CORONADO, Calif:—The future isnt really so far away, say the technology markets high-level thinkers at the Future in Review conference. And unlike at the pep rally going on at the competing D: All Things Digital conference nearby, the talk here Tuesday is for the serious expert.
After departing the D conference and fighting morning traffic on Interstate 5, I settled into a quite different conference experience. D was held at the Four Seasons Aviara, a plush and modern hotel sitting on a hillside five miles inland from the Pacific. The conference itself was held in one of those faceless hotel ballrooms, with a fabricated stage complete with a 6-foot letter D.
Interview subjects sat in hefty red leather armchairs that looked almost exactly like dentists chairs. Attendees sat not at desks, but in plush black leather armchairs or comfy office-style swivel chairs. The D audience—made up as much of journalists and PR people as experts and CEOs—was a rambunctious, querulous lot.
FIRE (Future in Review), in contrast, is held at the aging jewel of the San Diego coast, the Hotel Del Coronado. The semicircular ballroom looks out over the Pacific Ocean, and the stage looks dressed more for a production of “My Fair Lady” than for a tech conference. Four simple chairs sit around a coffee table, with a battered podium offset in the corner.
The audience is decidedly low-key too. More international, and more cerebral, its mostly investors, researchers and chief technology officer-level technologists. The focus is different too. Instead of getting an update from Gates, Jobs and their ilk, the panels are focused on the future—although Gates nemesis Szulik, CEO of Red Hat, was the key afternoon interview. The D conference was like attending a college pep rally, chock full of overachieving jocks and circle-pin wearing coeds. FIRE, on the other hand, feels like the science club: geeks and wonks.
How did the geeks do? The best part of the day was the last, where the audience split into four groups. I trundled off to the basement of the hotel to sit in on a CTO roundtable, featuring Fred Weber of AMD, Rick Rashid of Microsoft and Dick Lampman of HP. The conversation started by focusing on things that are on the threshold today, but were virtually inconceivable five years ago.
Rashid led off with two topics that will soon change everything.
“One is human-scale storage,” Rashid said, “to keep all the relevant information a person might generate in a lifetime with them wherever they go.”
Soon terabyte hard drives will be common, he went on; hard drives big enough to store every conversation youve ever had in your life, or to take a picture every minute, even while youre asleep. He described a research project in Microsofts Cambridge, England facility that is essentially a “black box for humans.” Chock-full of sensors, accelerometers and motion detectors, it takes a picture every time something changes. Its being considered as a way of helping patients with non-severe memory loss, to let them keep and summarize memories at the end of the day. London police are even interested in using it to help solve crimes.
Regarding Rashids second imminent breakthrough, he said that we are almost to “the point at which LCD technology will be cheaper per square inch than whiteboards.” And when that happens, “almost any surface becomes an input and output device” and, with small cheap projectors, “any table, any wall, any surface [becomes] an input-output device.”
“Its not that far away,” Rashid promises, “and these new kinds of applications change the way you think about computing.”
AMDs CTO, Fred Weber, expanded on Rashids vision by describing the simplicity of an LCD. “Think about a mirror: Its just a flat piece of glass with some chemicals on the back. Whats an LCD? A flat piece of glass with some chemicals on the back.” He went on to predict that soon LCDs would be as ubiquitous as mirrors.
Weber also pointed to the imminent rise of multiprocessing as another inflection point. “Weve crossed a threshold where multiprocessing computers will be ubiquitous,” he said. And that, according to Weber, will result in “real innovation, because [developers] will be thinking of algorithms differently, thinking of them in a parallel way.” He predicted that some amazing killer apps will soon emerge from having multicore processors on every desk.
Weber also said he was excited about the potential for more natural human/machine interaction. “We are at a threshold where language processing and the ability to have somewhat intelligent interactions with a machine are near. Its a great sink for compute power in the future. These devices [computers] are becoming unbelievably capable, but difficult to use. Its not because the developers are idiots, its because humans are difficult to use,” he said.
Rashid agreed, and described an interesting Microsoft research project that uses statistical techniques to derive answers from Web searches. According to Rashid it really works, so if you ask it when Lincoln was shot, it will come back with the right answer, and a different answer if you ask when Lincoln died (as the two dates are not the same). The program does this by statistically evaluating all the answers to the question that it receives via a Web search, and then picking the most likely response.
“You can ask it some really crazy questions and it will give you funny answers,” Rashid went on. Put in “Masked Man” and it comes back with “Lone Ranger.” Ask it “What is the meaning of life?” and it will deliver “42,” but the answer ranked number one is “Questions.”
The research has broader implications, according to Rashid. “A lot of the problems we tried to solve by rules and structures are fundamentally about data. Collect enough data and analyze it, and we suddenly see whats going on. Theres a lot of work now around statistical analysis. All of a sudden we have that much more data to process,” he said. Weber agreed: “Always remember that exponentials are magic. You are getting such rapid growth and nonlinear growth.”
Weber also tied the three trends together, saying, “Weve crossed a threshold where life storage, natural language processing, and ubiquitous input-output are much more likely to happen in the measurable future. Five years ago you couldnt have said that.”
