Walt Mossberg provides very public technology advice to lieutenants and captains of industry through his columns in the Wall Street Journal. Mark Anderson provides more personal advice and insight to high-tech investors and CEOs through his highly regarded Strategic News Service. Both are keen observers of technology, with Mossberg stronger on its practical implementation today, and Anderson better at predicting technologys future five, 10 or 20 years down the road. Mossbergs also more of an American expert—while Anderson takes a much more global view.
And each runs an extremely popular and exclusive executive conference, both drawing the worlds top CEOs, venture capitalists and high-tech investors.
Id never been to either: Mossbergs 3-year-old D: conference is invitation-only, while various conflicts have kept me from Andersons Future in Review (FiRE). I vowed this year to try to attend both—by buttering up Mossberg for the former and blocking out a week in late May for the latter.
I was overjoyed when Mossbergs invite arrived—and then crestfallen. Both D: and FiRE were scheduled for the same week. But a closer look revealed a loophole. The two overlapped by a single day, and both take place in the San Diego area—albeit a half hour apart.
So I vowed to attend and cover both for eWEEK.com. Monday at D: was confirmed, as was Wednesday and Thursday morning at FiRE. But what about Tuesday? Should I listen to Barry Diller and Paul Ottelini at D:? The Future WiMax at FiRE? I still havent decided. But Monday, at D: was a full and interesting day, with some revelations and some retreads too. Heres a look at what was announced, and who said what.
Bill Gates: Bill Gates started the day—well, in fact, one of the semi-legendary Microsoft humor videos started the day. This one featured Napoleon Dynamite star Jon Heder with Gates, in a video piece called “The World of Work.” It was terrible—but the outtakes during the credits were hilarious.
Gates came on and discussed security, Longhorn and Linux without any major revelations. In fact, the only mildly new thing he rolled out was a demonstration of satellite imagery built into MSN that will launch later this year. The angled photo-view was particularly compelling.
to read more about MSNs “Virtual Earth” mapping service.
Gates was followed by Sirius Satellite Radio CEO Mel Karmazin, who likened his experience at the radio startup to the early days of Infinity Radio—”the most exciting time of my career.” His talk was mostly revelation-free, except when he discussed Sirius future. Later this year will see the introduction of a number of new Sirius radios. He enticed the audience with a description of the “cool products coming out that youll be able to pause and replay” audio content, as well as a portable similar to XMs MyFi.
As announced at CES, Sirius plans on beaming video, along with audio, to cars sometime next year. Karmazin also discussed an upcoming real-time traffic service, which will interoperate with GPS-based navigation devices to layer traffic bottlenecks on top of maps and routes.
Although he gave XM the technology lead today, Karmazin promised that “I dont think anyone will have an advantage [in technology] in two years.”
Next, Jeff Hawkins—a co-founder of Palm—gave an update on Numenta, and to show off his new “Hierarchical Temporal Memory” technology. Designed to mimic how the brain works, HTM, Hawkins promised, will reinvigorate the moribund world of artificial intelligence and solve the seemingly intractable problems of vision recognition and robotic movement.
The demonstration, although crude, was compelling. The algorithms successfully matched twisted versions of simple patterns to their representational analog, for example, matching the letter B to a drawing that resembled two circles connected by a line.
Whats it good for? According to Hawkins, “Finding causes in sensory data, predicting the future and generating behavior.” Or more specifically, “Vision, robotics and understanding languages.” He sees HTM enabling self-driving cars, predicting the weather and improving the ability to find natural resources by analyzing geographic data. “We can build super-intelligent machines that are better than humans in mathematics, physics, and more,” he said.
How long will it take? “No one really knows,” Hawkins apologized. “It will take us about a year to build our first developer tools, but it could take two years. Well have our first developer conference next spring or summer.” As for products, “two years, maybe longer.” For more information check out the Numenta Web site or Hawkins book site, www.onintelligence.org.
After lunch, a feisty and combative Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun, took the stage. He had harsh words for IBM at the top, saying, “IBM is everyones nightmare, its mankind vs. global services,” and that IBMs On Demand service basically means “Well bring as many global services folks in on demand for as long as you want,” along with the outrageous fees those consultants charge. Dell came under fire too, for offering widgets, not solutions. “A Dell server is to delivering services to your clientele as a piston ring is to delivering transportation.” McNealy continued the car metaphors as he savaged HP, saying, “HP has to go out and buy all the pieces [to build a corporate data system]. At some point a car company that has to buy all the pieces becomes a car dealer.”
CIOs similarly came under fire: “Every CIO that couldnt get a job at a computer company went out to a company with a budget and built their own grid.”
McNealys main point focused on the shared grid systems his company is building, using tens and hundreds of thousands of Opteron servers. The grids are for computation, storage and display—all for about a dollar a person a day.
