At TechCrunch50, sexy yields to sensible

There weren't a lot of companies launching at the annual conference that promised something never-before-seen new. But this should be taken as a sign of industry maturation, not a dearth of ideas.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
4 min read
Outside the TechCrunch 50 conference in San Francisco earlier this week. Josh Lowensohn / CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--At some point during the TechCrunch50 conference it became evident that the Web 2.0 floodgates are no longer open.

Maybe it was when conference co-organizer Jason Calacanis asked one of the panels of judges what they'd thought of a round of pitches from just-launched social-networking start-ups like inbox aggregator Threadsy and photo-sharing iPhone app Clixtr. Sean Parker, the Napster co-founder and former Facebook exec who will be portrayed as a "Silicon Valley bad boy" in the film adaptation of Ben Mezrich's dot-com scandal tome "The Accidental Billionaires," leaned his elbows on the onstage table, slouched, and declared, "I'm a little bit bored with social media."

Maybe it was when the TechCrunch50 conference winners were finally announced and the grand prize went not to a slick and shiny app filled with Ajax interfaces and social-media mashups, but to RedBeacon, a mundane-looking local services start-up that aims to offer an alternative to Craigslist and the Yellow Pages if you're looking for somebody to paint your house or cater a party.

Or maybe it was when several Facebook execs took the stage to announce, among other things, that the social network--the subject of perpetual hand-wringing over how it would possibly make money--achieved a cash-flow positive status for the first time in the second quarter of this year, earlier than its 2010 goal.

Web 2.0 has grown up, after three years of investment, start-ups, and media hype, and it couldn't have been more evident at TechCrunch50, a two-day parade of start-up launches that sometimes feels less like a conference and more like a fraternity reunion. By this point just about everybody knows just about everybody else; the launch demos were just as likely to come from established industry players as from hopeful young newcomers.

Not so long ago, the Web start-up landscape was dotted with dozens of small companies with a legitimate shot at getting huge. As recently as last year, it wouldn't have been entirely ludicrous for an ambitious entrepreneur to take the stage at TechCrunch50 and announce that he or she was hoping to build a new start-up into the next Facebook. But the big guys have gotten bigger, and everything in comparison appears to be niche, peripheral tools.

Innovation on the Web these days comes in the form of fine-tuned features and tweaks, not big and lofty new schemes. TechCrunch50's lineup showed that while there are very promising ideas out there, the new stuff is about improving existing concepts, not creating something off-the-wall new. ToyBots, a new Web-connected toy company, takes the kiddie Webkinz craze from a few years ago and infuses it with the thinking behind "hackable" household gadget Chumby. Winner RedBeacon, as well as used-car marketplace Mota and job-hunt site LocalBacon, all pitched themselves as better options than traversing the Craigslist jungle. iMo and Spawn Player are both add-ons for gamers, the former an iPhone controller app and the latter a Slingbox-like place-shifter.

And when something popped up at TechCrunch50 that was pretty darn original, it was met with some restraint. There was plenty of excitement over AnyClip, a new database site that indexes and deep-tags short clips from movies, but the judges rightfully expressed concerns over the difficulty of wrangling with copyrights and content owners.

It's a far cry from the days when, even in the post-Napster era, millions of dollars were pumped into music- and video-sharing start-ups that weren't prepared to deal with the intricacies of big media. And likewise, VC dollars were once flooding into start-ups that hoped to be the biggest social network in the world. The economy put a damper on this, for sure, but so did the increasing dominance of the likes of Google, Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter and Digg. The big news in venture capital on the Web these days is Twitter's alleged billion-dollar valuation and Facebook's employee stock trading, not in a huge rush of investors heading for the next big thing on the Web--which is exciting nonetheless, because it wasn't all that long ago that these companies were just as small as those presenting onstage at TechCrunch50.

For now, if we want genuine, holy-crap excitement in the tech industry, perhaps we should be looking at hardware, green tech, edgy mobile innovations like augmented reality, or perhaps even enterprise technology. TechCrunch50 seemed to have the right idea by devoting a category of pitches to new hardware companies--but the judges, whose backgrounds were in Web and software investments, admitted that this wasn't their area of expertise.

There were blunt words for some of the companies at TechCrunch50, especially community-based sites that require a critical mass of users to stay afloat; judges seemed skeptical that the social-media fever of the past few years can still pack enough of a punch. "Why would I leave Twitter for this?" asked Robert Scoble of one start-up--the same Robert Scoble who, in fact, did more or less leave Twitter for FriendFeed, which had impressive technology but little mainstream appeal when Facebook purchased it this summer.

The next big game-changer in social media might be out there already, and we haven't even seen it coming yet. But watching more than four dozen start-up pitches in a row made it pretty clear that most of the biggest splashes of Web 2.0 have come and gone: we simply don't need another news aggregator, another discovery engine, another question-and-answer service, another blogging platform, or heaven forbid, another social network. This is good. It's a sign of industry maturation.

And it's certainly not a bad thing that Silicon Valley's elite finally seem to be catching on to that.