Incrementalism and The New New Thing

Sometimes my best thinking takes place in my garden where in the mindless routines of yard work I am free to meander through any range of topics and ideas. Last Saturday was just such a day.

I wrote recently about VC loss of attraction in Web 2.0 and the thing that was frightening about that thought was the inability to answer the basic question “what’s next?”. The Valley thrives on the new new thing (possibly one of the most poignantly titled books ever) and with every turn of a generation there is an awkward moment where we’re just figuring out where we’ve been but have yet to see where we are going… right now is that moment.

Despite the recriminations about the term “web 2.0” the fact is that it has come to symbolize a set of characteristics and expectations about service-based computing. It’s also come to refer to the blurring of the line between consumer and business applications, with much of the energy around new business apps being driven by a consumer, or maybe better said “individual”, path to adoption. But these attributes are now part of the ordinary fabric that all companies attempt to embrace.

Bryan Stolle, Agile Software founder currently with Mohr Davidow, says software investing is the new black and solving business problems is where it’s at. Somewhat confusingly, he then goes on to list trends that have little to do with business processes, like SaaS as an appliance and new development environments in the cloud. He broke no new ground and even though I have a lot of respect for Bryan, his op-ed did nothing to convince me that enterprise software investing is on the verge of a renaissance. Enterprise software suffers from a self-inflicted wound as a consequence of an inherently unscalable sales model if you aren’t one of the big bracket companies.

As I survey the landscape of consumer and business focused software and service providers I am struck by how much incrementalism there is at the moment. Something like Twitter is ground breaking in terms of break out adoption, but what about the other 10,000 startups? There are few bold “ah-hah” ideas, lot’s of social this or that, and mostly a bunch of companies hoping to draft on the perceived success of a few gorillas. Will we suffer through yet another “year of the mobile web” or “the semantic web”?

The above is not a criticism, just an observation. There is a lot of capital sloshing around and venture capital will no doubt continue to flow to these companies in the hopes that a few will rise to the top and get acquired. With the melt down in non-VC private equity I am sure that institutional investors will surge back into VC with abandon and this will prop up the Valley for the foreseeable future, but I’m still left with the uncomfortable question of what’s next? When Facebook doesn’t deliver world peace, and FriendFeed fails to be better than sliced bread, what will we do?

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21 thoughts on Incrementalism and The New New Thing

  1. Pingback The New New Incrementalism - GigaOM
  2. Jeff – I am not surprised by your post. Back in January, you tweeted “that there isn’t much in the tech world that is interesting to me right now. Weird.”

    That same week Alan Kay gave an interview to in which he was asked, “What do you consider are the most promising innovations of the last 3 years?”

    His partial response:

    I can’t think of any in computing (we are in a very incremental and almost moribund period in our field) but this could simply be “old-fogeyism” on my part.

    It seems that in Alan’s and your views, Incrementalism in the tech space has been creeping up on us for some time.

  3. Good post, Jeff.

    I have been looking at this from a different angle … often, the completely left field new ideas come from first-time entrepreneurs, which is why the rise of Zuckerberg is worth a consideration.

    Where I am going with this, is to try to understand how our eco-system captures the first-time entrepreneurs:

    and also posing the question:

    Hope you are well,


  4. Jeff, I’m of the belief incrementalism is the new 2.0.

    We’ve passed through the trough of disillusionment (dotbomb) and have begun climbing the Gartner hype curve ever since. I consider services like Twitter and the incremental successors of like likes of FriendFeed, as an indication of this. That a next wave will come in order to consolidate the complexity of these services through encapsulating much of them. In some ways platforms like Silverlight are attempting to do this (poorly).

    Personally I believe the next generation of distributed platforms will bring the next thing and what we’ll do is less of the things we don’t want to. In the process creating more markets for those that would like to do it for you.

    If we get bored… there’s always war and populating the solar system. Invest in rockets. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Maybe we should re-read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. I’m glad to hear that VCs are finally getting fed up of incrementalism, because that certainly hasn’t been my recent experience in the UK. We’ve painstakingly developed some fairly revolutionary automated software engineering technology, that really can do the sort of ‘turn specs directly into applications’ magic that was supposed to be right around the corner in the late 80s. But our growth has been slow because we’re having to scale revenues through consulting and complete the platform with that; despite having customers lined up and a fairly impressive management team none of the VC’s we’ve talked to would invest because it’s ‘too radical’ and ‘AI has a bad reputation’.

    In short, in my experience since 2002 or so (UK) VCs have consistently said one thing and done another; they’ve said they want revolutionary products with massive growth potential while actually investing in Yet Another Entrant into established-but-still-growing markets, in the hope that they’ll get lucky. In other words, capturing market share rather than creating it. Sure it sounds easier, but when there are so many copy-cats around the revenue potential is very low compared to a really inovative product/technology.

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