What’s the Big Idea?


The other day a friend of mine asked, “What technology do you think will have the greatest impact on our lives over the next 10 years?” I thought this was a great question. I’m in the habit of thinking about technology evolution in terms of four or five years, so ten years allows for two cycles and many more possibilities.

My immediate thoughts ran to exciting areas within clean technology, such as improvements in energy production—coal gasification, solar or even wind power; and to better drugs and non-invasive medical devices that will tackle diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity, or other conditions I might face.

My friend asked, “But don’t you invest in IT?” Right, I was a bit embarrassed to admit that none of my immediate ideas were in the IT realm. After a few minutes of thought, my best candidate to compete with the amazing progress being made on the clean tech and healthcare fronts was the deployment of true mobile broadband computing and the capabilities it will enable.

Yes, people talked about mobile broadband ten years ago, but today there’s a convergence of technology and behavioral trends that will cause extraordinary changes in the way people think about and use wireless devices.

In my view, there are four trends that will accelerate the adoption and widespread use of mobile broadband.

The first is improved user interfaces and performance (computing power and bandwidth). The iPhone provides a powerful example of today’s possibilities and points toward what’s to come.

The second trend relates to affordability for service and bandwidth. Major U.S. carriers have just announced $100/month unlimited voice plans, but their secondary offerings, such as $20 unlimited data plans, will have an even greater impact. In ten years, most Americans will be able to afford unlimited consumption of the wireless broadband internet for any use.

The third trend, one we’re already witnessing, is a shift toward more open platforms for wireless application developers and users. Google set the bar with Android, and Apple just released its iPhone software development kit.

The last trend, influenced by social networking, is society’s shift toward greater trust and acceptance of sharing personal information—such as location, age, gender, lifestyle, and brand orientation—in exchange for valuable offers or the opportunity to build new relationships or become part of an affinity group.

All of these trends will translate into even more innovation when you consider the level of context that can be provided by personal mobile devices operating from dispersed, identifiable locations.

As Napster co-founder John Fanning recently told me, all internet businesses are the same—it’s just about moving data from one place to another while creating the highest possible value from the data. As privacy and security issues are addressed and personal information such as location is (selectively) available, the value of moving information in real time will increase dramatically. The ability for nearly anyone at any time to use rich media for communication, entertainment, selling, or simply sharing information will change not just how we do our jobs, but how we keep in touch and meet new people. Over the next ten years, the wireless broadband Web has the potential to surpass the wired broadband Web in terms of how it impacts our lives.

Virtual activities will become real activities as better information such as detailed product features or personal credibility is shared in real time. You may start a purchase in your car via a video conferencing session and end by meeting a salesperson who completes the transaction in person. Social networking will spill into the real world. Given the right set of conditions, you might be willing to meet someone in a quasi-serendipitous manner on a business trip or even a vacation. You’ll be able to know if one of your friends is in the gym or supermarket while you’re there and you’ll even know if he has time for lunch.

You may surprise your mother by sending a new video of your kids taken from your phone to the electronic picture frame in her living room or car console. On the other hand, you may or may not want to be notified by a video alert that your kids are hosting a pool party while you’re out of town. In either event, mobile broadband will help you stay connected to those things that are important to you.

And the best part is that new business models will enable much of this to be free. Although users will self-select plans that work for them, for many who are willing to participate in targeted advertising and lead generation programs, that participation will support their use of these services entirely. Naturally, many people will opt out of sharing personal information and for those people there will continue to be a cat and mouse game in which advertisers attempt to figure out their profiles and intentions. Wireless broadband will make even this matching problem more productive for everyone. The good news is that my wife (an active consumer) will get free service (as will my kids, who will be in their formative brand-adoption years). The bad news is that I will probably need to pay for my wireless device.

Bob Hower is co-founder of G20 Ventures and general partner at Advanced Technology Ventures. Follow @BobtheVC

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2 responses to “What’s the Big Idea?”

  1. Zach says:

    Great piece, Bob!

    I think you’re right on the money here in everything aside from the time-line, which I’d argue will happen much sooner than 5-10 years.

    Interesting twist with the “And the best part is that new business models will enable much of this to be free” argument. Sadly, I agree this will happen, but disagree that this will be a good thing. As Wired tried to prove last month, this “free” business model will be stemming beyond the virtual. Through the web we’ve had a world of ad supported “free” content- which has been fine when I can click a little “x”… I’m just a bit ambivalent about accepting this into the real world. Free sounds great, but the concept of some sort of physical pop-up ad just scares me.

    Anyway- nice article.

  2. erik says:

    Bob, I’d be careful about your wife and kid’s free service. Your privacy can be heavily compromised through them.

    Personally I think the coalescing of several technologies to vastly improve the collection, sorting and dissemenation of personal and previously private information will be the trend with the most impact over the next 10 years. After about that amount of time the public will likely wake up and there will be a backlash, but I fear it may be too late. It may be too late already.