Podcast: Slack, messaging and institutional memory

You've heard the story: Slack began as a game. But almost exactly 1 year ago today, the internal tool the team built for its own use became a team communication app that anyone (and especially enterprises) can use -- and is now one of the fastest growing ones at that.

It seems like collaboration is "something software should be helping us with” Slack co-founder Stewart Butterfield observes, yet it typically isn't. So what can an app like Slack tell us about how we work today, and how the nature of work will change (fewer meetings? less emails)?

Butterfield is joined in this edition of the a16z podcast by a16z board partner Steven Sinofsky and a16z's Benedict Evans. The trio examines the origins of messaging and task management tools (many of which Sinofsky worked on at Microsoft) -- and how the advent of cloud-based services and mobile in particular have changed the requirements for modern workplace tools and information management.

The explosion of imaging

The film camera business peaked in 1999. In that year, consumers around the world took 80bn photos (according to Kodak's 2000 annual report), and bought around 70m cameras (on GfK's estimate). 

In 2014, perhaps 90m traditional cameras will be sold - and close to 2bn phones and tablets with cameras. There will be over 2bn iPhone and Android smartphones on earth by the end of this year: with perhaps 4bn people on earth with mobile phones, there are at least 3bn camera phones and probably over 3.5bn. 

A total of around 1.2bn digital cameras have been sold since 1999 - there are 1bn Google Android smartphones in use today. 

Over 1.5bn new photos are shared every day on Facebook, WhatsApp and Snapchat alone, which equates to about 550bn a year, and this is growing fast. Total sharing across all social networks, if we include Wechat and other platforms, is certain to be over 1 trillion this year - around 1.5 per smartphone per day. How many are taken in total? Several times that, certainly, but there's no real way to know - it could be 1tr, or 5tr, or 10tr. 

So:

  • More than 20 times more devices that can take pictures will be sold this year than in 1999 (>1.4bn versus 70m)
  • Any service doing more than 220m photos per day has higher volume than the global consumer camera industry in 1999 - there are probably half a dozen or more of these
  • More than 20x more photos will be taken this year than in 1999- possibly far more (2tr versus 80bn)
  • If you flex the assumptions, it is possible that more photos will be taken in the next year or two than were taken on film ever. 

I've not found any statistics for consumer video shot before digital, but it seems like a pretty safe bet that more consumer video will be shot this year than was ever shot before camera phones.

We can't yet see how much this will change things. The proliferation of imaging is a profound change that bears comparison with the way vinyl and especially the transistor took music everywhere two and three generations ago, or the way the steam press and railways took print everywhere in the 19th century. 

The difference with both of those, though, is that they were essentially top down: you still needed a factory, but this explosion of imaging is bottom up. Imaging becomes a universal form of conversation, rather than the freezing of a special moment or a piece of professional editorial content.

The transistor took music into the world, both spraying it everywhere and giving people  private bubbles of sound wherever they are. Imaging works the other way: soaking up everything around you for sharing and remembering later, and for taking ownership of what you've seen and done. Maybe it's that sense of ownership that makes Google Glass cause such visceral, inarticulate fury. 

The universal scope of the camera and the saturation of our lives with the photos we take also means that 'taking pictures' is now no more meaningful a term than 'writing'. Hence Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook or WhatsApp photo sharing are no more all 'photos' than Word, Indesign, Wordpress and twitter are all 'text'. Photos are no longer a category.  

Mass-market use cases

A small but important observation, this: we tend to think about tech use cases in terms of our own experience, but that isn't necessarily the mass-market experience. In particular, the globe-trotting, internationalist experience of many people in tech creates problems and concerns that are not necessarily universal. Most people do not fly every month, and most people do not make many international calls (indeed, a lot of people do not even know anyone in another country). This data from Ofcom in the UK gives a little perspective.

(Source for the first and second chart)

Media attitudes and use

Another fascinating set of market research from Ofcom, the UK TMT regulator: I've extracted a few of the best charts, and the original is here

Social messaging consolidation

In the last couple of years there's been an explosion of social messaging apps, of which WhatsApp was obviously the breakout hit. But one could easily suggest that in buying WhatsApp Facebook is just playing 'Whack a mole', with dozens of other bubbling up: last summer I went through Google Play and found 50 such apps with over 1m downloads.

The data all of these give is highly variable, though - downloads and user aren't the same thing and though many apps give user figures occasionally, 'users' often means 'anyone who ever downloaded our app' (which WhatsApp has complained about, making a point of giving MAUs) and many don't even tell you that. So it's interesting to look at Google Trends for some of the biggest names that have been floating around. (And yes, Google trends is indicative but far from authoritative). 

