PIER 38 is a vast, hangar-like structure, perched on San Francisco’s waterfront. Once a place where Chinese immigrants landed with picks and shovels, ready to build railways during California’s Gold Rush, the pier is now home to a host of entrepreneurs with smartphones and computers engaged in a race for internet riches. From their open-plan offices, the young people running start-ups with fashionably odd names such as NoiseToys, Adility and Trazzler can gaze at the fancy yachts moored nearby when they aren’t furiously tapping out lines of code. “The speed of innovation is unlike anything we’ve seen before,” says Ryan Spoon, who runs Dogpatch Labs, an arm of a venture-capital firm that rents space to young companies at Pier 38. Like many other entrepreneurs, the tenants would love to follow firms such as Facebook and Zynga, a maker of hugely popular online games including Farmville, that have been thrust into the internet limelight in the space of a few short years.
Some of the most prominent start-ups are preparing for stockmarket listings or are being bought by big firms with deep pockets. On May 9th LinkedIn, a social network for professionals that took in revenue of $243m last year, set the terms of its imminent initial public offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), which value it at up to $3.3 billion. The next day Microsoft said it was buying Skype, an internet calling and video service, for $8.5 billion (seearticle).
Other firms such as Groupon, which provides online coupons to its subscribers, are likely to go public soon. The return of big internet IPOs, rarities since a bubble in telecoms and internet stocks burst in 2000, and the resurgence of large mergers and acquisitions among technology firms is dividing opinion in the industry. Some veterans see a new bubble forming in the valuations of start-ups and a handful of more mature firms such as Twitter, which is still hunting for a satisfactory business model five years after the first tweet. More sanguine voices retort that many young companies have exciting prospects and that there are plenty of corporate buyers, such as Microsoft, with the money and confidence to snap up older internet firms still in private hands.
Yet both sides agree that the internet world is being transformed by a number of powerful forces, three of which stand out. First, technological progress has made it much simpler and cheaper to try out myriad bright ideas for online businesses. Second, a new breed of rich investors has been keen to back those ideas. And, third, this boom is much more global than the last one; Chinese internet firms are causing as much excitement as American ones.
Start with technology. Moore’s law, which holds that the number of transistors that can be put on a single computer chip doubles roughly every 18 months, has continued to work its magic, leading to the proliferation of ever more capable and affordable consumer devices. Some of today’s tablet computers and smartphones are more powerful than personal computers were a decade ago. IDC, a research firm, estimates that around 450m smartphones will be shipped worldwide this year, up from 303m in 2010.
Moore’s law also underpins the growth of “cloud” services, such as Apple’s iTunes music store, which can be reached from almost any device, almost anywhere. Such services are hosted in data centres, the factories of the cloud, which are crammed with hundreds of thousands of servers, whose price has plunged as their processing power has soared. Everything is connected ever faster, with ever fewer wires.
These technological trends have given rise to new “platforms”—computing bases on which other companies can build services. Examples include operating systems for smartphones and social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. Some of them are used by hundreds of millions of people. And the platforms are generating oceans of data from smartphones, sensors and other devices.
These platforms are vast spaces of digital opportunity. Perhaps the most striking example of the innovation they have sparked is the outpouring of downloadable software applications, or “apps”, for smartphones and computers. Apple’s App Store, a mere three years old, offers more than 300,000 of them. Users of Facebook are installing them at a rate of 20m a day. Services such as Skype have also benefited from the spread of smart devices and lightning-fast connectivity.
Some excited people have likened this technological upheaval to the Cambrian explosion 500m years ago, when evolution on Earth speeded up in part because the cell had been perfected and standardised. They may be exaggerating. Even so, creating a web firm has become much easier. By tapping into cheap cloud-computing capacity and by using platforms to reach millions of potential customers, a company can be up and running for thousands of dollars rather than the millions needed in the 1990s.
src – economist
Jegarakshagan R. Gokul