Friday, January 28, 2011

A Brave New World: DLD Conference Edition


I am sitting in a Munich hotel room for the first time in 27 years and the only thing that’s changed is me. On the train from the airport I realized I am old enough to measure time between actions in decades. Not so long ago 27 years was a reasonable age for a person and now it’s the time in between two trips I took as an adult. The area around the tube exit in Marianplatz is the same, the Glockenspiel looms overhead and the crowd is standing in the same place I left them 27 years ago. In Europe, where “old” describes increments of hundreds of years this is normal, but in America, “old” is measured in single digits so it is unusual. Other than a 275 Euro a night difference, even my room is indistinguishable from the youth hostel I stayed in as a newly minted high school graduate.

I naively booked the hotel because it had “four seasons” in the name. I say “na├»ve because I thought four seasons referred to hotel chain when it reality, it can only refer to the number seasons it is open in a year. A room ¼ the size of the smallest room I ever occupied in Tokyo – 30 years ago – does not win the most unique aspect. It is the ability to study real time weather patterns from my bed. The last time I slept in a bed this size there were Flintstones characters on the sheets. The bed is situated just to the right and two feet down from an aluminum-framed window installed by someone who obviously has a grievance with caulk. Turning on the heat upsets the window’s cold breeze, causing the formation of a jet stream right across my pillow. My son tried to explain aerodynamics and weather patterns to me in the past but I never understood them until I was living in the middle of one. Quickly learning one man can not stop the jet stream, I addressed the cold by taking a German “four star” towel and putting across the bottom of the “four star” drapery, thereby guiding the jet stream out the top of the drapery and across the ceiling . Not quite McGuyver, but it got me through the first night.

I may sound like the ugly American, expecting so much from a room and complaining when it does not feel like the Ritz – which incidentally is so old it does not feel lik the Ritz anymore – but stereotypes are there for a reason. Like, ugly Americans who complain to Germans conforming to very rigid rules. I learned the latter when I called down to the front desk.

“Do you have wifi in the hotel.”
“Yes”
“That’s strange, I can’t get a signal in the room.”
“We don’t have it in the rooms, it is in the lobby.”
“Oh, is there someone I can access the Internet in my room?
“Yes there is Ethernet.”
“Oh thank you.”


I am typing to you on a MacBook Air which does not have an Ethernet port. Fortunately, I saw an Apple Store just outside the station - only a five minute freeze my balls off walk from the hotel. I figured I should get out anyway because it was only 7:30 and I wanted to stay awake long enough to fight jet lag. The folks in the Apple Store were exceedingly nice and everyone made great efforts to speak to me in English – which is much more than I can say about my lack of effort to learn how to say anything beyond “bier” in German. My certainties were rattled by the multiple genius bars in the rather small store and ratio of two geni to every customer with no line, but I chalked it up to German efficiency. They quickly provided my adapter and Ethernet cable and sent me on my way. Noting I bought a hat for a reason I made a mental note to wear it the next time I went out and walked back to the hotel. I plugged the adapter and Ethernet cable into their respective ports and got – nothing.

“Excuse me, I am sorry to bother you, but I am using the Ethernet port in the room and I can’t seem to log into your server.”
“Of course not, it’s down. It has been down for a couple days and probably won’t be fixed for a few more.”
I was a bit upset about the walk and all “ But you told me you had Ethernet access to the Internet.”
“We do.”
“But it’s broken”
To which the gentlemen replied “You only asked if we had it.”
Thank you Rain Man
.

I managed to avoid creating snow in the higher altitudes of the room, bundled up and slept through the night. In the morning I headed off to DLD. As I walked out of the hotel I found myself walking with someone who was also on his way over. I asked what he did and it turned out he was just leaving employment at Microsoft in a very high level position at Microsoft. He sold his company to them and it sounded a bunch of companies before that, just a taste of what was yet to come. The invitation indicated there was a shuttle to Davos after the conference but I did not expect it to be full. In fact, my failure to receive a Davos invite put me in a small and conspicuous minority. I found myself in a sea of CEOs, bankers and journalists from all over the world. It was TED without the movie stars. Each person was able to make me feel utterly, professionally insignificant in very few words beyond hello.

