failure? There’s a broader life question about whether or not it’s okay to give up on things and Ms Pollack gives us some great examples from her own experience of giving up: A-level chemistry, numerous instruments, the Guides. It made me realise that not only is giving up far more common than failure, but as all MBA students will tell you, it’s perfectly rational to give up on things if there is a better pay-off elsewhere for a scarce resource – your own time.
Whilst we laud individuals who stick at things or great examples of heroic failure, should we be balancing this with a more nuanced view that says it makes no sense to pursue projects that are doomed to failure, or even mediocrity? Should common sense prevail?
Coming back to the world of shiny start-ups, it’s only VCs that operate in the binary grouping of start ups as either success or failure. If you take VC money, you are destined to fall into one of these categories as you burn cash in pursuit of lofty ambitions. But many start ups achieve more modest goals over longer periods. And there are plenty of successful companies that only grew because their founders gave up on an original idea to focus on a business that occurred by accident more than design. Think Paypal.
It may sound heretical, but perhaps giving up on things that don’t work isn’t failure. It’s just common sense.
One of the annoying features of building a web company is that having the right idea is not enough. You have to have it at the right time.
A case in point from the Morgan Stanley Dean Witter European Internet Report of June 1999:
“As of 6/9/99, Boo.com had yet to launch it’s website, but has been getting a reported 60,000 hits a day in anticipation of it’s much publicised launch. Boo has promised to feature leading edge 3-D imagery of its offerings, superior customer service(complete with Miss Boo, a cyber-sexy fashion consultant/customer service rep) and delivery capability forhigh-end sportswear, footwear and outerwear, as well as sports, culture and style – but no discounts on retail prices”.
I know that this report came out just before the frenzied peak of the dot com boom, because I was enjoying/enduring an IPO at the time. Looking back, there are a few things that stand out apart from the two obvious reasons for failure (they were spending money too fast and they were launching a product that was designed for 2014 internet speeds, not 1999 internet speeds). First, they ‘sort of’ got the idea right and definitely got the timing wrong. But that ‘sort of’ got it right is almost as important as the timing. Who needed a 3-D depiction of the clothes that was so bandwidth heavy? Who needed a cyber-sexy fashion consultant? I mean I get away reasonably well on my own walking into a real shop and buying something without someone providing fashion advice (those of you who know me – no comment required on that last statement).
It seems to me that more important than getting their timing wrong was the fact that they didn’t understand what they were trying to do. What would the customer value? Was it speed, was it convenience, was it access to otherwise unreachable goods? Amazon succeeded because it was good at raising investment money and it (really) understood what the customer might value. Everything else got dropped.
So it seems to me that whilst timing is important, what is more important is understanding the attributes of the product that a customer really values and dispensing with everything else. Pretty basic marketing, I suppose.
It seems that there is life after death in the software industry. Reincarnation is possible. It has always been my assumption that software companies took themselves off into a corner to die if they were overtaken by the next big thing. Or more likely if the NBT that overtook them was itself overtaken by a NBT. But it seem that software companies go to the same place that all other companies go when they are on the wrong side of the technology adoption curve – private equity. TibCo seems to be the latest in a string of companies to follow this path. Skype went to private equity and then on to Microsoft (my old B-School professor always claimed that Microsoft were in fact a bank).
Now it’s industry wisdom that it’s easier to write new code than renovate old code. Actually, it’s not just industry wisdom, it IS easier to write new code. So I’m guessing that these companies are not being snapped up for their technology. More like their income streams. Cut the R&D budget, ramp up the marketing, tighten up the contracts. You know the sort of thing. Except that this is so counter cultural to the technology industry that I wonder what it’s like to operate in this kind of environment? One of the things that I’ve noticed is that many of the mature companies still pay pretty well. If you’re a middle aged marketing type, you’re much better off working in an organisation in decline that’ll pay you a hundred grand a year than you are hanging out with the hipsters in Shoreditch for 40k. Particularly as you won’t be enjoying the side benefits: the social life and sense of being cool.
Or maybe it’s more a function of a maturing industry. Maybe tech is just that …. just another industry.