The Next Big Thing

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Article from Issue 266/2023
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Does it seem like the times are changing? I know what you're going to say, "The times are always changing in high tech," which is certainly true. But sometimes they are changing in ways you don't think they should be changing.

Dear Reader,

Does it seem like the times are changing? I know what you're going to say, "The times are always changing in high tech," which is certainly true. But sometimes they are changing in ways you don't think they should be changing. Of course, there is nothing like an economic downturn to bring on a mass extinction of shaky business ideas. But that's the kind of thing that goes on all the time. Scanning the news, I get the impression we might be getting to one of those points where some of the stuff that we thought was going to work seems to be landing far afield.

First of all, there is the mess over at Twitter. When Elon Musk first signaled his interest in buying the micro-messaging giant, there was a lot of discussion about moderation policies – in fact, I even wrote about that in this space six months ago – but I don't think anyone had any idea about the financial and personnel train wreck that would follow. Everyone just assumed this billionaire would sweep in and buy a company (like billionaires do all the time), shake things up, and adroitly tailor the product to his business needs. Instead, the thing started crumbling almost as soon as he grabbed hold of it. A company like Twitter has so many moving parts, and its profit model is so ephemeral that you can't just fold it up and fold it in like you would a trucking company or a beer distributorship. Companies like Twitter are delicate, and perhaps Musk should have proceeded more carefully before starting in with the ol' venture capital slash and burn playbook.

Then we have the massive layoffs at Meta. Meta bet big on the metaverse as the next big thing. Maybe it will be, and it is just a little too big for Meta, or maybe it really isn't the next big thing, and that is part of the reason for the company's difficulties. Either way, Facebook's users are a commodity, and the real customers are the advertisers. If the cost of developing new features for the metaverse exceeds the ability to monetize those features, the whole thing gets stuck.

And then there is crypto, another next big thing that seems to be twisting in the wind. Values have fallen sharply, and yet another crypto exchange has lost everything due to mismanagement, theft, or just the perils of the business world. Some economists believe the true value of crypto is zero, and the industry will eventually get there, whereas others see blue skies ahead for the crypto industry. Crypto was once presented as a way to avoid the need for government regulation – in fact, that was the whole point of it. Now many governments are talking about regulating crypto, and once they regulate it, it will become more like money and less like a way to spin gold from straw.

An underperforming economy certainly figures in all these changing fortunes. Investors are less inclined to gamble, and advertisers have less money to spend. But another indirect effect of an ailing economy is the rise in interest rates. When money gets more expensive, investors and speculators change the way they operate. Interest rates are now higher than they have been since 2008, which means that Twitter, Facebook, the crypto economy, and other high-tech initiatives that we have grown accustomed to evolved in a sheltered safe space of easy money that no longer exists. Are these immortal, game-changing products that are destined to conquer the world? Or are they quirky creations birthed in the lagoon of cheap money that suddenly have to swim in the open ocean? Maybe they will get swallowed up, or maybe they will evolve to survive, but just so you know: Once they finish evolving, they might not be quite so exotic anymore and might look a lot like all the other fish.

And then when that happens, we'll all start over with looking for the next big thing.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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