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A Visual History of The Next Big Thing (and how to see The Next One coming)

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In business, vision isn’t some mythical ability to see the future. It’s about being able to recognize a pattern and apply it to something new, before others see it coming.

In this post, we’ll introduce you to one such pattern, the gestation of new media within old media. We’ll then review some examples of how the pattern has repeated itself over the past 30-years, from one Big Thing to the Next.

We’ll then apply the pattern in the here-and-now, to see how it points to The Next Big Things.

New Media as Features in Old Media

Incumbents, reluctant to relinquish their positions of power within old media, are slow to recognize and embrace innovations in new media. This dogmatism gives new media the opportunity to first gestate as features within old media, and eventually emerge as a powerful independent force.

In the vignettes that follow, you’ll see the same pattern, repeated over and over:

An incumbent technology, when presented with a new innovation, attempts to incorporate that innovation as a feature within their existing user experience.

An emergent player, introduces that innovation as an entirely new medium, giving the innovation room to achieve its full potential, as The Next Big Thing.

A Visual History of “The Next Big Thing”

We’ll start by looking at some historical examples, beginning with digital documents.

Digital Documents

This is the 1989 Canon Typestar 110, “the final stage in typewriter development”. At the time, the existing experience of creating docs was based in the print medium.

Source: Wikipedia

Digital document processing was introduced as a “feature” within typewriters (highlighted in the picture above).

Digital word processing could not be contained within the old medium of print typewriters. By breaking the feature out of the old medium into a new experience, an entirely new class of product emerged.

Microsoft Word, 2007 (Source: CrystalXP)

The World Wide Web

Gopher, contemporary to the HTTP protocol of the World Wide Web, was designed for distributing, searching, and retrieving documents over the Internet. In many respects, it was designed to be what the Web became.

Gopher embraced a document hierarchy as its organizing basis. This idea of documents contained within a hierarchy of folders, was the incumbent organizational system at the time, the old medium. The individual documents were a feature within this scheme (highlighted below).

Source: Wikipedia

The World Wide Web inverted this organization, with free form linking across documents as the new medium. The feature of the “document web” emerged as a massive new medium for publishing and sharing information.

The first WWW page, 1991 (Source: W3C, The World Wide Web Consortium)

Online Services

Proprietary online services such as America Online were once “walled gardens”. Hard as it is to imagine today, the open Internet was presented as a “feature” within these online services (highlighted below).

Main Menu USA (AOL 2.5 for Windows), 2003 (Source: Mike Richardson)

New entrants such as Yahoo made the open Internet the focus, not the feature, enabling an entirely new class of Web-based online service.

Yahoo, original home page, 1994 (Source: CNET)


Unfortunately for Yahoo, they, too, fell victim to the relentless introduction of new media.

“Search” was merely a feature embedded within the Yahoo experience (highlighted below).

Yahoo, 2000 (Source:CNET)

By breaking the feature of search out of the portal (and dramatically simplifying the search experience), Google emerged as an Internet giant, with search the dominant medium.

Google, 1999 (Source:Google Blogoscoped)

Social Networks

Websites began enabling community and socializing long before the notion of social networking was established.

Discussion boards within the websites of recording artists, for example, were introduced as a feature (highlighted below), but the medium of the website still reigned supreme., June 7, 2000 (Source: Internet Archive)

Companies that recognized socializing was the dominant activity, such as MySpace, gave rise to social networks as the new medium. Within this frame, music and recording artists became the feature!

Myspace, June/04 (Wayback); launched in Aug. 2003


As quickly as social networks like Facebook were taking hold, they were incubating new media.

Microblogging (or activity streams) are one prominent example. Facebook included “status updates” as a feature in their service (highlighted below).

Facebook, 2006 (Source:Mashable via Jon Loomer)

Services like Twitter made that feature the focal point of their social network, establishing an important new medium.

Twitter, 2009 (Source:iCrossing)

The Next Big Thing?

The simple pattern highlighted in the examples above might be interesting, but it’s only insightful to the extent it can be applied to new opportunities.

In applying this pattern, note that The Next Big Thing is rooted in human experiential terms. It’s not merely technological change (although aconfluence of technological breakthroughs are often enablers).

Sometimes offline experiences migrate online; sometimes the digital realm enables entirely new experiences. But in all cases, there’s a new medium to contain that experience.

Here are a few forward-looking examples.

Interest Networks

Companies such as Twitter and Pinterest are raising the profile of “interest networks” as an evolution of social networks.

Source: 140 Proof

The key technical enabler within these experiences is the interest graph, such as those provided through Primal’s data service.

It’s important to note that the experience of mass market “interest networks” remains very much anchored in the social aspects. Interests, the new medium, is very much subordinate within social media.

Using history as our guide, we would expect the emergence of a pure interests network, one that doesn’t require social networks as an intermediary.

Computational Services

Before we start thinking that Google is immune to the dogmatic lure of old media, here’s an example of the old medium of search colliding with the new medium of computational services.

Google and other search services are increasingly embedding computed knowledge within their conventional search experiences. In the example below, information about weather is assembled on-the-fly, as opposed to retrieved from third-party sources.

Google, 2013

Services such as Wolfram Alpha (below) are giving computational services a lot more room to breathe.

Wolfram Alpha, 2013

How much room do they need? Check out Stephen Wolfram’s vision for sentient code as a computing paradigm, or Nova Spivack’s vision for cognition as a service. The sky’s the limit!

Automated Virtual Assistants

Services such as Siri from Apple and Google Now (pictured below) are often identified as “the future of search”.

On closer inspection, the pattern of “feature within old media” is firmly entrenched, even in these seemingly futuristic experiences. In this case, the dominant experience of task-oriented information retrieval permeates the current mass market experiences of automated assistants.

There are a host of smaller companies exploring virtual automated assistants not as general-purpose experiences but rather specialists.

Primal Assistants, is one such example, targeted to highly specialized tasks within content marketing. Donna is another example, with a focus on executive assistants for personal productivity.

It may turn out that the experience of automation may not be contained within the metaphor of an “assistant”. Other companies such as IFTTT(below) and Zapier are exploring end-user directed forms of automation, leveraging the programmable web of data and software services.

IFTTT Recipes (Source:Marcello Pedra)

What makes this last example particularly interesting is that it highlights the importance of the experiential differences. No one would argue that giants like Google or Apple are unable to embrace these forms of end-user directed automation.

However, their incumbent business and technical investments make it very difficult to embrace experiential changes.

How to Recognize The Next Big Thing?

If the history of The Next Big Thing teaches us anything, it’s that new media invariably dominates old media, regardless of how hard the incumbents try to keep new media down.

Equally clear, the essence of The Next Big thing won’t be technological. Cloud, data, augmented, geo, semantic, mobile, distributed, implicit, programmable networks are statements of technological enablers, not human experiences.

If you have an interest in exploring these trends and opportunities in more detail, or are looking for a technology partner to help enable your vision, please contact us.