Seems awful quiet out there …

Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of future-gazing and trying to spot the Next Big Thing in technology before it arrives in the mainstream? I know I do, and the last few years have been wonderfully active and fast-moving in that regard. I have lots of news feeds to keep me up to date with the latest in social media, technology and media, and use them to inspire me to write new blog posts and reports.

But recently I’ve found myself somewhat bereft of any such inspiration. In other words: is it just me, or is there nothing much new happening at the moment?

The social media news scene is still dominated by Facebook and Twitter, as evidenced by this week’s substantial coverage over the protests in Egypt and whether it was Facebook or Twitter ‘wot won it’. But this is nothing new and we’ve been having “the impact of social media on the headline of the day” stories run almost every month for the last year or two. These days both companies are getting on a bit in online terms – Facebook was created in 2004 and Twitter in 2006 so neither are spring chickens any more – and while Facebook’s current dominance is astounding (something like one page in every ten viewed in the US is a Facebook page apparently) there are also signs that Facebook may be losing its momentum in the demographic where it all started – American college students – if the vox pop at the end of the second episode of Rory Cellan-Jones’ excellent BBC Radio 4 series Secret History of Social Networking is anything to go by.

Outside of the Big Two and the social media scene is not exactly healthy. Friends Reunited withered long ago, and now it seems MySpace is on its way out. Bebo was sold off at a huge loss by AOL last year, Jaiku is gone and Google’s forays into the sector such as Buzz and Wave have fallen flat. Ning, a service to allow groups to set up their own white label online communities for free, has now retreated to premium services only.

Only LinkedIn, the business-orientated social network, seems to be thriving at the moment (its planning an IPO this year) – perhaps the reality of people being thrown out of their jobs and looking for work has had one beneficiary at least? But as a concept and business, LinkedIn is even older than the Big Two and founded at the end of 2002.

Otherwise all we’re seeing is business ideas built into small niches into the existing social media ecosphere; for example, the likes of Foursquare and GetGlue to expand the functionality of existing networks. They can’t survive on their own so they’re unlikely to be anything more than background players, and if they get too successful then you can bet that Facebook or Twitter will either buy them up or more likely simply include the functionality into their own core product, so it’s a precarious and short-lived position for those businesses to be in.

Looking further afield to technology, last year was supposed to be the Year of the Mobile. But then the mobile got its backside kicked by the iPad and the whole game changed. Now it’s all about tablets, and phones are so 2009. Everyone is trying to come up with the “iPad killer” (and aren’t we already as fed up of that notion as we are about the perennial annual parade of “iPhone killer” launches?) Trouble is, it takes time for rivals to create an entirely new type of product – look how long it took Nokia, RIM and Microsoft to get into the position of finally having phones that could genuinely rival Apple’s iPhone, for example. Accelerating a product to market too fast can leave it looking very poor and under-developed, leading to user disappointment (no wonder the Samsung Galaxy Tab has such high return rates) and just reinforce the market leader’s dominance by giving them an aura of untouchable quality in the meantime.

Except for games consoles such as the Wii and Xbox Kinnect, Apple tends to dominate technology announcements these days, but even here there’s a sense of “is that it? what can we do now?” Last year’s iPad was certainly a triumph, but this year Apple are busy making merely incremental improvements year-on-year to their product line to keep the customers buying the next model. In their computer range, iPods, iPhone and even the iPad going forward there’s a distinct lack of any new big leap on the horizon and almost a sense that the changes that are being introduced are being done simply to differentiate the 2011 model from the 2010 and hence drive the upgrade sales. The really significant changes tend to be in things like underlying chipsets which, let’s be honest, means nothing to the ordinary punter on the high street – or even the majority of geeks.

Along with the iPad, last year’s Next Big Thing contender was possibly the freeing up of public sector data initially with data.gov.uk and the Cabinet Office transparency initiative, and this this year with the Public Data Corporation, but even here a sense of ennui and frustration has started to develop as people ask “Well, this is all very well, but what do we do with all this data?” The public sector is having the usual problems of getting the bureaucracy to release genuinely useful data from its stores, in a consistent and reusable format and not just a load of tables in PDF. As a result it seems that public data has already become part of the furniture and just something else to be griped about.

