Tech products and services as rooms of a house

I moved to New York about 2 months ago, and I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about the tech and software industry here to orient myself. Part of that process has been reading the book Tech and the City, which I found about about through Fred Wilson’s AVC blog. The book quotes entrepreneur Chris Dixon, who compared development of the Internet industry to construction of a house:

“Imagine the Internet as a house. The first phase — laying the foundation, the bricks —happened in the ‘90s. No wonder that Boston and California, heavy tech places with MIT and Stanford, dominated the scene at that time. The house has been built, now it’s more about interior design. Many interesting, recent companies haven’t been started by technologists but by design and product-oriented people, which has helped New York a lot. New York City has always been a consumer media kind of city, and the Internet is in need of those kinds of skills now. I’d put Facebook in that category. Everything requires engineers, but unlike Google, their breakthrough was not as scientific. It was a well-designed product that people liked to use. Google had a significant scientific breakthrough with their search algorithm. That’s not what drives Facebook.”

I thought to extend the house metaphor further by brainstorming what types of consumer products and services on the Internet correspond to different rooms in a house. The belongings you keep in a house and the activities you perform in a house carry a certain amount of importance in your life, since you choose to keep them within reach. So what apps on the Internet are important to people in the context of the functions of their home, and how do they break down into rooms?

The Living Room: Among other things, this is where people prefer to consume entertainment and media. On the Internet, Apple and Amazon dominate this space with a presence in every media vertical, and Google/YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, Pandora, and others are also big players. Lots of big companies are here, there’s lots of money to be made, and there’s both cooperation with and disruption of big media, like Hollywood, cable companies, and record labels.

The Telephone: This is what people use to contact friends and businesses. Social media, like Facebook, is the Internet equivalent for calling friends. Google, Yelp, and other business searches offer the online equivalent of the Yellow Pages. What’s interesting about this category is how Facebook is beginning to compete in business listings while Google is increasingly focusing on social media.

The Mantel: This is where families curate photos and memories that are meaningful to them. A variety of Internet services (Facebook, Picasa/G+, Apple, Dropbox, Path) all offer options for private photo-sharing; Facebook and Path in particular emphasize the ability to store a digital record of your life and look back at memories. While the telephone and mantel perform separate functions in a house, online these categories have a lot of overlap in social media.

The Kitchen/Dining Room: It’s difficult to say what types of apps correspond to a kitchen, since no digital app can completely substitute for a “kitchen” experience: humans still need to eat physical food. This is a much younger and less developed space than the living room and telephone. Online services offer easier access to food, ranging from groceries (FreshDirect, Instacart) to prepared food and restaurants (Seamless, OpenTable). If there is a food industry trend steering consumers away from home cooking and towards foodservice, the Internet will certainly have played a part, but I’m not sure such a trend is inevitable, given how much cultural value is placed on home cooking. Besides foodservice apps, nutrition-related apps are starting to take off: logging what food you eat and determining the nutritional content of food is becoming easier and more appealing over time. I hope to see these types of app flourish, because at scale they could make a huge difference in public health.

The Bedroom: Depending on how you interpret this, this could correspond to private journaling apps, smart sleep tracking devices, or dating apps, but relative to other rooms there’s no cohesive theme or trend worth elaborating on.

The Garage: This is where you tinker with home improvement projects and DIY crafts. Even with the general shift of computing behavior towards mobile, most of the apps that come to mind in this category are desktop-based: command-line tools, programming environments, photo-processing tools, and music or video production tools. This is probably no coincidence: for involved hobbies and crafts, the benefits of having specialized tools in a dedicated working space outweigh the benefits of portability that come with a mobile app.

The File Cabinet: This is where you organize and store all your important records. There are some apps that fall into this category, such as note-taking apps like Evernote and personal finance apps like Mint and Simple; also general-purpose tools like desktop filesystems and email services can play this role. As far as I know, there aren’t yet any widely adopted cloud-based apps that perform the broad functions of a file cabinet, that is, storing everything from bills to contracts to medical records and automating the collection, organization, and storage of this data. Such an app would be an incredibly challenging endeavor, given all the privacy and security implications. But it’s also lucrative: paying bills and keeping track of important records are one of the nuisances of modern adulthood, so an app that does this elegantly could make a huge difference in people’s lives.