The Amazon machine

When you look at large manufacturing companies, it becomes very clear that the machine that makes the machine is just as important as the machine itself. There’s a lot of work in the iPhone, but there’s also a lot of work in the machine that can manufacture over 200m iPhones in a year. Equally, there’s a lot of work in a Tesla Model 3, but Tesla has yet to build a machine that can manufacture Model 3s efficiently, reliable, quickly and at quality at the scale of the incumbent car industry.

More than any of the other big tech platform companies, Amazon is a machine that makes the machine. People tend to talk about the famous virtuous circle diagram - more volume, lower costs, lower prices, more customers and so more volume. However, I think the operating structure of Amazon - the machine - is just as important, and perhaps Continue reading "The Amazon machine"

Presentation: Ten Year Futures

This autumn I gave the keynote at Andreessen Horowitz's annual 'Tech Summit' conference, talking about the state of tech today and what's likely to happen in the next decade: mobile, Google / Apple / Facebook / Amazon, innovation, machine learning, autonomous cars, mixed reality and crypto-currencies. 

(I had a cold). 

This is in part an expansion of some of the things I wrote about this post in the spring: 'Ten Year Futures'.  

Fashion, Maslow and Facebook’s control of social

This is the 'New Look', created by Christian Dior in 1947. It was a very conscious shift away from the restrictions and sumptuary constraints of the war, and a move to a very different way of feeling about how you looked and how you lived. It was a move away from narrow profiles, limited use of cloth, 'make do and mend' and women's clothes designed for working in munitions factories. It used twenty metres of fabric for an outfit instead of two.

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This was a big change - many people were furious at the 'waste' of fabric. Indeed, it was so different that some outraged Parisiennes physically attacked a woman wearing the clothes. 

There's a common idea that in some way fashion designers get together in a room and decide what the fashion will be next year. That's a pretty fundamental misunderstanding. Rather, they propose what might fit the Continue reading "Fashion, Maslow and Facebook’s control of social"

The scale of tech winners

We all know, I think, that there are now far more smartphones than PCs, and we all know that there are far more people online now than there used to be, and we also, I think, mostly know that big tech companies today are much bigger than the big tech companies of the past. It’s useful, though, to put some real numbers on that, and to get a sense of use how much the scale has changed, and what that means.

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So, the four leading tech companies of the current cycle (outside China), Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon, or ‘GAFA’, have together over three times the revenue of Microsoft and Intel combined (‘Wintel’, the dominant partnership of the previous cycle), and close to six times that of IBM. They have far more employees, and they invest far more. (Once can of course quibble with the detail of this - the

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Winner-takes all effects in autonomous cars

There are now several dozen companies trying to make the technology for autonomous cars, across OEMs, their traditional suppliers, existing major tech companies and startups. Clearly, not all of these will succeed, but enough of them have a chance that one wonders what and where the winner-take-all effects could be, and what kinds of leverage there might be. Are there network effects that would allow the top one or two companies to squeeze the rest out, as happened in smartphone or PC operating systems? Or might there be room for five or ten companies to compete indefinitely? And for what layers in the stack does victory give power in other layers? 

These kinds of question matter because they point to the balance of power in the car industry of the future. A world in which car manufacturers can buy commodity ‘autonomy in a box’ from any of half a

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GAFA’s org structures as a platform for growth.

Earlier this week I did a podcast with my colleague Steven Sinofsky talking about the management structures of Google, Apple. Facebook and Amazon ('GAFA'). These companies now have around 10 times more employees than they did a decade ago, yet they still manage to function, and function extremely well, producing a stream of great work. The interesting thing is that the management structures that they've used to achieve that are actually very different.

Amazon, at one extreme, is radically decentralised, with hundreds of different small teams all operating independently on top of common platforms - reflecting its need to scale across an indefinite number of different product categories. Apple, at the other extreme, is a deeply structured and systematic company - reflecting its need to produce a hundred million of this new product in three months, three years from now. And Google and Facebook, in turn, have their own highly specific Continue reading "GAFA’s org structures as a platform for growth."

