Is there a Moore's Law of the Blogosphere?
The reason for asking that question is the announcement this week by blog tracker Technorati (a great site, by the way, for continuously following the state of the Zeitgeist), in its annual State of the Blogosphere report that the number of blogs in the world has jumped from 7.5 million in March to 14.2 million today.
In other words, in appears the blogosphere is doubling in size every five months. Or even more staggering -- a new blog is being created out there somewhere every second.
Whenever you hear the word "doubling" related to anything high tech, the first thing that comes to mind is the Law of Laws in the digital world: Moore's Law of Semiconductors. I probably don't have to remind you of what it says: the performance of semiconductor devices doubles every two years.
Gordon Moore, one of the pioneers of Silicon Valley and a co-founder of both Fairchild and Intel, came up with this "law" in the mid-1960s while preparing for an industry speech. Basically, he tracked the capacity of all of his company's memory chips up until that date … and discovered, to his astonishment, that they made a straight line on a sheet of log paper. He then took a chance and predicted that this trajectory might be maintained for a few more years.
I saw Gordon make a follow-up presentation in the late 1970s. He was still amazed: the chart now included logic chips, memory chips and even microprocessors -- and yet the semiconductor world was still clicking along at this mind-boggling pace, doubling performance every 18-24 months. And it worked along multiple axes: hold performance constant, and chip prices halved every couple years. Hold those two variables steady and chips got smaller at the same rate.
By this point Moore would only say that he could no longer predict how long his "law" might last, but surely it would have to eventually crash into some unbreachable wall: fabrication cost (price) or quantum physics (miniaturization) or mathematics (perpetual doubling, like the proverbial grains of rice on a chessboard, would eventually approach infinity).
Yet, when I last talked with Gordon a couple years ago about the law, which has now made his name immortal, he could only chuckle in disbelief that not only was it still at work, but showed no sign of slowing down. The Semiconductor Industry Association, which he advises and which prepares the biannual Industry Roadmap, now sees no serious obstacles to Moore's Law until at least 2015, and perhaps well into the middle of the century. By then, $50 microprocessor chips will have greater processing power than the human brain, and home PCs will be as powerful as today's biggest supercomputers.
As has been rightly noted, Moore's Law isn't really a law, but a contract between the semiconductor industry and mankind to continuously drive chip technology forward at the greatest possible pace. In that respect, it has become largely self-fulfilling: the world now expects a certain rate of change, and the semiconductor industry struggles mightily, generation after generation to reach that goal.
But there is also something mystical about Moore's Law: It is the metronome of modern life. If you had sat down in 1965 and tried to predict the future, no metric you could have used -- demography, migration patterns, politics, philosophy, sociology, fads and fashions, even scientific research -- would have been as useful as Moore's Law. That's why most of the predictions were so wrong: no atomic powered cars and personal helicopters, but cell phones, PCs and the Internet -- transformative technologies we could never have anticipated.
Just as mystical is the power of Moore's Law as a performance standard. Andy Grove once said that the ultimate goal of the electronics revolution was to convert every part of human life, where possible, from analog to digital. By that he meant that whenever you could find something that could be managed by digital systems -- not an automobile but an engine computer, not a doctor but patient diagnostic and monitoring equipment, not a chromosome but gene mapping -- it was like strapping that industry to a comet. Almost overnight the rate of change literally became exponential, improvements asymptotic, and miracles began to occur.
For the last 30 years we have watched as Moore's Law has touched one industry or profession after another, supercharging each in turn. It began, of course, with semiconductors, being the purest manifestation of the law. But it quickly jumped to video games, personal computers, analytical devices, medicine, the military, automotive, aerospace, telecommunications, consumer devices and, most recently, biotech.
Look at any field of human endeavor, and if it has been touched by Moore's Law, it has undergone a revolution in the last few decades -- and the degree to which it has been transformed is likely in direct proportion to how much of that endeavor can be digitized. For example, just consider what happened to the telephone industry when it went digital, or to genetic research with the arrival of bioinformatics. I remember the electricity that shot through an industry conference a few years ago when a speaker put up the familiar curved chart and announced that the biotech industry had now jumped aboard Moore's Law.
Frankly, looking back over a quarter century as a technology journalist, I can say without a second thought that I have basically had just two jobs: reporting on the biannual performance jumps of industries within the domain of Moore's Law and identifying those industries that are about to join its regime. Meanwhile, what is the story of every great venture capitalist or entrepreneur -- and every great new fortune -- of the last three decades: spotting industries about to emerge from, or be governed by, Moore's Law. That's where growth is always the fastest, competition the fiercest, and the pay-offs the greatest.
That's why we in the tech industry have become very attuned to the doubling curve. Whenever and wherever it pops up, we pay a lot of attention. And now, here it is, not surprisingly, characterizing the blogosphere. After all, the world of blogs has gotten a lot of early-PC and early dot.com attention over the last year, becoming one of those hot terms that everyone is using, and the tech playground towards which all of the usual early adapters have raced. It has also had some big early victories (pulling down Dan Rather, stealing readers from newspapers and television, setting much of the debate in the last presidential election), and it is beginning to show some of the early signs of consolidation (TechCentral Station, Pajama Media), the creation of larger and better-funded enterprises (Dan Gillmor's Bayosphere), industry organizations and conferences, and a growing support infrastructure (from search engines like Technorati, to free blogging services from the likes of AOL and MSN).
Advertisers are finally drifting over from old media. And venture capitalists may actually finally be awakening to the investment opportunities presented by the blogosphere. The first generation of industry superstars (like Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan and James Lileks) have already emerged. And you can be certain that obsessive blog-surfing will soon be announced as the next great threat to productivity and family life.
Just as importantly, blogging has become an international phenomenon, with many of the new arrivals in the field coming from outside the United States and Europe. The technology is also beginning to morph, becoming more visual and, thanks to new toolkits, easier to join. But perhaps most important, the blogosphere is becoming the defining source of news analysis (and even the news itself) for the world's intellectual classes.
All of this suggests that the blogosphere is, like those other industries and professions under the regime of Moore's Law, ripe for investment, for miracles and for the creation of great fortunes. When? There's the real question. The PC industry ran for a long time under Moore's Law before it finally found its destiny with the Apple II. Until then, a lot of very smart people devoted a lot of their lives and imaginations to personal computing with little in the bank to show for it.
And don't let the pace fool you. The blogosphere may appear to be growing at four times the speed of Moore's Law. But that is probably an illusion -- the Law is to tech kind of like the speed of light is to the Theory of Relativity: the upper boundary. As Technorati also noted in its report, only 13 percent of all blogs are updated more than once per week, and 45 percent of all bloggers bail out within three months -- suggesting that, in reality, the true blogosphere is tracking along at about the predicted Moore pace.
No, the real explosion is just ahead. Mix 14 million new entrepreneurial start-ups with Moore's Law and something magnificent is going to happen. And soon.
I'll even tell you where to look for that miracle: it is never enough to simply say "Moore's Law" -- you have to find the unique variant of its doubling rule for your own industry (i.e., Metcalfe's Law of networks). Find that law and you will hold the key to the future of the blogosphere.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michael S. Malone, once called "the Boswell of Silicon Valley" most recently was editor at large of Forbes ASAP magazine. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 20 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury-News as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He has hosted two national PBS shows: "Malone," a half-hour interview program that ran for nine years, and in 2001, a 16-part interview series called "Betting It All: The Entrepreneurs." Malone is best known as the author of a dozen books. His latest book, a collection of his best newspaper and magazine writings, is called "The Valley of Heart's Delight."