The Internet of Things. Augmented reality. Machine learning. It feels like every week there’s a new tech trend being touted as the next big thing. This week Paul and Rich break down some of these trends and calm your fear of missing out with advice on when (and if) you should think about adopting them.
Rich Ziade The things that we struggle with in technology, learned machines won’t help us with. [Paul laughs] They just won’t help us with it. [music ramps up, plays alone, fades out]
Paul Ford Richard.
RZ Paul Ford.
PF Big news today, you’re gonna hear me typing. Just yesterday, just yesterday, Coinbase Coinbase. You know what Coinbase in?
RZ I do know Coinbase. It’s like a stock exchange, except it’s not stocks. It’s crypto currency.
PF That’s right. Well, and Coinbase is your big trading—
PF Platform. That’s right. So just a shocking IPO. Just blasting money everywhere.
RZ Just money hose, sprayed.
PF A valuation of 112 billion nearing the market capitalization of Goldman Sachs on day one.
RZ Yeah, that’s bananas. You know what I love about those, though, is that like, the IT guy who just happened to have been the 11th hire is now worth $50 million dollars. I think that’s wonderful.
PF Yeah, no, no, as well as the venture capital folks like Union Square ventures who now have reaped billions dollars. So anyway, Bitcoin, blockchain. Here’s what’s happening now. And I think this is why I want to talk about on the show.
PF Right now, everyone in technology, who isn’t really secure and confident in what they’re doing, is looking at this and going, ‘Okay, I need to throw it all away and start over, whatever that is. That’s the right thing. That’s $100 billion. I’m over here making my analytics dashboard software, throw it in the garbage into the garbage it goes.’ Or situation B and this is the one I want to talk about. The boss wakes up and goes, wait a minute, I got this whole team down there. We’re, we’re something in fin tech or something in e-commerce. There’s $100 billion getting created all the way over here at Coinbase. $100 billion! Like, why the hell do I have some guy coming here and telling me about Linux?
RZ You’re touching on a classic source of anxiety and stress for a lot of people who feel like technology, it feels like if they are not insync with what where technology’s going that they will fall behind, and it will be an existential threat to everything. And this, by the way, is even more amplified in non technology industries, right, like so.
PF That’s right.
RZ If your competitor across the street did a great job with depositing checks through their mobile app, that’s a very scary moment. Like, ‘did you see how it works? You can have scaly handwriting, and it still knows how much the check amount is? And how can we not have that?’ And then this paranoia spins up. And look, I’m gonna say something against the best interests of Postlight right now.
PF Uh huh. Okay.
RZ Postlight is a digital product studio based in New York City,
PF You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
RZ Well done, slip in that right in there. There is an entire industry. It is a massive industry. Around technology consulting, that effectively latches on to a handful of catchphrases and waives them in front of you, and tells you you’re an absolute failure for not being on top of
PF That’s the consulting industry. That really is.
RZ That’s the consulting industry, right? And there are firms out there who actually spin up the phrases and tell you that in five years, if you’re not on this train, you’re going to be left behind and you will be eaten alive. Right. And so those are firms like, those are research firms like Gartner and Forrester and others, talk about these trends. And look, there is value in acknowledging that certain trends are going to happen, right? Do you remember? I don’t know if it was five years ago, or 30 years ago, Paul, because time is just a bowl of oatmeal nowadays. But do you remember when everybody was like ‘UI is dead, buttons and, and forms are dead, everything is going to be a bot.’ Do you remember when everybody was like, you’re gonna just chat?
PF Chat was gonna be the big thing. Well, and so that was a good example of the money never fully followed. So two things, that are worth noting. Everybody one day, everybody got up and was just like ‘chat’s the future’ used to be a big deal. And again, it is a big deal. People aren’t you know, because—
RZ Chat, to be clear, not social chat, but chat interfaces.
