Happy Birthday Geekwire! It’s been just one year since Todd Bishop and John Cook launched the tech blog Geekwire. To celebrate a successful freshman year, Geekwire invited several of the top names in tech to join them and several hundred guests at the first annual Geekwire Summit. Held in the Washington State Conference center in downtown Seattle, the event featured tech luminaries from Microsoft, T-Mobile, Rhapsody, The University of Washington and Facebook among others. If there was any single theme running through the event, it was mobile. Apple’s release of the iPad Three earlier in the day colored much of the commentary showing that the technologies, standards and business opportunities that mobile platforms offer are a continuing source of fascination. The event with a suitably informal (if you know John and Todd) “fireside chat” hosted by former Microsoft software and management guru Ray Ozzie and it didn’t take long for Ozzie to mention mobile.
According to Ozzie, the gatekeepers that control the app stores are also the new content distributors and that is the defining relationship in the mobile era. Looking back at the early innovations he observed over his long career, Ozzie heralded the new distribution opportunities that are available to today’s startups. Reminding the younger attendees that the promise and failure of online distribution was at the heart of the tech bubbly bust, Ozzie sees new multiple platforms as the fulfillment of the wired promises of the past.
Talking directly to the entrepreneurs in the room, Ozzie counseled budding startups to stay lean and agile in the current economy. According to Ozzie, the successful startup should go to market with an innovative product before worrying about funding. Discussing his years as a management reformer at Microsoft, Ozzie talked almost wistfully of his mission to refocus Microsoft teams to focus on consumer needs over consumer technology needs. Ozzie talked about trying to convince the Office group to offer productivity to consumers, not software; the Xbox team to offer entertainment not just games.
These days, Ozzie splits his time between Boston and Seattle. He is back in the startup game with his new company Cocomo. Asked about Cocomo by Cook, Ozzie avoided revealing too much about the company. Ozzie is optimistic about the Seattle Tech community. He reminded the audience that region alone isn’t as important as it once might have been: “If you have great ideas, than you can do that from anywhere.” One Northwest weakness Ozzie identified is the lack of start up accelerators that help “entrepreneurs learn what they don’t already know.”
The second panel was all about Mobile and at times the discussion was a real free–for–all. A very diverse panel of mobile providers, developers and content distributors weighed in on the opportunities in the mobile platform and the mobile marketplace. Just the diversity of this panel illustrates how much of a wild–west spirit still dominates the mobile landscape. From left to right we had, T-Mobile’s Cole Brodman, Rhapsody’s Jon Irwin, Swype’s Mike McSherry, and Z2Live’s David Bluhm. In their relatively short time on stage (45 minutes, but I expect that attendees could have sat through 45 minutes more) the diverse panel’s comments were wonderfully all over the map. There were also opportunities for a little controversy from the panelists. When asked by Bishop about changing one aspect of the mobile industry, Brodman recommended ending device subsidization by the providers. Perhaps referring to T-Mobile’s iPhone carrying competitors ending subsidies would, according to Brodman, force consumers, developers and carriers to face the real cost of these devices and create a more level playing field. Answering the same question, Mike McSherry straightforwardly said that he would abolish the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That raised some eyebrows and got some heads nodding in agreement. John Irwin was looking forward to HTML 5 breaking through the app store stranglehold while David Bluhm noted that HTML 5 wouldn’t work well with his companies’ gaming architecture.
Before wrapping up the panel Bishop asked the panel about the prospects for the new Nokia Windows phone. Surprisingly, all of the participants were optimistic. As with any new Microsoft product, there were some questions about why they took so long to get to market with Bluhm going further and questioning why XBox live wasn’t more integrated with the new phone’s architecture.
The second half of the Summit began with one of the afternoon’s heaviest hitters, Hulu’s CTO, Richard Tom flew up from Santa Monica for the event admitting that L.A. isn’t really a tech incubator like Seattle or Silicon Valley. Tom did note that Hulu has a significant presence in Seattle with 50% of their engineering team having ties to Seattle.
Discussing the company’s expanding enterprise initiatives, Tom discussed Hulu’s recent forays into content, Social and ad delivery. At this point, Hulu is trying to create unique viewer experiences with two relatively new Hulu–only programs, Battleground and Day in the Life. Their recent partnership with Facebook is an attempt to create “water cooler” opportunities around Hulu’s content. They are looking at other social opportunities hinting that Facebook is just one facet of an emerging trategy and not going to be dominated by their partnership with Facebook. When asked about ad revenue Tom pointed to two of Hulu’s new innovative ad delivery systems: ad selector and ad swap. Hulu watchers now have the opportunity to choose from three potential ad subjects when they watch Hulu. Add swap allows users to swap an add in midstream if they don’t like the one they are watching. As much as this provides the viewer with choices, it also provides a wealth of user intelligence for the advertisers. According to Tom, Hulu is topping out at 1.4 billion ad impressions per month. Diving into the Mobile theme, Tom echoed some of the challenges that Hulu shares with other content providers: “There is no magic bullet for developing across a seemingly endless number of devices.”
The final panel of the afternoon was an eclectic affair with reps from Microsoft FUSE, Farecast/Bing, Facebook and local venture capitol. Ably hosted by the University of Washington’s Ed Lazowska, the panel was nonetheless not as focused as the previous panelists but there was room for some interesting comments. Facebook’s Jocelyn Goldfein provided attendees with the event’s most quotable material. On innovation: “keeping teams small is what helps Facebook stay nimble…have a culture which embraces failure–move fast and break things.”
The afternoon ended with a surprise appearance by Dave Dederer of the band Presidents of the United States of America and Biz Dev V.P. at Hewlett Packard (did I just write that sentence?). Dederer is a staunch defender of content authors owning and controlling their content. The President’s have always owned their own material beginning with their first album which was recorded before they were signed to a major label. For most of the last decade, Dederer has stopped actively touring with the band but he still runs the band’s business affairs.
Todd Bishop and John Cook have done a remarkable job in founding and running Geekwire. While their first Summit might have lacked the barn-burning, late breaking scoops most journalists (even tech journalists) really want, they have proved that there is still hope for entrepreneurial journalists. Many happy returns.
photos credit: Dan Thornton