Last week the British Library held an event titled "Internet Icons". In the British Library in London they had some great talks from people who had founded interesting and successful Internet-related businesses.
The talks were streamed online and to a few libraries around the country, including Liverpool. Each of the streaming locations had a talk before the event from a local Internet entrepreneur, and Adrian was asked to speak at Liverpool Central Library.
Here are the slides and notes for his talk.
Thank you for inviting me to speak here today.
I discovered recently that the word "Internet" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1974. That's also the year I was born, so maybe I was always destined to make my career on and around the Internet?
Actually, I think this probably had more to do with it. When I was 9 or 10 we got our first home computer. That introduced me to programming and the possibilities of making machines do my bidding.
All of my career has been working with the Internet, but it's not been one specific part that I've worked on. There are many overlapping and successive waves of innovation in the Internet.
I first encountered the Internet when I got to university. That was just before the World Wide Web arrived—it had been invented, but wasn't widely known. I remember being amazed at how I could connect to, and interact with, computers and people around the world in real time, on things like MUDs (text-only, multi-user adventure games) and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). And the (now simple) hypertext system of Gopher seemed amazing at the time.
Then when I first fired up a web browser, in my second year at uni, it was obvious that the Internet was going to be a big deal.
I specialised in networking in my final year, and when I graduated I found a job at a company connecting cash registers to the Internet so they could do credit card authorisations.
A year later, in 1996, I took a chance and joined a tiny startup based down in Cambridge. As the web took off and we got the first dot-com boom, we were riding the smaller, first wave of the mobile Internet.
The company, STNC, made web browsers for PDAs and then the new GSM mobile phones. This is the first ever web browser to run on a mobile phone, which we built in 1997.
In 1999, we were bought by Microsoft, when they started getting interested in mobile phones. By then our prototype had moved on to finished product, and our browser shipped on all of the Sony mobile phones (before they became Sony Ericsson), among others.
So I'd done quite well at riding the first wave of the Internet in my career, but after a couple of years at Microsoft I needed a new challenge.
So I left, and started my own company — MCQN Ltd.
I then needed something to build.
I had a number of ideas, but the most obviously commercial was a backup service taking advantage of one of the big developments in the Internet in the early 2000s...
...always-on broadband connections. I spent a couple of years bootstrapping DataCocoon. It could have been Dropbox, years before they got started, but as it was it only made a handful of sales and taught me some good lessons.
Firstly, that it's not just about the features or the technology. The success of your product depends on many factors, and they're all multipliers. If your technology is at 80% of what it could be, that doesn't really matter if your sales or marketing efforts are only 5% effective.
As a technologist, the temptation is always to add a new feature to improve success, but taking the features from 80% to 90% won't make a lot of difference if it's multiplied by a sales factor of 5%. You'd gain more traction just by moving your sales level from 5% to 6%.
The second big lesson was that you should work on something that you're passionate about. Though rewarding, building a business is a long and difficult journey, so you should be working on things that really get you fired up. Otherwise it'll be really hard to get through the trickier times.
Backup software really isn't something I'm passionate about, it just seemed like an easier sell when I was weighing up ideas.
While I'd been writing DataCocoon, the web hadn't been standing still. People were moving from just static sites to interactive web apps like Gmail and Google Maps.
I abandoned the backup idea, and switched instead to tedium, a web app to-do list I'd built to keep track of my tasks for running the business. I figured if it was useful for me, then it could well be useful for others.
Although it was something I was more passionate about, and I did a better job of sales and marketing this time, this was still a wave that I wiped out on. I had a subscription model, for something with plenty of free competition, and after a year or two I had to admit defeat.
This was around the time that the second, much larger, wave of the mobile Internet was breaking. The iPhone had just been released, and for a short while I worked on a mobile startup idea with my old boss from STNC.
Although the iPhone was good, we knew we could build a whole phone user-interface that would do a better job of blending the mix of mobile and Internet connectivity. For a few months I worked on our first prototype, while my business partner hustled for funding to build a team and the product.
We started before Google had even announced Android, but the industry was full of rumours about it and all the investors wanted to take a wait-and-see approach, particularly once Android's existence was confirmed. In early 2008 we called it a day,and I was back looking for the next wave to pick up.
I decided to look much further out for the next wave to join, and started paddling for something that was barely a swell back then.
People were starting to play around with very low power computers called Arduino boards, which let lots more things than just computers and phones connect to the Internet.
The wave is still building, but it's going to be a big one. On a par with the arrival of the Web back in the 90s.
It lets you sense and measure all sorts of aspects of the physical world, and get that into the Internet.
Or blow bubbles from Twitter. (Bubblino is downstairs, and watching for tonight's hashtag, so you can get him to blow bubbles over drinks afterwards)
(By the way, all of those examples of the Internet of Things that I've just shown were from here in Liverpool)
If you haven't already picked a wave to ride, how do you work out what the next wave of the Internet is? Or work out how to get involved?
One way is to do as publisher Tim O'Reilly puts it, and keep an eye on the "alpha geeks". Watch what the leading techies are playing around with - not the stuff they're doing to make a living, but what they're dabbling with in their spare time.
And if you want to find the local alpha-geeks, most of them hang out in the events and gatherings at DoES Liverpool.
But a couple of things that I think might be worth watching, to get you started...
As I've already mentioned, the Internet of Things still has lots of momentum to gather. If you want to find out more, come along to one of the monthly IoT Liverpool meetups.
And my other tip flies in the face of the current trend for centralizing everything in "the cloud". Driven by the Snowden and NSE revelations, and also by the fact that distributed systems can scale better, the sorts of projects that Redecentralize.org are highlighting could be the dominant trends in a few years time.
Thank you for listening. Any questions?