“Hi, I am ____ and my app just crossed the 100 million download mark.”
“Hi, I am ____ and oversee 57 countries for _____”
“Hi, I am ____ and I just invented a company last year that grossed 1 billion.”


Some of these people even got up on stage to talk. In case the intimidation factor did completely play itself out, they were happy to repeat the introduction in any one or more of the eight to ten languages in which they were all fluent.

I sat in on a panel of young app guys who were likely not alive the last time I was in Munich. In fact, I felt like the underwear I was wearing was probably older than their aggregate age. One ran US for Rovio, creators of Angry Birds, another created Tom the Talking Cat , the next created Getjar and the last one created Doodle Jump with his brother. They all carried a certain level of earned arrogance accompanying the dissemination of a product to more people than had ever owned one thing in the history of man kind. Tom the Talking Cat makes the aggregate sales of Mood Rings and Pet Rocks appear non existent, while carrying marginally more utility. I remembered when people used to talk about console games the way they are talking about apps today. The funny thing is, our console games looked just like those apps when we were the golden children. Simple, low cost development you could pick up and play with low enough budgets to build without projections and take real risk. It was really interesting to speak with each of these creators after the panel. The Rovio guy told me he wanted Angry Birds to be bigger than Mickey Mouse and I started to laugh.

He said, “no, really, I mean it. “
“I, know” I told him. “I am not laughing because I don’t believe you can do it. I am laughing because that is the same thing I told my boss, Charles Cornwall at Eidos when we were promoting Lara Croft. Walt Disney used to say ‘It all started with a mouse.’”

Calling it an “injection medium” I entered the game business as a way to platform intellectual property. It worked while games were cheap, but the opportunity started to fade as games got more and more expensive. Now it is amazingly, unbelievably exciting to see these companies thinking this way and iOS providing a cost effective opportunity to test, pilot and launch IP. Angry Birds was Rovio’s fifty second game. The download numbers are mind boggling and trying to comprehend them is like trying to understand the national debt. But I am still a strong believer in gravity and I wonder whether the launch of these quickly spreading apps are American Idol type fame – remember any of these people, rock on Ruben Studdard – or truly Mickey Mouse.

Next I went to Sean Parker’s panel. My only awareness of the guy comes from the film “The Social Network” and a profile in Vanity Fair. People seem to like to pick on the guy and being involved in any one of the companies he was involved with may be an accident, but putting Napster, Plaxo and Facebook all on the same resume points to substance. These nattering nabobs seem to forget he had to get into the companies and do something before being unceremoniously removed. He may have done something wrong, but he had to do something right in the beginning. I, and probably the whole audience, was wondering how he felt about the not so flattering portrait in the film. This elephant seemed to be stowed quietly behind a curtain until his fellow panelist, Paolo Coelho opened with the question. He said it was a beautifully filmed work of fiction and the character in the film who was not him shared only his name. I could understand the position but I was surprised by the support he gave for his position. He explained it must be a lie because there are no Victoria’s Secret models or nice bars in Palo Alto. Maybe it is just me, but if I were him, the only part I would admit to being true is sleeping with hot women. Does he want us to believe the film is not true because in reality he only sleeps with ugly women and does not appreciate the mischaracterization? He also said he never threw a check at Eduardo Saverin and they remain friends. So we should not believe the film because he is really friends with the other guy who got squeezed out and he sleeps with ugly women.

