‘Next Big Things’ don’t appear from nowhere. Just look at t…



You may not have heard of Bill Gross, but you have been productised by him. The software entrepreneur is responsible for one of the most significant economic models of the internet era. In 1996, Gross founded GoTo.com, a search engine with the tagline “search made simple”. Search engines of the time, like Alta Vista, were strewn with features such as email and weather updates that made even finding a search bar challenging. Besides the cleaner interface, GoTo distinguished itself in another important way – all its search results would be sponsored.

Gross’s idea seems obvious today but, at the time, enabling commercial entities to buy keywords and elevating content according to the highest bidder was entirely new. Display advertising wasn’t an original idea – but advertisers competing for eyeballs in real-time was.

GoTo rebranded as Overture in 2001 to focus on being a third-party service provider to other search engines. In 2003, it was bought by Yahoo!, as much of its revenue was generated by GoTo.

Today, Gross’s vision can be seen in Google Ads (rebranded from AdWords in July 2018), the western internet’s dominant commercial model, with revenues in 2017 of $95 billion. Of course, Google’s original mission wasn’t to create one of the world’s most profitable businesses; it was to organise all the world’s information, initially via a search engine that had no commercial underpinnings – AdWords wasn’t introduced until October 2000, two years after the company was founded. Its pre-eminence has been built on its functionality, its uncluttered UI and delivery of results with a high degree of relevance.

Such is the way with innovation; much like geologists examining strata in rock formations, it’s possible to examine the underpinnings of dominant players in every category. The iPhone is often cited as a technology that made the rest of the marketplace obsolete. But the iPhone was the culmination of innovation in batteries, LCDs, Wi-Fi and the internet that has origins in the work of physicists and chemists in previous centuries. The impact brought about by mobile technology can be traced back to pioneers whose names are forgotten.

At the Consumer Electronics Show, the annual jamboree of technology hosted in Las Vegas each January, the consensus from those attending is that there’s little new to get excited about. This seems to miss the point: events like CES conceal the slow, hard-to predict, drawn-out nature of innovation and discovery. Trade events bear little relation to meaningful change, rather they are showbusiness – a marketing platform for organisations that have the relentless drumbeat of quarterly earnings reports to adhere to.

The use-case is all. Many of the emerging technologies of today are seen as disappointing or “not where we need them to be”. VR? Consumer adoption of the technology has been minimal. Why? Not enough products that excite people are being built because the technology is complex and few developers have the skills to build products. Machine learning? We’re a long way off it being used for much more than pattern recognition. Blockchain? There are few clear use cases.

This is disappointment based on an absence of product-fit. However, these technologies will continue to develop incrementally, maybe becoming what we think they might become – or maybe something else entirely – because of the bench work and research being done in universities, laboratories and companies across the world. The notion of the maverick individual is one that the tech world likes to mythologise, but the truth is that every “next big thing” is created on the shoulders of others. Inter-generational, private, public progress is the partnership that will ensure our continued advance.

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