Content isn’t king

People in tech and media have been saying that ‘content is king’ for a long time - perhaps since the VHS/Betamax battle of the early 1980s, and perhaps longer. Content and access to content was a strategic lever for technology. I’m not sure how much this is true anymore.  Music and books don’t matter much to tech anymore, and TV probably won’t matter much either.  Most obviously, subscription streaming has more or less ended the strategic importance of music to tech companies. In the past, any music you bought for your iPod had DRM and could only be played on Apple devices, and the same was true in reverse for music from any other service. Even if you’d just encoded your own CDs (or downloaded pirated tracks, but in either case without DRM), physically transferring them to a different device with different software was a barrier. Your music library Continue reading "Content isn’t king"

Creation and consumption

There's a pretty common argument in tech that though of course there are billions more smartphones than PCs, and will be many more still, smartphones are not really the next computing platform, just a computing platform, because smartphones (and the tablets that derive from them) are only used for consumption where PCs are used for creation. You might look at your smartphone a lot, but once you need to create, you'll go back to a PC.  There are two pretty basic problems with this line of thinking. First, the idea that you cannot create on a smartphone or tablet assumes both that the software on the new device doesn't change and that the nature of the work won't change. Neither are good assumptions. You begin by making the new tool fit the old way of working, but then the tool changes how you work. More importantly though, I think Continue reading "Creation and consumption"

Not even wrong – ways to dismiss technology

There’s a story told of the theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli that a friend showed him the paper of a young physicist that he suspected was not very good but on which he wanted Pauli's views. Pauli remarked sadly "It is not even wrong”. For a theory even to be wrong, it must be predictive and testable and falsifiable. If it cannot be falsified - if it does not make some prediction that could in theory be tested and proven false - then it does not count as science.  I've always liked this quote in its own right, but it's also very relevant to talking about new technology and the way that people tend to dismiss and defend it. For as long as people have been creating technology, people have been saying it'll never amount to anything. As we create more and more - as 'software eats the world', the
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Ten Year Futures

Now that mobile is maturing and its growth is slowing, everyone in tech turns to thinking about what the Next Big Thing will be. It's easy to say that 'machine learning is the new mobile' (and everyone does), but there are other things going on too. 

On one hand, we have a set of profound changes coming as a result of new primary technology. Electric and autonomous cars will change cities, virtual and mixed reality will change the entire computing experience, and machine learning is changing the kind of questions that computers can answer. But each of these is also just beginning, especially relative to their potential - they are at the bottom of the S-Curve where smartphones are now getting towards the top. On the other hand, I think we can see a set of changes that come not so much from any new technology as from shifts

Continue reading "Ten Year Futures"

Ten Year Futures

Now that mobile is maturing and its growth is slowing, everyone in tech turns to thinking about what the Next Big Thing will be. It's easy to say that 'machine learning is the new mobile' (and everyone does), but there are other things going on too.  On one hand, we have a set of profound changes coming as a result of new primary technology. Electric and autonomous cars will change cities, virtual and mixed reality will change the entire computing experience, and machine learning is changing the kind of questions that computers can answer. But each of these is also just beginning, especially relative to their potential - they are at the bottom of the S-Curve where smartphones are now getting towards the top. One the other hand, I think we can see a set of changes that come not so much from any new technology as from shifts
Continue reading "Ten Year Futures"

The first decade of augmented reality

In February 2006, Jeff Han gave a demo of an experimental 'multitouch' interface, as a 'TED' talk. I've embedded the video below. Watching this today, the things he shows seems pretty banal - every $50 Android phone does this! - and yet the audience, mostly relatively sophisticated and tech-focused people, gasps and applauds. What is banal now was amazing then. And a year later, Apple unveiled the iPhone and the tech industry was reset to zero around multitouch. 

Looking back at this a decade later, there were really four launches for multitouch. There was a point at which multitouch became an interesting concept in research labs, a point at which the first demos of what this might actually do started appearing in public, a point at which the first really viable consumer product appeared in the iPhone, and then, several years later, a point at which sales really started exploding,

Continue reading "The first decade of augmented reality"

The first decade of augmented reality

In February 2006, Jeff Han gave a demo of an experimental 'multitouch' interface, as a 'TED' talk. I've embedded the video below. Watching this today, the things he shows seems pretty banal - every $50 Android phone does this! - and yet the audience, mostly relatively sophisticated and tech-focused people, gasps and applauds. What is banal now was amazing then. And a year later, Apple unveiled the iPhone and the tech industry was reset to zero around multitouch.  Looking back at this a decade later, there were really four launches for multitouch. There was a point at which multitouch became an interesting concept in research labs, a point at which the first demos of what this might actually do started appearing in public, a point at which the first really viable consumer product appeared in the iPhone, and then, several years later, a point at which sales really started exploding,
Continue reading "The first decade of augmented reality"

Cars and second order consequences

There are two foundational technology changes rolling through the car industry at the moment; electric and autonomy. Electric is happening right now, largely as a consequence of falling battery prices, while autonomy, or at least full autonomy, is a bit further off - perhaps 5-10 years, depending on how fast some pretty hard computer science problems get solved. Both of these will cycle into essentially the entire global stock of (today) around 1.1bn cars over a period of decades, subject to all sorts of variables, and both of them completely remake the car industry and its suppliers, as well as parts of the tech industry. 

