The potential in realtime

By February 22, 2009 12 Comments

The life of the VC is a perennial search for the next big thing, and Steve Gillmor had a great post on TechCrunchIT yesterday arguing that it will be ‘realtime’.  He puts it thus:

As Marc Andreessen reminds in his fascinating conversation with Charlie Rose, the Internet didn’t take off until the browser. The infrastructure was in place for some time already, but when the browser appeared, the TV generation sat up and took notice.

Now we’re at the threshold of the realtime moment, and history seems to be repeating itself. For some of us, the advent of a reasonably realtime message bus over public networks has changed something about the existing infrastructure in ways that are not yet important to a broad section of Internet dwellers.

I have previously written about the potential for shared data services, and I’m starting to look at the realtime web in a similar fashion way.  Twitter and it’s ilk are unlocking whole new modes of interaction and at the same time generating some very interesting data.  Twitter search allows you to peer right inside the mind to see what the world is thinking at this precise moment, and I think that has to be good for something!  Adding credence to the notion that there is something important in realtime are 175 million users on Facebook looking at their feeds to see what their friends are doing in realtime.

I will admit that it is still early to say for sure, but if you are a naysayer on realtime read these next points from Steve’s post very carefully:

The standard attack on realtime is that it is the new crack. We’re all addicted to our devices, to the flow of alerts, messages, and bite-sized information chunks. We no longer have time for blog posts, refreshing our Twitter streams for pointers to what our friends think is important. It’s the revenge of the short attention span brought on by 30-second television ads — the myth of multi-tasking spread across a sea of factoids that Nick Carr fears will destroy scholarship and ultimately thinking.

Of course this is true and also completely irrelevant ….

….. The browser brought us an explosion of Web pages, produced first by professionals, then by small business owners, and finally, with blogs, by anybody. The struggle became one of time and location; RSS and search to the rescue. The time from idea to publish to consumption approached realtime.

The devices then took charge, widening the amount of time to consume the impossible flow. The Blackberry expanded work to all hours. The iPhone blurred the distinction between work and play. Twitter blurred personal and public into a single stream of updates. Facebook blurred real and virtual friendships. That’s where we are now.

Realtime has to be managed. The first tools in any transformative period are hard coded to the sensibilities of the radicals, the pioneers on the front lines. Scoble may appear ridiculous in his zeal for the extremes of the social media envelope, but his calculation is much more conservative than you might think at first glance. By opening himself to the tyranny of the crowd, he connects with that reality we each face.

In other words just as it was very hard to see the evolution of the command line pre-browser internet to the web we know and love today, so it may be hard to see what the realtime web might grow into.  After all, the major problems most people see, distraction and too much noise, are both issues that can be addressed by user interface development – and as with the internet if there is value to be had from realtime the tools to unlock it will be built.  The evolution of web tools Steve describes from technology through devices through to web services is worth re-reading with this thought in mind.

Another interesting point that Andreessen makes in the interview linked to above is that the iPhone might be as revolutionary for mobile networks as the browser was for the internet.  The infrastructure has been there for some time, but this is the first device that makes it easy enough for people to do what they want to do on that infrastructure.