There’s no better example of this then this week’s launch of the www.police.uk site to allow people to look up details of crimes committed in their local area. A year ago such an initiative would have been greeted with unbridled delight, but this week it’s just been criticised for: a) being overwhelmed with demand and going down; b) not making the data available in a reusable format outside the site; c) that the site itself is poorly designed; d) that its functionality is limited and error-prone; and e) that it apparently cost in the region of £300,000 in order to ‘free’ this data. In other words, it’s being seen as an awful lot of money to allow people to have a quick voyeuristic look at their neighbourhood and then never make use of it again. It’s a shame that it seems to have no bigger idea, play no part in a wider communications strategy.

Looking through the rest of the technology headlines we see stories not about the Next Big Thing but about the day-to-day grind of technology reduced to glitches, consolidation and business haggles: rows about whether Apple disallowing various apps in its iOS App Store; will the iPad 2 have a retina display or not (and who cares about the incessant speculation anyway?); HTML5 vs Flash; legal issues about film sales in iTunes breaking copyright; an email bug on the Windows 7 phone and a browser flaw in IE; the running out of internet addresses in IPv4 format; Google accusing Microsoft of copying search results. And an awful lot of stories about governments increasingly barging in, from the UK government looking into how to block sites that infringe copyright to the Indian authorities looking set to ban Blackberrys because the makers (RIM) won’t allow the government to access users’ messages (in the name of terrorism prevention of course.)

There are stories about the slow build in Google Chrome usage stats to 10% (and iOS devices up to 2%); Facebook scrambling to fix an authentication flaw; a new tablet on the horizon (from LG); Amazon looking at film streaming (a concept that’s been with us for years but only now practical with increased broadband speeds and capacities); the slow death of Yahoo!; the rise of e-books at long last, after almost as long a build-up as the mythical Year of Mobile; various services being shut down by the BBC; perennial stories about the death of blogging, or the death of RSS, or the death of something else. And so on, and so on.

But if we’re honest, it’s all very dull and uninspiring: like watching something that was recently shiny, new and exciting suddenly start to age badly and look rather old and frail. “End of life”, as the technology retailers would phrase it. If everything’s wearing out, then what’s going to come next – or have we peaked and it’s all a gentle slump downhill from here? Is this the evidence of the chill that the dire economic situation and the age of austerity is having all round?

Maybe I’m missing something – or indeed allowing my own winter gloom to paint the scene in shades of grey – but nothing has been exciting me in the last few months in the way that I was in 2006 and 2007 when social media came onto the scene and started to change not just how we did things but indeed what we did. Perhaps this will simply prove to be just a dramatic pause before the triumphant appearance of the next giant leap forward; it’s just annoying that it’s taking so long to make itself known.

Still, we’ll keep watching the feeds for signs of intelligent life on the horizon.

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  1. Hey Andrew,

    Great post as always. I’m in agreement – not that much going on that’s exciting at the minute.

    What do you think about http://www.quora.com/ – it’s been getting a fair amount of press lately but i’ve only dipped my toe in so far as it were.

    One thing that i tried out as well is Pushnote (http://www2.pushnote.com/) which has been backed by Stephen Fry among others – so far i’ve found it a massive letdown because it doesn’t seem to that the tipping point of users yet – but i guess it could still be one to watch.

    As ever time will tell 🙂

  2. andrewlewin

    Thanks for the comment – I’m glad it’s not just me, then!

    I know Quora caused a bit of a stir, but isn’t it just another Q&A site like many before it (Google Answers for one, IIRC?) The sign up requirement before being able to proceed put me off – felt like email harvesting and so I didn’t look further.

    And Pushnote seems to me to be another of those services that’s been done before: it’s a step on from Disqus and Echo, the kind of service that wouldn’t be needed if the core products were up to scratch.

    I guess the only exciting new product of the week is Murdoch and Apple’s iPad Daily – I might put together a brief post on that, but it’s hard to get excited about what is essentially a cut-down newspaper website accessible on one platform only and which you have to pay for …

    Oh don’t mind me, I’m obviously just jaundiced and grumpy this week!




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