Thursday, 14 September 2006

The river and the dam: CTIA and The Future of Web Apps

I went to two conferences this week: the CTIA telephony conference in Los Angeles and The Future of Web Apps in San Francisco. It's always interesting to travel between the Bay Area and southern California. This is going to irritate Bay Area partisans who like to look down on LA, but I think the cultures are almost identical in the two areas. The main difference is that drivers on the freeway in southern California are more likely to yield the lane when you put on your turn signal (the standard behavior in the Bay Area is to speed up to protect your turf).

There are huge economic differences between north and south, though. Los Angeles and the sprawl around it make up an intensely vibrant, wildly diversified economy. No industry dominates. The place is a huge cultural melting pot, and many fashion and social trends incubate there first before they spread around the world.

By contrast, the Bay Area, and especially Silicon Valley, is more like a hothouse full of orchids. There's less diversity, and the atmosphere is a little more inward-focused, a half-step out of sync with the rest of the world.

The vibrancy of Los Angeles outside the Convention Center made a striking contrast to the sleepy atmosphere inside at CTIA. There were very few new products on display, and I didn't see anything that generated intense excitement (the biggest crowd of the day turned out for a stunt bike exhibit). Even the press coverage from the show focused heavily on business worries -- the failure of mobile video to take off, lack of profitability in mobile games, and speculation about mobile advertising.

Later in the week, a two-day conference on web apps was held in the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. The Palace is Greco-Roman fantasy temple left over from the San Francisco world's fair of a hundred years ago, and it's across the street from the newly-built headquarters of the Lucas film empire (where you can see a life-size bronze statue of Yoda). It's hard to picture a more fairy-tale setting for a conference.

And yet, the presentations inside were sizzling with energy. We heard from companies that are creating important new businesses and making meaningful differences in the lives of millions of users – organizations like Flickr, Digg, and Dogster. Silicon Valley may indeed be a hothouse, but it's turning out some very promising orchids right now.

There's a collision coming between the wireless world and the web, and I think it won't be pretty. The best way to describe it is by analogy. Picture a raging river fed by the meltwater of a hundred glaciers. The jagged river valley is suddenly blocked by a dam. What happens?

The water starts to rise, of course. If the dam is well operated, the water can be harnessed to generate power. But if the spillway stays closed, the water will eventually pour over the top of the dam and rip it apart.

The river is the torrent of innovation happening in web apps right now. The dam is the carriers who won't allow that innovation to run freely on their networks. They haven't figured out how to set up spillways and generators, let along operate them, so the pressure of the water keeps growing as web innovation gets further and further in front of what you can do on the wireless networks.

At some point one of the carriers is going to give in, or a technological change will give the web apps crowd unrestricted access to a mobile wireless platform with broad coverage. When that happens, I think the pent up innovation and new business models in the web will sweep through the wireless world like a flood. The longer the pressure builds up, the faster the change will be when it happens – and the more likely that many of the major carriers will be swept aside in the process.

I know this is a very broad and vague-sounding prediction, and if you're confused or skeptical I don't blame you. Next week I'll write in more detail about both shows, to give you the details on what I mean and why I'm saying it.

Thanks very much to David Beers at Software Everywhere for naming my post on European and American mobile phone use the post of the week in the latest Carnival of the Mobilists. There's a lot of interesting material in this week's Carnival.

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