Fri, Dec 01, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Discovering where Web evolution is taking us

After YouTube and MySpace, and as the Internet continues to change at a breathtaking pace, Silicon Valley is the place to meet the architects of the next Web explosion

By David Smith  /  THE OBSERVER , SILICON VALLEY, CALIFORNIA

The people spilling out of Ritual Coffee Roasters on to the San Francisco sidewalk scent more than coffee beans. Inside there are 20 and 30-somethings, most of them male, working intently at laptops and harnessing the power of the Internet. They are not merely logging on to look at MySpace or YouTube or "The Next Big Thing." They plan to be "The Next Big Thing."

It's boom time again in Silicon Valley and there is opportunity around every corner. Each month US$180 million is invested in technology companies aspiring to change the lives of every person on the planet.

A combination of youth, entrepreneurial spirit, technical insight, financial muscle and the American Dream, flavored with West Coast utopianism, has formed a perpetual motion machine that is driving the information age.

The brilliant brains of students and geeks, businessmen and scientists, angel investors and venture capitalists are feeding and thriving off each other, sparking the kind of electricity one imagines filled the air of northern England during the Industrial Revolution. A whole new world wide Web is on the horizon.

"If you like the idea of going to a coffee shop and everyone works in software and in the conversation next to you someone is starting a company, this is the place to be," said John Merrells, 37, who emigrated from Harrogate, England, and runs a mobile phone software company here.

"Everyone you bump into is potentially something. The physical concentration of people is phenomenal. Like in the City of London [the financial district] the continual rubbing up of people is how ideas come about," he said.

In the beginning you needed an office. Then a house would do. A mere garage was enough for Larry Page and Sergey Brin to start the company now synonymous with searching the Web.

Less than 10 years later, the original Google computer servers -- balanced on flimsy cork boards to prevent them melting down -- are an exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley.

Google's shares reached US$500 on Wall Street last week, giving the young firm a market value of around US$154 billion. Page and Brin each own shares worth more than US$15 billion. If you had invested US$100 in Google when it launched in 1998, you would now be sitting on an asset worth US$14 million.

Now all anyone needs to try to emulate the pair is a coffee shop offering wireless access to the Internet. Since opening last year, Ritual Coffee Roasters' plain wood tables and leather sofas have become a cradle of start-up companies, including Rubyred Labs. The firm aims to "turn ideas into top class Internet products and services."

"We would come here a lot with our laptops, because so many people come here," explained Jonathan Grubb, 27, one of its co-founders.

"The coffee shop has replaced the garage for Internet start-ups. To rent a garage in San Francisco costs at least US$100 a month, which people can't afford. It's also a social thing -- people make business deals because they're sitting next to someone and start talking," he said. "In our case the three of us put in US$5,000, but some companies can be set up for a few hundred dollars. The technology now makes it easier than ever."

The Internet has famously empowered bloggers, citizen journalists and film-makers, and here in the valley it dangles the carrot of becoming your own boss before your 30th birthday.

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