Liveblog: Benedict Evans on three steps to the future

The digital revolution has left us with a multi-speed economy, with some business charging ahead into Web3, and some businesses still struggling with the cloud. Benedict Evans is our pathfinder to the future…

Warning: Live-blogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax. This post will be updated over the next few days.

The economy is running at multiple speeds. Some parts of it are exploring the digital tools of the next decade. Some are still dealing with the consequences of the smartphone. And some are still wresting the with the impact of the internet…

Benedict Evans took the attendees of NEXT22 through a breakneck ride through the future, present and past of digital — and how they’re impacting different businesses.

The Future: Web3 and the Metaverse

There are ideas about the platforms that we’ll build the next generation of products on, and the biggest two are Web3 and the Metaverse.

Web3 is hard to describe. Cryptocurrency is not cryptography, and is not really a currency either. So, let’s step back and look at what people are building. The first wave of products was digital money. The next wave was building scripting upon that, making financial mechanisms based on crypto and blockchains. This was distributed finance – DiFi. And that all blew up over the last six months, as they discovered exactly older financial systems have central banks…

The next wave will be thinking about how to build products on top of a distributed computing system, with regulation, rules, governance, and game theory all built into it. A blockchain is an open system that allows you to see exactly how it works and what is happening. In theory, that’s good. There’s a strain within Web3 enthusiasts that believes that networks could be controlled by the users, not big companies. This is a very religious view, that mirrors the early enthusiasm for the internet. Time will tell.

The initial bitcoin paper suggested incentivising people to use the new system by giving them a financial stake in the system. That brought people in, sure enough – but it’s really hard to tell if they’re users or hedge funds speculating. That’s one reason why there’s such volatility in the currencies.

But we’re still in the 90s internet phase of Web3, when it’s hard and unintuitive to get involved, and it’s not obvious what you’ll do with it once you get there. People aren’t good at predicting the direction of a new technology, Open source was going to kill the big tech companies. Yet, the iPhone is full of open source software, but if every much a closed device. Reality is hard.

What is the metaverse?

How about Metaverse? Will VR and AR become the next major computing platform? Well, the Metaverse as a term has become sort of a mood board for the future. It’s attached to anything a speaker finds exciting. It’s a bit like the “information superhighway” phrase from the 90s. It probably won’t be Google, Facebook and Apple who deliver on the Metaverse — whatever it is, or will be.

Interest in VR is still way below that of, say, Roblox. Will it every get to universality? Well, it’s hard to tell. Moore’s Law took phones from Nokias to the universal computing device. And it took games consoles from a niche to a … niche. A large niche, but most people still don’t care.

Some things are like 3D printers and drones – there just isn’t much consumer use case for them (although there are bigger commercial uses). And other things are like the internet and the web, that become ubiquitous, but not in the form their creators expected.

The technology of 20 years ago

Meanwhile, old paradigms grind onwards. IBM is still shipping record volumes of mainframes. Cloud computing is still not in use by the majority of businesses. But as we move from mainframe to cloud, the amount of software in use grows massively. takes a bunch of different tools needed to review video as it’s being edited, and creates a single workflow. It unbundles from email apps and Dropbox, and reaggregates around workflows.

What the web did to media and music is happening to every other industry — still. There are new winners and new gatekeepers emerging all the time. Netflix is now spending more on commissioning media than anyone apart from Disney, and both spend more than the top five EU broadcasters combined… But these are no longer tech discussions, they’re media and TV problems because the tech piece is solved.

The Technology of a decade ago

Retail is still on its low, slow migration online. There was a surge during the pandemic, with a bigger surge, the stricter the lockdown in each country. The impacts are still being felt unevenly. Different countries are adopting online retail at different rates.

For example, if you look at just retail items that can come through the mail, the percentage of retail that is online is even higher in the UK – 40% rather than 30% of all retail. Products make a difference. So, too, do unconventional competitors, like Shopify, which is rapidly becoming Amazon Marketplace’s largest competitor despite being a B2B business. Apple is reshaping the ad market. Shein, the Chinese fast fashion brand, has overtaken Zara and H&M in the USA.

We may be in the last big digital shift. We’ve moved from tech only being for big companies, to smartphones putting it in the hands of everyone. Now that’s happened, we’re transitioning to tech being a systemically important part of society. The last 50 years were about what figuring out what a computer is, the next 50 years will be figuring out what that does to all our lives.

Benedict Evans has spent 20 years analysing mobile, media and technology, and worked in equity research, strategy, consulting, and venture capital. He is now an independent analyst.