McNealy described his grids as full of the latest and fastest hardware. “Our average depreciation cycle, or the average age of our utility grid, we plan on making it three months. Were going to treat our grid as WIP, work-in-process. Well burn it in for six months and then sell it to someone who wants to depreciate it for three years.” He went on to describe how these grids will be practically free to Sun. “Im going to get AMD and Seagate and Samsung to lend me the equipment, so my cost of capital is very low,” McNealy said.
Looking for a new robot? iRobots CEO Colin Angle used the conference as a way to launch the next personal robot in the Roomba line, called Scooba. Roomba vacuums. Scooba mops. Enough said.
from PCMag.com about Scooba.
Next on the list was MITs Nicholas Negroponte, who furthered his vision of the $100 notebook computer for the Third World. He discussed three phases of the device. The first will be built around an existing portable 7-inch DVD player. “Pull out the DVD and put in a computer” and youll have the device. But hes agonizing over whether to bring that device out in the next 12 months or wait for Version 2, which should come out in about 18 months.
Negroponte showed off a mockup of Version 2, which sticks an LED-based projector into the keyboard area and displays output on a white cardboard screen—which folds up on top of the system like a tall, thin tent. Its a fascinating concept, cutting out the price of glass and LCD screen. “You dont have a screen that will break,” Negroponte said, “because its just a piece of cardboard.”
Version 3 is the most exciting because it replaces the cardboard screen with a digital ink display. The working mockup, from a company called E-Ink, needs no power to hold a screen and has a contrast ratio almost as good as white paper. It was also quite impressive.
And cheap too. According to Negroponte, “The real solution is electronic ink. Its the kind of display thats made by roll to roll printing or stamping, and the magic is in the ink. Youre making a display thats so inexpensive that costs will go from 50 cents a square inch to 10 cents a square inch.” By contrast, todays displays average around $10 a square inch—which means a 100-fold cost improvement.
How will they be powered? “These laptops will be windup-able,” promised Negroponte. “Youll be able to crank them. We expect to get a 10-1 ratio. One minute of cranking will give you 10 minutes of operation including Wi-Fi.” The device will not have a hard drive, but will have a gigabyte of flash memory, along with USB, Ethernet and 128MB of DRAM, and it will run on Linux, along with Google, Web browsers and Skype.
Negropontes in the process of setting up a company to make these devices and plans on selling 6 million or more of them in the first few years.
Next up was Motorola CEO Ed Zander, who did a quasi-demo of the new iTunes phone. “Its awesome,” bragged Zander, as he showed off “one thing that no MP3 player can do”—play music through a built-in speaker. It sounded terrible, but I guess thats not the point. The phone will also sync up with iTunes on a Windows or Mac via Bluetooth.
When will it launch? Zander was cagey, saying that was up to Apple and hooking up with a major carrier. But he did promise to “show a lot at our analyst meeting in July.” Expect new devices and new music partners at that event.
Zander was at his best contrasting his time with Sun in the 80s and 90s with his current role. “I used to do very sophisticated computer stuff, and now Im schlocking phones,” he said. “Were like the 1980s in the computer industry. We have to build the whole client/server model, and then we have to build the applications.” Zanders enthusiasm was contagious, as he described the amazing things, and the huge hurdles, his company is trying to overcome.
Motorolas not standing still either. Zander was very bullish on WiMax. “Theres a tremendous opportunity for this stuff. 802.16 does present a very huge disintermediation opportunity,” he said. “It has the ability to change the rules. A number of companies like ours are figuring out how to embrace both.” Expect hybrid WiMax/mobile phones in the next year or two.
Finally, Lotus 1-2-3 creator Mitch Kapor showed off an update to his hotly anticipated open-source Outlook killer: Chandler. The ongoing project finally has shape and substance, with group calendaring, a rudimentary publish and subscribe, and the ability to share events, photos and more.
“Were going to reinvent the PIM,” claimed Kapor. “The benefit at the end should be more choice for people.” Chandler provides an open model for exchanging temporal information. “Until now there just hasnt been a standard for calendaring between clients and servers,” explained Kapor. “What you really want is an open standard, and thats one of the things weve taken on, and weve created CalDAV [extensions to the WebDAV].”
Chandler (named after Raymond Chandler, the mystery writer, because the nature of the product was a mystery) has tremendous potential. But theres a long way to go until its commercially viable. However, fans of the late Lotus product Agenda should be particularly intrigued—Chandler looks like Agenda Version 2.0. The benefit for users, according to Kapor: “No Exchange servers or IT departments. Well be doing a hosted service at least for the first 50,000 to 100,000 users. And if 100,000 users are using it, the dynamics of open source will take over and people will develop free and paid versions.”
And that was the end of Day One. Stay tuned Wednesday for more from the D: conference, and perhaps from FiRE as well. Its heavy lifting, but someone has to do it.