Both electric and autonomy, pretty obviously, have some profound consequences beyond the car industry itself. Half of global oil production today goes to gasoline, and removing that demand will have geopolitical as well as industrial consequences. Over a million people are killed in Continue reading "Cars and second order consequences"

The end of smartphone innovation

This autumn Apple will release a new iPhone design, and the fact that it postponed a new design and kept the 6 design for three years instead of two suggests it has something that will attract attention. However, it will really still 'just' be another iPhone. Meanwhile, we have some indications that Apple is working on AR glasses (of which more later) and certainly was working on a car project - but neither of these is likely to see a mass-market consumer release for a year or two at the least (cars perhaps longer). So, expect a lot more 'innovation dead at Apple!' stories. 

This is paralleled at Android, I think: the new developer release of version 'O' has lots of good work and solid worthy stuff, but nothing world changing. Again, the cry will go up, "innovation is dead!" 

Really, though, this reflects where we are in the

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Voice and the uncanny valley of AI

Voice is a Big Deal in tech this year. Amazon has probably sold 10m Echos, you couldn't move for Alexa partnerships at CES, Google has made its own and, it seems, this is the new platform. There are a couple of different causes for this explosion, and, also, a couple of problems. To begin, the causes.

First, voice is a big deal because voice input now works in a way that it did not until very recently. The advances in machine learning in the past couple of years mean (to simplify hugely) that computers are getting much better at recognizing what people are saying. Technically, there are two different fields here; voice recognition and natural language processing. Voice recognition is the transcribing of audio to Continue reading "Voice and the uncanny valley of AI"

Surfing, metrics and creation: Facebook and Snap

There's a pretty common narrative that Google & Facebook have a lot of control of the internet, in that they choose where you go and what you see. While this is true in an obvious sense, it also misses something important: Google and Facebook don't have fundamental control over what's actually in your search results or your news feed. This is pretty clear for Google - it doesn't control what you search for. It does decide what results you get, but that decision is also in some sense out of its hands, because it has to give you the best results it can. So while Google is always making decisions around search, and those can create or uncreate companies, they are in essence technical, mechanistic judgements (or ought to be, at any rate), and not editorial ones. Google search is and has to be a mirror of the
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Mobile 2.0

In 2004, ten years after Netscape launched, Tim O'Reilly launched the 'Web 2.0' conference, proposing (or branding) a generational shift in how the web worked. There were lots of trends, and none of them really started in 2004, but to me, looking back, the key thing was that people said 'if we forget about dial-up and forget about supporting old and buggy web browsers, and presume that lots of people are online and have got used to this stuff now, what can we build now that we couldn't build before?' Not everyone had broadband and not everyone had a new computer with a modern browser, but enough people did that you could think about setting aside the constraints of a 14.4k modem and a table-based static web page and start building something new. And enough people were online, and knew lots of other people that were too, for Continue reading "Mobile 2.0"

Asking the wrong questions

This is a photo of my grandfather, Will Jenkins. It was taken in 1909, when he was 13. He made the glider himself and took it to Cape Henry, about 17 miles by trolley from Norfolk, where his first flight took him eight feet, and his last that day took him 40 feet and broke one of his uprights. They made 13-year-olds differently then, I think. 
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He built the glider, incidentally, with a gift of $5 sent to him by an American Civil War veteran after a school essay he'd written about Robert E. Lee was published in the local paper.  The war, after all, had ended only 44 years earlier.  In 1946, by which time he'd become a notable writer of science fiction, he published a story called 'A Logic named Joe', which described a global computer network with servers and terminals, that starts giving people the
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Cars as feature-phones

When I moved to Silicon Valley from London, in 2014, I bought a second-hand German car from 2009. The dashboard reminds me very much of using a Nokia in 2000 - it's perfect, and clear, and easy to understand, and there's no software at all. There are features, some of which are shown on a monochrome screen, and powered by firmware, but no software. Then, a few weeks ago, it needed to be serviced and the dealer lent me a brand new top-of-the-line version of the same model. This one was like using a Nokia from 2007 - they've added all the smart stuff, badly. There are so many buttons that even the buttons have buttons, and though each particular feature makes sense on its own, and might even be implemented quite well, when they're all added together the effect is absurd.  My new favorite site on the internet Continue reading "Cars as feature-phones"