It’s Up To Us

March 6th, 2012

We have computers which fit in our pockets and are the size of a notebook, and they are dramatically different than the personal computers that preceded them. They have cameras, microphones, accelerometers, gyros and GPS. People can use them almost anywhere and unlike PCs, people enjoy using them, too.

There’s a huge potential audience because so many people use smartphones and tablets, and yet a lot of the new applications we end up talking about are meaningless to them. We talk about new social networking and productivity apps, and we get really excited about them for a couple of days, and then we forget about most of them. There’s a glut of them and a glut of discussion about them, but they’re doing very little for regular users.

Why is so much of our discussion centered around new services and apps that aren’t going to be around in a year and aren’t going to do much to improve regular people’s lives? Why are we building so many new services and apps that try to solve problems that don’t really exist when there are so many other niches we could make dramatically better for people with these devices?

Look at what Square is doing for small businesses and shops. They just introduced Square Register, which turns an iPad into a cash register-replacement. Customers can pay with cash, credit card, or just by the customer’s name. It’s not only convenient for customers, because they can buy, say, a coffee at coffee shops they visit often without ever pulling out their wallet, but also empowering for the business. Because all sales go through a single well-designed computer system, they can track what’s selling better, what sells better at certain times of the day, how sales respond to different incentive programs they’re implementing, et cetera. Square provides very detailed information to businesses that had no data at all beforehand.

That’s what Square is using the iPhone and iPad to do: they’re giving more power to small businesses and making the experience better for customers. That’s really exciting and it genuinely makes people’s lives better, by making it easier to operate a business or a little bit more enjoyable to be a customer. They’re taking an industry—payment processing—that hasn’t changed much in years and is really boring for most of us to talk about, and they’re radically changing it. That’s awesome.

There’s all kinds of similar opportunities available in ostensibly boring areas. Rather than build more social networks, let’s try to find something in our lives that could be dramatically better, and let’s make it dramatically better. Let’s re-make the world using these incredible devices we have.

The health industry, restaurants and cooking, architecture, archeology, education, realty—there’s all kinds of fields which could be improved by using smartphones and tablets. They’re not what get people on Hacker News or Reddit excited, but new services and apps which make things better in these fields will get a lot of regular people really excited, because they can empower them and make their work easier and more enjoyable.

It’s up to us, though, to make those changes. We have to try to understand the issues people in these fields face, and then think about how they could be improved. And then we have to build it. We have to get excited about solving issues non-geeks care about. We have every reason to, too; by trying to solve problems in fields that have been left behind a bit by technology, there’s huge potential for radical change.

And there’s also huge potential for success. When you solve real problems for people, your plan for how to make money is a lot easier: you sell it. You don’t need to worry about getting really, really big and implementing advertising in such a way that it makes enough money to grow the company without annoying users, because when you solve real problems for people, they’re generally willing to pay for it.

That’s what I want to see more of in the next few years: less talk about new social networks and productivity apps, and more work on solving real problems for regular people. I want to see more people looking around them, recognizing ways they can make people’s lives better in tangible ways, and building it. Because that’s what excites me about smartphones and tablets: they have the potential to dramatically re-shape everything we do and empower people in the process.

And it’s up to us to make that happen.