Billions without Buzz

I've been thinking a lot lately about the distorted perspective I get when I extrapolate from my daily sources of content.

Using Twitter buzz to sip from a firehose

I currently follow 304 people on Twitter. These people are a primary means for me to hear about stuff that is (1) happening, and (2) important to me.

I rely more on echoes than voices. For example, I don't follow Satya Nadella (@satyanadella). But whenever he tweets something I would find important, I hear about it anyway, because a dozen people I do follow are talking about it.

Twitter for me is all about conversations. It's about buzz. I'm interested in what people are talking about. And I like having the option of participating in the chatter.

And the people I choose to follow pretty much cover everything important. I don't miss anything that I need to know.

Or do I?

What am I missing?

Obviously, my method is designed to exclude information. Sometimes my buzz filter works exactly as I want. I rarely see any tweets about Miley Cyrus. That is "by design".

I also like the fact that buzz is naturally slanted toward things that are new even though lots of very important things are old. (As long as I don't get confused. If I extrapolate from buzz with a black-and-white mentality, I might believe that COBOL, SQL, and Subversion are dead because everybody has switched to Java, Mongo, and Git. Older technologies have little or no buzz, but tons of people are still using them everyday.)

The problem is the stuff that is new and important (to me) but has very little buzz.

The boring wave of B2B apps

I am absolutely convinced that the B2B wave of mobile apps has barely started.

As Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) says, mobile is eating the world. But so far, most of the action is with consumers, not businesses.

And this whole wave has been very high-buzz, mostly because everything had to get bigger, and the stuff that could not was, er, "disrupted".

Add two billion mobile devices to the world and lots of people are forced to think about scale in a whole new way:

  • Manufacturing. Foxconn is enormous. What was the biggest manufacturing facility on earth before the iPhone?

  • Venture Capital. I remember when $100M was an exit. Now it's a series A.

  • Servers. Mobile is accelerating the growth of the cloud, served by data centers that make Soldier Field look small.

  • Databases. When you have 500 million users, you can't afford unique constraints and foreign keys in the db layer anymore.

All this big-ness is causing a lot of disruption. And buzz.

Meanwhile, the majority of the corporate world is still trying to figure out what to do about mobile.

Consider this in terms of the classic marketing bell curve:

  • In the consumer world, mobile is in the conservatives, and starting to sell to the laggards.

  • In the corporate world, mobile is in the early adopters. It's pre-chasm.

Companies who still need high growth to justify their stock price (read: Apple) are distressed about the notion that everybody on the planet who can afford a smart phone already has one. Marketing reseach firms are still doing surveys asking corporate IT about when they are going to dive into mobile even as my Mom has two tablets.

Has there ever been a technology wave where the consumers got so far ahead of business?

I was one of those people in the early 80s who had a computer before they were prevalent in the business world. But I was a hobbyist and a nerd. In terms of volume and sheer revenue, adoption of PCs was driven by companies, not consumers. They wanted to run Lotus 1-2-3, so they led the way. It was a long time before computers solved real problems for consumers in the way that they solved real problems for business. In fact, I'd argue this didn't happen until around 1995 when the Web came along.

In mobile devices, consumers have gotten so far ahead that they have provided the client side of the infrastructure that Corporate IT will use. Going forward, it's going to be BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Big companies are not going to buy 10,000 BlackBerries for their workforce when everybody already has a smart phone. Instead, they have to figure out how they're going to securely integrate all these different devices into their corporate systems (which is why cross-platform is getting even more important in the mobile space, which is contributing to Xamarin's pursuit of world domination). This is not the kind of policy to which Corporate IT is accustomed, and that is slowing them down even more.

But this is going to happen. A lot of enterprise apps are going to get written.

And this wave will be very low-buzz compared to the "Angry Birds and Candy Crush" wave. People won't be talking about it (and even when they do, the sound will get drowned out by the buzz over the Internet of Things wave).

Quite simply, the B2B apps wave is not interesting enough to get serious buzz:

  • It won't be as disruptive.

  • It won't re-challenge our notions of scale. (Walmart's 2.2 million employees would be a small user base by today's standards.)

  • It's going to be built on, and integrated with, technologies that are old. (Corporate IT will prefer to add mobile incrementally, with as little change to existing systems as possible.)