PF Chat interfaces. You’ve got all these devices that can you can talk to now, including your phone. And so conversational chat, bot style, old school, AI-ish, you know, interfaces are going to be the big deal. They’re going to be what people need and want. And we’re going to build infrastructure for that. So we need to be able to script things and people start going—I went, I remember going to a very nice event at an incubator where they’re like, ‘come talk about the future of chat!’
RZ Yep. Bots!
PF And we had a box lunch. Yeah, we had a box lunch and probably people with hundreds of million dollars. And they talked about chat. And I was like, wow, this is cool. I like this. And that happens. And then now chat didn’t really happen. Except that I bet if we added up all the chat based interfaces, plus all the facts that we have the ecosystems around the different Google and Alexa and Apple home devices and mobile, there’s still 10s and 10s of billions of dollars flowing through chat and chat interfaces.
RZ Okay, so let’s ramble off a few. I’m gonna say the word and you have about a minute to talk about the state of this impending trend, that’s gonna wash over you. What is it? And should I worry about it? Ready?
RZ Internet of Things.
PF It is the idea that lots of little tiny devices embedded into consumer electronics, sensors, thermometers, whatever, we’ll connect to the internet, and that that will somehow do something, when you put it all together. Should you worry about it? Only if you are dealing with physical space, like and thinking hard about how lots of physical spaces could generate data. And you could use that. So for example, let’s say you owned a chain of hotels, and you could do interesting things with your energy purchasing. Internet of Things platform makes a lot of sense.
RZ Ready for the next one? Quantum computing. This one has been lingering for a while, right? It has to be boiling in a certain acid for it to work or something? I don’t know. I don’t know.
PF What is it? It is a new way of addressing information and performing computations using the quantum states of matter, as opposed to flipping bits. And it allows you to deal with vast probabilities. Should I worry about it? Unless you are a scientific or like truly a massive scale IBM, Google type of place that has a bet on the next 10, 20, 30 years of computing? You have absolutely no need to be concerned. Go read the Wikipedia page.
RZ Quantum Computing has been casting its shadow for years now. Because it’s hard, right? It’s it’s really, really hard. Okay, so that one’s a little further out. Are you ready for another one, Paul?
RZ Hybrid cloud.
PF Hybrid cloud, oh, well, this is, this is a big company thing. Okay. So hybrid cloud is I have all these servers that I run in Delaware, where my IT ops are and my team and I want to now, I don’t want, I can’t move it all tomorrow. But I want to mix my own platforms with cloud based platforms not moving at all. But you’re going to have a hybrid between my cloud and their cloud.
RZ If you want to keep your data inside your walls, for example.
PF That’s right. security concerns or government or whatever. So should you worry about it, if you are at that scale, if you are, or if you have very unusual governance, or, you know, the other place, I could think you might be concerned as if you were like a cultural heritage organization, you want to have copies of your own digital assets that you could preserve for decades, you know, and not worry about if Amazon was up or down.
RZ Alright, last one. Augmented reality.
PF This is a tough one, because man, augmented reality is the idea that you put a camera or a sensor pointed at the larger world, and the computer interprets from that viewport, what is being looked at, not in like understanding way of it just the rough parameters, and then is able to superimpose data, images and animations on top of that. So Google Glass was this and Google Glass continues, I think they have an enterprise product. The classic example is ‘I have to fix an airplane engine. And it’s very complicated. So this, the glasses tell me they diagram the parts of the airplane engine, and tell me what each bit is.’ Surgeon’s would be another good example. In consumer apps, it tends to be, you know, Pokemon Go where you are looking out in the world—
RZ Chase this virtual cat around the house or whatever.
PF Yeah, aside from those games, I mean, should you worry about it? I mean, that’s the sort of thing you worry about, ’cause you like worrying about things. Same with virtual reality. Like, it’s not a business prerogative, that you get into VR. Not yet. Same with AR.
RZ You know how you saw this kind of frenzy of anxiety kick in a really weird way? When things were leading up to 5G. Now, I’m gonna say something very anti-technology, which is 5G is faster. [Paul laughs] That’s about it. It’s fast.