First, compare WhatsApp, where we know the numbers, with a few of the bigger names. 

(Comparing WhatsApp with Blackberry and BBM is also instructive.)

Now, keep Viber for scale (it reported 100m MAUs when Rakuten bought it in February) and add a couple of the names that have floated around as regional winners. 

Now compare Nimbuzz, an Indian player, with WhatsApp in India. 

Now, a couple of the US hits. 

Small globally, but big in the USA. 

The big gap in this, of course, is that we really can't use it to look at the really big contenders - Wechat is still mostly in China where Google Trends is useless, Kakao in Korea has the same problem, and Line is too generic a search term to tell us anything much. 

I've argued elsewhere that the lock-ins Facebook enjoyed on the desktop are much weaker on mobile - that it's much easier to switch between services and to use several at once. But at the same time, it does appear that WhatsApp has much greater scale than the alternatives globally (unless there's a huge new app I've just not heard of yet, which, frankly, is entirely possible). Still, there's a lot of regional variation: WhatsApp is certainly not dominant in the USA, China, South Korea or Japan. And (having said you can't use Google Trends to look at Line), Indonesia shows a fascinating mix. 

As I suggested here, perhaps part of the future is messaging within other apps, rather than lots of dedicated messaging apps. 

Whatsapp and $19bn

Mobile social apps are not, really, about free SMS. Mobile discovery and acquisition is a mess - it's in a 'pre-pagerank' phase where we lack the right tools and paths to find and discover content and services efficiently. Social apps may well be a major part of this. These apps have the opportunity to be a third channel in parallel to Google and Facebook.

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Interaction, canvases and ecosystems

Suppose that in 5 years or so I send you a Yelp review of a restaurant, from my phone to yours. What will that mean? 

  1. First, I might well use something like Airdrop, or touch my phone to yours to pass it across, or tell Now to give it to you, or indeed Now might decide to give it to you without my even explicitly asking. Or the review might be invoked by a Bluetooth LE beacon as you hold your phone next to the menu on display by the door
  2. But for the sake of simplicity, suppose I send it to you using an internet messaging app - either one built into the OS or a third-party one - Facebook, Whatsapp or more probably one that doesn't exist yet but by then has 15 engineers and 1bn MAUs. 
  3. It seems pretty unlikely that you'll see a dumb URL string on your screen. Rather, you'll get something rich and interactive, within the message.
  4. And you'll be able to go into that experience and tap the number to call the restaurant, or make a live booking, or swipe through photos.
  5. And if you tap 'book', it'll pass them a $10 booking fee in bitcoin, authorised with a fingerprint swipe. 
  6. Now suppose you decide to save this item, as an icon on your home screen, or some other yet-to-be created place. 

Now, what were you using? An app? a widget? Native code? What programming language? Did you install an app or surf the web? I'd suggest that none of those questions would really mean anything, at least not as we think of them right now. The programming language matters much less than the user flow. And some of this example sounds 'webby', but Google is the first to advance interaction models that are not remotely webby (such as Now). 

This is a pretty simple illustration (an expansion of the super-hot card metaphor) of a broader point I've made before: on the desktop internet, the web was by far the dominant model and that didn't actually change very much for well over a decade (before that, the interfaces of Windows and Mac were also very stable for a long time). But on mobile, not only are other models just as important as the web, but they're not remotely stable, settled or mature. The platform war may be over but that doesn't mean things are settling down. 

So I have very little idea what precisely I would mean if, in 5 years, I were to say 'I installed an app on my smartphone'. Further, I'm pretty sure that if it's an Apple smartphone it will run an iteration of iOS but I'm rather less sure what Google will have done with Android and Chrome by then. And of course I might be running a fork of Android from Amazon or, perhaps, Microsoft. 

This is the key reason why the new social messaging apps are so interesting - not because they have users and inventory now, but because they can be vectors for some of this sort of behaviour - a third acquisition, discovery and distribution channel besides Facebook and Google.

This may also have implications for any discussion about what it means for Apple that its ecosystem will have a minority of mobile users. We need to think about what it means to call a ecosystem that might have 800m-900m live devices 'minority', but we also need to think about what 'ecosystem' might mean. What, if any, 'winner takes all' dynamics operate in this environment? One reason the Mac didn't die was because the web changed what it mean to be a computer ecosystem: the mobile ecosystem has lots of changes to come too.