Product Marty Cagan

The End of Innovation?

The other day I was doing an interview with a member of the press having to do with the future of Silicon Valley, and I was asked the question: “Do you think there are any good opportunities left?” It took me a minute to realize that he meant this as a serious question. The whole concept seems so foreign to me especially since I personally see more opportunity now than I have ever seen before.

But the question caused me to think about why I believe this so strongly. For anyone that has any doubts at all, I’d say three things. First, as long as there are products that drive you nuts, there are opportunities for someone to do it better. How about a cell phone that doesn’t drop calls? How about a home computer that your parents can actually administer without your help?

Second, what is possible is always changing. Just because something isn’t feasible today doesn’t mean it won’t be tomorrow.

And third, today’s applications are tomorrow’s foundation. That’s how things work in our business. Initially the browser was an application to look at some content on a web site. Today the Internet is a foundation enabling applications like eBay, TheFacebook, Skype, and PayPal.

Speaking of Skype, I think there’s something very important going on now and that every product manager should review their product plans in light of what’s coming. For the past 10 years I have been hearing pretty much non-stop hype about wireless. But there’s been so much hype with so little value that in large part I think the press and the general public have lost enthusiasm. Data speeds are so slow that web browsing from your cell phone is beyond unusable. WAP interfaces are pathetic, and with the notable exception of GoodLink, wireless applications have just not happened. Most people are still struggling to find a cellular service provider they don’t hate.

Ironically, I think that finally there is something happening in the wireless world to get truly excited about, but it’s hardly received any attention. I’m referring to wide-area wireless broadband, along the lines of what Verizon is now rolling out in major metropolitan areas across the US.

Today, Internet devices are essentially tethered on a short leash. Either they are literally wired to the network, or they connect through “hot spots” that let you wander a few feet. But whether it’s a laptop or a phone or your iPod, to be useful going forward you’ll need to be able to roam freely and stay connected and useful speeds.

As the network deploys and the costs come down, which is already happening, I think this will enable a new generation of applications and services. Don’t you want your car’s navigation system to overlay traffic data onto the map as you’re planning your route? Or take true access to your office with you as you travel? Or receive your podcasts – audio and video – over the air? I think the list is endless and of course the best applications and services will be the ones currently just beyond our imagination.

Which brings me back to Skype. With over 50 million users worldwide, Skype is the leading service for making phone calls over the internet (Voice over IP). They’ve done a truly great job on their service, and in my view they have clearly differentiated themselves from a very crowded market, much like Google differentiated themselves from a crowded search market. Today, Skype users make calls from their PC with a broadband connection. But imagine Skype running on your Treo 750 (I’m making that model up – but it’s the one that will run on this new wide-area wireless broadband network). Ironically, Skype on a broadband connected Treo makes the voice network unnecessary. Not sure if Verizon realized that or not when they deployed their new network, but I’m betting someone at eBay sure did.

I think every product manager should get their laptop connected to this network, and get a phone with data access to this network, and start looking at what you can do for your customers with this new foundation today that you couldn’t do yesterday. Remember that great product managers combine what is desired with what is just now possible, and what’s “just now possible” has just changed in a very significant way.
So no way that the good opportunities are all gone. In fact, I’ve never had as many products I’d like to be working on as I see now.