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Letting Users Decide

Mobile broadband, Web services, and user-created content were the trends on tap at the third annual AlwaysOn technology summit at Stanford.
July 29, 2006

Everyone in Silicon Valley knows that consumers want more media content, better software, and a more powerful Internet. But they all have their own ideas about how these things should be delivered.

That was one of the main take-home points at the Always On technology summit, where I spent the last couple of days. In attendance were entrepreneurs, programmers, venture capitalists, academics, and a large collection of tech-startup CEOs, all debating which computing technologies – and which companies and products – will be most attractive to people hungry for easier ways to work, learn, socialize, and be entertained.

Most speakers at the meeting clearly bought into the three trends dominating technology news: Web-based software, a new generation of broadband-capable handheld devices, and people’s own enthusiasm for creating content and sharing it online.

YouTube CEO Chad Hurley got rock-star treatment at the conference (organized, as in the by entrepreneur and publishing mogul Tony Perkins. The ease with which people can upload and watch videos – at a time and on a device of their own choosing – is what makes YouTube’s free service so popular, Hurley said. Indeed, the company delivers more than 60 percent of the streamed video viewed by U.S. Internet users, he said. “It’s creating a stage that everyone can participate in, not around traditional time slots, but letting users decide what they want to watch,” Hurley said on stage before stepping down into a crowd of TV reporters.

Marc Benioff, CEO of SalesForce.com, was lively and forceful on stage, as always. Only fear, he argued, is preventing consumers and businesses from giving on on traditional desktop-based software and moving their work and their data onto what he calls “software-as-a-service” platforms such as SalesForce’s own Web-based customer-relationship management system. Many businesspeople, he pointed out, use low-maintenance Web-based systems such as Yahoo Mail or Google’s Gmail for their personal e-mail at home, but must switch back to desktop- and server-based programs like Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Exchange Server, or Lotus Notes when they get to work. “Are Lotus and Exchnage that great? No – and the technologies are happening to move everything to a Web service,” Benioff said.

Benioff’s remarks weren’t surprising, coming from the leader of a company whose entire business depends on customers’ willingness to hand management and storage of their data over to a distant service provider. But even a few representatives of old-line software and companies agreed with his message. “I think Marc is overly pessimistic,” said George Kadifa, general manager of the On Demand group at IBM. People want to buy not just Web-based software, but systems that manage whole business processes such as payroll, Kadifa said. “It’s a historical, strategic shift. But 95 percent of companies still have the classic software model on their brains.”

If software is in the process of leaving the desktop, digital content is already long gone. Fred Kitson, vice president and director of Motorola Labs, talked about the hardware company’s effort to create media-sharing systems that let people consume media anywhere, building on the success of the Razr phone, which can be used to capture, view, and transmit photos and video.

“You might be in a mobile environment, watching a video on your phone. Then you might want to move that content to your home, onto a big screen, and have your set-top box find related shows. Then you might want to move it to your car so your family can watch it on your next road trip,” Kitson explained. “It’s all about seamless content consumption – how do you experience media in these very different environments with extremely different resolutions and different viewing styles.” Motorola is building the behind-the-scenes software needed to prepare content for these environemnts, and plans to market it to cellular carriers, cable TV companies, and carmakers, among others, he said.

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