Photograph by Benjamin Tice Smith
Got a minute? Owen Thomas, the man behind Valleywag, predicts 2009's tech triumphs and flops—and has some advice for the sector's layoff victims.
Q: Valleywag used to be its own blog, but it was folded into Gawker in November. What's that transition been like?
A: Unexpectedly thrilling. I've had a varied career, including stints at Time and Wired, but for the most part I've reported or edited stories on business and technology. Taking on broader subjects, like the Blagojevich scandal and the Jett Travolta controversy, has been refreshing.
Q: Anything noteworthy to report from this week's Macworld Conference?
A: Nothing—which is sort of the story, right? If Apple had something amazing to announce, then Jobs would rise up onstage—even if he were on his deathbed, which he's obviously not. But Apple didn't have anything worthy of a Macworld keynote. I feel sorry for Phil Schiller, who had to go up onstage anyway.
Q: What websites do you see succeeding in 2009?
A: Perversely, Twitter. It appeals to people with time on their hands, so it will benefit from layoffs and underemployment. Sadly, that will not help it build a business. Those people hardly make for a valued demographic.
Q: What else do you see happening in the tech world this year?
A: Mobile advertising turns out to be a bust. Yes, people use their cell phones more and more, but you'll notice, they tend to do one task at a time, using limited screen real estate. Advertising, in that context, is hopelessly intrusive—there's no way to create a good experience for both the user and the advertiser. Apple has it right: Charge for the apps and take a cut rather than rely on advertising. I suspect we'll see a lot of mobile start-ups cut back or fold, blaming "the global economic downturn" instead of their own mistaken business plans.
Q: That's pretty bleak.
A: As harsh as the layoffs so far have been, most companies have not begun to cut. Facebook, for example, or MySpace: Why have they not laid people off? Google, so far, has resisted. But most Wall Street analysts think they could easily run that company with 25 percent as many people as they now have. Everyone's in a state of paralysis, believing they lack enough information to act. They've done budgets for 2009 but basically admitted they're faked-up works of the imagination. I think, really, the heaviest cuts will come in the middle of the year, when people see that there's not a quick recovery. The organizations that cut last will hack away flesh and bone, in the belief that things will get worse and worse. And be ill-positioned for the recovery, which, by the way, I think we won't really feel until 2011.
Q: Any advice for newly unemployed tech workers?
Don't despair, first of all. For a lot of people who graduated in this decade, this is their first real experience with a downturn. There are jobs—they just won't be handed to you. And if you're in a position to cover your living expenses and can scrape by, it's a great time to start something. A lot of the best companies around got their start in the ashes of the dot-com bust. Ryan Wenzel