Global Tech

At Europe’s DLD: Innovation, Anxiety, and Inspiration

DLD, Continental Europe’s highest-level technology conference, opened this week in Munich with a panel on European competitiveness. The key takeaway: Snowden’s revelations were, as one European executive said, “a gift to the European Internet industry.” Fair enough. But even as the halls vibrated with the sound of cards being exchanged between aggressive Euro-technologists and investors and other hyperconnectors from around the world, the ongoing dominance of the U.S. was in evidence.

Jimmy Wales announced that he was becoming co-chairman of The People’s Operator, a London-based mobile carrier with global ambitions and a heavy philanthropic commitment (10% of revenues and 25% of profits donated to charity). But as he got started he showed a no-eyes-could-stay-dry video of students at a South African high school collectively reading a letter they wrote asking for free access to Wikipedia—a service that has been deployed already in a number of countries by various telcos. Wikipedia may be global, but its values are deeply rooted in the American ethos (and its headquarters remain in San Francisco).

The latest generation of (American) Net superstars was much in evidence, as Tony Fadell of Nest and Drew Houston of Dropbox took the stage, among others. Fadell just sold his company to Google for well over $3 billion and the buzz about Dropbox’s huge new valuation and investment gave an added frisson to the entire conference. I had a chance to sit down with both of them.

Google is increasingly seeming to be, as The Economist said the other day, the GE of the connected age. Hardware that will serve functions across our lives is its growing focus (along with the usual search and email, etc.). It owns Motorola. It just announced smart contact lenses for diabetics, bought a robotics company, and its car-oriented business is gaining traction both for driverless systems and Android for navigation and control. So it makes sense it would buy a much-respected maker of-—so far—smart thermostats and smart home fire alarms.

I asked Fadell how Nest fits in. He underscored the growing hardware focus. “When you think Google hardware, don’t forget their servers and network infrastructure products,” he said. [Note: these are all used internally for now.]  As he continued, he downplayed a concern many at DLD were talking about—that Nest could be a trojan horse to garner personal data about people in their homes, or else be yet another advertising vehicle: “They make a lot of products that don’t have ads on them—Chromecast for example,” Fadell continued. “From us you’ll just see more of what Nest already does, in more places, more quickly.” I asked him what people don’t sufficiently understand about his company. “Our products get better,” he replied, meaning even after you’ve bought them. “We know these things will sit on the wall for a decade and we will keep improving the software.”

While Houston of Dropbox wouldn’t comment on the company’s much-publicized fundraising, he did say that a top company priority is investing in more infrastructure. “We’re placing bigger bets and making more investment,” he said. Dropbox’s core utility is online storage for anything digital. Houston calls it an online “home”: “It’s evolved from a magic folder to a home for all your stuff. Whereas Google indexes the world’s information, and Facebook is your social sphere, nobody has created a place like home, that’s private, with no advertising.”

Security and privacy were relentlessly top-of-mind at DLD, both because of the ongoing European distress over the Snowden revelations and because of the ever-increasing sense in the U.S. Internet industry that business as usual is no longer good enough when it comes to private data. “We are making the most safe and secure and reliable home possible,” said Houston. “What nobody until now has done is give everyone the tools they need and also lock it down.” How did he feel about the NSA hacking into major Internet companies? “Bear in mind that the FBI can come thumping on your door. But it’s more open, it’s through due process. It was the absence of that that made people upset.” He was clearly relieved that Dropbox was not among the companies that surfaced in the Snowden documents. But he did join the recent meeting Internet industry execs had with President Obama to express their alarm and discuss the need for legal changes.

Albert Wenger, a deep-thinking venture capitalist at New York’s Union Square Ventures, gave an inspiring talk about the scope of tech-driven transformations underway—his thinking was deeply techonomic, as we say around here. He listed a series of “complementary innovations” that had arisen throughout human history and given a potent push to progress. He called them “non-linear steps”: domestication and agriculture; writing and specialization; and power and manufacturing. Then he listed a series of comparably epochal complementaries that are recent and emerging at an accelerating pace: computers and networks; machine learning and robotics; imaging and 3D printing; and big data and cell biology.

“There is the promise of abundance,” he concluded. “And we’ve come from long periods where scarcity was the dominant paradigm. But the threat is that we’re not very good at these transitions. They’ve often led to plagues and wars. So what will we build for an abundant society?” The answers were unclear. DLD is the kind of place (like our Techonomy conference) where such questions are central.

Separately, chronic techno-negativist Evgeny Morozov gave a speech in which he despaired of evading the grip of “corporations” that dominate technology, and said his fondest desire was that all venture capitalists—who are apparently bloodsuckers feasting on the debris of civilized society—should just go away. But no matter.

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