Almost exactly seven years ago (May 2005), I wrote a post called Subscriptions: The Third Wave. I quoted Jim Allchin, the head of Microsoft’s Windows division at the time, who said that syndication and subscriptions represented the third big movement for getting information on the web (the first was hyperlinking, and the second was search). Each of these movements gave rise to spectacularly valuable new companies. Netscape defined the first wave, and Google the second. In 2005 there was not yet a poster child for the third wave, but Allchin was arguing that there would be in the near future.
I thought his insight on this topic was brilliant, and with hindsight we can see how correct he turned out to be.
In my post I argued strongly that Feedburner, a startup created by Dick Costolo in 2004, had a great shot at being the company that would dominate the third wave. I argued the reason for this was that Feedburner was using the same approach as Netscape and Google: positioning itself as the ideal way to get at existing content. I also really liked the way Dick Costolo thought about this problem.
I turned out to be wrong. Feedburner was indeed successful, but not at the level Allchin was describing. It was acquired in 2007 by Google and the technology was rolled into Google’s products. It never became a company on the scale of Netscape or Google. In 2009, Dick Costolo left Google to join Twitter.
At first glance Twitter’s approach seemed very different than Feedburner, Technorati, and various feed readers that were all competing at the time to get a piece of this subscription wave. Twitter tried to build the entire stack into a single service rather that simply helping you consume content created elsewhere.
This idea of syndicating and subscribing to content was something that was built into the soul of Twitter. Twitter creator Jack Dorsey recently mentioned on Charlie Rose that he was fascinated by this idea of the invisible app. A service that would push information to you and then disappear. Twitter launched as an SMS service, but today Dorsey talks about Push Notification. “It’s pushed when it’s relevant and it gets out of the way when it’s not,” Dorsey said.
It’s not surprising that Dick Costolo decided to join.
In the comments section of my original post, Jeff Clavier mentioned that he felt Feedburner could ultimately be disrupted by Six Apart, the company that produced blogging software. It turns out that he was right to a large degree, but that publishing volume was quickly shifting away from Six Apart’s Moveable Type and over to services like Twitter and Facebook.
Today we know that Facebook is the Google/Netscape scale company that rode the third wave. Facebook’s upcoming IPO is expected to be one of the largest in history. Twitter, while not quite at that scale, is currently valued at somewhere in the high single-digit billions, which makes it more valuable than most publicly traded companies. More importantly, it is becoming more popular with each passing year, while RSS-based readers and services are becoming less popular. In 2010, Dick Costolo took over as CEO. If my bet in 2005 had been on him as a person rather than Feedburner as a company, my prediction would look less silly today.
It’s fun to look back at a post from seven years ago. I’d like to look back again in 2019 and hopefully have as much fun reflecting on the changes in the software industry. What will see? What’s the fourth wave? What movement will see that will create the next $100B company? I would argue it’s mobile computing.