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5 Minutes on The Verge: Robert Scoble

5 Minutes on The Verge: Robert Scoble


Robert Scoble joins 5 Minutes on The Verge to discuss his phone choices, meeting Steve Wozniak in the '80s, and his most-used apps.

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robert scoble
robert scoble

Anyone who's waded into the world of startups, Facebook, and Twitter has probably stumbled on tech evangelist and Rackspace employee Robert Scoble. With enough dedication that he's inspired the term "milliscoble," Scoble enthusiastically tries out and writes about nearly every new service, and has gathered hundreds of thousands of followers across Google+, Twitter, Facebook, and his blog Scobleizer.

He spared a few moments of his time to answer some of our pressing questions on apps, technology, his daily computing setup and much more. The exchange below is probably a bit longer than five minutes, but Robert Scoble's got a lot to say.

Mac or PC (and all-time favorite computer, make and model)?

I'm now 100% Mac. Well, except for the copy of Windows 7 I keep loaded in Parallels. But I haven't used that in months.

My favorite computer of all time? The Apple II that got me started, of course. The Mac IIcx of 1989 was pretty nice, though, and is still notable today (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and I still talk about it). Why? It was so easy to get inside and so nicely designed. But the iMac that I just bought is by far the nicest computer I've ever owned. I feel very blessed every time I use it. My favorite PC model? The NEC Tablet that I sold to Vic Gundotra. That got me a job at Microsoft and showed me a tablet world that would evolve (we all know it as iPad today).

What's your primary phone?

iPhone. I usually have an Android and a Windows Phone 7 device too, but they haven't grabbed me yet.

You're well-known throughout the tech industry. How did Robert Scoble become the Robert Scoble we know today?

People ask me that a lot. The thing behind the question is usually they want to do the same thing. That's pretty hard, because I've been doing online media since 1985. So, I usually break that up into two questions. 1. How did I do it. 2. How should you do it.

Let's take the "how should you do it" first. If I were starting out today I'd find a niche and OWN that niche. One thing that's just getting hot is node.js. So, cover that industry like no one else can. Verge, TechCrunch, and everyone is mostly ignoring that now. So, it's a niche that doesn't have an owner. There's lots happening there. I keep seeing new apps developed with node.js. Even at Rackspace we have lots of engineers using it. So there's a story and, even, an industry building up here.

But pick a niche that you really are passionate about. Why? Because if you want to really build a media empire you gotta keep feeding the beast, even at 2 a.m. after you get home from a party and want to get some sleep. If you love what you are doing, that won't be a chore. But if you are covering something just because you were told to, then that 2 a.m. blog post is gonna be a lot tougher. The folks I've seen really succeed in this business LIVE what they are covering and do it nearly every working hour.

Now, how did I do it? Well, I got lucky because my dad moved us to Silicon Valley before it really was known worldwide as an important tech hub. I watched the valley grow up and visited Apple Computer back in 1977 when it was one small building (I lived a mile or two away). Then in the 1980s I worked at various retail stores and built relationships with a few of Silicon Valley's movers and shakers and, when I decided to go back to college, I soon met Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, at West Valley Community College in 1989. That really got me to focus on tech, since I saw that the world of journalism was shifting even back then due to the Mac.

I could keep going, but in the 1990s I got a job at a small computer programming magazine (partly because I wasn't good enough to get a "real" journalism job at a newspaper) and that was a very lucky stroke. That magazine grew from a handful of employees to about 200, and covered the rise of Microsoft in its heyday. That let me to do a bunch of things, including starting a blog in 2000, which got me to work for Dave Winer (who was a key player in the online publishing world) and eventually led to a job at Microsoft. All the time I was building online and offline communities of geeks and learning how the industry worked and fit together.

Today I'm blessed with the ability to see new technology, whether from big companies like Microsoft and IBM, to startups you've never heard of. At Rackspace I'm building a media house which will celebrate small teams who are having world-wide impacts through their building or use of new technology.

What are your top five most-used apps, any platform?

In terms of time spent? Google Chrome. Salesforce Chatter. Twitter. All on desktop. On my iPhone. Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and Flipboard.

But the really interesting apps are in the next group. Instagram, Waze, Foodspotting.

Is the new Twitter redesign (notably the mobile apps) a misstep?

The problem is Twitter is designing the metaphorical equivalent of a Toyota Prius. A car for the masses. While I want a Formula One race car. So, if I answer for myself, it's a misstep because it didn't improve my life. On the other hand they've doubled the number of tweets in less than a year, so they are doing something right. If I were Jack Dorsey I'd probably change Twitter to serve the new user too. It's a tough spot to be in for a product designer. That said, I hear they are working on some things I'll like more for 2012, so we'll see.

What was your favorite album from 2011?

I have weird musical tastes. The album I most listened to is Neil Young's Le Noise, which came out late in 2010. But if you are stalking me on Spotify (which you can, since I push everything I listen to onto my Facebook page at you'll notice I've been mostly listening to Skrillex lately. I found that at the Austin City Limits music festival which I attended this year. My wife hates Skrillex, though, so you might hate it too. That's cool.

When did everything click for you? Were you tweeting while livestreaming an interview with someone on an N95? Deeply involved in a Quora conversation?