PF You know, I was called over to a very large company.
RZ Uh huh.
PF To do some, in my role as thought leader. They were like, ‘come on over and tell us what you think is gonna happen with 5g. We think you’re fun.’ [Rich laughs] And I actually had a, I had a great time. I’ll tell you what. Being The thought leader in those situations where you just get to wave your hand. But I will say the thing with 5G, right? Like, if it ever catches it again, you have longer than you think.
RZ Okay, let’s pause and reflect on what you just said. Most people don’t think you do. You have longer than you think.
PF Here is when you should worry. Let me throw this out as a hypothetical. And then I want to see you react to it. When you need to worry about a new technology is roughly about the time that Apple supports it in the SDK for iOS.
RZ So they’ve baked into the core libraries that can be switched on in iOS.
RZ Okay. That’s a good marker.
PF If the protocols are done, the platform’s are understood, it is now possible for any reasonably skilled engineer to add core functionality to any app that addresses—so if suddenly Apple drops ‘blockchain kit’ into the middle of the next SDK release. When they do though WWDC Developers Conference.
RZ They’ve committed to it.
PF And they say we’re gonna, we’re gonna make it easy with Apple Pay to do blockchain and Bitcoin transactions. When that happens, you should worry.
RZ That’s a great piece of advice, because and also, it’s worth noting Apple. Apple really takes their time to fold it in. They really wait for it to be mature. They beat up the UI. They’re like this isn’t ready. It’s kludgy. In fact, they watch the app ecosystem, it’s actually horrible to see it’s like, I remember when, you know, like this, this really, it’s probably one person made this app called Alpaca that takes your lunch—
PF Bunch of 19 year olds, just living their life! So happy with their successful app.
RZ Two dollars—
PF It’s a murder factory.
RZ Yeah. And you know, it happened recently, like, you know, I had this app that took your live photos, which are like these three second—every photo you take in an iOS device has about a three, three seconds of video in it. It’s not a photo, really. This guy or woman came up with this app where it’s like, you know what, I bet people would love to turn these into GIFs. So he came up with like a $2 app. I think it was free if you let the poor developer just show his watermark on the gift. And then off he went! And then, you know, a good 18 months go by, and there’s a few more of them at that point. And then Apple’s like, it’s time to put it in as a first class citizen in the share sheet. And off we go. And that’s the end of it. That is the end of it. Right?
PF You can really only win on platform. It’s very hard to win on features and even product anymore. It’s just, it’s the reality.
RZ It’s their ecosystem. You are inside their world. I mean, I’ve heard people rip apart Amazon because it’s not cool, right? It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna give you a store!’ But what they do is they watch your patterns. They watch your data. And they’re like, ‘huh…’
PF ‘I guess we’re making—we’re gonna make yoga balls now too!’
RZ $1 cheaper. So they observe trends and whatnot. Apple does the same thing.
PF I know. You got to give it to Amazon. No company ever in history has made Walmart look like the good guy. Right? Like no one. People used to go down to that Arkansas airport. And and Walmart would say, ‘that’s a cool plastic pool, you need to shave $1.50 off of it.’ And they’re like, well, that’s ‘no one can have Christmas’ and Walmart would go ‘well go figure it out.’ Amazon doesn’t even do that. They’re just like, we’ll make our own. Thank you.
