All Things D: Digital Trends From TV & Rockets to Authentification Pills & Speech Recognition

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All Things D just held their 11th annual conference in Rancho Palos Verdes California in late May. Imagine a few hundred billionaire and millionaire game changers in a room at an oceanside resort, discussing the latest digital technology trends that impact a host of industries: from government, retail and consumer electronics to mobile advertising, digital TV and everything in between. It makes you wonder: Are we moving to a world that looks something like this?

Digital world

Some of the trends and reccuring themes are not new this year, but they are more pressing as storage gets cheaper, bandwidth gets faster and it is becoming more common to program your home and tap into a mobile device for nearly everything we do.

How people think about things that were once a Star Trek-like discussion are now becoming reality: energy sources, Google Glass that brings virtual and augmented reality to life in more ways than one, electric versus gas powered cars, a trip to Mars if you have a bank account big enough to afford a ticket, wearable devices and how we will view what we now call TV in the next decade. And, that’s just the beginning.

Some of the leading CEOs and thought leaders driving change in this space were on the D stage this year, hosted by Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher.

Mary Meeker who I have tremendous respect for and think of among other things as the “Data Chick”, shared her annual Internet trends. No one I know can better convey data faster with as much content as she has in a way that is comprehensable to both geeks and creatives. She somehow manages to get through to both. Here’s her latest report.

Two themes which continue to come up again and again are privacy and security despite prolific users of social networks and geo-based services like Foursquare suggesting that they no longer matter.

Where else would fingers be pointed than Facebook? Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg took the stage to address those issues in the first day’s morning session. A Wall Street Journal reporter asked her about “trust.”

Sheryl sandberg2

He raises the issue of snapchatting, which seems like a direct reflection of mistrust. Trust is the cornerstone of our users says Sheryl. She adds, “its critical that we are transparent in understanding how the product works. It used to be complicated and that translated to mistrust so we’ve made our privacy page and other sections much more visual to make it easier for the user.”

She also talked about the new social world where messaging, texting and photos are continuing to explode and ‘it’s not going to stop.’ While she wouldn’t speak to any new ‘product announcements,’ focusing on those three areas was telling.

Unlike Mark, she’s fabulous on stage. Even if you don’t trust Facebook for whatever legitimate reasons, she’s a great face for the company and knows how to turn that mistrust around.

Hunky Elon Musk seemed to get respect from everyone around me – the techies, entrepreneurs, CEOs and women who seemed to reference more than just his “accomplishments.” For those who don’t know all his accolades, he’s the Co-Founder, CEO and Product Architect at Tesla Motors and CEO/CTO of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

Elon-Musk at D2013 (7)

Et hem, before we get into his D stage shares, just look at those arms. Combine that with his adventurous spirit, desire to go to Mars, lofty sustainable goals and his South African accent and it’s no wonder he has so many woman at “Hello.”

Elon’s major message, at least the recurring one was sustainability. Elon is a man who defies odds — a bit of a quieter Tony Robbins icon, where his sense of solitude and confidence meets the resolve of a politican and the demeanor of a trusted geek. Or, something to that effect.

He says, “car manufacturers said we could never reach certain goals and we keep beating and meeting our goals, defying odds again and again. Our challenge is that we need to convince them that what we’re doing is much more than the niche
market Tesla is today. To convince them that electric cars are a mainstream product will require a lot more work but its work we need to do.”


Elon-Musk at D2013 (35)

His tone suggested that it wasn’t work he needed to do because it was best for Tesla’s bottom line, but because it’s the right thing for the planet.

He also announced the expansion of their supercharger network a day earlier than planned. This move is an obvious and required one to move Tesla more into the mainstream limelight. Clearly, the more people who own a Tesla, the broader the network of superchargers Tesla can support and the more superchargers there are, the more compelling it becomes to own one. If there are not enough charging stations, people won’t think of purchasing one as their main car and it will remain a secondary car for those with oodles of money or who live in a city where you don’t have to travel very far. Below is their expansion plan in the U.S. over the next several months.

Tesla grid

On immigration reform, which he wanted to support, he said there was too much Kissinger-ness! He added, “what we encourage is the political system we will
deserve.” Hear hear. In an interview on CNBC in late May, he said he left Mark Zuckerberg’s political action committee, FWD.us, “because the organization became too cynical.”

