Alexis Madrigal thinks the So-Lo-Mo (Social-Local-Mobile) media paradigm has played itself out and we’re ready for something dramatically new. He points to a zillion hopeful startups that all look more or less alike, all variations on the same theme, all trying to hop on the same bandwagon.
And really, he’s got a point. It says something that Instagram and Pinterest are the hottest new things out there. They’re both ways to share photos. Whoopee. We’ve had photo sharing for how many years now? You know, like Flickr? Flickr launched in 2004, the same year as Facebook.
But then he suggests some areas that are wide open for innovation:
The cost of a lumen of light is dropping precipitously; there must be more things than lightbulbs that can benefit from that. There’s vast amounts of databases, real-world data, and video that remains unindexed. Who knows what a billion Chinese Internet users will come up with? The quantified self is just getting going on its path to the programmable self. And no one has figured out how to do augmented reality in an elegant way.
The best thing about Madrigal’s article, though, is that he points us to Paul Graham’s list of “Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas.” They’re frightening, Graham says, because they are just this side of impossible.
Here’s Paul Graham’s list in condensed form:
1. A New Search Engine
The way to win here is to build the search engine all the hackers use. A search engine whose users consisted of the top 10,000 hackers and no one else would be in a very powerful position despite its small size, just as Google was when it was that search engine. And for the first time in over a decade the idea of switching seems thinkable to me.
2. Replace Email (This one is Oh So Necessary. I’ve come to hate email every bit as much as I rely on it.)
I’m open to different types of solutions to this problem, but I suspect that tweaking the inbox is not enough, and that email has to be replaced with a new protocol. This new protocol should be a todo list protocol, not a messaging protocol, although there is a degenerate case where what someone wants you to do is: read the following text.
As a todo list protocol, the new protocol should give more power to the recipient than email does. I want there to be more restrictions on what someone can put on my todo list. And when someone can put something on my todo list, I want them to tell me more about what they want from me. Do they want me to do something beyond just reading some text? How important is it? When does it have to be done?
3. Replace Universities. (I think this one is already underway, though haphazardly.)
I don’t think universities will disappear. They won’t be replaced wholesale. They’ll just lose the de facto monopoly on certain types of learning that they once had. There will be many different ways to learn different things, and some may look quite different from universities.
4. Internet Drama
How do you deliver drama via the Internet? Whatever you make will have to be on a larger scale than YouTube clips. When people sit down to watch a show, they want to know what they’re going to get: either part of a series with familiar characters, or a single longer “movie” whose basic premise they know in advance.
There are two ways delivery and payment could play out. Either some company like Netflix or Apple will be the app store for entertainment, and you’ll reach audiences through them. Or the would-be app stores will be too overreaching, or too technically inflexible, and companies will arise to supply payment and streaming a la carte to the producers of drama. If that’s the way things play out, there will also be a need for such infrastructure companies.
5. The Next Steve Jobs
I was talking recently to someone who knew Apple well, and I asked him if the people now running the company would be able to keep creating new things the way Apple had under Steve Jobs. His answer was simply “no.”
So if Apple’s not going to make the next iPad, who is? None of the existing players. None of them are run by product visionaries, and empirically you can’t seem to get those by hiring them. Empirically the way you get a product visionary as CEO is for him to found the company and not get fired. So the company that creates the next wave of hardware is probably going to have to be a startup.
I realize it sounds preposterously ambitious for a startup to try to become as big as Apple. But no more ambitious than it was for Apple to become as big as Apple, and they did it. Plus a startup taking on this problem now has an advantage the original Apple didn’t: the example of Apple.
6. Bring Back Moore’s Law
Intel can no longer give us faster CPUs, just more of them.
This Moore’s Law is not as good as the old one. Moore’s Law used to mean that if your software was slow, all you had to do was wait, and the inexorable progress of hardware would solve your problems. Now if your software is slow you have to rewrite it to do more things in parallel, which is a lot more work than waiting.
It would be great if a startup could give us something of the old Moore’s Law back, by writing software that could make a large number of CPUs look to the developer like one very fast CPU. There are several ways to approach this problem. The most ambitious is to try to do it automatically: to write a compiler that will parallelize our code for us. There’s a name for this compiler, the sufficiently smart compiler, and it is a byword for impossibility. But is it really impossible?
The least ambitious way of approaching the problem is to start from the other end, and offer programmers more parallelizable Lego blocks to build programs out of, like Hadoop and MapReduce. Then the programmer still does much of the work of optimization.
There’s an intriguing middle ground where you build a semi-automatic weapon—where there’s a human in the loop. You make something that looks to the user like the sufficiently smart compiler, but inside has people, using highly developed optimization tools to find and eliminate bottlenecks in users’ programs. These people might be your employees, or you might create a marketplace for optimization.
An optimization marketplace would be a way to generate the sufficiently smart compiler piecemeal, because participants would immediately start writing bots. It would be a curious state of affairs if you could get to the point where everything could be done by bots, because then you’d have made the sufficiently smart compiler, but no one person would have a complete copy of it.
7. Ongoing Medical Diagnosis
It will seem preposterous to future generations that we wait till patients have physical symptoms to be diagnosed with cancer. Cancer will show up on some sort of radar screen immediately.
A lot of doctors worry that if you start scanning people with no symptoms, you’ll get a huge number of false alarms that make patients panic and require expensive and perhaps even dangerous tests to resolve. But I think that’s just an artifact of current limitations. If people were scanned all the time and we got better at deciding what was a real problem…
Graham concludes with some tactical advice:
If you want to take on a problem as big as the ones I’ve discussed, don’t make a direct frontal attack on it. Don’t say, for example, that you’re going to replace email. If you do that you raise too many expectations. Your employees and investors will constantly be asking “are we there yet?” and you’ll have an army of haters waiting to see you fail. Just say you’re building todo-list software. That sounds harmless. People can notice you’ve replaced email when it’s a fait accompli.
Empirically, the way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things. Want to dominate microcomputer software? Start by writing a Basic interpreter for a machine with a few thousand users. Want to make the universal web site? Start by building a site for Harvard undergrads to stalk one another.
The popular image of the visionary is someone with a clear view of the future, but empirically it may be better to have a blurry one.