A couple years ago I was intrigued by this topic. How do I create the next big app? I read many books and discussed many theories with friends on the same quest, they were also searching for the universal secret to a successful app. There is always that feeling that the powers that be have theses secrets hidden somewhere just out of reach.
I found that to gaurantee the level of success facebook has, you will need to be able to do two things: First you need to know how to create engaging software (That’s the easy part). The second and much harder part would be, you have to be able to predict the future... That sounds pretty straight forward, but it isn't. Not only do you need to see the future to consistently create the next big app, you also need to continue to see the future to keep it at the top.
I once took an Ethics class at RIT. It was basically a philosophy class where we discussed non-religious frameworks various philosophers came up with to test if an action was inherently good or bad. My favorite was the Kant rule of universalization. To test if any action is good or bad using this rule, you need to ask, "What will happen if EVERYONE in the world did that action?". So for example, to test if hugging is a good thing; we would ask, "What will happen if everyone in the world hugged everyone else". As you would imagine, everyone would show love to everyone else and the world would be a better place.. Viola!!! Hugging is an inherently good action and if you do the same test for lets say lying, you would see that we would lie to everyone and no one will trust anyone and the world will be in chaos.
So what does this have to do with the future?
It got me thinking, If I was gonna make a framework for predicting the future what would it look like? The mistake a lot of us make when trying to predict the future is that we make an assumption that everything else in the world will remain stagnant and even if we don't make that assumption it is hard to foresee how exactly technology will continually affect the world around us and how the world would affect that technology back. For example look at the Car, we humans invented the Car in the 1800s, because of cars, roads are now a common fixture in cities. Because many people now own cars, we have now made rules and created technology (Traffic lights) to help us safely drive on the roads. We also created jobs (traffic police) to enforce these laws and when we build a house now we have to build a house/space for our cars too and from time to time we have to feed our cars and take them to the car doctor to make sure they are running right. That leads to a philosophical question of do we own our stuff or do they own us?... but I digress!
It is easy to see that this one invention has spawned millions of jobs and multiple industries just to support it, but back in the 1800s this would be a hard future to see if you are not always looking to the future. If you could understand this ripple effect back then you would have your picking about how you wanted to become a billionaire. You can see business' sprouting on the backs of social media now but we are only 10 years in so there is still room for growth.
So my theory is, when you have an idea for an app ask yourself what is the second-order effect of this app? What will happen if this app is successful? How will it affect the world and how will the world affect the app back? and if you keep seeing good results from this thought experiment, then you might be on to that billion dollar idea, thinking that you are gonna get an idea, get investment and build it, make a billion dollars and then you live happily ever after would be naive. The billion-dollar idea will continue to evolve after it is implemented and anticipating how you should evolve, saves you the anxiety of racing with the competition and instead puts you on the path of leading change in the world. Netflix is a good example of a company that always seems to be evolving just before it needs to.
"The best way to predict the future is to invent it." - Alan Kay
But if you are not the deep strategy, chess grandmaster kind of person, another way is to just invent the future. Have a well-vetted idea that you think would really change the world and shove it down people's throat. 15 years ago I was very happy with my Sony Discman and Cassette players. I did not ask for an iPod. The iPod was cool and all but Apple were the ones that convinced us it was worth looking at it. They paid for product placements, paid for a LOT of adverts, they even made a whole music store where they convinced record labels to sell music differently so we would have somewhere to easily find mp3 files. Apple invented that future by brute force.
"If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse" - Henry Ford
The summary of all of this, is you can make money as a developer in many different ways that involve you focusing on the present and solving what is in front of you and your clients. But if you are in the business of changing the status quo, creating that new facebook, you have to be perpetually looking into the future and how the future would affect that future to spot the next opportunity or work your ass off to invent it. Basically be proactive and not reactive. The ideas will be very bold and most of the time you will probably look mad to other people but that is a good thing. Logical and easily comprehensible ideas can make a decent amount of money but they don't change much.