He also addressed carbon and believes in having a carbon tax that will honor
the right behavior and penalize the wrong behavior just like we do with alcohol
and tobacco. He says, “how we collect the money is irrelevant but the government needs to be paid so we need to
reallocate where that money comes in from and set up a system that condemns bad carbon behavior.” 

With Steve Jobs legacy still lingering and the fact that he was such an icon on the All Things D stage every year, it’s no surprise that the fireside chat with Apple’s CEO Tim Cook filled an hour and a half on opening night.

Tim cook2

He avoided any commitment over rolling out a TV set, so much so that a Sony guy I talked to after hours was hissing about it. He wasn’t the only one since it wasn’t just Tim’s reluctance to talk about an Apple TV set; he avoided discussing anything related to future product plans.

“While the company has seen modest success with Apple TV,” he said (selling more than 13 million since the device debuted), “it has been less a flagship product than a sort of learning experience for the company. It’s been great for customers, but it’s also been good from a learning point of view for Apple.”

Chatter in the corridors throughout the conference was twofold: he did himself a disservice by showing up and not sharing any deep insights, which would have helped to re-ignite faith among thought leaders, partners, press, pundits and the pools of money in the audience and b) while Steve Jobs might have been able to get away with secrecy in that Apple culture and aloof kind of way, people had faith in the silence because they had faith in Steve. 

While Tim claimed that Apple had a “grand vision” for TV and innovation was needed since there hasn’t been much progress in the last two decades, he didn’t convey much more. When Kara asked him what kind of CEO he was, he didn’t answer despite a couple of attempts.

Here’s one thing I think would have worked: talk about your operations and “bottom line” strength – while he’s not the creative genius or stageman that Steve was (and btw, no one is), focusing on what he can and does ace, can go far. Secondly, people want to see a personality through texture, color and energy even if that energy is a quiet one.

Even if not theatrical on stage, he could show confidence and humanity (a kick-ass combination for any CEO in my humble opinion), by bringing up two or three personal examples in his own life. If he went with that approach, I am certain that if the wealthy and influential audience at D did’t hang onto every word he said, anyone and everyone watching him on the live stream and the video of the interview later most certainly would. My two cents…

He also addressed wearable devices, the growth of their adoption and seeing it as a trend. Here’s a video the All Things D team took that shares a few insights on Google Glass and its current value-add including Tim Cook’s take. Four or five guys were wearing them at the conference, so I got a chance to test a pair out. The experience was a bit eerie and distracting, making me feel unsettled about my physical environment – in other words, I was more fixated on the potential augmented reality rewards and “digital data” within my surroundings than the person or physical object in front of me. A good thing? Perhaps I’ll rephrase that. A healthy thing?

I also might add that it didn’t do wonders for my otherwise stylin’ dress and unless a different designer gets involved in future versions, I don’t see this being a fashion add-on, at least not for women. (from one woman’s viewpoint. To add to that, even Tim Cook agreed that people wear glasses because they have to and that they should reflect a person’s fashion and style while being unobtrusive).

Google Glass

Another D speaker favorite is Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo, who I’ve known since his early Feedburner days. He has fabulous energy on stage and this year was no different. Personally I think his Chicago edge and humor play well in this environment. Fortune 500 CEOs who present often, TAKE NOTE: Wit Matters.

Dick-Costolo at D (14)

Kara who took the lead on topics addressed the news aspect of Twitter and asked whether Dick sees Twitter as a “news organization”? Interesting question since she’s right, so many people, myself included, use Twitter as a source for our news, or at least catching up on trends, ideas and events. It’s a curation of all three and more from my vantage point and I get to select who I read, when and how.

He says, “I see us partnering with news organizations to distribute news in real time and to help organize and sift through the noise. The beauty of the feed is that you
follow who you want but you can also get an aspect of discovery in the mix. The accuracy of the signal that it delivers is remarkable — we are seeing in the data that people are
using the discovery tabs more and more. In the future, I see us surfacing discovery in a
simpler way.”