The conversation continued, mostly focused on security. One last fascinating factoid: “It takes very little data to uniquely identify a human in the United States,” Rashid said, quoting a recent study. 83 percent of the U.S. population can be identified with just three things: date of birth, sex and zip code.
Szulik Speaks on Linux
The highlight of the main conference was an hour-long chat between conference host Mark Anderson and Matt Szulik, CEO of Red Hat. It provided an interesting contrast to Bill Gatess mostly empty discussion from the day before at D.
Like Gates, Szulik started off with a video, built entirely from open-source images, words and music. It was a powerful and emotional validation of Linux, drawing on a quote from Ghandi:
First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you win.
The talk started by going over Red Hats recent financial snafu, where results needed to be restated. According to Szulik, it was a process of changing revenue recognition from monthly to daily, with no material changes. And it was all done last Friday, so he said.
Much of the talk focused on how Linux is becoming much more popular in other parts of the world. “North America is the major stronghold of the Windows franchise,” Szulik said, while the third world is the most rapid area of open-source adoption.
He attributed that in part to the fact that “the developing nations dont have an infrastructure that they have to repair to move forward.” And in the United States, Szuliks experience is that most CIOs offer to pay just two cents a desktop to switch, he said, because the Microsoft environment has already been fully depreciated.
Szulik went on to describe how the leaders of these third-world countries see open-source software as a way to move from being a developing nation to being part of the industrial world. “Culturally, this theme of collaboration, this theme of sharing, and this theme of advancement as a society is much more compelling. There seems to be a growing raison detre where open-source software is a way to … move their societies technically forward without a dependency on a single American supplier.”
Szulik defended Red Hat, saying that theyre not religious zealots. Red Hats offices are free of anti-Microsoft posters. Instead, the company is focused on “a faster, better way to produce software at a lower cost to the consumer.”
The talk ended with a discussion of open source versus free software such as that coming from Google, MSN and Yahoo. “Open source works because were having to replace something,” Szulik said. “Google is coexisting in an established environment. They arent delivering software that you install physically on your machine.”
“I think we approach markets differently,” he continued. “We focus on the back-end office infrastructure as the greatest opportunity in the near term.”
Szulik was followed by Fortune editor David Kirkpatrick, talking security with RSA CEO Art Coviello.
Coviello put the technology world into perspective, calling it “The Dynamic Flat.” He compared our current state to a pond, saying that “at the surface of water it doesnt appear that were driving a lot of progress on the Internet. But under the surface theres a lot of experimentation going on with Web services. Over the next several years well see wide deployment and things bubbling to the surface.”
Coviello pointed to three main areas that need to improve to help drive the state of computing and the Internet forward.
First, we havent created sophisticated Web applications yet. Most of todays applications, he argued, are still front-ending old applications. We also dont have a robust and interoperable Web services platform. “We have to have the standards developed that will allow that to happen,” he argued. “The XML standard hasnt developed to a degree of specificity.”
And thirdly, he focused on RSAs main business, security. We just dont have the confidence that security provides, he said, and its getting worse.
“For the first time in the last year youve actually seen some banks retrench from the Internet-based applications because of the sheer volume of fraud,” Coviello said.
He singled out banks in Australia as an example: “Theyre not the fourth-largest economy, but Australias the fourth-largest phished country.” Thats because their banks moved heavily online over the past five years, and “The thieves go where the money is. Phished accounts had payments directed to hacker accounts within 7.5 minutes of the hack taking place.” And the outcome? “Rather than implement more security, they have stepped back.”
Coviello pointed to “pharming,” or the process of using code to steal identities, as the next threat to explode on the Internet. He laid out a chilling scenario in which “if the anti-spyware software doesnt have the ability to stop [pharming] software from getting in, then we will have wholesale identity fraud in the next 12 to 18 months.”
He went on to discuss the sorry state of passwords at most companies, by describing a study RSA did with a major chemical company. “They hacked the passwords of employees, and had 15 pages of names and passwords within 12 seconds to 12 minutes. Fully 75 percent of the passwords were capable of being decrypted within 12 hours,” he said.
What can we do? “The average person needs to ensure their own security, and stop individually acting like adolescents,” he said. Coviello urged the audience to “make sure basic things are in place,” including updating operating-system, anti-virus and anti-spyware software, and using personal firewalls.
The best of the rest? George Poste, Director of Biodesign at Arizona State University, threw a scare into the audience, claiming that super-powerful influenza bugs are just waiting to pull a pandemic on us. “The government is asleep at the switch to the growing threat from infectious diseases. The protection from drugs is waning,” he said.
Poste pointed to urbanization, the relentless pace at which viruses are evolving antibiotic resistance, and how illnesses are jumping from animals to us—like HIV, SARS, Ebola and more. Six billion people are at risk from an influenza pandemic, he said, with only 300 million anti-flu virus doses currently available. If that happens, he predicted, “up to 2 million Americans will be dead in six months.” His solution: have your doctor write you a prescription for TamiFlu today, and put it in your bathroom, because there just isnt enough to go around.
Colin Angle, CEO of iRobot (the only overlapping guest at both FIRE and D) had the best line of the day. Talking about the Roomba and the just-introduced robotic mop Scooba, he said that his company provides “high tech for Midwestern homemakers” and that its all about “a paradigm shift in domestic floor care.”
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