By Gary Zellerbach on Nov 14, 2008
The final day kicked off with a "web meets food" theme as Michael Pollan (noted author focusing on "the places where the human and natural worlds intersect") took the stage. His was not a cheery message for first thing in the morning. He noted that our current methods of food production are large contributors to green house gases, with a heavy reliance on fossil fuels. He feels we can and must turn agriculture into part of the solution, not the problem, and that we'll all be much better off and healthier if we "eat sunshine, not oil." A big part of the problem is we're locked into a cycle whereby the more we process food, the more profitable it is, but the less nutritious.
He suggested ways the web can improve the situation. First, make the food system more transparent. If we really knew how food was made and its impact on the environment, it would be a major catalyst for change. Secondly, the Web is the perfect place to form communities of like minded people who can focus of enabling sustainable alternatives as well as cultivating and identifying local food sources. Just the cost and impact of transporting food is huge, that's why farmer's markets may well be a model of the future (back to the past?). Is it smarter to bake butter cookies in Denmark and ship them to New York, or to ship the recipe to New York and bake them locally?
Back to more mundane matters (like making money), Richard Rosenblatt of Demand Media Inc. gave a very impressive talk and demo of his company and its new Pluck on Demand product. They make it incredibly easy to add contextual content and social media to any web site, in a self-service model. (I saw a guy in the row in front of me on his laptop doing this real-time to his web site once he saw the demo!) Richard explained some of the driving concepts behind his vision and services:
- In a search driven world, audiences fragment but then reform around passionate verticals. Provide the tools to engage them quickly in your communities once they find you.
- Social media will be the key success factor for every web site.
- Look to grow organically via community, not just search.
- Create content at scale, leverage the community content model.
- Support it with algorithmic, ROI driven content placement.
- The right content + social media = user engagement and revenue.
Reinforcing that "cloud computing is all the rage," we had our second panel on the subject, featuring Padmasree Warrior (CTO, Cisco) and Shane Robison (CTO, HP) in a conversation with Tim O'Reilly. They started by discussing the changing role of the CTO, which is more focused now on strategy and the future of business technology. (That was contrasted with the CIO role which they described as more operational, often implementing what the CTO recommends.) And then onto the benefits of the cloud...
- It's the next evolution of computing.
- Applications are abstracted from physical location.
- We haven't hit the tipping point yet. We still need "hybrid clouds" that incorporate standards and can interoperate with "private clouds." Think "inter-clouds" as opposed to inter-net.
- HP wants to provide "infrastructure as a service."
- Clouds can help with Green IT. Think of instrumenting the environment through the cloud.
For a conference that started the day after the presidential election, we finally got down to some politics. Enter author and mega-blogger Arianna Huffington, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, and high-profile political consultant Joe Trippi. It was a lively and spirited discussion, with everyone in a pretty good mood as you might imagine. A few take-aways:
- 1960/JFK -- the first "television" presidency. 2008/BHO -- the first "Internet" presidency.
- Huffington stated something Al Gore would also say later in the day: Obama would not have won without the Internet (for fund raising, communication, and community building).
- There was a concept that the 'net "surfaces the truth," and perhaps Right and Left are outdated terms. What's important is where the truth lies (and it's not necessarily in the middle).
- This could ultimately affect the future of our two party system.
- You can "fake it" on a 30 second TV ad. It's harder to do 24x7 on the Internet.
I thought Elon Musk provided the ultimate example of living your dreams. He said that during his college years he felt there were three important problem areas for focus: the Internet (he was a founder of PayPal), clean energy (see Tesla and SolarCity), and space (SpaceX). He had an unassuming manner about him, but you can see he's really putting his time and money to work on these problems. Compare that to making your fortune, then kicking back on your own tropical island...
"The Platform" had some very interesting dynamics when you consider the fierce competitors sharing the stage: Moderator Max Levchin (Slide), Vic Gundotra (Google), David Treadwell (Microsoft Live), Amit Kapur (MySpace), and Elliot Schrage (Facebook). Fortunately, peacefulness reigned, though there were a few testy moments (mostly Microsoft v. Google, as you can imagine). The main theme was how to evolve the platforms and support the developers:
- Enable developers to build viable biz models while increasing customer engagement. ("People like to share information.")
- Join people, places, devices, & applications.
- The Platform must benefit all three to survive: provider, developer, and customer.
- How do you deal with fast evolution vs backwards compatibility (especially for your 3rd party partners)?
- Build strategic alliances
- Be transparent and open to feedback
- Provide tools, resources, and support
- Rely on the evolution of the Internet to push forward the platforms built on it.
Bob Sutor, IBM VP of Open Source, said the world is at an "inflection point" where we must start using IT power to start solving world problems. Make big bets, public/private partnerships, and open standards are key.
I was fascinated with Shai Agassi's talk about building an "electric car network" (see BetterPlace). This is truly a big bet! Imagine an electric car that you pay for by the mile, and you don't own the battery. Need a charge? Pull into a "filling" station -- they remove the dead battery, put in a charged one, and off you go in less time than it takes to fill your tank. How fast this can happen is a "matter of policy" (and some deep pockets I presume), though he said they are actively working in Israel to release the first network.
"Track Me" was a panel on geo-location and some of the cool things happening now and possibly in the future. The panel was composed of moderator Brady Forrest (O'Reilly Media), Greg Skibiski (Sense Networks), Ted Morgan (Skyhook Wireless), April Allderdice (MicroEnergy Credits), and Rich Miner (Google).
There was a fascinating demo of the kinds of things Sense Networks can calculate and present, based on "analyzing massive amounts of real-time location data to understand and predict aggregate consumer trends." You'd be surprised by the correlation between the time and location of taxi cab trips in San Francisco and the rise and fall of the stock market! They have a lot of data and are still trying to figure out the meaning of some startling results and trends, plus ways to "segment" based on location.
Miner from Google talked about building location into the platform, then letting developers build upon it. Privacy was an obvious concern that came up. People need to own their data and have the ability to control, review and delete their location data. What is the geo-location equivalent of a cookie?
Rebecca MacKinnon (Global Voices) and Isaac Mao (currently a research fellow at Harvard Law) talked about overcoming censorship on the Internet (mostly in China), and its impact on closed governments. McKinnon talked about the difficult place Internet companies find themselves, wedged between governments and individuals. Mao introduced his concept of "sharism".
And with that, it was time for Al Gore, the exciting grand finale. I really enjoyed seeing him in person, and he held his own quite well, showing an impressive capability to talk tech and appeal to the audience. As mentioned, he reiterated the message that Obama would not have won without the Internet. He talked about Current TV and their efforts to "democratize the TV medium." He used some powerful analogies:
- The invention of the printing press almost 600 years ago "freed" information for the first time from the elite and created a new information ecosystem. Television "refeudalized" the control of information into a few elite hands. Now the Internet will democratize information again.
- We are moving to a time when Web 2.0 will be taken for granted, like a "fish in water." He challenged us to move to "World 2.0."
- Finally, a great analogy that really resonated with me
(showing my age, I guess):
JFK took office in 1960 and said we would put a man on the moon in 10 years. It seemed incredibly ambitious and perhaps unattainable, but it was done in a little over 8 years. He challenged Obama and all of us to take on a similarly ambitious goal: Make 100% of all electricity in the US from renewable energy within 10 years. If we could go to the moon back in the 60's, we can do this in the 2000s!
The conference came to an end with a final reception (i.e. yet more drinks and hors d'oeuvres), and everyone I spoke to thought it was an excellent event. I agree. If you've read this far, I thank you and hope you found this overview provided a decent taste of an unusual and exceptional conference.