Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Coming Up With the Next Big Thing
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Wednesday, June 28, 2000
The introduction of any major new technology usually gives rise to a fresh new crop of multi-millionaires.
Often, the doting news media dubs them geniuses.
But having met and covered many newly minted tech moguls over the years, I’ve noticed a much more common thread in many of their stories.
Often, the best thing any of them ever did was having had the wisdom, more typically the dumb luck, to be in the right place at the right time doing just the right thing.
We’re coming up on another one of those “right time” moments.
The only remaining question: who will be doing the right thing in the right place?
Think broadband Internet-based wireless applications.
Let’s call them BIBWAPs, for short.
Entertainment, commerce, and government markets, which together account for trillions of dollars in annual turnover, are all ripe targets for the revolutionary improvements that the emerging broadband mobile wireless Internet makes possible.
The big mainstream telecom companies are already banking on big growth in their wireless divisions.
But huge rewards could also go to entrepreneurs who come up with popular new BIBWAPs. And that’s great news for Silicon Valley’s traditional heroes; the iconoclasts who like to make things happen outside the traditional corporate structure.
In fact, industry outsiders might even have the advantage when it comes to developing the best new BIBWAPs because like battle-weary generals, the established wireless and software companies are busy fighting the last war when it comes to applications.
Albeit with a mobile twist, the big guns are mostly pushing wireless applications that are already quite familiar.
The only real difference so far seems to be that we’ll soon have more choices about where we want to do things that we traditionally did in our homes and offices.
I’m sure some of us will want to monitor email more easily while on the road, switch investments on the golf course, or handle our personal database management and scheduling tasks on the run.
But it’s the entrepreneurs, or just as likely, the hobbyists, who successfully tap into the wireless Web’s more unique attributes who will come away with the biggest score.
Those attributes include the potential for interactive multimedia, as well as knowledge of current and precise individual user geographic locations.
This new combination of technologies makes possible previously unimaginable BIBWAPs, many of which could lead to the creation of entirely new markets.
What difference will it make, for example, when we can download and enjoy high-quality music and video in real time regardless of our location?
Or when we have the ability to tap into virtually any other goods or services available on the Internet anywhere, anytime, as well as communicate in real time with everyone else similarly connected?
All this could rather quickly turn the Internet into a wireless switching post, tying together users who interact in real time.
Some of the best new BIBWAPs will no doubt take advantage of the technology’s ability to figure out exactly where users are located at any particular moment.
One idea being kicked around, for example, involves creating a new form of advertising that would automatically pop up on your cell phone screen when you are near particular stores or restaurants that are offering sales or special deals.
I suspect most consumers will probably balk at having to dodge ads while making and receiving cell phone calls.
But several leading telecom analysts tell me it’s possible, even likely, that we’ll eventually have one device for making calls, and another for interacting with the rest of our environment.
You’re walking down San Francisco’s Mission Street with your wireless “Around Town” device in hand (a made up name), looking for a Mexican restaurant that serves ahi tuna tacos.
The device immediately senses your location and lets you look over the menus of all the joints within easy walking distance.
If you have a high-speed connection and a handheld unit with a little screen, perhaps you can even take a live peek inside the kitchen or waiting area. At a minimum, you should be able to make instant electronic reservations.
Over time, the entire world, or at least the digital world, could begin to resemble one of those automatic multimedia tours offered by good museums.
My guess, though, is that the very best BIBWAPs will catch us all entirely by surprise.
Someone, somewhere, probably a precocious 12-year-old, will come up with some sort of combo Napster/Pokeman/Cabbage Patch BIBWAP that catches fire and changes the world.
It might be an irresistible new interactive game none of us can put down, or it might be some type of contest or promotion.
But eventually, something will send consumers stampeding to stores to buy whatever cheap wireless unit might be required.
Perhaps an entertainment and dining service will emerge, to cite another example, which automatically generates wireless offers of discounts based on the number of currently available seats or tables to patrons who agree to arrive within five minutes.
Wireless vacancy signs could likewise tell travelers where they might find a local and available reasonably priced bed for the night.
Other new BIBWAPs might have little or nothing to do, at least overtly, with commerce.
Transportation headaches might be lessened, for example, by a BIBWAP that facilitates ride-sharing through automatic destination detection.
Anyone who gets even a demo prototype of such a promising new technology up and running any time soon will quickly find themselves showered by venture capital, from both within and outside the existing wireless industry.
Last month, I attended an Internet industry gathering in Los Angeles that was notable for its air of desperation. At one panel, for example, attendees lined up ten deep to pass their “me-too” business plans head over head to the single beleaguered venture capitalist who had agreed to attend.
It was like watching CBS-TV’s “Survivor” series, only in this case, no one was making it off the island.
Later the VC told me he had discarded nearly all the plans, which he said appeared to have come from a cookie-cutter. They were, he said, almost all retreads of already familiar online business concepts.
The still nascent wireless industry, however, and its well-heeled backers in the venture capital world desperately need, and will pay handsomely for, a few new killer BIBWAPs.
Without them, today’s biggest wireless moguls could be heading toward a dead zone.
Existing wireless markets are fiercely contested and prices are falling fast. Some industry insiders are already fretting about the damage that could be done to several leading wireless firms and, not incidentally, their stock prices because of lower average revenues per customer.
Most everyone I know who needs or wants a pager, for example, already has one. Adding a bigger screen to the device and some other Web-related bells and whistles won’t generate the new customers the wireless industry needs to keep its growth curve intact.
Ditto with those wanting to track their stocks. It’s another group that’s already pretty well wired.
But walk into Menlo Park’s Sand Hill Road venture capital corridor anytime soon with a working BIBWAP prototype that serves or creates a new market, and you’ll need a truck to carry the money home.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.