As Social Media Slows, Tech Branches Out
by Casey Newton
As models dressed as stewardesses milled around inside a SoMa warehouse handing out champagne, the startup founder attempted once again to describe his product.
Holding an iPad loaded with the application made by his team, he tapped items on a map of San Francisco and launched a series of narrated animations of city landmarks. The Castro, Coit Tower, the Ferry Building – they whizzed merrily around the screen, as a chirpy robot woman read their respective Wikipedia entries aloud.
This was Qwiki, a company that has raised more than $10 million to do – something. It won a competition among startups hosted by the influential blog TechCrunch, which announced in a headline: “Information consumption to be disrupted.”
A year later, we may be consuming information differently, but for most of us Qwiki hasn’t had much to do with that. The app was handsome enough, I remember thinking at that party in April 2011, but who really needed a robot to recite Wikipedia entries to them?
“This is it,” I said to my colleague James Temple, who had come along to see Qwiki himself, as throngs of people all around us drank fancy cocktails and ate food catered from high-end local restaurants. “A bubble.”
I’ve had many moments like that since I began to cover technology in San Francisco two years ago. Much of the time, the innovations on display here make me proud to live in a city where so many devote themselves to building something new.
Dropbox lets me access all my documents wherever I am. Square lets me pay for my coffee at Cafe Sophie in the Castro just by saying my name. Uber lets me get a ride out of SoMa at 2 a.m. when prospects for getting a cab are slimmer than seeing the sun at Ocean Beach.
These are homegrown businesses, built by neighbors, and they are something to behold.
Other times, as when Qwiki founder Doug Imbruce told me his company would “improve the way our world consumes information by transforming it into a human experience,” I wonder if I may have recently and unwittingly been sniffing glue.
Lately, others have wondered whether the sector that spurred San Francisco’s tech scene to new heights this decade might itself be coming down from its high.
“Has the social media bubble burst?” asked a barrage of headlines in July and August.
Said Reuters reporters Gerry Shih and Sarah McBride in late July:
“Social media companies, once hailed by their Silicon Valley boosters as world-changing businesses with limitless potential, are instead proving a sobering reminder of how investors can be seduced by Internet hype.”
The poor stock performance of high-profile stocks in the space – notably Pandora, Groupon, Zynga, and most of all Facebook – led some to conclude that the end is nigh.
And anecdotally, at least, there is evidence that startups are slowing down. Invitations to high-profile launch parties are trickling in a bit slower than they were the spring that Qwiki launched. In those days, hardly a week went by when some new smartphone app dedicated to sharing photos more easily failed to announce itself in my inbox.
Then photo-sharing star Instagram hit 30 million users, Facebook bought it for a deal then once valued at $1 billion, and that particular party came to a sudden halt. (Last month San Francisco’s Synthetic Labs, makers of the popular Hipstamatic camera app, laid off much of its staff.)
But the evidence suggests that in San Francisco’s tech scene, the good times will roll on for a while yet – just in other, more fruitful directions.
Y Combinator, the Mountain View startup accelerator that has helped to launch some of the era’s biggest companies, accepted its largest class ever during the summer cycle: 84 startups. At its demonstration day last month, the more promising startups avoided the social sphere and concentrated instead on e-commerce, crowd-funding and services sold directly to other software developers.
(There was also a company called Double Robotics that is making a remote-controlled, motorized stand for your iPad that resembles a Segway. It has to be seen to be believed and is really quite awesome.)
And that’s to say nothing of other San Francisco successes, which are the envy of the tech world. Twitter, Square, Dropbox, Airbnb and Uber are just a handful of businesses that are already or are likely to be billion-dollar businesses. None of their fortunes depend heavily on the price of Facebook stock.
As for Qwiki? Things didn’t quite work out as planned.
I wasn’t the only one having trouble figuring out what Qwiki was. A couple months after the iPad launch, co-founder Louis Monier left the company. In June, the remaining staff moved to New York.
Hype never dies
According to a recent post on the (San Francisco!) question-and-answer site Quora, the company plans on coming out with an iPhone app soon.
In his post, Imbruce described it as “a drastically revamped product that we hope will revolutionize social sharing.”
Another revolution. About time! Things were starting to get a little dull around here.
And so I look forward to Qwiki’s next launch.
It ought to be one hell of a party.