Scott Rosenberg on the Supernova conference

Scott Rosenberg on the Supernova conference

Typically thoughtful piece by Scott on the Supernova conference. “Conference organizer Kevin Werbach admitted that his “decentralization” label was “ugly,” but suggested that its very awkwardness was a sign that we were dealing with an underlying trend rather than a “marketing-concocted theme.” And he was right: The phenomena this event focused on, a grab bag of new technologies that have bubbled up from the humbled high-tech world in the post-crash era, are mostly geek driven and grassroots spread: Wi-Fi (802.11b), the wireless high-speed Net access method; blogs; and “Web services,” a fuzzy term to describe new methods of directly and quickly connecting software applications and data across the Net.

These disparate boomlets share an “end to end” design: They rely on the power of individual users’ computers — there’s no big, centrally operated piece of software or hardware mediating. The users connect across an open, “stupid” network — the Internet itself, today — that simply moves information without worrying about what it is. The resulting software is ad hoc, impromptu, flexible, “lightweight.” Empowered individuals at the ends of the network try out new ideas and build myriad new services. It’s geek heaven.”

Unfortunately — or fortunately? — there don’t seem to be many business models promising huge fortunes from this. Rosenberg goes on:

“By any rational view, the decentralized technology world Supernova envisioned is one in which small operators can make a living, but nobody is going to make a killing.

That sounds all right to me. But it doesn’t mean the venture capital money will stay away. (Talk about “stupid networks”!) There are alarming indications here and there that some of the technologies championed at Supernova are already heading down the same path that the Web itself traveled in the mid-’90s — as investors began to pile in, claiming market share today and putting off till tomorrow figuring out how to earn money. Cometa, the Wi-Fi provider that plans to sell a nationwide network as a wholesaler to ISPs, is one venture whose recent launch certainly had a “build first, improvise a revenue model later” feeling.

Should the geeks care? After all, the Web got built, even if the landscape is littered with defunct Web companies. If investors throw money at good technologies, does it matter whether the companies that are the money’s conduit flame out?

I think it does. When a technology begins small and has time to evolve, find its uses and build a following, it has staying power. (Look at the Net itself, whose protocols were two decades old before it became popular. Or look at how Linux, which had spent most of a decade emerging, was able to survive the hurricane of an infatuated Wall Street that swept over it two years ago and then abandoned it just as fast.)

The danger here is that the dynamo of the Silicon Valley boom-bust cycle, in its hunger for Next Big Thing fuel, will seize upon Wi-Fi, blogs and Web services and then spit them out, chewed-up and spent — before they’ve ever had a chance to mature and show off their potential. ”