This year’s GeekWire Summit, kicked off by cofounders John Cook and Todd Bishop, covered the major bases in tech world news and trends. In a world where a slump in innovation means becoming insignificant, it’s not surprising that most panels were entitled “The future of…”. The recurring themes that underscored the day were the swiftly approaching domination of mobile devices, particularly tablets, and oh yes – are there any software developers out there? Because the panelists seemed almost to be scanning the crowd in search of them.
The morning began with Cook and Bishop sitting down with Otto Berkes, CTO of HBO to talk about why HBO has done so well to date (leading with compelling content, and having the right technology to deliver it at the right price point, all in the right package, according to Berkes), and whether HBO might change its model to allow free viewing by cable subscribers. Berkes’ carefully worded answer to that question boiled down to “No”. Berkes’ thoughts on HBO’s platform focus led the trend of the day: it’s all about tablets.
“60% of our users are mobile,” he said, and he is hedging his guess about whether one will rise to dominate the market. “We want to be on all the popular platforms going forward,” he said.
Shopping and Customer Experience
The future of shopping was dissected by a panel of leaders from diverse industries, with Jane Park of Julep (online nail products and offline salons), Michael Smith of Full Circle Farms (organic farm produce delivery), Nadia Shouraboura (Hointer, new concept in men’s in-store clothing shopping), and Mike Fridgen of Decide.com and eBay. What’s in store (forgive the pun) for us shoppers? It depends on the industry, but brick and mortar don’t seem to be going away anytime soon. What is happening now is the application of classic systems design to the world of shopping. Full Circle Farms’ Smith (formerly of REI) was adamant that price is not everything. “It’s about the customer experience,” he declared. “Going for the lowest price is a race to the bottom and a losing game ultimately.”
The customer experience bit has not been lost on Jane Parks, who has built an empire on delighting her customers. That happens through knowledge of what those customers want and finding innovative ways to provide it, blending personal face-to-face service and online efficiency in delivering product and marketing new offerings. Shouraboura has also exploited customer knowledge to win big with her retail space, Hointer. “The challenge is how to get the best of both worlds – to bring the efficiency of online shopping into the brick and mortar world,” she said. She is adamant that point of sale technology is becoming irrelevant. “Get rid of it,” she insisted. “It makes absolutely no sense. At Hointer and Apple you shop with your mobile phone and just walk out.”
Innovation with Mobile Devices
Rich Barton (Zillow) and Bill Gurley (Benchmark) shared thoughts with John Cook about mobile devices, what makes some companies magically take off, and how to encourage innovation. Takeaways: don’t pitch to Barton on anything other than a mobile device (“When someone shows me a screen, I show them the door,” he quipped). And that secret ingredient to become the next Facebook? “A big dream, a clear vision, and a little bit of nuttiness,” supplied Barton. Gurley had some reservations. “Some crazy people really are crazy,” he said. “You want to avoid them!”
On the subject of innovation, they were clear. “Get rid of the cronyism government uses to squelch innovation,” insisted Gurley.
Video gaming industry leaders Bonnie Ross (Microsoft’s 343 Industries GM), Glenn Walcott (DoubleDown Interactive) and David Edery (Spry Fox) were aligned with the movement to tablets. Walcott added that the gaming industry will drive technology development: “… technology will be used in ways it’s never been used before,” he said. Technical innovation is one thing, but consumer behavior may be another. “The whole idea of free play is washing through the gaming industry and creating all sorts of disruption,” moderator Ed Fries announced. Edery felt that the resulting problems in the gaming industry are leading toward a better place. “Now the business and creative sides have to come together,” he said.
It was an apropos segue into Geekwire’s Monica Guzman’s talk with creativeLIVE cofounder Chase Jarvis, who had strong views on probably just about everything, but who confined himself mostly to creativity in education. “Learning isn’t broken; education is broken,” he insisted. We as a culture must shift our focus, he believes. Creativity goes beyond visual arts such as drawing and painting, he added. It’s a way of thinking. That also means that we need an educational system that values creativity and devalues outmoded ways of measuring progress. His takeaway: “Creativity is the new literacy.”
GoDaddy CEO Blake Irving is concerned about finding engineering talent, and was clear in his talk with Todd Bishop that it’s harder in the Seattle area where large companies use “anonymous” teams to accomplish great things. “I actually like to call it ‘opaque’,” he told Bishop. “Microsoft and Amazon have a wall around the talent… the Bay area is a more translucent market where people (tech workers) have their own brand and that stays with them.”
Hadi Partovi, co-founder of Code.org, hears that concern and is devoting intense energy to correcting the shortage of tech talent in the U.S. By 2020, he pointed out, the U.S. will require 1,000,000 more computer science-based jobs than there will be students to fill them. “Fixing this problem is about fixing the American dream,” he stated. His ten-minute pitch for support clearly resonated with the crowd and provided the perfect entrée for pitches by two winning teams from StudentRND, Helpful Machines (an updated calculator with functionality far beyond conventional models) and SciSub, a group of high school students using submersible devices to help middle school students better understand science.
The final panel of the day was “What’s Next: the Future of Innovation” with Peter Lee of Microsoft Research, Eric Andersen (Intentional Software), Vern Fotheringham (Kymeta), Jeremy Jaech (SNUPI). Andersen was bullish on “intentional software” – applications that will allow subject matter experts to write their own software without writing code. He foresees “… an environment where computers speak the language of people.”
With such a vast topic as the future of technology in front of them and only 45 minutes, the panel had to be confined to a sprinkling of topics. Would they buy Google glass? Would they wear it in public? (Yes, and no, respectively, answered everyone but Fotheringham, who had no problem with the prospect of facing the world thus adorned). Privacy and security comprised a tougher topic. “I think this is a political problem,” SNUPI’s Jaech opined. “You can’t just opt out. There has to be a sense of trust.”
Bishop circumvented further philosophical entanglement with another hard question. “What will we all be discussing at GeekWire Summit 2015?” he asked. Lee’s answer foreshadows awe: “A discovery in the quantum computing industry that will win a Nobel Prize,” was his answer.
Technocrats, you have two years. Go!