I also went to a Juan Enriquez speech. I love me some Juan Enriquez talks. His concept of Homo Evolutus becomes so cool when he makes very simple connection to current discoveries and shows us how we can really reattach Luke’s hand. Well not really that, but he did talk about creating life, growing body parts and storing memories in jars. Just in case the people sitting a literal stone’s throw from the very spot Hitler spoke of the genetic superiority of the Aryan Race, Enriquez explained discovery of genetic markers for physical and mental superiority. One marker showed up in ever mountain climber ascending to super altitudes without oxygen. Another was in 87% of Olympic power sport athletes. He also broke a few down by race. Of course Enriquez was not proposing killing anyone and John Stewart taught me not to throw the Hitler name around, but the proximity and similarities felt a bit awkward. Enriquez said he was not addressing any medical or ethical issues. Shouldn’t he? Shouldn’t someone? It is ok to segregate people based on genetics? Enriquez is partnered with Craig Ventner, who recently created synthetic life. If Mr. Enriquez can point to a single time in the history of mankind that interfering with nature turned out well, I will be able to sleep tonight. Otherwise, feel free to call, I'll be up.

The conference closed with a talk given by Eric Schmidt which I really wish I did not see. To say it scared the shit of me is like saying the sky is a bit high. I've written about scary Google stuff in the past, but this took it to a whole new level. This room’s elephant was his recent departure from Google’s CEO position. No one wanted to mention it. I don’t know why a room full of journalists would, it is only internationally relevant news that came out of nowhere with no public comment after a ten year tenure. He proceeded to give a talk, which sounded like it was written for a bad 1970’s sci fi film. The thesis was “Technology should work for us.” His repeated statement of “more humanity through computers” sounded eerily close to “better living through computers.” It made me feel he should be in a seamless white glowy suit talking about “Omnitech” or some other benign sounding corporation standing in front really bad Soylent Green kind of stuff. The subtitle to the panel could be “with your permission.” Because as he told of how computers can know where you are and suggest restaurants and dry cleaners, tell you where your friends are, pull up relevant files, he always said “with your permission.” He even said the computer would be able to see the proximity of you and your friends and use predictive modeling to determine whether you would meet. He emphasized users’ need to opt in to receive the better life through technology. I could not help but wonder whether I opted in for Google to take my clickprint, track my ad usage? Did people on gmail and google voice consciously opt into to have email and phonecalls transcribed and indexed for incorporation into Google’s vast pool of data? How exactly did Google get permission for its camera cars to grab all the data “accidentally” which was never destroyed. When someone opts into these benign, better living through technology conveniences, do they understand the cost? The Europeans seem to understand. Executives from Microsoft, Salesforce and other US companies moving data to the cloud were asked about US government regulations requiring government access to data and without exception, rather than making any attempt to justify the regulation, they each pointed to overseas servers. They promised to keep the data black by keeping it out of the US. But, what about Google? Sure, many servers are operated outside the US, but all the ones touching my stuff are subject to US law and perhaps their cooperation agreement with the NSA. Where is the line between the government and Google? Schmidt concluded with his dream of driver less cars. He said Google modified a few Prius’s and even though not technically legal, drove them thousands of miles around the US without incident. It is so dangerous for people to drive cars, he reasoned, it should be done by computers – with their permission. If I believed in conspiracy I would say Google is Illuminati and collecting all the world’s data under one roof. Once they parse the data and put us all in cars under their control, they will be able to decide who gets driven home and who goes off the cliff in the great reduction.

The single through line through all the talks was our migration from webcentric to local. Dennis Crowley for Foursquare, Andrew Mason of Groupon, folks from Google, Endemol, Skytv, and every other company emphasized local. Technology to know their local community better. Jeff Pulver and George Dyson pointed to a third wave of computing. Getting away from the search for data and communication with computers at the other end and more toward technology to connect to people. Dating services were not represented, but they no longer carry the stigma of desperation associated with their use. The rise of facebook and other social networks shows technology intermediating links to people who communicate with each other. It draws a picture of people wanting to talk to each other, rather than the computer and wanting to get away from the screen an into activities within their computer. Kind of step back into the real world and away from the metaverse. I know the thought is overly simplistic and probably not true, but at least it let me sleep last night.