The “Godfather of the Internet”, Ossi Urchs, spoke to us about the post-Facebook era, the end of Europe’s innovation-skeptic “citadel culture”, and why he believes that services like Foursquare are only just getting started.
Ossi Urchs: Ossi Urchs, Internet consultant since 1994, now with a focus on social media and mobile Internet.
OG: Recently you’ve blogged a few impressions of yourself as a young man, and it was apparent that your roots are in TV. How do you see the topic of TV these days?
OU: Fairly indifferently. When I discovered the web for myself in the early 90s, TV suddenly struck me as so old-school – a typical one-way medium – and I decided to focus my future work on the web, the new medium.
OG: Which web application, website or mobile app has influenced or changed your life the most in the past twelve months?
OU: That’s quite a question. Initially – before the web – it was e-mail. Then the web itself, then Google, Skype, Facebook, and the other “social” media on the web, especially YouTube. And that’s just the start. I’m convinced that the best is yet to come. If I take some time to think about it, I’m sure more examples will occur to me…
OG: And in the past twelve months? Was there a new Twitter? G+ is the Twitter/Facebook killer?
OU: I see G+ as one more step in the convergence of social media on the web with the social reality of everyday life. In a word: promising. But since it’s less a technological achievement than a change in communication culture, others can integrate such advances rapidly, and that goes a long way toward putting the advantage of G+ back into perspective.
OG: Don’t you think that Facebook’s changes tend to clutter the screen and irritate users? That’s how I see it, in any case.
OU: Not really. I love the new lists and the differentiated streams in which I’ve organized my “friends”. The design of user interface isn’t going to appeal to everyone (as with most American offerings). But that’s actually how it always goes: at first, users don’t like the new features at all, but everyone gets used to them quickly and no one says anything.
OG: How does a good idea differ from a true innovation?
OU: Its practical implementation and broad use.
OG: Can there be innovation without someone making money off of it? Or does one go hand-in-hand with the other?
OU: Unfortunately, it’s often the case that the real innovators earn the least from their work – at least in this country. The situation is quite different in the United States.
OG: Why is it that most internationally successful web and mobile applications currently come from the U.S. – and very few from Europe?
OU: Lol. Precisely because the United States has a culture of innovation, which is not surprising in a country with a history of pioneering. By contrast, innovation is mostly seen as a threat to the established order in the “Fortress Europe”.
OG: Schumpeter explained that innovation always destroys something – and Europe apparently has not gotten used to that. So Germany is hostile to innovation – that’s something I’ve been hearing frequently in the last few weeks. How can we overcome that?
OU: Schumpeter never really gained traction here with his idea of ”creative destruction”. And that has its reasons – those just mentioned, and some that go further. I think that the “citadel culture” in Europe and Germany in particular will, or must, change as globalization progresses. If not, globalization will descend upon us like a storm…
OG: How will the mobility of the future differ from ours today?
OU: Essentially, in the degree of virtualization. While our mobility today is still largely physical, we will be relying on digital communication to a much greater degree in future.
OG: Have you forecast any developments in the past that then occurred just the way you predicted them?
OU: I think so. Back in the 90s, I was already arguing that the Internet was going to change the entire way we live, work, learn, and entertain ourselves from the ground up. And I think that’s exactly what has happened.
OG: Would you care to predict what the net’s next big thing will be?
OU: The combination of social media and mobility. Not only is it going to once again fundamentally change the way we live and work, it will also lead to a kind of convergence of the physical and digital world that we can only begin to anticipate and understand.
OG: Are you thinking of a particular service? Foursquare hasn’t really taken off yet, nor has Latitude.
OU: That’s because like their customers, they themselves have not yet understood the actual underlying business model: the wealth of combinatorics that arise between information and sales, between online and offline business, if you like. But I’m quite confident: in the case of Google, it also took a few years before the business model it shaped was truly understood. And that was not only true for the customers, but above all to the makers themselves.
OG: The 50 startups that make it into the finals of the CODE_n Global Innovation Contest will have the opportunity to present their companies in the CODE_n hall at CeBIT 2012. What kind of idea or business model do you think will attract the greatest attention there?
OU: At the moment I see the best opportunities for concepts based on the three pillars of web communication, “SoMoLo” – in other words, mobilizing social communication and enriching it with local information.
OG: What advice would you give to startups to get noticed at CeBIT?
OU: Offer special food and beverages (as opposed to the horrible trade fair catering). Create a peaceful oasis. And if all else fails, throw a booth party. And to stay on-topic, have a hands-on version of your product at the booth that visitors can test.
OG: Can you even still remember what life was like without a phone and the Internet in our pockets? Has life become better? Simpler? Or more complicated?
OU: I can remember it very well, especially in situations in which I’m thrown back into that way of life – and I am capable of enjoying it. That’s assuming an end is in sight (when on vacation, for example). Overall, life has become more complex in this regard, and at the same time also more convenient.
OG: And finally, two personal questions: iOS or Android? Facebook or Google+? And why?
OU: IOS, because I’m a confirmed Mac user – but mainly because it just works effortlessly. Steve understood that. And as for FB and G+: I use both, generally for different purposes.
OG: Thanks for the interview
OU: My pleasure