So there’s a new “next big thing” happening in the high tech world–that’s feels very, very familiar. In fact, it seems a lot like “déjà vu all over again”, to quote one of my all time favorite philosophers–Yogi Berra. I’m talking about the Web 2.0 phenomenon. The question I present is–what’s the difference between Web 2.0 and 1.0? Although there are obvious differences technologically, and there are a few wildly successful companies following a Web 2.0 style model–my reply is “not a lot” is different.
SOCIAL NETWORKING IS THE BATTLEFIELD
The recent buyout of YouTube by Google for roughly $1.6 billion dollars is what finally set me off to write this article. You see, this is EXACTLY the type of transaction that was representative of the bubble years. An overnight success, with a lot of eyeballs (ok, TONS of eyeballs!) and essentially NO revenue turns it’s twenty-something founders into near billionaires, just months after starting the company. Ok, it was 2 years, but you get the point.
Now we haven’t seen a transaction quite like this in a long time, but they seem to be picking up steam. MySpace was snatched up similarly by Fox for about a half a billion, also with almost no revenue at the time. Facebook also looks like it will be sold soon, to one of the new or older media companies, for a big chunk of change.
What’s happening is the Internet market leaders such as Yahoo, Google, Amazon, Microsoft/MSN, and older media companies trying to keep up, like Fox and Time-Warner–are fighting to get and retain the lead in all the important mass market Internet categories. The hottest one at the moment is referred to as “Social Networking”. The idea is that in Web 2.0, the user is much more of a producer of content in addition to being a consumer of it, so that the idea of online users as passive consumers of content is now passé. This new wave is hitting big with sites that are getting huge growth in traffic, like YouTube and MySpace, which enable their users to produce and publish their own content. But how much money’s really in it?
All the big players are afraid of missing this wave, and like most big companies with respect to societal shifts–have missed the boat completely, or have fallen behind their more innovative startup competitors. And yes, I now categorize Google as one of those less innovative, bigger companies. As much as they’ve tried to avoid that fate, they’ve grown very big quickly–and haven’t had a home-grown hit for a while in “Internet time”.
EYEBALLS FIRST, PROFIT LATER
What strikes me as so familiar about all this is that social networking from Web 2.0 looks A LOT like the “Communities” phenomena of Web 1.0. Both represent an attempt to “get the eyeballs first” and “we’ll figure out how to monetize them later”. Both are based upon the idea of getting people together on a user-driven site, as opposed to selling a specific product or service. And both are driven by a business model where the main source of revenue is expected to be online advertising.
Now I happen to believe that YouTube and MySpace will end up being able to monetize those eyeballs. But does that mean that everyone will?
Some of you might say that the difference is that online advertising has been legitimatized by Google’s unbelievable success with contextual PPC adverting, with their search engine Ads and Adsense network. That success is irrefutable. But does that mean it will go on forever, and that the public will tolerate text ads (or something even MORE invasive) littering nearly every square inch of unused webspace? Personally, I don’t think so. There is definitely a place for online advertising, and I expect it to continue to grow robustly for the foreseeable future. But everyone seems to forget that online banner advertising was also highly successful at the beginning of Web 1.0–until the public got tired of it, and tuned it out. Advertising revenue online dropped like a rock, and many companies were destroyed in the process.
Google has done a great job of improving on the online advertising model so that Advertisers became successful, allowing Google to ride on that success by taking a nice cut of the take. But even today, it’s getting more difficult all the time to make PPC campaigns pay off. The days of easy direct conversions to sales are gone in most markets, and using PPC as a lead generation tool–while still good business for many–is far less compelling. Will the PPC market leaders continue to grow fast for a while longer? I’m sure. Will it flatten out at some point in the medium term? I’m sure of that also. Will most of those companies that are raising huge amounts of venture capital, with online Ad-centric business models, find the same level of success? I’ll bet you everything in my bank account against this. In fact, I think that there is room for surprisingly few additional big players who DEPEND upon online advertising for their success.
PUBLIC MARKET EXCESSES
The other aspect that seems to distinguishes the Web 2.0 wave from Web 1.0 history is the lack of overheating of IPOs. In fact, the IPO market for Tech companies overall still hasn’t really recovered from the Web 1.0 bubble. In addition to the burn marks that remain on Wall Street’s hands with respect to Tech companies, SARBOX has also made going public less attractive to all growth companies. Exit strategies are more often based upon a sale than an IPO these days. But two things here: just because it hasn’t happened yet–doesn’t mean these IPO excesses won’t reappear later in the cycle. I believe we are still early in this one. Secondly, I wouldn’t preclude some type of financial bubble, even without public IPOs of nearly no-revenue companies like in 2000. Anytime hype over-inflates the value of assets, the downstream consequences can be severe. If bidding wars by the established companies get too out of hand, it could still end up having a real negative impact on the stock market and the high tech business environment, down the road.
HISTORY HAS A WAY OF REPEATING ITSELF
My final thought on this topic is that in the High Tech world, there is almost always more money chasing the “next big thing” than can receive an adequate return. This inevitably leads to many excesses, including a level of hype that can only lead to disappointment, for those who get in late or with marginal business plans. The result is a boom-bust cycle that we see re-enact itself over and over again. My thesis is that “eyeballs first, figure out how to monetize later” has always been, and always will be a flawed approach, for all but the fortunate few. If you’re buying into Web 2.0 in a big way, Caveat Emptor–Let the Buyer Beware. A history lesson can sometimes be the most prolific forecaster of all.
Will there be a Web 2.0 bubble, much like the original dotcom bubble? It’s too early to tell. But as I’ve outlined above there are some hints in the news that a repeat might not be that far-fetched.
That’s my take on Web 2.0–what’s yours?