Gulker Curve

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The Independent Culture
'Next Big Thing' technologies seem to be appearing at an ever- greater pace, so it's useful to have a tool like the Gulker Curve to deal with the crush

Gulker's Law, advanced in one of last year's columns, is a tongue- in-cheek spin-off of Moore's Law and goes like this: as computers halve the time required to perform a task, people will wait twice as long to start doing it (procrastinating people like me, anyway).

Which gets to the topic of this column - I'll call it the "Gulker Curve", which attempts to trace a well-known principal in the hi-tech biz in visible form. The Gulker Curve tracks the adoption of the "Next Big Thing", the latest, edgiest, most buzzword-ridden technology-du-jour. Such technologies seem to be appearing at an ever-greater pace, so it's useful to have a tool like the Gulker Curve to help deal with the crush.

The venture capitalist Anne Winblad offered similar thoughts in the press recently, but there's no need to wait in line to see Ms Winblad. Virtually everybody in Menlo Park, home of Sand Hill Road, Silicon Valley's venture capital ghetto, could fill you in, including Debbie, the proprietor down at Menlo Shirt Laundry, and most of the capuccino jockeys over at Peet's Coffee.

How does the curve work? Look at "push", one of last year's killer apps. Wired magazine dedicated a whole issue to it last March, replete with screaming "Kiss your browser goodbye" headlines in Technicolor type on the cover, only to dump it on to the "Tired" list in its November issue. Last week, a low-key Wired News report noted that a couple of push companies were shipping products and booking revenue. In short, push is a good example of the curve's rise-fall-rise shape.

The hype surrounding push rocketed from a few whispers to the cover of Wired in only a few months. Thus, the first part of the Gulker Curve, the Hype Phase, is one of those functions that starts out slowly but quickly begins to head for infinity.

At this point, the curve rockets upward, driven by the thundering herd of venture capitalists and braying technology writers, who charge in with all the decorum of so many spooked bovines and panicky greenhorns in a Texas wildfire.

The curve then rises even more steeply: companies launch, products are promised "Real Soon Now", early beta code circulates like precious runes handed from druid priest to wide-eyed believer, and investors feverishly scan for the first signs of an IPO. Somewhere, a financial house gets headlines by announcing that the Next Big Thing Fund is now closed to further investment, even before anybody knew it existed.

All other technology news drops off the planet's radar: the tech press is full of nothing but the Next Big Thing, and it's a whopper. Major technology companies announce their Next-Big-Thing strategy, implying this was what they were doing all along. Any day now, all other technology, and probably all other human activity, will halt. Earthlings, cease your futile resistance, you will be assimilated!

The first magazines appear, adding to the 100,000 Web sites and newsgroup postings appearing daily. National television news programmes scramble to find glib geeks and techno-weenies who can explain it all in a catchy soundbite.

This point represents the early peak (and often the highest point) on the Gulker Curve. No sooner comes the first slight sign that the broadsides of press releases are slowing than the curve begins to flatten quickly. This period is characterised by an entranced, technology-literate public waiting for working products, struggling with exploding beta software and trying to realign their investment portfolios to cash in on the Sure Thing.

Simultaneously, the press begins to discover that interesting things have happened elsewhere while all were so relentlessly focused on the NBT. Sage scribes go from hoping to be identified as the Nostradamus who saw it all coming to penning the word "hype" increasingly often.

The first overheated start-up goes belly-up: the rest are burning through their launch capital faster than a Saturn V rocket. Next Big Thing Magazine announces it will cease print publication to concentrate on the Web, and the search engines begin to report daily fewer instances of related Web pages and newsgroup postings.

Next Big Thing Inc withdraws its IPO. Next Big Thing parody pages quickly plaster the Web, then disappear in a wave of apathy. Major corporations go from announcing their Next Big Strategy to running commercials contemptuous of mere fads like the Next Big Thing.

At this point the curve turns completely around, in a tight, neat parabola. Venture capitalists announce new slates of management to replace the founders at some once-hot Wall Street darlings, and sell or fold other, lesser firms. The curve begins to plunge like a Pacific Rim stock index.

Almost before we notice, the Next Big Thing is history. The only press notice is told-you-so pieces about imploding early-leader companies. The curve is losing altitude faster than Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards at the Olympic trials.

Only then, when no signs remain that the Next Big Thing ever existed, does the curve begin to pull out of its nosedive. A few survivor companies, the ones where adult supervision prevails, the ones run like real businesses, begin to book modest sales and first profits. After a few quarters of sustained growth, the first, quiet stock offerings go unheralded, slipping in the back way while no one, least of all the technology press, is looking.