Actually, I remember being at San Jose State University and helping setup new Macs and thinking I was very fortunate to see a paradigm shift up close (we were moving from mini-computer-based publishing to Mac-based desktop publishing). I knew my career would always be interesting, but I had no idea just how interesting it would get. Nearly every day I pinch myself that I get to see new stuff first.

What keeps you focused?

Who said I was focused? I'm probably the most unfocused person you'll find. But I did pick an interesting life goal: have an interesting conversation every day and record it. I've been able to mostly keep up with that for many years now. That keeps me focused, because I need to make sure I arrange an interesting conversation for tomorrow.

What got you hooked on technology? Was there a specific moment?

At Hyde Jr. High in 1977 I was one of I think three kids who helped a teacher unbox the first Apple II they bought. I was hooked then. But that's how memory works. My dad was an engineer so I probably was really hooked when he brought home some computer punch cards or a circuit board that was getting thrown away and really got hooked then.

During the past five years, what companies that showed huge initial promise simply failed to deliver?

MySpace kind of promise? Sure. There were plenty that I thought had a chance to go all the way. Gowalla. FriendFeed. Etc. I recently asked Paul Buchheit, the cofounder of FriendFeed (they sold to Facebook) whether he was sad that they didn't try to go all the way. He said he wasn't, because it was really tough to succeed when two big giants (Google and Facebook) were about to fight it out.

What underrated app or service is simply doing it right?

I don't look at it that way. I just see things as doubling pennies. See, if you double a penny every day for a month you'll end up with $5.5 million in your pocket after a month. So, I just see things as "are they doubling?" Waze, for instance, hasn't been discovered by most people. It has somewhere around 10 million users. But I use it every day on my driving around Silicon Valley. So, is it underrated or just undiscovered? I'd say that's one example of something that's going to really do well in 2012.

What can turn you off to a new service or app instantaneously?

If it spams everyone on my behalf. I hate apps that do that.

Give us a ballpark number: how many sites and services have you signed up for?

I don't know. But I deleted more than 300 apps from my iPhone in 2011 and I still have 300 left, so that gives you a ballpark number. Of course that doesn't count websites or web apps I've visited.

What was the last book you read?

I read two at the same time. The Steve Jobs' bio and Eric Ries' "Lean Startup."

Who is the next Zuckerberg?

I don't like that question. Better question is "who is the next entrepreneur who will change the world?" I don't know. How about Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber? Or Victoria Ransom, co-founder of Wildfire Interactive?

I don't like the question because no one will ever be better at being Zuckerberg than Zuckerberg. I, instead, look for people who are trying to improve the world. Why not go with Scott Harrison, founder of Charity: Water.

What's your daily setup look like? How many monitors? Multiple TweetDeck screens?

I have a brand new iMac (top of the line, cost $4,000). Around it I have two 24-inch Thunderbolt monitors. Cost about $1,000 each. Over it I have a 65-inch Vizio TV (they loaned that to me for my studio as a promotional thing). On my desk is a Toshiba Android-based Tablet (at the moment, my Samsung died and I need to send it in and get it fixed) and an iPad. Over to my left is a MacBook Air and a Google Chromebook.

On my screens I keep Twitter, Salesforce Chatter, Google+, Facebook, Quora, and Gmail up all the time. Most of the time Spotify and Skype are running in background.

Where do you see Facebook/Google/Twitter in five years?

That's too long. Anyone who says they know what will happen in five years is lying. Twitter didn't really exist five years ago and even five years ago, when Twitter was just getting started, none of its founders really understood that within five years 250 million tweets would be done every single day.

But, there are some bigger trends that you can sort of use to get a fuzzy look at the future. Smartphones will be adopted by the developing world by then. Heck, look at Yammer. It tripled in size this year. If that kind of growth keeps up in five years it'll be 48x the size it is today. Twitter doubled this year. So it'll be 32x the size it is today. Now I doubt that the big companies will continue that kind of growth, but we'll see new startups come out of nowhere to do mind-blowing stuff. I saw a new startup get born recently at a San Francisco party and watched as it doubled its numbers through the party (they asked me to keep it quiet because they aren't ready to launch). Last time I saw something do that it was Instagram.

What's your favorite movie?

I'm not a big movie guy, but the 1977 'Star Wars' made the biggest dent on the movie industry, so I'll go with that.

What's the next big wave in social networking? Not just the next Twitter, but what will define the next ten years?

If I knew I'd start a company!

One post on Mark Zuckerberg's timeline says he can't wait until he can sync up his Jawbone Up to his timeline on Facebook. That certainly is something to watch. That we'll be wearing a variety of sensors that will let us study everything about ourselves. Already I'm seeing tons of data coming off of things like this. Runkeeper, for instance, tells me how my friend Loic Le Meur is doing in the New York Marathon.

Another thing I'm watching is the development of the Internet of things. Twine is a good example of this. Over the next few years I'd expect to see a ton of these kinds of devices that will report to us all sorts of things.

Every company today probably has a few dozen streams. In five years? That will be thousands of streams. Almost makes me want to learn node.js and start a company that will monitor, fuse, filter these streams. Look at a new app called "teleportd" that shows you live photos from certain locations or times. All done in node.js. Or look at StreamBoard. I've been using this to watch certain keywords on Twitter on my iPad and iPhone in real time. Folks who can see patterns in large databases, like Loggly, or build systems that can see patterns in real time infrastructure, like New Relic, will do very well in the next few years.

Translation: learn node.js and build the future. I can't wait to see it!