It's been a few months since my last update on Alpha and it seemed like a good time to share an update on where we're at and what we've been up to. As you might recall, Alpha is the experimental product group that Ryan Block and I help run at AOL that's charged with coming up with ideas for new apps and then going out and designing and building them.Read More
I'm not totally sure what possessed me to create this list, but sometime in 1990, when I was 15 years old, I decided to use the dedicated word processor my parents had bought a few months before to create this list of my CD collection.Read More
You may have read a bit about Alpha, the new experimental product group at AOL that I'm co-leading with Ryan Block, around the launch of our first mobile app, Pip. Ryan and I talked a little about the purpose behind Alpha in the piece TechCrunch did on Pip, but I thought I'd go into some more detail here and expand on how we're approaching product development now that we've just launched our second app, Starlike.
Alpha itself is made up of about twenty people, primarily developers and designers. Besides Ryan and myself we have three other people helping us lead the group: Evan Fribourg, our director of technology, Michael Cosentino, our director of design, and Drew Lesicko, our director of mobile product. It's not a huge team, but we are fortunate to have many of the most talented people at AOL as part of Alpha.
Our sole objective at Alpha is to conceptualize and build new experimental products, with the primary long-term goal of bringing new -- and hopefully large -- audiences to AOL. We're focusing primarily on mobile, though we're not limited to that and could certainly make something that wasn't mobile-first if we thought it made sense. Our plan is to favor creating entirely new products with entirely new brands, over extending any existing AOL sites or brand.
Anyone building new mobile apps or services these days knows that it isn't easy and that you're playing in an increasingly crowded and competitive space. Over the past few years the mobile apps market has come to resemble the hits-driven entertainment industry. Just like there's no way to guarantee a number one song or a blockbuster movie, no matter how much money you spend, when it comes to mobile apps there's no surefire method for creating a sustainable hit app, no matter how much money you can throw at marketing. Success or failure can be completely unpredictable or feel even arbitrary, with plenty of great products going nowhere, while ideas which initially seem trivial going viral and blowing up.
Most of the breakout hit mobile apps of the past few years have come out of startups, and that's in large part because startups, because of their nimbleness and lack of bureaucracy, are generally better suited to taking risks on new products and then getting them out the door quickly. It's not easy to replicate that methodology within a big internet company (even if we're going to try our best), but it's important to acknowledge that difficulties that any product, whether it comes from a startup or a big company, has when it comes to finding product/market fit. It's easy to see just the hits and forget the huge number of other apps that go nowhere. If you look at the market in the aggregate you'll see many more misfires than hits, that's just inherent in the process.
Given that, our strategy with Alpha is to try and build as many quality products as we can, as quickly as possible, and in the most startup-like way we're able to. Instead of making one big bet on one big idea, only to see it crash and burn, we want to take a bunch of smaller ideas, spend a few months turning each into a minimum viable product, and then just put them out there and see whether users take to them or not. Our goal is with each initial release is to test a hypothesis, so we're not spending any money on marketing or promotion, we want to learn how users respond first. If after a few months something isn't getting any traction or connecting with users in any meaningful way -- we're basically looking for significant organic growth and/or really high engagement rates, even if the overall numbers are still low -- we'll take an honest look at where we're at. If we still think there's a possibility of finding product/market fit, we'll either iterate the product or pivot it. If not, we will cease working on it entirely.
In terms of our development process, we start by going through tons of different ideas for products. The most promising ones go through an exploratory process where we scope out the features and design, including wireframing. Sometimes at this point we'll also do some initial prototyping to see if we can actually build what we we want to build, and we've had products get this far and then been killed because the tech wasn't coming together. Once we feel confident that we can build it (in a reasonable amount of time), and that the core concept is still interesting enough to continue pursuing, we take a moment to step back and make a final decision on whether or not to move forward. If so, we assemble a team of designers and developers to work together on the product and then push ourselves to ship an MVP as soon as possible!
We've already released two apps through this process, with a pretty great pipeline in the works for later this year. But as promising a portfolio of products as I think we'll have, I'm under no illusions about how challenging it will be to create a hit. We're striving to make things that are as good and interesting as anything you'd read about on Product Hunt, but the reality is that being awesome isn't enough any more. If we're going to see the kind of success anyone building consumer products hopes for we'll need a little bit of luck as well.
It's been almost two years since gdgt was acquired by AOL and I figured I was way overdue for an update on what I've been up to.
The big news is that Ryan Block and I are running a new group called AOL Alpha that's charged with building experimental new products. We've got an awesome team of designers and developers -- including a handful of original gdgt team members -- all working together to create some cool new stuff. Our first couple of apps will be out soon, so look out for those!
The other thing I'm excited about is that Ryan and I have started podcasting again. Our new show is called "MVP" and it's all about new tech products. If you follow me on Twitter you might remember a tweet from back in March where I wondered aloud if it was time for Ryan and I to start a new podcast. I hadn't actually mentioned this directly to Ryan -- it was just one of those off-the-cuff things -- but in September Ryan finally came around to the idea and we figured we'd just do it. If you remember the gdgt podcast, or even go as far back as the days when when we hosted the Engadget podcast, you'll know the format. It's basically us discussing new and interesting products for about an hour.
Lastly, after six years, I made the decision this month to step down as board chair of Rhizome. I'm remaining on the board, and will continue to be involved in organizing our yearly Seven on Seven conference, but it seemed like a good moment to pass the baton and I'm very happy to see Greg Pass bring some new energy to the role.