RZ Yeah, I mean, the Amazon Basics brand, and also just they own the world. And the truth is, Apple does a similar thing with apps, right? And I guess what we’re saying here is when the big boys commit in a fundamental way, it’s time for you to take that leap, right? The thing is this, Paul. I want to counter your piece of advice, which is a good piece of advice. By the way, it’s a piece of advice that everyone should take to heart. The reality is the paranoia of the CIO, that’s not good enough. I ain’t waiting for Apple. Because I want to be the guy who was who was five steps ahead. You always want to be—
PF Oh, and this is where fantasy comes in. Right? Because they’re going to be product geniuses. [Rich laughs] They’re gonna get us in there. And they’re gonna, they’re gonna turn this giant battleship around! The good news is they never get the budge—they never get the budget, really. They get like budget for little trial projects. It’s very rare that they get the actual money to really go and do something weird and new. Because they’re, the CEO and the board doesn’t like all that risk. Right. So what you end up with a lot of disgruntled people and large technology organizations are like, ‘why are we doing anything about augmented reality, this could change our whole business!’ And actually what happens I remember one time, we had a company come to us and they were in a kind of like public, things with like public spaces. And that’s as detailed as we need to get. And there is like a very ambitious person who wanted to build a platform for lots of people to come in and use the spaces and track themselves on apps and so on. And then later CEO, but at that point, his boss, comes in, and we do a little pitch and we do our song and dance about product. And so on and so forth. We have a nice office, I’m the CEO, you’re the President. And he looked at me and he just goes, like, ‘why wouldn’t you just use blah?’ and he named an ad platform, like, just like an analytics and ad platform. I realized, you know, we’re just having this foundationally different conversation. The one person was saying, you know, if we’re creative, we can knit these brands together and tell a story about these places and do all kinds of stuff. And it’s gonna be really exciting and really cool. And the boss was saying, why don’t I just take the traffic that’s coming into the existing sites, the existing locations, optimize it by doing more analytics and market more aggressively to people in order to achieve more revenue? The brutal thing is, he’s not wrong.
RZ No, no.
PF But he isn’t going to find—everyone is in that game. Your ability to achieve growth is down to tiny, tiny percentages and margins, because everyone’s in the same marketplace. And it’s incredibly efficient. Doing something weird where people actually buy in gives you a chance to get more margin, but it’s a risk. So what’s tricky, I felt that that was a good plan. I was sorry to see it get shut down. But the reality is just for every good plan, there are 50 bad plans that probably should be shut down.
RZ Well, I mean, a lot of times people view you know, this is where you get the terrifying domain of making many bets in the under the innovation umbrella, right, like, let’s just bet on a bunch of stuff because something will stick. I want to actually close this out with a counter piece of advice. And I want to, I want to illustrate this through examples. So here’s the advice I want to give people, Paul. Everybody is looking for quantum computing to show the way or overlaying a caricature of a cat on top of your camera phone, or devices that talk to you. AI, we didn’t talk about AI, which is always there.
PF Well we started talking about blockchain. Everything needs to be on blockchain.
RZ I want to make an argument for the boring path to innovate and find success. Okay? I want to illustrate it through a couple of examples. Okay? Some of the biggest quote unquote, “unicorn” success stories that exist today didn’t invent a damn thing. They just did the core capability better, much better. And they kept at it, right. They care deeply about design and the user experience. And they were very thoughtful about the product, the product strategy. Ready? Wix already existed—W I X.
PF Oh boy, does it? [Paul laughs]
RZ Yeah. Dot com. Squarespace, Squarespace shows up. Now by the way, Squarespace has committed its own set of crimes. I tried to use Squarespace, and the day ended with me crying in the in the corner of my bathroom, it’s still—
PF They always lose the core of the product.
RZ They lose the core.
PF You never—yeah, but regardless.
RZ Wix already existed. Squarespace shows up. Box.net or .com existed—
PF Yeah, good enterprise for, yeah.
RZ Dropbox shows up. Okay?
PF Yeah, one just here it is, right on your desktop.
RZ Flowdock already existed, but most people don’t know what Flowdock even is. And Slack shows up. And what you find with all of these examples, is, in many cases, they started off with much, much less than the feature set, they weren’t even anywhere close because Box and Flowdock had been around for years! So they’d solve things like threaded messaging, and all this stuff. And all of a sudden, this thing shows up, that does less, but does the core stuff so well. And so intuitively, and it’s so well designed, it looks like new invention. Meanwhile, there’s nothing new about it. Almost nothing is invented. I mean, I want to use the example of RealPlayer. But that’s not a fair example. Because the technology wasn’t there, the internet connections weren’t there.
