5 unstoppable trends from the Web 2.0 Summit stage, personified

The theme of this year’s Web 2.0 Summit 2011 officially was “The Data Frame.” But take it from me — the unofficially real themes are these five unstoppable trends that, were they a person (taking a cue from Genevieve Bell’s talk “The secret life of data” — “Who is data and if it were a person what would it be like?”) would look exactly like: “You, as a Platform, Friending Your Social Car and its Music, and Thereby Completely Transforming How We Buy Things.” I will explain … in this fully subjective list of five of the top tech trends that are unstoppable disruptions at the Web 2.0 Summit 2011.

facebook business

facebook business by Sean MacEntee, on Flickr

FACEBOOK

Trend One.  It’s nothing new.  But Facebook continues to be a top trend at the Web 2.0 Summit. Chatter about being “friends” with Facebook was in the background of many of the sessions – and *everybody* – except maybe Google – is friends with Facebook (and now Facebook doesn’t even have to friend you back).  This is not a surprise — as KPCB’s Mary Meeker put it in her always fabulous Internet Trends report, “There are as many people using social networking sites now as there were Internet users in 2006.” From what I could tell from my seat in the third row back at the Palace Hotel, at least in the US, Facebook is still winning the social game — despite Google taking pains to talk about how great Google+ is doing and even trotting Sergey Brin out in a surprise appearance together with Vic Gundotra to say so.

The balance of power in social seems to be between the “caution to the wind” nature of existing social tell-alls, and Google — which is taking a specifically cautious approach to social — contending that this is what people want. Google is not only trying to win on these more conservative terms (“There’s a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth,” said Vic Gundotra, and maintaining somewhat vehemently that Google is “taking a cautious approach to releasing an API”) but also could be preparing to bet the farm on tying Google’s offerings together with Google+, at least by later in the year, if I caught the hints.

But the Facebook party is full-swing. Everyone from Microsoft (“Facebook defines the word social and we work with them closely — combined with Bing” — Steve Ballmer) to eBay (“We’re bringing the open graph into the eBay experience, and bring the eBay experience into the Facebook environment” — John Donahoe) to Salesforce (“Facebook is eating the Web. People are spending much more time on Facebook than on the Internet.  It’s a social revolution” — Marc Benioff) to beyond reports that Facebook is hot.

For Facebook’s part, Bret Taylor, Chief Technology Officer, didn’t just rest there: “Google+ to me is validating to what we at Facebook have convinced the world of: Products are better when they’re social,” he said.

It continues to be a virtual Facebook lovefest.

Saving the world one email at a time

Saving the world one email at a time by Ryan Vaarsi, on Flickr

PERSON AS PLATFORM

But “the problem is that my data is somewhere else…” was a common refrain during the data frame discussions, and Facebook and Google got no free pass here.

“When are you guys and Google gonna get over it and start sharing,” sparred John Battelle to Bret Taylor, to audience applause. “Why can’t I use Facebook Connect to populate my circles or lists? Isn’t that data that is ours and should be simple to move?”  Although Battelle meant this as a serious question, there was no serious response to be heard. The fact is, data — our data, data about us and from us — is still what’s worth the bank to social companies.

Many speakers however echoed a fresh refrain about data and your personal identity — and whether your personal data belongs to you or at a minimum can be portable to whatever (social) network you want.  Chris Poole of 4chan/Canvas kicked off this identity crisis with an excellent talk, concluding that as far as online identity goes, “Facebook & Google do it wrong; Twitter does it better; I want to think about a world that does it right.”

Beyond straight social networking technology, personal identity took a stunning turn with Anne Wojcicki’s talk about 23andMe — the “retail DNA testing service providing information and tools for consumers to learn about and explore their DNA.” 23andMe straddles biotech and Web 2.0 with the powers of a huge genetic dataset that can, in combination with its growing passionate community, go beyond straight ancestry queries to help identify individuals that have variants and prevent disease or identify genes that look like modifiers – just for a couple of examples. “The community has been so successful that in such a short time we found something that could be a modifier that leads to a druggable target,” said Wojcicki.

One big question this begs is whose data is this genetic information? Is this owned by the pharmaceutical companies? The community itself? Individuals – in so far as you “own” pieces of yourself?

It was Mitchell Baker (Mozilla Foundation) that took the next step that started to put a finger on the actual idea of person as platform:

We create data online but we have little control. We can turn privacy up and down but that’s it. We have essentially giant data factories — it is at heart an industrial era process. The core process of my data footprint lives as part of the data factory’s process. The customization all lives within a single model. Let’s think differently about data for a moment – what could data be? In that world, I am the platform for my data, and you are the platform for your data.

Baker’s bottom line: “If I become the platform, that allows the big data providers to continue to operate at scale (provide experiences we like with customization at edges but not core) and allows economic generation.”

