July 24, 2008
Yesterday at noon the Fortune Brainstorm Technology Conference that I’ve been attending so far this week ended and I jumped a direct flight to Boston for the Entrepreneurs Organization Boston University event. I’ve just landed in Boston and although it’s 2AM here I’m still very much on Pacific time and thus I’m taking a few moments to reflect on the high points of the Fortune conference.
Over the last two years I’ve had a number of incredible opportunities to hear interesting people say interesting things in person. I’ve also had the opportunity to spend casual/social time with some of these people which has be exhilarating. People I’ve seen speak recently include: Kofi Anon, Jack Welch, Al Gore, Mark Zuckerberg, John Chambers, Jonathan Schwartz, Scott McNealy, Marc Benioff, Jim Steel, Vinton Cerf, Alan Greenspan, Michael Eisner, Herb Kelleher, Carl Icahn, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Rudy Giuliani, Ted Turner, Verne Harnish, Christie Hefner, Jerry Greenfield, Max Levchin, Craig Newmark, Eric Schmidt, Zach Nelson, and Michael Gerber.
At Fortune Brainstorm this year I saw the following people speak for the first time: Chris DeWolfe, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell, Neil Young, Max Levchin, and Nicholas Negroponte. As usual the schedule allowed a lot of time for the on-stage interviewers and the audience to ask pretty strong questions of the speakers and panelists. I like this format because it allows people to ask about things that the media, even the team from Fortune who runs the event, usually doesn’t get around to asking.
The most interesting people I heard speak at this event were as follows (not in any order)
- Neil Young, musician and activist
- Marc Benioff, CEO Salesforce.com
- Michael Dell, CEO of Dell, Inc
- Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com
- Zach Nelson, CEO NetSuite
- Nicholas Negroponte, One Laptop Per Child
- Vinton Cert, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google and inventor of the Internet
- Max Levchin, founder of PayPal and CEO of Slide
- Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google
- David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails and partner at 37Signals
- Chris DeWolfe, CEO of MySpace
- John Huey, former Editor of Fortune Magazine and Editor in Chief of Time Magazine
I also saw a lot of well known members of the technology business media including bloggers Robert Scoble and Om Malik and reporters/editors from Fortune and other Time Inc properties David Kirkpatrick, Adam Lashinsky, and John Huey.
The topics and discussions that stuck with me the most include:
- Jeff Bezos speaking to the not so obvious advantages to reading books on Amazon’s new Kindel device which are: ability to search the full text, ability to read in multiple languages, ability to click to get the definition of a word you don’t know, and the ability to download entire new books in 60 seconds or less. Interestingly enough I saw an advertisement for a new reading device from Sony that looks just like the Kindel as I walked through the airport tonight. I’m surprised that anyone was able to react to Kindel that quickly and I wonder where you’ll buy the books from with the Sony product.
- Nicholas Negroponte announcing that he’ll be reinstating the buy-one give-one program for the XO laptop again this year but this time it will be allowed worldwide not just in the US and Canada as it was before. Also, his unveiling of the XO laptop running Windows.
- Eric Schmidt responding to some hard-hitting questions from the crowd about Google’s challenges with data privacy and retention policies in an international market for the information it knows about its customers and users. Also his slow but direct response of no to the question “Does Google do business with or in any other way work with the Federal Government in the US regarding the Patriot Act or any data that Google has?” Eric did clarify that Google has a sales group in Washington, DC that sells hardware search solutions to the Federal Government. He also mentioned that in certain countries Google has decided not to provide its full offerings because of the requirements the governments of those countries would inflict on that data that Google fundamentally disagrees with.
- John Huey who sat immediately beside me at a table of eight at dinner and entertained everyone with his stories of going to the University of Georgia, his time in the Navy, the various habits and scandals of his coworkers at Fortune and Time over the years, and his former friendship with Sam Walton.
- Vinton Cerf. Finally, and perhaps the most interesting of all was a small round table session on Energy that I attended with about 25 total people which was lead by Todd Woody of Fortune and Vinton Cerf of Google. After the 1.5 hour discussion Todd and Vinton were immediately interviewed by CNN to relay on the ideas of the group.
It was fascinating to learn that Europe has already pretty much implemented a cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions that is working well so far, and also that they have set price minimums per unit on certain types of energy. A cap-and-trade policy and price minimums were popular themes for possible plans in the US because government regulation on price minimums will allow companies to confidently make decisions to invest in alternative energy solutions that may be more expensive per unit than current sources but that are significantly cleaner and more sustainable. The concert of building a good international power grid was also popular because it would allow the entire world to share solar generated power 24 hours per day. The idea of a fiber power network was suggested which lead to a discussion of creating an Internet of energy to distribute and balance need worldwide.The issue of more efficient power storage was also a hot topic and its importance was justified in an example about wind power’s often lack of efficiency. It goes like this. Since wind power can essentially drop out at sporadic times as wind speeds drop they require a nearby burst station which typically run on Natural Gas. These stations must remain online and partially active at all times in order to be available to quickly charge up when windmills slow down and apparently the cost and waste from maintaining these stations even if they’re not being used in production is very high. A great solution would be to have a new type of battery that could efficiently store the power created by the wind stations at their peak output to be used when their generation slows which would entirely eliminate the cost and waste required by the Natural Gas burst stations as they exist now.
Personally, I love the policy ideas regarding cap-and-trade and price minimums especially considering the increasing price of gas is pretty much the only thing I know of that has caused US consumers to consume less fuel intentionally. That is embarrassing to say but it means that legislation here may be required to affect further change.
But, I think there is another way, a longer term plan (15-25 years) that will affect social change toward conserving energy (without any type of economic penalty being required) and it’s in the concept of measurement and awareness. Every new device that utilizes energy should have a measurement system within it that will report to a central system within your house or a computer or mobile device to allow you to track the energy usage of every device you control (including your car) over every hour of the day. This will allow you to determine where you are consuming the majority of your energy and will allow people to begin declaring their low energy consumption with pride. Facebook and LinkedIn should make this number a featured part of your online profile and every business should be asked to display their number on their website and at their place of business like restaurants visibly display their sanitation ratings.
From the business angle this will allow people to make spending decisions based on the energy conservation practices of the multiple vendors that they will evaluate. From the personal angle this will allow people to determine who is doing their part to think about energy and work to reduce their consumption and waste. People without numbers will be embarrassed and questioned frequently why they are not participating. Like the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s LiveStrong bracelets people could accessorize with their low consumption numbers on bracelets, t-shirts, or even tattoos (finally a tattoo you’d be proud to show off at work). Businesses could use them as part of advertising campaigns and as a way of competitive differentiation.
So, those are the big ideas for the week so far. I had a great time in California hearing from all of these brilliant minds and contributing some thoughts where I could. I will certainly be circling back to this blog post in the following months to expand on some of these ideas as I have time.