Simplicity was a core theme. While it’s easy to keep adding more features, the challenge is in removing complexity while keeping the functionality and value-add there, something he says Jack Dorsey aces. Dick says of Jack, “he has remarkable product sensibility – he sees things in a way that no one else does and has a
unique way of finding innovative things early on. He’s extraordinary.”

Dick-Costolo at D (20)

What is Twitter
missing today? Simplicity, he says again. “Because of the 140 word constraint, people have created memes and language that everyone knows in the tweetoverse but newbies have to learn.” 

A capital investment guy asks him, “Twitter is
having an extraordinary impact on the financial markets – it’s a constant flow. When does government say to Twitter that you
need to control it?”

Dick says that
it will likely flow less from government and more from how the media laws are written in each country. They are so different depending on where you are, referencing the UK’s broadcast media world as an example.

Another D favorite was Pinterest’s Ben Silbermann, largely for his honesty and down-to-earth approach on stage.

Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann (15)

He talked about how people use Pinterest today – people ask themselves: what activities should I share with my kids? What gift
should I get my wife? Pinterest was started to address those needs. He says, “Collecting physical things was always a passion for me and I think what you collect says a lot about who you are.I was interested in taking things offline and putting
them online.”  

When asked what he didn’t know at the beginning and what they have learned along the way, he talked about the overlapping pins, as a way to learn about someone else or a group of people who shares similar interests as you somewhere else in the world.  He says, “people who share things creates an interest graph – it gives
you an intuitive and human way to discover things.” 

Some call Pinterest the sleeping giant although it isn’t really sleeping anymore.  Media in general is becoming more visual and while there have been discovery platforms over the past ten years, the timing didn’t match the adoption of integrating a digital lifestyle as a normal and daily routine. Timing isn’t everything but it matters more than a lot of entrepreneurs think it does.

I see this with clients all the time! Many start-up founders see, feel and taste the vision long before a consumer is ready to embrace it and often, no amount of advice will stop them from moving full speed ahead even if the market isn’t quite ready for it.

Ben also talked about how their team thinks about Pinterest on a mobile device or iPad differently based on user behavior. He says, “we ask the question from your access point, ‘are you on the web to browse and put collections together or are you at the supermarket accessing Pinterest through your cell phone to find a recipe with ingredients you need?”

Pinterest founder Ben Silbermann (18)

What about Pinterest as a lead generation for brands? Your phone and tablet is always around you so it matters, he says and mobile is huge…..and growing. It begs the following questions: Is Pinterest a mobile interest graph company or will it become one? What business is Pinterest in today and in five years?

Simplicity was as core to Ben and his team as it is to Dick and his at Twitter. Says Ben, “when the average
person uses Pinterest, it has to be easy-to-use and intuitive.”
They are taking feedback from both the partner and consumer sides.

The latest evaluation? 2.5 billion evaluation today. To that Ben says, “If Google teaches you anything, it’s that small things can get big.”

Dr. Regina E. Dugan, Motorola’s Mobility SVP of Advanced Technology & Products was on stage with the CEO of Motorola Mobility Dennis Woodside.

Regina-Dugan from Motorola (2)

Last time she was on the D stage, she was at DARPA and her personality, wit and confidence was a hit with the geeks and entrepreneurs alike. She was equally compelling the second time around.

Regina
talked about some of the things they and others are working on around authentication. She showed a tattoo on her wrist, a tattoo that would ultimately authenticate
everything. While it’s only a prototype now, the thought of wearing one of those for authentification purposes is freakingly eerie. What scares me most is if the government or pieces of it decide that tattoos or a variation of them should become a standard, in the same way there’s now a standard way of airport security and opting out is possible, but awkward and time consuming.

There’s also an authentification pill and no I’m not kidding. The pill would emit an 18 bit code using your stomach acid as an electrolyte (think battery) and you’ll be able to transmit that digital code repeatedly. The latter means that you’d have to take a tablet every day at least initially. If you were forced into one method of authentication, would you choose the pill or tattoo? Frankly, a button on my cell phone that matches my personal thumb print would do just fine.

Other issues the Motorola Mobility team is working on is battery life and broken phones and disruption in the mobile and TV world – who gets paid what and what becomes the new “fair” in the new digital world?  What does mobile innovation look like when it is less feathered and tampered with by carriers?