Do we have this yet? “We don’t have all this infrastructure today but at Mozilla we’re building blocks of where I can be the center of my life.” Brilliant future, with Baker as our guide and person at the center.

Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2009

Buy More Stuff, Black Friday 2009 by Michael Holden, on Flickr

HOW WE BUY

We’re still buying.  People can log on to 23andme.com and start exploring their DNA today, for example. We keep buying more and more stuff — but the message was clear at the Summit: the way we buy is undergoing massive disruption.  Analogous to what was happening outside a few blocks away with the Occupy Wall Street movement hitting San Francisco streets with #OccupySF, and referenced obliquely by Benioff as the “Corporate Spring,” I think it’s the disruption of the way we buy, right down to the very the payment itself.

During the conference, John Battelle made sure to ask most speakers what they thought of the Occupy movement. For their part, Visa president John Partridge and American Express group president Dan Schulman echoed that there’s “a concern for what’s transpired around the world economically… and significant pent-up anger about how did we end up in this situation” — but seemed eager to allocate blame towards the federal government or elsewhere for the debt crisis, rather than, of course, looking inward. And to John Battelle’s question whether Visa and AMEX are afraid of eBay now that merchants, frustrated with transaction fees, are is implementing direct payments, we of course heard non-answers.

But there were dramatic backdrops to that perspective, with not only eBay (and the demonstrations themselves), but with  Alex Rampell’s TrialPay — which makes the excellent point that there is so much to be gained from the data in online payments that it makes no sense whatsoever to charge consumers a transaction fee just to pay. “At TrialPay, we think payments should be free” — because the underlying data that happens in a transaction is worth more, is the disruptive point behind the service.

It makes it look like credit card companies, despite their protesting otherwise, have to be worried about going the way of the record industry.

Mary Meeker also echoed an impression of Occupy that was equally affirming yet implicated:

I think people are angry — everybody’s angry and deserves to be angry. Finger-pointing is not good. I look at it in a holistic way. Over last 40 years, government has been pretty loose with spending and interest rates have been at low-level, so people were looking for places to invest and went to houses. Credit was easy.  Government sets up a situation where it’s easy to borrow. Wall Street was giving instruments to trade and they traded it like crazy.    … The way out? We all have a problem and we all have to sacrifice.

(Spending five minutes a day on (the hugely hyped) One Kings Lane five days a week, as Meeker admitted to doing, seems a bit like a strange sacrifice.)

If you are making sacrifices, you can look forward to what can be known in the future as “Web 3.0” — and we don’t mean the Semantic Web.   As Tim O’Reilly said in the conference introduction, “Now we know what Web 3 will be — Web 3 will be whatever pulls us out of the economy now” (since Web 2.0 is what pulled us out before).

Tenha medo

Tenha medo by jampa, on Flickr

SOUND

This leads me to two more fairly unconventional top tech trends to personify. Did you know Sound is the Next Big Thing? “Sound is going to be bigger than video. Record is bigger than QWERTY,” said Mary Meeker, quoting Alexander Ljung from SoundCloud, and then she rattled off a number of sound technologies from bluetooth devices, headsets, SoundCloud, Spotify (“which changed way I listen to music”), connected car audio, sound recognition — all ready for and undergoing massive disruption.

Both Pandora and Spotify were there to speak at the Summit, though “Pandora doesn’t compete with Spotify,” Tim Westergren insisted, “It competes with radio — and radio is where people just want to turn it on and play.”

Sound will be big not only on our devices but in our cars.  Says Westergren, “One half of radio listening happens in the car. The smartphone is your modem, bringing it into car. The car hijacks controls of Pandora into the dashboard.”

Driving into the Andes

Driving into the Andes by Stuck in Customs, on Flickr

CARS

Which leads me to the last big trend to notice.  Cars — clean fuel cars, electric cars, social cars, apps for cars, connected cars — Google cars.  Cars are big.

On the apps side, from Waze — with which 7 million users in Israel beat traffic — to Pandora to many other apps, lots of lonely commuters driving solo in cars aren’t so much a plague for sustainability, but create in fact a huge whitespace.

Part of the reason cars are such a rich whitespace for applications right now is because of this Data Frame. We’re realizing that there is much data to be harvested from cars themselves in the Big Data Frame view.  From David Hornik at August Capital:

We figured out about six years ago there lots of systems creating data exhaust. If we harness it, that’s big value… Cars are reporting a lot of things — from how fast the car is going, to the temperature outside (is the road about to ice over?), to exactly where they go (so maps can be way more accurate), to whether the windshield wipers are on – are they high or low? This allows our cars of the future to say “here’s the right driving route for you today based on all this factual data.”

It seems to me that one of the biggest future disruptors of the Data Frame just might be the coming of broadband in cars.