PF The bandwidth wasn’t there for RealPlayer to give way to Spotify, you needed a couple steps in between.
RZ That’s right. And so what I’m what I’m getting across here is that if you are a CIO or a CTO or a head of product in a company, right, don’t worry too much about the two or three word trends or the acronyms. Don’t worry too much about it. I guarantee you most of the pain that you’re experiencing with whatever system is in your platform today, in your organization today, is because of its usability, too many steps. And that stuff isn’t, it’s not, look, Forrester’s not going to write about how it’s, it should be a trend to make something that take six steps, take two, it’s not interesting. It’s not exciting.
PF This is where we live, right? Which is that—and this is where we spend a lot of our time talking. It’s not, the need to dominate and control inside of an ecosystem. First of all, that is an enormous lift, you don’t have the team. Second of all, it’s a false goal. Only a few people are going to hit that. You know what I look at? Ghost. Blogging platform. It exists in the shadow of WordPress, much smaller, also open source, paid services around it. Good newsletter product, looks great, modern, open, you know, do whatever you need. But it thrives and it’s a business and it continues on, as it absolutely does that under that shadow, right. There’s no reason that both of those things shouldn’t exist. The only time you end up in a situation where you shouldn’t have lots of products addressing a category is when you have this like platform dynamic, where it’s like, unless we own—this is a very Microsoft thinking. There is no room for anything else. And if Microsoft did one, we wouldn’t have the open web, we wouldn’t have Apple as a platform, we wouldn’t have Android as a response to Apple as a platform. Like these giant ecosystems are not actually healthy. And so finding a place in a niche, and then figuring out how to grow incrementally on top of it should be really motivating and exciting. But you don’t get $120 billion IPO as a result. And then that is not appealing to a lot of people in our world.
RZ That’s another great point is I think people feel like it’s an all or nothing game. And it really isn’t. And, you know, people who are enamored with tech, and enamored with the just fractal like complexity of tech, and how you can just go deeper and deeper in often fail to see that simplicity and a deeper understanding of what people really need actually is as compelling an innovation path as anything else. Anything else, right. And a lot of people just can’t see that. And not that not that they can’t see it. It’s just A) not as interesting, not as appealing. It’s hard for a CIO to walk into a CEOs office and say, ‘Look, dude, PHP is not the problem. It’s just, it’s just kludgy. And it’s, it’s just a sloppy mess. And we just want to clean it up and make it easier for people to use. And I think people that spend 30 hours a week doing that workflow can do it in 12. I think that’s just, I just need a bunch of designers!’ And the CEOs like, ‘But I was just on a plane reading in some white paper that if we don’t, we’re not on top of machine learning, we’re gonna, we’re gonna be toast.’ So that’s a very hard case to make. That’s a hard case to make.
PF I mean, you can close your eyes and see the slide where they show growth in machine learning. And then the next slide is ‘those who don’t get on board now will be destroyed within the next five years.’ But if you fast forward, let’s see, it seems like impossibly in the future. 2026, very, very few people will be destroyed, because they didn’t get on machine learning fast enough. This actually goes back and you know, probably a good way to close this out is that, this goes back to my SDK idea. Like if it’s built into Apple, if it’s built into the platform—
RZ It’s arrived.
PF It’s ready to use. That’s right. And so like, that’s when you’re kind of done with all the like magic parts of it, where it’s gonna save the world. But instead, it’s a tool that you can use. And you can use the existing components and tools that are efficient and powerful in order to get your work done, and see what you can build. Don’t try to solve foundational problems in technology at the protocol and platform level, unless you really are motivated and excited to do so. And if you, if the sentence I just said doesn’t make sense to you, run far away because you will burn money.
RZ Yeah, this is good. This was almost the anti-tech trends podcast. I don’t know if they want to use that as a title. We have producers and content people that do better with titles than we do.