A lot was written in the wake of Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift last month, but Fred Wilson’s analysis was the one that stayed with me, especially this part here:
The next thing was mobile. Mobile is now the last thing. And all of these big tech companies are looking for the next thing to make sure they don’t miss it. And they will pay real money (to you and me) for a call option on the next thing. It isn’t clear if the next thing is virtual reality, the internet of things, drones, machine learning, or something else. Larry doesn’t know. Zuck doesn’t know. I don’t know. But the race is on to figure it out.
I actually hadn’t intended to write anything myself about the deal, but I’ve been thinking a lot about why exactly virtual reality could be the big thing and what the implications of that might be. Fred didn’t really go into the reasons why there’s going to be a race, apart from the usual one that there will potentially be lots of money to be made. But I think it’s something worth exploring, because it’s not just that virtual reality could go beyond games and entertainment and become the next big wave of computing. It’s that if VR takes off — and I agree with Fred that we still don’t know how this will all play out — it will also mean a substantial transformation in how we interact with computers. It’s precisely this shift to a new mode of interacting that is going to be a big part of what makes VR so interesting from a business standpoint, because changes like these always create massive opportunities for new players to disrupt and destroy incumbents. And you can bet that Facebook bought Oculus Rift because they would very much like to not be one of those incumbents that gets disrupted and destroyed.
One challenge when thinking about how this new form of computing might be employed is that the name “virtual reality” implies that it’s exclusively about experiences that involve simulated environments, like you’d find in video games or virtual worlds like Second Life. My preference is to use the term “immersive computing”, since immersiveness doesn’t always equal verisimilitude, and we’ll surely see plenty of distinctive new applications that employ immersiveness to create different kinds of experiences that aren’t at all like being inside a video game. It’s not hard to conceive of ways in which you could use an Oculus Rift for visualizing data and information in new and more efficient ways than we can do currently on a computer screen.
You don’t have to look very far back in time to see an example of this. All the craziness that’s come with the explosive growth of mobile is because computing’s center of gravity has been moving away from PCs and towards smartphones and tablets. That shift from desktop computing to mobile computing didn’t simply mean we started doing things the same way, only on a smaller screen. It led to the emergence of a new type of user interaction paradigm, one not just shrunk down for smaller screens, but one that also replaced desktop computing’s windowed, point-and-click, mouse-and-keyboard user interaction paradigm with a touchscreen-oriented, full-screen, gesture-and-tap based interface. It was like hitting a giant reset button in the computing world, one that created an opening for all sorts of new players to come in and build new operating systems, devices, apps, games, and services that were native to mobile and its new and different interaction mode, all while the old guard were stuck in desktop mode and had yet to wake up to the new reality.
What is so exciting is that if VR (or immersiveness) is going to be computing’s next major user interaction paradigm, it means we could see the same pattern play out, with none of the current incumbents in mobile (like Apple, Google, Samsung, etc) necessarily having any more of an advantage in this new field than the desktop incumbents (like Microsoft, Dell, HP, etc) did when mobile emerged. Just as a smartphone isn’t a PC, only smaller, VR isn’t going to be a smartphone, only attached to your face. It’s going to be something new and different, where immersiveness leads to entirely new ways of interacting.
For Facebook — which was a little late in mobile, but has now more than caught up — making an early bet on VR acknowledges that being successful on today’s platforms isn’t necessarily going to give them a leg up in whatever comes next. Facebook could have easily screwed up as they turned their focus to mobile, I’m sure that it was way too close for comfort for Zuckerberg and that he very much wants to lower the risk of them missing out on whatever comes next.
Buying Oculus Rift is a way to try and point themselves in the right direction, but just because they’re trying to catch the next wave early doesn’t mean they’ll be able to ride it. It can be very difficult for the companies that dominated an earlier era to master what comes next, since being entrenched in one mode of computing can make it harder to build for or recognize when a new interaction paradigm is emerging, even if you try. Microsoft was plenty early to mobile — remember the Pocket PC? — but they got too many things wrong and are still trying to catch up with both Apple, which nailed the new interaction paradigm with the iPhone, and Google, which pivoted Android quickly enough to create a competitive platform.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that some day virtual reality helmets are going to replace smartphones or that mobile is in any way going to stop being most people’s primary mode of computing. That’s simply not going to be the case. The portability and ease of use of mobile devices means they are going to be constant present in our lives in a way that a VR headset, which you’re probably only going to want to use while safely ensconced at home or at work, could never be. If VR catches on it’s going to co-exist with mobile, much like desktop and mobile co-exist today. You’ll use each in different, though occasionally overlapping, contexts.
My main point is that whenever a new user interaction mode comes to computing it leads to entirely new kinds of experiences and applications, ones that can be hard to envision until someone invents them — and then after the fact they’ll often seem completely obvious and feel so “native” to the platform that you’ll wonder how we ever did without them. That it’s so hard to predict what those will be at this early stage is part of what makes all of this both exciting and a little scary, but I think it’s safe to say that there will be existing experiences that make a lot of sense for immersive computing because it adds value of some kind (like in terms of visualizing large amounts of data or information) and lots of stuff where it probably won’t make sense (I’m guessing that walking around a virtual mall will probably not be an easier or better buying experience than simply going to Amazon.com). I don’t know what direction immersive computing will go, but if it does go anywhere it’s going to lead to a new language for interaction, and like with any language, it’s going to help to speak it fluently.