At the, media and politics took the center stage, as opposed to technology, but I did hear some interesting thoughts from a few executives who run, or have run, important technology firms, including Steve Ballmer, Steve Case, and Andy Rubin.
Rubin, founder and CEO of Playground Global and best known as the former leader of the team that created Android, discussed the new Essential Phone, which had just. He noted that Playground is both a venture fund and a design studio, and backed Essential.
The Essential phone will run stock Android and offer a 5.7-inch screen, yet remain the size of a normal phone because it has less bezel (though that isn’t all that unusual these days—the Samsung Galaxy S8 and LG G6 are other examples.) What makes Essential more unusual is the titanium frame and the ceramic back, and the accessory bus which uses two pins on the back where you can attach accessories such as a 360-degree camera.
Because the accessories connect with the phone wirelessly—the clips on the back of the phone are for alignment and power only—Rubin said this lets the company “future-proof future phones.” This, he said, will allow for continuous innovation, outside of the 24-month innovation cycle typical for today’s smartphones.
Rubin also talked about a future Home product, which includes a speaker, 5.6-inch round screen, and the firm’s own personal assistant software. For this, the goal is to build bridges that enable the device to control all of the items in your home, rather than tying you to a single ecosystem. Rubin talked about having the device support SmartThings, HomeKit, Thread, Weave, Android Wear, or any other of the various home IoT ecosystems, and do this securely and privately, though they have not yet demonstrated the assistant software that would do this.
LA Clippers basketball team owner Steve Ballmer, best known as the former CEO of Microsoft, spent most of his interview talking about the recently-launched, which Ballmer funded. His goal is to produce a site with accurate numbers about government revenues and spending in order to facilitate better discussions, and produce the equivalent of a 10-K financial report for the government. He was surprised by the amount of interest in the current site, which has a very small staff.
Ballmer noted that it takes “quite a bit of machinery to keep it up to date” and he would like to see the site expand to include things such as state governments. He noted that many areas, such as education, are funded at the federal, state, and local levels, which makes it difficult to gather comprehensive information. Ballmer thinks it is important that the numbers tell a story, but he wants the site to focus on actual current spending numbers and historical numbers, and avoid predictions.
Ballmer didn’t talk much about Twitter, where he is a major investor, other than to say he thinks there’s a real opportunity to make Twitter a relevant economic asset, and that he’s proud to be associated with it. That goes back to his “investor phase,” which he said is over, as he chooses to focus on his Microsoft share and the Clippers.
On Microsoft, Ballmer said he was “too slow to recognize [the] need for new capabilities, particularly in hardware.” The company saw that the new “expression of software” was in hardware, but still needed to change its business model and delivery model. With Windows Phone, Ballmer said, Microsoft tried to use the same techniques it had used on Windows, even though “the same techniques were never going to get us there.” On the other hand, Microsoft did cloud right, Ballmer said, and added that he believes current CEO Satya Nadella is doing a good job.
I was interested in Ballmer’s view on technology and sports, and he talked about how having multiple cameras in a basketball game can help people understand the different kinds of pick-and-rolls and defenses, leading to things such as diagraming plays in real time, as well as showing the impact on fantasy leagues and synthesizing the view from a player’s perspective. Some of this will be available from a firm called Second Spectrum, which Ballmer said should be “in beta” for the 2018 season, and he hopes to have it live the following season.
Steve Case, CEO of Revolution and probably best known as the co-founder and former CEO of AOL, spent much of his time talking about the importance of encouraging innovation in less traditional parts of the country, a theme discussed in his book.
Case calls this theme the “Rise of the Rest” and noted that 75 percent of venture capital funding goes to companies in three states—California, New York, and Massachusetts. “People feel left out and left behind because people have been left out and left behind,” Case said, noting that the disparity in investments is one reason people in other parts of the country feel disadvantaged economically.
But Case said investing in other cities and states is not only the right thing for the country, since it would create a more level playing field, but also makes sense for investors. He argues that the “third wave” of the Internet requires more expertise in particular industries, which are more distributed around the country. Case counts the early online companies focused on making communications happen, such as AOL, as the first wave, and said these companies were located all over the country, noting that AOL was in Virginia, Hayes—which made modems—was in Atlanta, and that Dell was in Austin. He said the second wave consisted of companies that built services on top of the Internet, such as search and social media—i.e., Google and Facebook and apps such as Snapchat and Instagram, and these were mostly based in Silicon Valley. Case says we are now entering the Third Wave, where companies will transform industries such as education, health care, and agriculture, and these companies could be anywhere, as there are more large companies and more business in the middle of the country than in the three states with large VC investments. He said he is in the middle of a tour—also called “Rise of the Rest”—in an effort to create more of a network effect, by bringing media attention and investor attention to other areas of the country.
In addition, Case said, valuations tend to be larger in Silicon Valley, so there is an advantage for investors in other markets. He noted some recent successes, such as pet supply site Chewy, which is based in Ft. Lauderdale and was recently sold for $3.3 billion; and ExactTarget, which is based in Indianapolis and was acquired by Salesforce. ExactTarget has become Salesforce’s “Marketing Cloud,” while significantly growing in Indiana.
Case said that over the last three decades, all of the net growth in jobs has come from startups, and he talked about how there is now a global battle for talent. While America has led the way, he said we are now seeing a “globalization of entrepreneurship” which could be a threat to America’s leadership. In addition, he noted that 90 percent of venture capital went to companies headed by men, and only 1 percent went to African-Americans, and that this needs to change. Case sounded optimistic and pointed to a number of recent startups and technology movements in places such as Baltimore, Detroit, Arizona, and Indianapolis. Overall, he said, we need to “celebrate Silicon Valley, but also spread the love to other places.”
Also at the show, I heard, .
Michael J. Miller is chief information officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Miller, who was editor-in-chief of PC Magazine from 1991 to 2005, authors this blog for PCMag.com to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.