On the side of the cars as platforms themselves, we see a trend towards both social cars — as Marc Benioff wants a car he can friend — to electric vehicles with ventures such as Fisker, Tesla, and GE building factories here in the US.

As if that’s not enough going on, Sergey Brin said Google is building an “autonomous car” – a self-driving car that he says will be cool. “There is a tremendous opportunity to improve the world with advanced research projects like this,” said Sir Google.

This led Battelle to say: “I’m going to start a conference about cars.”  I believe it, too. And if he does, I hope to be there to write way too much about it yet again.

Maybe I’ll ride there in my all-electric Tesla while listening to Pandora, connecting with friends online, and talking with my car (let’s call her “Sira”), about the latest deals on One Kings Lane.  Or maybe, like the fact that we predicted the flying car but not the Internet, the future will look a lot different than any of us know now.

Because trends may be unstoppable, but data is feral, says Genevieve Bell. “Data keeps it real — physical objects resist being digitized. There’s something about data that will resist being incessantly digitized.”

The wildcard is the person in the platform.

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On sharp minds and the regreening of the globe

When I get to thinking of the global warming and energy crisis, I can’t help but feel that it’s nothing short of irresponsible for energy innovation not to be on the agenda of every large corporation in the world.

O’Reilly, trend-setters in the realm of innovative conferences (O’Reilly Emerging Technology, O’Reilly Emergying Telephony, Web 2.0 Summit and Expo, and more), would seem to agree. They are at it again, this time – for the first time – with the O’Reilly Energy Innovation Conference, coming to San Francisco in August this year.

Some highlights of the planned event, which “grows at the intersection of technology and energy,” are, and I quote:

  • High profile keynote presentations with big players and up-and-coming innovators
  • Concrete, qualitative discussions helping to focus on what is viable now and in the coming, critical decade
  • Launch Pad, an introduction to cool startups, applications, and products
  • Energy Innovation Fair, an evening event that brings together projects, tools, apps, and other innovative technology being created in garages, workshops, and university labs that offer insight into what the future of power and energy will hold
  • Emerging technologies, ranging from smart buildings and plug-in hybrid vehicles to superconductors and enormous wind turbines, are shaping a transformation in our economy and our lives
  • Radical new tools for increasing supplies and mitigating environmental impacts

Sayeth O’Reilly himself of the event:

“Power is going to be a major focus of thought and investment, and it’s going to touch everything. So pulling together people from all these overlapping fields, who would normally hang with their own birds but not those of a similar feather, suddenly make sense.”

Co-chairs include an engineering manager and engineering director from Google:

  • Alec Proudfoot seems to be an alternate-fuel vehicle visionary of sorts. He created the prototype for what became “the first modern high power AC induction electric vehicle,” and does stuff with Google Book Search and Google Maps – as well as advises Google.org on energy and transportation issues “in his 20% time.”
  • Chris Uhlik’s career has covered robotics, electronics, software, power systems, and automotive controls – as well as Gmail and Google Book Search.

So why would my company, SAP, take notice?

  1. If O’Reilly’s got it on its radar, I take notice.
  2. Google’s got it on its radar, anyway…
  3. Doesn’t SAP have an interest in the global supply chain?
  4. A different kind of regreening: energy issues will change the world’s economy
  5. Not to mention – energy issues will change the world
  6. Innovation comes from everywhere …
  7. Couldn’t the sharpest minds at SAP help engage in “increasing supplies and mitigating environmental impacts”?

And on that last point, I got to thinking about knives.

While on my couch attempting to beat a cold yesterday, I read an article in the March/April 2007 edition of Cook’s Illustrated on the latest innovations in knives. It caught my eye for two reasons:

1) In thinking about innovation for work, I seem to notice that innovation is key now in every industry (even – maybe especially – in the fast food arena – witness Taco Bell: “Think outside the bun”) – and knife making is no exception. Think about the size of blade – who knew that a blade that is more narrow on the top (non-sharp) part has therefore a more narrow profile overall, and instead of “wedging” the food apart and perhaps tearing it, simply slices cleanly through? And what about the shape and material of the handle, and where your thumb is going to sit? Think about how you rock your wrist during cutting – ergonomics, and whether the handle will slip out of your hands when your hands are wet or greasy. And how often have you been irked by the carrots or potatoes sticking to the blade as you chop – and did you know that this can be mitigated with coating or indents on the blades?

Tons of innovation there – who knew? And – how did they know?

2) Who’s one of the current knife innovators? Porsche. While its knife is not ranked very high by the staff at Cook’s, it is interesting to note instances of a company innovating outside its best-known product. Perhaps they had a lot of leftover chrome.

But – sharp minds and puns aside – I do get to thinking – what in fact DOES the regreening of the globe have to do with SAP, and – more relevantly – what will SAP have to do with it?

Postscripts 2012: