You'd think it would've drawn crowds.
TechCrunch founder and controversial Valley 2.0 icon Michael Arrington was making a rare appearance in New York, moderating a panel at the DigitalLife trade show on Thursday night. And the panel in question, called "The Disruptors," included a few of the start-up world's hottest names: Napster, Plaxo, and Facebook veteran Sean Parker (currently of the Founders Fund); Oovoo CEO Philippe Schwartz; SpinVox co-founder Daniel Doulton; IGA Worldwide CEO Justin Townsend; and Ooma founder Andrew Frame. Considering the resurgence of tech culture and startup spirit in New York in the recent past, this should've been a big draw.
But the makeshift auditorium on the show floor of the Jacob Javits Convention Center was, a bit surprisingly, somewhere between one-third and one-half full. Perhaps it's because New Yorkers are loathe to actually make the trek to the cavernous Javits Center, a space that's a good ten-minute trek from the nearest subway station and has an architecture that evokes some kind of evil-corporate headquarters out of a 1970s movie set in 2010.
And, truth be told, bringing Valley insiders to the stage was an odd choice for DigitalLife. The convention this year was even more overwhelmingly focused on mainstream hardware and home-theater than last year, with a seemingly bigger presence from big companies like Microsoft, Toshiba, HP, and Gateway. Start-ups like Ooma and SpinVox were practically eclipsed on the show floor, and consumer attendees seemed more interested in testing out new video games and HDTV displays than in contemplating the next big thing.
It was too bad, because the TechCrunch-sponsored panel had some very interesting things to say that undoubtedly would have made for a great dialogue had there been a more in-tune audience and a more generous time allotment. Arrington and the panelists seemed to be aware of the gulf between the average DigitalLife attendee and the tech-insider crowd that would already know the meaning of strange names like Ooma and Oovoo. As a result, a whole lot of time was spent explaining what exactly the panelists' start-ups are and why Arrington considered them "disruptors." When they started digging a little deeper and talking about what it really means to "disrupt" an industry, that's when it got noteworthy.
Let me make it clear: I'm sick of the term "disruptor." It's one of those perpetually overused cliches of Web 2.0 that I'd like to see put out of its misery--soon. (Runners-up: "ecosystem," "blogosphere," "enabler," and as other reporters have pointed out, Mark Zuckerberg's beloved "social graph.") It can also be inaccurate, in my opinion, because it implies that phenomena pop up suddenly and change the entire trajectory of an industry whereas I like to think that they arise out of long-term trends and are really evolutions, not mutations. (Overpriced CDs? A growing hacker community eager to swap files? Improved Internet connections making that file-swapping possible? Hello, Napster. Music industry, are you sure you didn't see it coming?)
But aside from all that nitpicking, the "Disruptors" panel featured some compelling inquiries that I wish could've been explored more. Arrington asked each panelist to name what they thought was the greatest disruptor of the past decade, and the answers were an interesting bunch. Schwartz answered ambuiguously. Frame and Townsend both said TiVo. Parker said that Frame's Ooma was "incredibly disruptive," and then admitted that he was on the telephony start-up's board of directors (as is TiVo CEO Mike Ramsey). Doulton's answer was the iPod.
Arrington disagreed. He thought the iPhone was more of a disruptor than the iPod. Doulton was more than willing to argue his point, and the panel showed some truly exciting back-and-forth energy, but in the interest of time, they had to move on.
iPod versus iPhone: which one is the real innovator? That's a debate I'd like to see continued. But with incidences of the word "disruptor" turned down, please. At the very least, a thesaurus could help.