Bill Gross is into Atoms

I was interested to get my latest copy of Business 2.0 magazine (apparently the final) and see an article about long-time internet entrepreneur Bill Gross’s new focus: “moneymaking opportunities in the physical world.” Erick Schonfeld, who did the interview with Bill, did a brief summary on TechCrunch a couple of weeks ago, entitled Bill Gross is Into Atoms.

This is an interesting validation of the idea I laid out years ago in my talk Watching the Alpha Geeks. (I still open virtually every talk I do with a compressed version of this thesis.) My premise is that many new industries begin with people having fun with technology. After a while, entrepreneurs figure out where the action is, and move in. Some hackers turn into entrepreneurs. Others just move on to a new frontier.

In the early 80s, the personal computer was the domain of people having fun at “the homebrew computer club.” In the late 80s, hackers were having fun with the internet, and it was starting to burst the seams of its academic and research straitjacket. By the early 90’s, it was the focus of intense entrepreneurial activity. In the early 90s, free and open source software was the rage among hackers. By the late 90’s, there was a rich commercial ecology. And so on. (Ditto skateboarding, snowboarding, kitesurfing…)

If you follow Make at all, you know that one of the hacker frontiers we’ve been following for the past four years is a new focus on the physical world, making things, infusing things with computing, bits not atoms. And we’ve been watching the evolution of the commercial marketplace that inevitably follows. That’s everything from how-to sites like Make and, “retailers” like Etsy and threadless to actual “make tanks” (think “think tank” but for making things) like Applied Minds and Squid Labs, to actual product startups like Chumby, Potenco, and Bug Labs. Bill Gross is right: this is the next big thing (or at least one of them.)

(Disclosure: O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is an investor in Chumby and Instructables.)