God, technology and...platforms?
At Fortune's inaugural technology conference, we spanned a plethora of topics. Next year we plan to be even more ambitious, says Fortune's David Kirkpatrick.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Catherine Cook, the 17-year-old co-founder of MyYearbook.com, explained why her service has become the third largest social network in the United States. Vint Cerf, the 64-year-old Internet evangelist from Google, conveyed his enormous optimism about continued prospects for the Internet, for which he co-developed the basic software underpinnings between 1974 and 1982. Tech pundit and investor Esther Dyson explained why she was putting her full medical and genetic records online. And John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, arguably the most successful large technology company, predicted that Net innovation would cause U.S. GDP growth to rise as much as a 5 percent annually, significantly higher than the current level of around 3 percent.
So it went at iMeme: The Thinkers of Tech, Fortune's first tech conference last week. I served as the event's host and program director in San Francisco. When I stepped onstage to begin the proceedings, I declared that attendees would hear a lot of good news, which we so desperately need in this era of war, global tensions and environmental fear. (For extensive online coverage, including video, go here. The full program and other info is here.)
Sure enough, the 250 leaders of tech who joined us could hardly contain their enthusiasm. We heard upbeat prognoses from the old guard - Hewlett-Packard (Charts, Fortune 500) CEO Mark Hurd said there is an industry-wide rise in R&D spending - and from aggressive insurgents like China's Bruno Wu, who is a key investor in both Sina.net, that country's largest portal, and Shanda, its dominant online gaming company.
China's Internet is exploding. Wu said a new company in his portfolio, HerVillage.com, already has 40 million unique visitors per month, less than two years after its founding.
We led off with a panel that included several of the top Net companies of the moment - each attempting to reinforce and sustain their own success by offering their services as a platform for the development of businesses created by others. Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg was probably the executive more people wanted to hear than any other - a journalist from CNET this week called him the Brangelina of tech.
But there is substance behind his vision of Facebook as a platform, as Salesforce.com's (Charts) CEO Marc Benioff, sitting next to him, agreed. Linden Lab CEO Philip Rosedale explained how his company's vision for its Second Life service is in some ways even more radical - leaving all the content-creation to members. And Marissa Mayer of Google (Charts, Fortune 500) promised that the search colossus would offer ever more facilities that other companies could take advantage of. It has already begun to do that with, for instance, its Google Maps service, which can readily be integrated into the software of others.
For the rest of the conference almost every company we heard from - be it a telecom provider, an Internet service or an old-fashioned software company - claimed to be, in some sense, a "platform."
In the evening we gathered three of the world's smartest men - Biologist Richard Dawkins, Craig Venter, the CEO of Synthetic Genomics, and Bill Joy, one of the founders of Sun Microsystems (Charts, Fortune 500). Dawkins proved not only to be an inveterate atheist (his current best-seller is "The God Delusion") but also a very funny man. One audience-member challenged him to explain why he answered a question from moderator Andy Serwer (Fortune's editor) by saying "Oh, God!" His reply was deft and entertaining.
Venter and Joy disagreed vehemently about the utility and wisdom of genetic experimentation, but were united in their conviction that what we need most right now are technologies to remediate global warming (both of them are working on the problem).
Industry tensions were apparent, for instance when Qualcomm (Charts, Fortune 500) CEO Paul Jacobs bad-mouthed Wi-Max, the wireless broadband standard promoted by his rival Intel (Charts, Fortune 500).
And new opportunities were identified, as when Google's Cerf explained how wireless broadcast techniques may prove key for addressing growing Net bandwidth bottlenecks. The idea, he said, is that broadly popular video content can be broadcast, bypassing the need for many infrastructure-hogging secure online connections. It was one of several reasons he curtly dismissed recent concerns that the growing popularity of video could overload the Net.
But if you want optimism, Cisco's Chambers is your man. In his view, Web 2.0 is only getting started. While it has been a mostly consumer phenomenon so far, it's the prospect for business collaboration efficiencies which leads him to his GDP growth predictions. Cisco (Charts, Fortune 500) has not only redesigned its product line in order to facilitate collaboration - for instance with its purchase of WebEx - but also restructured how the company operates internally in order to make itself a model.
Chambers explained that many key decisions about company direction are now made by committees that are not necessarily led by their most senior member. He has successfully pushed decision making further down in the organization, relieving his own role as arbiter and bottleneck.
Next year, Fortune's tech conference takes place July 21-23 at the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, California, near San Francisco. We hope to turn the intensity up yet another notch. It's our own effort to improve industry collaboration and collective thinking. We're convinced we've created what will become one of the industry's seminal annual events.