How Mobile is like the Star Wars trilogy

The original Star Wars trilogy followed a typical story arc. Triumph, followed by disappointment, and then a return to greatness. Studying innovation in mobile over the last decade reveals a similar story.

A New Hope: mobile computing explodes

In A New Hope — the first installment in the trilogy — young Luke Skywalker discovers he possesses special Jedi powers. He joins the forces of good, and together they do the impossible in destroying the indestructible Death Star.

In 2008, Apple opened up the iOS app store to third-party developers and unleashed a torrent of innovation. Like Skywalker, these developers discovered special powers for the first time — location awareness, touch interfaces, always-on connectivity, social graph integration, and a powerful camera. These “why-now” enablers provided a fertile environment to developers. An environment for creating magical user experiences. WhatsApp, Uber, Instagram, Uber, Snapchat, Lyft. All never-before-possible experiences. All magical. They grew on the back of an exploding distribution platform, but distribution alone was not enough. The underlying technology enablers made these businesses possible.

Empire Strikes Back: the dark age of mobile

In Empire Strikes Back, Luke and his friends get knocked down. Luke fails to grow as a Jedi and suffers the consequences. Darth Vader overpowers him in a lightsaber fight, and he loses his hand. Meanwhile, he is unable to save his friend Han who remains frozen in carbonite at the mercy of the bounty hunter Boba Fett. At the end of the movie, there is nothing to celebrate.

In 2013 following the first wave of mobile, newer enabling technologies were slow to emerge. Just as Skywalker stubbornly abandoned his training with Yoda, developers stubbornly and repeatedly imitated previous successes. On-demand “Uber for x” companies popped up in almost every category you could imagine. They leveraged technologies like location awareness but ignored business fundamentals like positive unit economics. Not surprisingly, many of those companies have shut down and disappeared. Many feel that this is the end of the story. Today, many feel that mobile is dead.

Return of the Jedi: return of hard-core CS unleashes new wave of innovation

In Return of the Jedi, there is a return to greatness. Wiser after returning to complete his training with Yoda, Luke harnesses his full Jedi powers. He destroys the evil Emperor, and he enables his friends to do the impossible again when they destroy a second and more powerful Death Star.

While on-demand companies were operating with upside-down economics, researchers and PhDs were experimenting with machine learning techniques. Concepts like neural networks and deep learning, while not new, had several advances make their use more effective. First, massive data sets (e.g., images, text, audio, video) became more available. Secondly, storage of these large data sets was no longer cost prohibitive. Finally, GPUs became widely available providing the processing power required to power deep learning. The combination of these trends enabled machines to learn on their own and apply that intelligence to virtually any problem.

In the last four years, we have seen massive strides forward in the effectiveness and accuracy of these technologies. Machines have developed senses that until now were only reserved for humans. They can see, hear, talk, and understand. They can recognize images and speech with greater accuracy than humans. As these techniques migrate from the research world to the commercial setting, they will power another generation of transformative companies. It is early days, but in the next ten years, unimaginable leaps forward are coming.

We are already starting to see deep learning power magical end-user experiences. In the social media space, PicsArt and Prisma leverage machine learning to transform photos into the style of famous artists. Google Photos makes your entire photo library searchable without requiring manual tags. In health care, Face2Gene uses image recognition to help diagnose dysmorphic features from photos. In the education vertical, Shasta’s portfolio company—Socratic — leverages machine learning to help students when stuck on homework.

These examples only scratch the surface of what is now possible. We will see magical experiences across every vertical. Just as Luke Skywalker emerged from his setbacks more powerful than ever, so too will the wave of mobile innovation return in the years to come.

If you are a founder that shares this vision, we want to meet you and learn about what you’re building.

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