Compared to my first computer(s), an iPhone is a supercomputer. We are moving into a wave where companies like Procter & Gamble are going to gain operational efficiency because all their employees carry supercomputers in their pocket. And this will be considered boring.

But despite all the yawns, this wave is going to involve a lot of money. Many billions of dollars are going to move around as all these enterprise apps get written.

In other words, this is going to be boring in the same way that IBM has been boring for the last decade. This week, my Twitter feed is dominated by people talking about the Google I/O conference. Nobody is talking about IBM, even though they have almost twice as much revenue as Google. That's how buzz works.

If I want to closely follow something that doesn't have much buzz, I'm gonna have to work harder.

Let's talk about Alex Bratton

I am currently reading a book called Billion Dollar Apps, by Alex Bratton (@alexbratton), CEO of Lextech, a custom mobile app dev shop in Chicago.

My buzz filter certainly didn't find this book for me:

  • @alexbratton has even fewer Twitter followers than I do.

  • @LextechApps has fewer followers than some high school students I know.

  • Almost all of Bratton's followers are people I don't know.

  • Google searches reveal no apparent connection between Lextech and Xamarin.

  • Twitter searches suggest that Bratton and Lextech have seldom or never been mentioned by Scott Hansleman (@shanselman).

There just aren't many connections between Lextech's world and mine. In fact, it looks like maybe I am the only occupant of the overlapping portion of the Venn diagram.

Maybe Lextech just doesn't have much buzz. Or maybe Lextech has the kind of buzz that happens mostly off Twitter. Maybe the CIOs of Fortune 500 companies share rides on their private jets where they sip Macallan 25 and talk about how great Lextech is.

Whatever. I've been following Alex Bratton on Twitter largely because he and I were students at UIUC around the same time, and I sort-of vaguely remember him. Were it not for this very thin college connection, I might never have heard of him or his company or his book.

And that would be sad, because Lextech's activities land squarely in an area of interest for me. Bratton's company may be low-buzz, but they're building B2B mobile apps for banner-name companies including GE, Fidelity, John Deere, Blue Cross, and H&R Block. They're riding the front of the wave. I think that's pretty darn cool.

So I am halfway through the book, and two things are already quite clear:

  • The book is really good.

  • I find it boring.

Basically, I'm not enjoying this book because it was clearly not written for people like me. I enjoy fiction books about crime investigation and books with lots of curly braces and semicolons. Billion Dollar Apps is neither of these. It's written for CxOs at big companies who have to make big decisions about mobile technology.

But I'm forcing myself to read this book for the same reason I force myself to eat certain unappealing vegetables. I don't like the taste, but I think it's good for me.

Thinking about Lextech and its customers is forcing me to widen my perspective. It is reminding me that the boredom goes both ways:

  • Most developers don't care about the details of how John Deere is using mobile to make its business run better. They tend to focus more on the technology than on solutions to problems.

  • Probably nobody at John Deere is spending their time critiquing the design of Xamarin.Forms or figuring out best practices for PCLs. They see mobile technology as a solution to their problems.

This book is good because it speaks to its intended audience, and that group of people doesn't care about the details of why certain .NET things are incompatible with the AOT compiler in Xamarin.iOS. Billion Dollar Apps is a book that talks about sensibly applying mobile technology to make regular non-geek businesses work better.

Like most other geeks, I am prone to getting lost in technology for its own sake. But I'm not just a developer. I'm an entrepreneur. I need to keep a sense of balance.

So, I don't particularly want to read this book, but I need to read it.

Bratton's book is about the beginning of a big boring bazaar where beaucoup billions bounce bereft of buzz.

(Sorry, the forced alliteration was shameful, but I couldn't resist.)

Bottom line

I've wandered around a bit, so let me close with a summary of key points you might take away from this blog entry:

  • Consider reading Alex Bratton's book. If you are a CxO of a Fortune 500 company (and you probably are not, because you're reading my blog), you'll probably like it. If you are a developer (and you probably are, because you're reading my blog), you probably won't like it any more than I do. Eat your brussel sprouts.

  • Widening your perspective is always good advice. If you're like me, there's a really good chance that your daily information flow has boundaries. Those boundaries make you efficient, but they also constantly protect you from seeing the perspective of people who are not like you. Look outside your boundaries.

  • If you are interested in the boring B2B wave of mobile apps, so am I. Maybe we should talk. Maybe I should be following you on Twitter. Maybe we should see if we can create a little buzz.