Every autumn, many of Silicon Valley’s most distinguished technologists and venture capitalists (and some of the less distinguished) decamp to a carefully chosen European venue, a different one each year, there to rub shoulders for a few days with their peers from France, Germany, Japan, the UK and elsewhere.
This is the Etre conference, now in its 15th year or thereabouts. Run by the same group that publishes the technology business magazine Red Herring, it is idiosyncratic to a degree unheard of in today’s diminished world of high technology jamborees.
It breaks most of the rules in the conference manual but remains broadly successful and richly enjoyable. Why this should be so is a puzzle. Some suggest it provides an opportunity for the Valley’s aristocracy to hob-nob on neutral territory: others, that it is impossible to spend a few days away from the office in Rome, Versailles, Barcelona or Berlin without feeling rejuvenated.
This year it was Athens, still sparkling after its Olympic odyssey. Over the years, successive Etres have formed a baseline for the significant thematic changes in the industry: the arrival of the personal computer and the rise of packaged software; the domestic PC and the growth of the internet; the telecommunications explosion, the emergence of open source software and now wireless systems and applications.
The sessions and product demonstrations in Athens, however, suggest that at present we are experiencing an interregnum, a period of consolidation in the information technology business when no “big new thing” is on the horizon. Consider, for example, the following three developments that were on show in Athens.
First, Sling Media. This US-based company has developed a television set-top box, decorously called the “Slingbox,” which connects to the internet allowing the consumer to watch the live video stream from his or her television over a broadband link on a personal computer anywhere in the world.
Sling software makes it possible for the consumer to control the television remotely. Versions for the Apple Macintosh, and certain smart mobile phones and personal digital assistants will be available shortly. Why? You could well ask.
Second, Allisblue, a Belgian-based company that has developed a technology enabling a subscriber to retrieve information of all kinds by sending an SMS message to the company. It essentially links SMS to e-mail. Allisblue has agreements with a number of consumer products and media companies including Endemol, the Netherlands company behind the “Big Brother” phenomenon. The subscriber texts a code word to Allisblue which contacts, say, Endemol, which, in turn, e-mails the subscriber the Big Brother e-magazine. Some will like this prospect.
Finally, Oz Communications of Montreal, Canada: it has developed software that makes it possible to send and receive emails on mobile phone handsets just as if they were PCs. Oz’s software is already embedded in millions of mobile phones around the world.
The breakthrough here is that this service is aimed at ordinary consumers rather than the business email market. As the company claims: “This is a new trend in the wireless industry. For the first time, the ordinary consumer can stay connected via email.”
The connection between these three examples is that in each case the innovation is aimed at the consumer rather than the purely business user.
According to the Gartner Group, the research consultancy, a new trend is on the horizon: the practice of introducing new technologies into consumer markets prior to industrial markets. “As a result,” Gartner says, “the majority of new technologies enterprises adopt for their information systems between 2007 and 2012 will have roots in consumer applications.”
If Gartner is right, there are important implications for other sectors – the semiconductor industry, for example, will see demand driven by these applications over the next few years.
The Slingbox has an obvious industrial function: to provide tired road warriors with free entertainment in their hotel rooms.
But it is easy to see the implications for security of a device that can send quality video images over the internet to anywhere in the world.
And while Allisblue’s technology today serves the not-too-serious purpose of e-mailing entertainment magazines, it could provide a new way of acquiring business information without going through the call centre.
These developments, however clever and appealing though they are, represent pieces in the IT jigsaw rather than a whole new board game.
The development of the IT industry has been driven by innovations that came in from left field rather than in linear fashion.
It may take an Etre or two more before we can clearly see what is to be or not to be.