The new whiz kids

Jobs. Gates. Ellison. McNealy. A generation ago, they changed the way we live, work and communicate with each other.
Those are the kinds of names that sprang to mind when I first saw the lineup for GigaOM RoadMap, and I thought about the new generation of entrepreneurs that we’re seeing spring up right before our eyes. There’s a whole new set of revolutionary applications and technologies that are being launched today, and a whole new generation of whiz kids leading that charge.
This week I was lucky enough to see people like Jack Dorsey, Brian Cheskey and Drew Houston take the stage and talk about how the world is changing, and how technology is revolutionizing the way we interact with each other. They’re not alone, of course. We could throw out other names — Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, David Karp of Tumblr, Dennis Crowley of Foursquare and Kevin Systrom of Instagram. Each is, in his own way, contributing to a fundamental shift in communication and consumption enabled by the Internet.

Lessons from Outliers

What interests me about this new crop of entrepreneurs is the enabling force behind their rise. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that it was timing more than anything else that gave rise to the personal computing revolution and the entrepreneurs that rode that wave. As Gladwell points out, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs Bill Joy and Scott McNealy were all born within a few years of each other, and all hit adulthood around the same time that the first do-it-yourself computer kit hit the market.
What fundamentally changed personal computing was the introduction of the graphical user interface, which stripped away the need for a command line interface. When all you had to do was point and click, users no longer needed to understand how a computer worked to use one — and that opened up a whole new set of productivity tools and applications.
More than thirty years have passed since then, and we haven’t seen a comparable crop of world-changing thought leaders pop up, all at the same┬átime. Sure, we have Larry and Sergey, but the rise of Google (s GOOG) seems a truly extraordinary exception to the more general dot-com crash. There’s Jeff Bezos and Amazon, (s AMZN) which also rose to prominence in the same environment. More importantly, however, what those companies focused on is automation, on solving problems and creating efficiencies through data and algorithms. In a way, they were focused on taking humans out of the equation.

People are the connection

This crop of entrepreneurs is fundamentally different. Their mission is not to create tools that increase productivity, but that seamlessly connect people with one another. They’re not building hardware or software or networking technologies; for the most part, that heavy lifting has already been taken care of for them.
The personal computing revolution took hold because the software that runs computers finally became user-friendly. The value that the visionaries of the 80s provided was in taking all of the hardware and software that was already available and simplifying the user interface.
Today’s entrepreneurs are faced with a similar challenge: the Internet already enabled communication through a number of tools like email, voice and video chat. Just as Jobs and Gates provided the abstraction layer on the PC which simplified the user interface, Zuckerberg, Dorsey and others are simplifying the way users interact and enable new applications on top of the network. In a world where everyone is persistently connected through PCs, mobile phones and other devices, the goal is to make sharing between people easy and seamless.
At the core, what they are building are user experiences and removing the barriers that exist in bringing people closer together. That’s why companies like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram — all of which help users connect, share and communicate — are so important. And that’s why, 30 years after the dawn of personal computing, there’s a whole new group of whiz kids that are once again changing the way we think, learn, live and work.