07.47, Wednesday 8 Jun 2005

I caught sight of the dot com bubble half-way along, too late to get properly involved, and moved to London just in time to experience the crunch from the inside. Great timing. The whole boom looked pretty weird from London--was there really that much cash to be made in pet supply home delivery? Or in online services to invite people to dinner? There must be, I figured, since there was so much money being invested.

Visiting San Francisco for the first time in 2001, it all snapped into place. Here was a city cross-hatched by freeways that each felt just a little too dangerous to walk under. Coupled with a lack of decent public transportation, it meant there were loads of communities slightly too small to support really big stores or specialist shops. I was seeing, in short, a city in which home delivery made a ton of sense: pet supplies, groceries, late night snacks...

Unlike London, the apartments seemed to be big enough to have a decent number of folks over. Enough folks that you may indeed make use of some kind of online service to do invitations. The dot com boom made sense. In San Francisco.

The huge influx of cash at the turn of the millennium led to the whole Web being built in the image of the Bay area. The website patterns that started there and - just by coincidence - happened to scale to other environments, those were the ones that survived. Those that bootstrapped off the postal service, for example, did well--eBay and Amazon are the big two. Others didn't: They had assumed that because the pattern worked well in their home territory, they'd be just as appropriate to the rest of the USA, and to the rest of the world. But they weren't appropriate, and they failed. We're left with a Web that's useful to everyone, yes, but one that's primarily shaped by West coast North America.

The Web is San Francisco circa 2001, writ large.

This is only a point in a larger constellation. The technology world is a bigger, virtualised California. I've played driving games for years on generations of home computers, consoles, and arcade machines. They were kind-of okay for me--nothing like driving, you understand, but similar enough to be fun. My first driving experience in Los Angeles, however, squashed this understanding completely: Driving games are utterly, totally perfect. They are the precise American driving experience. It's possibly hard to understand if you've only driven on North American streets and freeways. The cars I've driven, growing up, have had more controls than steering and gas. The drivers on the roads I'm used to have always acted differently. But on American freeways, people drive "defensively," which means they tend to ignore you and stick to their lanes, rarely indicating, and usually all keeping to the same speed, meaning mirrors aren't too important and keeping in line is a simple experience. Sounds just like your typical driving game, in other words, and also completely unlike British motorways.

I'll only briefly mention the dead-straight streets and 45 degree hills that seemed so implausible on my screens, and shocked me with their reality when I saw them in real life. (Dan Hill's Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and real life: Santa Monica collision experience is even more abrupt.) And another data-point: Looking down on San Francisco from Coit Tower and seeing that Sim City - straight roads, sharps gradients and all - is genuinely another accurate simulation, not just a rather simplistic one as it appeared from my London perspective. Yet another: Finding out that the voice synthesiser on my ancient Amiga was actually spot on when I met someone from the part of California that has that exact same accent and intonation.

The whole of the Web is like this: appropriate to communities with no big shops, to folks with big houses, to long commutes, to small cities and a vibrant events culture within easy reach, but not quite so great for the rest of us.

And now the money's coming back, things are going to change.

The Web's been coasting since 2001. It consists of that which started in SF and happened to adapt to the larger ecosystem, and that's it. But since 2001, there are millions and millions more people online--and they're pretty much uncatered for. They have no native services.

Where are the applications for people who live in tight communities of a thousand people and strong local government? Where are the corner-stores offering convenience and personality coupled with the economies of scale and selection of the whole web? Where's the LiveJournal for people who don't like linear narrative, the RSS for people who don't have information OCD, the freedom of expression we have in weblogs but without the implicit anonymity, where you know your readers already know your face? Where are the networked market-places, the software for close and dispersed families, and the hundred cheap web-apps for doing soho accounts in a small town?

The automotive industry, the consumer electronics industry, the media producers and distributors, and more: they're all looking at China and India, emerging markets of a billion or more people. For us internet folks, there's a homeland China, the China inside, a mass market of a hundred million or so, come online in the past 4 years, and waiting for their own killer apps.

Don't make the mistake of thinking they're just the long tail. The mass market is as differentiated along as many axes as any other market, including our own geek market. And don't think that we'll know what they want without working with them.

Actually, don't even think of them as "them": I never realised I was a "them" until I went to California.