The next great era of computing started yesterday

Posted: 03.19.14

My mom figures everyone who works in the high-tech industry must know each other. She’ll ask if I know Julia O’Conner’s daughter, “She works in computers out there.” I don’t even know Julia O’Conner, but my mom sees the hightech industry as a monolithic group of people working in California who speak a foreign language.

Sorting algorithms

Now is the time of year when we see the tribes sorting themselves out. In this increasingly large population, there are discrete groups that just glancingly intersect each other. The mobile people gather in Barcelona for the Mobile World Conference (MWC), and many are confident enough and smug enough to go in wearing nothing but a phone in their pockets. No weighty backpacks and briefcases for them. The lines of their clothes are perfect their digital lifelines tucked inconspicuously away.

Then the crazed mobs of SXSW descend on downtown Austin. They are legion, and they’re starting to wear objects on their heads. That there are more costumes showing up points to a need to stand out in the crowds, an almost desperate hope to be discovered. Never mind that the product may defy description, and no one seems to want it. Increasingly, the bulk of SXSW has been taken over by the virus of marketing. Every contact, every inquiry, every touch of an app is an opportunity and spawns data to be digested.

SXSW Interactive has two groups of people, the ingenious and the hungry. The ingenious play with new ideas, create new products, and the hungry try to figure out how to feed off them. The salvation of SXSW is that there’s so much sweet earnestness underneath it all.

Now the Game Developers Conference is slouching toward San Francisco, and Nvidia’s developer conference is waiting in the wings. For years now, the game community has been dominated by expensive, generally violent games. They seemed designed to crush all human spirit by trapping people behind a little gun in a digital cage. But increasingly that’s a small part of the story as the forces of blood-and-guts gaming fall back; driven back by an advance of cute, bouncy, pastel-colored mobile games making lots of money in low dollar increments. Candy Crush values itself at a staggeringly confident $7 billion in preparation for IPO. That deserves a moment of silence, I think.

You are what you wear

The look of the crowd has changed, too. The typical visitor to the Game Developers Conference staggered under the weight of backpacks stuffed with computer, phones, cameras, game controllers, and game consoles. They’ve been people who work all the time under impossible deadlines that are no less onerous for always being missed. Those who have gone over to the lighter side, mobile game development, look like freed slaves or attendees to the Mobile World Congress. They can show off their latest work on the phone in their pocket, and if the game isn’t a huge hit, well, they’ll just try again. We’ll still see the larger games being made for PCs and the new consoles, and out of that work, we’ll see new innovation but it’s nice to see how mobile helps vary the mix.

The GTC bunch, Nvidia’s developers, are another bunch of driven people. There’s a healthy chunk who are game developers, and the games they’re making are often big, mighty big, with a ton of pixels to shove around. They’re the old-school guys, but Nvidia has been nurturing a range of new-school developers who work on Tegras to Grid servers and on cars to phones, to PCs and appliances. They kinda’ defy categorization, though the people in this group tend to favor black shirts.

Not waiting around for Apple

And standing apart is Apple. Their big gathering doesn’t even happen until June, and until then they sneak around everyone else’s gatherings. They’re obvious— buttoned down and buttoned up, secure in the knowledge that whatever they do is cool and whatever everyone else does is lame. The crazy thing is that some people believe them. They have been so traumatized by Apple’s ability to capture markets that they’d rather not come out with anything until they see what Apple will do. Luckily, that fear has been subsiding.

After all, Apple can’t seem to grasp the game market other than offer its mobile devices as a platform. We haven’t seen huge innovation lately, just me-too products like the Apple iTunes Radio app—it’s all flat icons and round workstations. TVs and watches have been ongoing empty threats from Apple. Meanwhile, the rest of the tech world is diversifying like crazy.

Is Apple slow or deliberate? It’s true that when you get an Apple product, it will work better than a comparable product, and Apple may still kick over the table in June with a miracle, but in the meantime, the new age of tech has begun in earnest. There’s room for everyone and every kind of device. I wonder if it’s even accurate to talk about a tech industry as if it’s a thing apart from other industries. Instead, maybe it’s just a convenient term to tell your mom what you’ve been doing all these years.