Regina was proud to announce that Google Glass wearers walking around with the new Motorola phone slated to come out in August will be made in the U.S., not overseas. (70% will be assembled in Texas).

Lastly, they’re kicking off a fun project this summer that will test the limit of “great new ideas.” In true makerfair fashion, they are taking a van 10,000 miles over five months to universities and fairs, giving people access to tools so they can create things — from medicine and mobile to 3D printing.

Less exciting on stage was GE’s CEO Jeffrey Immelt, but then again, it’s hard to compete with Regina’s fabulous energy.

GE is clearly thinking about and innovating with 3D printing. He says, “the practice of 3D printing has some practical applications in the big industrial world of building jet engines.” Like Musk, he and his team are thinking of big ideas, not iPhone and social media applications.

Jeffrey-Immelt from GE (2)

Nuance’s CEO and Chairman Paul Ricci talked about the future of speech recognition. As someone who led communications efforts for Dragon — now owned by Nuance — I’m a sucker for any advancement in the speech world. He says, “most of what we do is service large enterprise service companies, cars and the consumer electronic industry.

Clearly, as has always been the challege with speech recognition accuracy and mainstream adoption, it’s not just the literal accuracy but the understanding of what you mean: natural language processing and beyond. It continues to get better but still has a long way to go.

That said, recognition is better than it’s ever been in history. I’m a user of Siri and find the accuracy remarkably good, so much so that it has become habit, unlike so many other false hopes and useless technology promises.

Paul-Ricci of Nuance (5)

While B2B and enterprise remain a core part of their business and embedded speech to enable things we use everyday will continue to grow, there’s still the consumer application for speech which has helped so many.

I felt a sense of pride and nostalgia when he referred to Dragon products as the only products in his lifetime which has had such a profound impact on people’s lives. I too remember so many times when people walked up to me and shared stories about how Dragon’s recognition software had literally changed their lives. It was a nice touch and great to hear on the afternoon of the last day.

There’s always new & innovative demos shown at D and my favorite was from Max Levchin, formerly of Slide and Paypal. He showed a demo of a new fertility app called GLOW, which is a mobile app that calculates, tracks and monitors data for a woman’s pregnancy, such as optimal time of month, and so on. That data can be used to assess the best time for a woman to get pregnant.

There were also demos of Fanhattan and August. Fanhattan is a cloud-based app that is attempting to aggregate video sources into a single location making it a more seamless user experience.

Fanhattan Demo (1)

August uses an iPhone and Bluetooth to automatically lock and unlock the door of a home or office as you come close. When you leave, the same process will lock the door behind you. You can access the app through the web or your mobile device, where there are controls, such as digital key sharing and log data of who entered your home and when they were last there.

The app is in synch with the theme of needing to speed up and automate authentification since we are doing it more and more often every day. There’s clearly a need for a solution that tackles this problem. I’m feeling a bit better about this than the Motorola authentification pill to be honest. How about you?

Demo of August (2)

Below Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher bid the crowd farewell and thanked their team for yet another successful D. Other speakers not mentioned here include Walt Disney’s Thomas Staggs, Box’s CEO Aaron Levie, John Chambers, Barry Diller, CNN’s Jeff Zucker, Anne Sweeney, I. Marlene King, Scooter Braun, Troy Carter, Guy Oseary, Google’s Sundar Pichai, Steven Sinofsky from Harvard, Kazuo Hirai and the 49er’s CEO Jed York.

Walt and Kara at end of D2013

And, a hats off to the crew I came down to D with for making the to and fro such a pleasure: Patti and Larry Magid, Gary Lauder, Shireen Piramoon, Gary Kovacs, Nat Goldhaber, Renee Blodgett. Also, a major kudos to Nat’s incredible flying ability. As always, the best conversations of any conference always happen offline. Hallways, elevators, cars, planes, taxis, swimming pools and bars all count! :-)

Nat-Goldhaber plane and group shot (3)

Photo credits: Top photo of globe from intentblog.com, Sheryl Sandberg shot is a screen grab from the All Things D video from MikeIsaac’s article on the All Things D site/blog, Tim Cook Shot from Asa Mathat / AllThingsD.com and all others Renee Blodgett.