2012: The year in review

Over the last 12 months, this column has seen almost a tripling in readership so I thought that, as we wrap the year, it might be fun to go over the last 12 months and do a quick retrospective of what I’ve covered. I hope you enjoyed reading it over the last year and will try to maintain the same kind of rhythm next year.

The TV screen

I generally kick off the year with a review of trends in streaming media. The net result is that the beginning of the year tends to be dominated by my analysis of this market and how it is emerging compared to the historical record. Just as I will next month, I reviewed which of the top 100 movies were available legally online and then ran a similar analysis for television shows. The raw data is interesting but the evolution of trends from year to year for movies and TV shows is what I find most fascinating.  This allows me to better understand the trends and present alternative models.

The live broadcast model may be suffering but it is clear that the expanding landscape will be as much about those large screens as it is about small mobile ones. In fact, the larger players are already placing markers, with Apple rumored to be develop its own TV sets and Google apparently getting rid of a prized asset in the space, a move I think they will come to regret in the future. The big wild cards in all this will continue to be Amazon and Netflix as they dominate the content space and, without content, any player will find itself in an uphill struggle.

A return to startup life

As this year marked my return to startup life on a full-time basis (I’m about to mark my one year anniversary and Keepskor is finally launching its platform in the US in January), I thought a lot more about what makes life in a startup different from life in large corporations and tried to give those insights to readers in large corporations, hoping to inspire them to go out and chase their own dreams.

During a financial up-cycle, as was the one we experienced in the startup world in 2012, people believe that startups are about money and I wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t the case and that while nay-sayers exist everywhere, one’s focus on getting strong products out is what matters. There is a certain optimism that comes from being the tech industry that can be very infectious and while I work harder than I ever had and have fewer resources at hand than I did in the financial world, I find that tech is much more about the art of the potential than any other industry.

The wildest thing about the startup life is how fun it has been to date and how important fun is to success. I came back to that theme again and again this year,  exploring different dimensions of fun throughout the workplace. This is probably due to the amount of time we discuss those very issues at Keepskor as we are building out our platform for game creation. However, the startup world is not without its extremes and I wrote, as much as a reminder to myself as it was a warning to others, about the dangers of thinking too highly of oneself and one’s startup.

Apple

The Cupertino giant is such a force in the technological world right now that its moves have to be scrutinized by anyone who is trying to play in the space. Will they be treated the same way as Microsoft was at the height of its power? Will its fight with Samsung present it as a new winner? Will the company deliver on a promise of openness? Should the company acquire beleaguered Nokia? Is quality at the company slipping? Is the company’s obsessive attention to details disappearing? All important questions that can have a big impact in the growth of the company further down the line and, more importantly to people like me, its influence on the dialogue in the industry. Like small cracks on early macbooks, they can present fault lines that show changes in the largest player in the space.

Spend enough time in the tech industry and you come to realize that today’s incumbent can become tomorrow’s also-ran relatively quickly (look at Microsoft and IBM and their lack of influence in most of today’s technology discussion). Apple, however, is different because it did dominate the conversation once, then disappeared for a while and came back as a substantially stronger force. Is that comeback a mark of something radically different or just a temporary fluke. The jury is still open on that question and that’s what makes the company so fascinating to look at.

Another interesting development is that while Apple is the strongest player, it is surrounded by equally dominant players, leading to what may be a balance of powers when it comes to monopolies. Or it could just be that our laws are not adapted to making such things work.

Microsoft

On the other side of the spectrum is the former contender, Microsoft, a company that once dominated tech but now seems to have a hard time making the transition. I do think that their latest software offering is quite an improvement and even went out on a limb predicting it would best Google in terms of penetration (I’m not so sure that’s the case now). The company’s introduction of Surface made sense but I suspect that they made a huge mistake when it comes to pricing it, which will end up costing them much more in the future. The reason this is particularly bad for them is that failing to establish a strong presence in mobile and tablets will hurt them where it most important: among developers. Whether it is responsible for or the victim of substantial drops in the price of consumer software is also a big question that threatens its existence in the consumer space. Based on early readings, it may well be that Microsoft will eventually split into two companies: a small one aimed at consumers, and a larger one, similar to Oracle and focused on the enterprise world.

Lockups

Another point of worry (and this now dates a few years) I expounded upon was how more locked up our world is becoming. Once upon a time, hardware was easy to open and upgrade but trends towards increased portability and miniaturization have jettisoned that concept (to be fair, the same is true of most spaces, with car enthusiasts telling me that new cars are no longer as fixable as they once were so our world is going towards a more locked up approach to most things). And such lockup is not happening just because of big companies: we are all complicit, as I highlighted when I posted that I killed the internet: every time we install an app or agree to participate in a closed network we, as consumer, take a strike against openness, voting for ease of use over a more democratic approach.

In a world where we are giving increased amounts of data in exchange for increased amounts of customization, the need for balanced approaches to what is happening on the internet is increasingly important. Unfortunately, it appears that we are dealing with a world where the largest players grow more insular as they get bigger. I expect more clashes to happen in years to come but what I foresee is that they will continue to center on 7 core principles, which I spelled out earlier this year. In a world where an increased amount of our economic, industrial, and even military interests are connected to technology, conversations need to happen around those subjects (instead of focusing on the latest shinny object).

Others

Of course, I did veer into other areas which had little to do with those big topics above. Usually, those posts are triggered by current events, such as the Facebook IPO,  Hurricane Sandy, the abandonment of copper by large telcos, or the Newtown shooting. Apart from being events that happened in 2012, those do not really share any overarching model when it comes to topic.

I hope you enjoyed this year’s journey of discovery as I tried to assemble my thoughts on those topics. The process of writing a weekly column has as much to do with getting a better understanding for myself as it has to share with you. Your input, through comments and emails also allows me to clarify my own thinking about how to approach those topics. I hope you will continue on this journey with me into the next year and years after and wish you a very happy new year.

About the Author

Tristan Louis

Writing and working on the internet since 1993, I've launched six companies, of which two went public and three were sold. This is my personal site and all opinions here are mine.