Silicon Valley – Adjusting to the Internet’s Long Tail?

Over the past year or so there’s been an unusual amount of public navel gazing on the investor side of Silicon Valley (and by proxy most of the North American venture capital space). Venture capital companies have an image of being slow, demanding, and cumbersome; solely focused on big wins with huge valuations. So called “super” angels have emerged to fill a void in the VC deal space, and new hybrid models like that of YCombinator have emerged.

As Max Levchin observes, angels have an interest in lower valued exits. He concludes that the positioning of super angels as VC alternatives has resulted in a “lack of visible significant innovation”. While Levchin’s observations are correct, I’m not certain that it’s the angel’s fault.

Instead, I think we’re reaching the “long tail” of the Internet, and we need to look for innovation elsewhere. The big hits in the Internet space have all had to do with providing analogues of existing human behaviours, and the number of untapped behaviours is diminishing. A preponderance of incremental innovations with corresponding low exits is only to be expected.

We have been so focused on Internet related innovation for the past decade and a half (and software for the decade previous) that for a lot of investors seem to have forgotten that there are alternatives.

It’s not that there’s a shortage of demand for innovation. There are many areas that need great minds and risk capital. Unfortunately those aren’t the opportunities that can be exploited by a bright kid with six months programming experience. They’re big, capital intensive, long term projects that need teams of highly skilled people to address them. Some of these problems are critically important. They need to be solved if we’re going to preserve our current lifestyle, if not ensure our survival.

If the investment community wants to innovate, it’s going to have to stop looking for the ultimate solution to determining how to rank “influence” on Twitter, and instead look for better transportation solutions, better solar power generation, methods to scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, local power generation and distribution, and solutions for other truly important problems.

While North America becomes increasingly concerned about it’s own relatively trivial problems like how to make an even cooler handheld device, our ability to innovate our very concept of innovation is collapsing in on itself like a dying star. Meanwhile, Asia is fast becoming the true leader in innovation and unless we pull out of this “make it big on the Internet” vortex, it won’t be long before we’re buying critical technology from abroad.

Let’s not blame the angel investors. Levchin says “we should aim higher.” He’s right. The question is whether or not we know which way is up.

Newspapers are Dead. Expect a Very Long Funeral.

Writing on, Getty Storch asserts that “Papers must charge for websites to survive“. There is a lively debate in the comments that follow, most of them are in disagreement with Storch’s analysis.

This includes mine, which I reproduce here.

Anyone who thinks newspapers can survive on local content needs to spend a few weeks on Twitter. Here is a medium where news arrives in near real time, is reliable (since misinformation is rapidly corrected by others), and relevant. This applies just as well in a global environment. I have seen real reports from people on the scene of demonstrations in Thailand and Athens, and learnt about the supply of gas from Russia to Slovakia from people in cold buildings. Twitter and similar channels tell me about traffic jams on my route downtown, about power outages and emergencies in ways that no newspaper or even television station can ever dream of achieving.

Twitter has merely brought something that has been happening for a very long time into the mainstream. As a case in point, I learnt about the death of Princess Diana via an international online chat almost three hours before the local media picked it up. This is a decade ago. Times have changed.

Information is now free and it will remain so. Any attempt to charge for access to it is absolutely doomed. The only hope that news media, particularly “print” media have for survival is by adding value. This means aggregating sources, adding perspective, and performing astute analysis. Even so, most of the revenue from these activities will be derived from online advertising, and those revenues will be orders of magnitude below what the industry currently sees as normal.

The newspaper as we know it is dead. There is no model that will resuscitate it, period. Rigor mortis has set in, the patient just doesn’t fully realize it yet.

Assisted Suicide: YouTube Helps Music Goliaths Become Irrelevant

A few days ago, YouTube began muting the audio tracks of videos that contained “unauthorized” copyright material. Some videos will now have the notice “This video contains an audio track that has not been authorized by all copyright holders. The audio has been disabled.” displayed beneath them.

This is a good move for YouTube. It will help absolve them from any liability for “broadcasting” content that the RIAA cabal deems worthy of protection.

It’s not such a good move for the RIAA and similar groups. A music track is an essential part of many videos, and we can be pretty sure that not many people who produce them are going to go to the trouble of obtaining copyright clearance. Instead, they’re going to seek unencumbered music. This is going to drive up the demand for “open” music, which will in turn cause more musicians to provide the same in exchange for some small promotional credit on the video.

Thus a win-win is born. Video creators will have access to more music they can use, musicians will have a showcase for their work with a potential for global profile that would otherwise be difficult to obtain. How long will it be before this exposure results in a musician who “makes it” in the mainstream? It will only be a matter of time.

How will these musicians feel when a big label comes along to offer them a contract that pays a fraction of the revenue they actually generate while insisting that they turn their backs on their roots by joining the copyright cartel? Some will buy in to the promises and sign up, but some won’t. Instead they’ll seek new methods and revenue models for distributing their work. Perhaps they will make the bulk of their money from live performance, or maybe they’ll find other ways to do it, but they will eventually succeed at it.

Once a successful formula has been found, those who seek to maximize revenue by controlling distribution will have lost the final step in their battle. They will have successfully spawned a revitalized industry that makes them irrelevant. This has always been inevitable, but YouTube’s move will certainly accelerate the process. To me it is amazing how, blind to reality, this industry continues to find ways to kill itself off with ever greater efficiency.

Kudos to YouTube; still yet another dunce cap to the established music distribution business.

Online Shopping versus Traditional Shopping

It’s interesting how often the question of online versus traditional shopping comes up. A friend asked me this earlier today and I gave him the same answer I’ve been providing for a decade now.

These days the response seems reasonable, but back in 1998 it was heresy. It used to be guaranteed to make a room full of start-ups and venture capitalists go dead quiet. Of course back then we were in the middle of the dot-com boom, when somehow geeks who don’t like daylight managed to convince everyone that their concept of a good shopping experience was somehow universal.

So here it is: (more…)

Steve Jobs Just Loves Windows Vista!

As more Windows users cry “Help, I’ve been Vista whipped!”, I thought that the introduction of the oppressive Windows Vista was going to be a boon for Linux.

I got the first part right. As Vista subverts your computer into a Microsoft Peripheral, subject to whatever whim “Balmer and The Boys” cook up, users have resisted. A large number of not-so-technical people I’ve talked to want to avoid Vista like the plague. [And in my opinion, rightly so.]

My assumption was that given reasonably priced hardware from several suppliers and completely free Linux distributions like Ubuntu, the discomfort with Vista would be the kick that finally pushed Linux into the consumer mainstream.

Not so. (more…)