I had breakfast with Benedict Evans this morning. I enjoy chatting with him, and always learn many things, albeit at the expense of exposing the very large gaps in my reading of English Literature. One of topics we touched on was the center of his post New Year’s Day Post “20 Questions for 2015”.
At the heart of this discussion is a sense that there is nothing new or exciting on the horizon. At least nothing obvious. For years, we have been preoccupied with topics like the Operating System (OS) platform wars, but as he points out, that question is settled. Apple and Google have both won something they were after. Many of his 20 Questions revolve around second derivative effects from that. Moreover, the industry is now fully aware of the twin forces coming from China – low-cost hardware and that country’s very different take on the Internet application stack. Not so long ago, both of these topics were still poorly understood, but that is no longer the case.
This topic of what comes next has been on my mind a lot this week as I prepare for meetings at Mobile World Congress next month in Barcelona. I have been scheduling my meetings, not quite sure where I want to direct my attention. [Quick side note: My schedule is not quite full, please reach out if you would like to meet there.] In this post, I want to outline some of the things I will be looking for at the show.
However, it should also be clear that when I wonder “What is the next big thing?”, I do not view it as an academic question. I am also in the process of sorting out what I want to do next. If you believe that 90% of the challenge for any start-up or career is to pick the right market, this subject takes on a new weight. [Again, if you have suggestions or need some consulting work done, please reach out.]
I think there are four areas that could be very interesting at MWC.
- Change is coming to networking. We can throw around a sea of acronyms – SDN, NFV, WebRTC, etc. – but that risks losing the forest for the trees. The networking industry is poised for big change, albeit in a direction that is not entirely clear to anyone. I think the days in which progress in networking is measured by ‘speeds and feeds’ are over. Building a bigger, better box is no longer sufficient. Cisco has won that game, and so the game itself is changing. MWC has become a place where the equipment vendors push their particular interpretation of proprietary hardware. So I will be looking for ways in which this is starting to break down. In particular, smaller networking vendors have little left to lose and are thus pushing some truly innovative solutions. Will they take? Ask me in a few weeks.
- A corresponding change is the rebirth of enterprise, carrier and data center software. For the first time in years, the list of companies I most want to see at MWC are software companies. There is a huge universe of new, small software companies attacking telecom markets. There are more than I can list here, that run the gamut from analytics to applications (not apps). Figuring out how all these companies interact and determining who has real momentum will matter hugely to the market in coming years.
- “5G” There is really no such thing. Even as consumer demand for data is surging, the industry’s ability to support that demand has never been more in question. We are going to ship something like 600 million LTE devices this year, yet the next steps are not that clear. Future improvements in data rates are going to be a combination of hundreds of little advances. Adding these up will be meaningful, but are also likely to take a lot of time. In particular, I am looking for companies that manage competing device demand for network resources. This is about more than just cramming more handsets into a single cellular base station. Managing the relationship between small cells is still a very interesting problem to solve. As I noted last year, this involves some very serious math around Game Theory, which just sounds like a fun topic to explore further.
- The Economics of Networking. How much does it cost to deliver a bit? When should we route and when should we switch? What will peering relationships look like? These are incredibly important topics, that remain poorly understood. I am not sure that anyone at MWC will have the answers, but I plan to ask everyone. We are 20 years into the Internet revolution, and we still have a very poor understanding of the economic forces at work. Everyone tends to think of computing as becoming ever cheaper, but the trade-off between complexity of computation and size of datasets remains a largely artisanal calculation. I love this topic, in part because it has been so poorly explored.
So that is what I will be looking for. Later this week, I plan to post more on my thoughts on how to approach MWC.