PF They don’t really let us—they don’t let us title things anyone.
RZ I’m okay with that. They do a good job.
PF It’s for the best. Rich before we go, I’d love to just, you know, we don’t dip into the reader mailbag enough. But we received a very, very special email.
RZ I’m curious to hear this. Okay. Go ahead, Paul.
PF So Jason is responding to a recent podcast of ours, where apparently we went a little off the cuff and were a little confusing. So let me let me read it for you.
RZ Oh no.
PF “Listen, I’ve listened to every single episode of this farkakte show. And I got a lot out of the last one, but I have no idea what the show is actually about. Updates, COVID, I swear I hit a fugue state at some point, you guys were talking about cereal and Peyote! Anyway, strong work. Keep it up. Python is fine. But the moment you said anyone that hasn’t used the developer tools in Chrome for anything other than manually scraping a picture off Instagram just fully tunes out, like eyes glazed, over breathing gets slower and deeper, and it’s sudden awareness of how well or not their shoes fit. In every organization, there’s one guy with a degree in something social facing that also knows what Python is. And they will inevitably end up in some sort of technology role or leave that organization and end up working for a company with a complex mission statement, but that ultimately facilitates marketing and display ads. Anyway. Clementines never failed to impress. Even a bad clementine is good. Y’all have a good day, obscure_cars_daily, obscure underscore cars underscore daily, is the only Instagram account worth the platform.” To which I replied, everything you’re saying here is true. [Rich laughs] Thank you, Jason.
RZ We love email. Thank you, Jason. That’s, that’s incredibly gratifying.
PF It’s an all-timer.
RZ Yeah, it’s just a wonderful note. I mean, I don’t recollect saying any of those things that he’s mentioning, which is part of the problem here. [Rich laughs]
PF I remember that podcast, we literally, we’re like “uhhh”.
RZ Just off the rails. Fair enough.
PF Sometimes, I mean, you know, behind the curtain sometimes we just are a little overwhelmed by running the company. [Paul laughs]
RZ And then we have to go and record, yeah. Yeah, that’s true.
PF It’s like, ‘hey guys, can you make some coherent consistent content about—’ And there’s also a point like, we’re looking for some new subjects here. Like I’m thinking we’re going to be talking more about climate or more about software as a service and other interesting things are happening. But you know, I don’t know if we can keep going back to the well of like, enterprise product strategy. I think we might, we might have tapped it out.
RZ No, I think, I think that’s right. And by the way, if you have ideas for topics, hit us up at email@example.com. We’d love to, we’d love to hear them.
PF Yeah this is, this is real.
RZ Or pose it as a problem or a challenge. That’s always fun. You see the risk of not giving us guidance as to what to talk about.
PF Thank you, Jason. That’s good feedback.
RZ Great feedback. We are Postlight, Paul Ford.
PF God, are we?
RZ A New York City, headquartered but really spread almost everywhere. Design, technology, product strategy.
PF Hey I went back to the office.
RZ Going back to the office.
PF I worked a few days on the office.
RZ Ah! How is that?
PF Well, let me just give advice to all listeners. Give yourself the whole first day. It’s surprising what a ride your brain will take you on. If you’re returning to a tech office after a year. You don’t know how to work in an office anymore. And that sounds like a strange thing to say. But it’s real. So first day, very overwhelming, commute overwhelming, kind of hard to keep focus. Second day, fine, back to normal.
RZ Makes sense.
PF Sooner or later, we’ll all be there. But no hurry. No hurry. Everybody take their time. [Rich laughs]
RZ Alright, everyone, reach out, check out all our work. We’ve got an amazing, amazing team of people that have built all kinds of cool things for trains and banks and nonprofits. Postlight.com. Bunch of case studies are up there, a couple of new ones too, so you should check us out. Have a wonderful week, Paul!
PF You too, Richard! Hello@postlight.com. We’d love to talk to you.
RZ Bye bye!
PF Bye! [music ramps up, plays alone, ends]