The tech industry used to think big.
As early as 1977, when personal computers were expensive and impractical mystery boxes with no apparent utility or business prospects, the young Bill Gates and Paul Allen were already working toward a future in which we would see “a computer on every desk and in every home.” And in the late 1990s, when it was far from clear that they would ever make a penny from their unusual search engine, the audacious founders of Google were planning to organize every bit of data on the planet — and make it available to everyone, free.
These were dreams of vast breadth: The founders of Microsoft, Google, Facebook and many of the rest of today’s tech giants were not content to win over just some people to their future. They weren’t going after simply the rich, or Americans or Westerners. They planned to radically alter how the world did business so the impossible became a reality for everyone.
Whatever happened to the tech industry’s grand, democratic visions of the future?
With a few taps on a phone, for a fee, today’s hottest start-ups will help people on the lowest rungs of the 1 percent live like their betters in the 0.1 percent. These services give the modestly wealthy a chance to enjoy the cooks, cleaners, drivers, personal assistants and all the other lavish appointments that have defined extravagant wealth. As one critic tweeted, San Francisco’s tech industry “is focused on solving one problem: What is my mother no longer doing for me?”
No, no, say the start-ups that, today, look as if they’re targeting the rich. The nature of the tech business is that costs come down. Through repeated innovation and delivery at scale, the supercomputers of the 1960s became the PCs of the 1980s, which in turn became the smartphones of the 2010s. The rich subsidize the rest of us — were it not for the suckers who spent more than $10,000 on early versions of the Mac, Apple might not have survived to build the iPhone, in turn begetting an era of affordable pocket supercomputers.
This is the basic defense of the new wave of on-demand start-ups: If their rosiest visions of growth come true, they’ll achieve a scale that will let them reduce prices, and in that way offer services that could radically alter how even ordinary people conduct their lives.
It is a plausible vision — but an unlikely one. To achieve the scale that will enable the start-ups to reach a wider audience, everything for these companies will have to go right, and success will have to feed on itself. That happens rarely in the tech world.
The Latest on: Tech Boom
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