Conference Notes

Supernova '05: A round-up of Tuesday afternoon…

The talks that this post refers to occurred at Supernova 2005 on Tuesday 21st of June between midday and 4.30pm.

In the first post I wrote about my experiences at Supernova I expressed this opinion about the conference as a whole:

“I think by necessity this creates a kind of weirdly diverse conference that attracts radically different types of people whose relationship to each other isn’t always easy. So you’ve got the business people, the alpha geeks, the legislators, the military, the policy people and the academics talking about things from very different angles. Which means that any individual part of the audience is likely to be frustrated at some points, bored at other points and insanely fascinated for the rest of the time.”

I came to that conclusion during the first day of the conference proper and I think specifically because of the mixed experience I had of the event. The first interview had been pretty interesting, the panel that followed was good, but right in the middle of my area, so perhaps not ground-breaking. After that had come again the overly familiar: Chris Anderson on the Long Tail and then Jeff Weiner talking about Yahoo, which by that point in the conference had been by far the most interesting talk I’d heard. But around lunchtime, a very different group of people took to the stage for a few hours and for the most part I derived very little of value from their pieces. I want to repeat that I don’t think this is a consequence of poor public-speaking skills and I wouldn’t for one minute suggest that the subjects themselves were empircally uninteresting. But I will stand up and say that there were times when it felt to me like there were two concurrent conferences running at the same time – one which I enjoyed and occasionally loved and a completely different parallel one for a completely different class of human.

The talks, then, that I am going to skim through immensely quickly are pieces from Udi Manber representing A9, Hossein Eslambolchi representing AT&T, a panel on Voice over IP that featured Bill Schlough from the SF Giants, Peter Sisson from Teleo and Stuart Henshall from the Skype Journal. I’ll also touch on Kris Lichter’s piece on the Genographic Project – not because I didn’t derive value from it, but because I can’t think of anything particularly intelligent to say about it.

My notes from the A9 talk are extraordinarily brief. They read, “Search is hard. Why?”. I don’t know who I was addressing that question to specifically – perhaps myself, perhaps it was a transcription of a section of the presentation or perhaps I wanted to corner the guy concerned and ask him directly. But I think my major problem with the talk wasn’t with the talk at all, but with the product he was talking about. A9 is a profoundly puzzling venture that seems up front to be a patently ingenious way of helping people navigate for stuff, but which somehow falls down every time when I actually try and sit in front of it. I have the same problem with Yahoo – I just find it difficult and mind-threatening to deal with the busy pages. In Yahoo’s case that’s the homepage – a mire of complexity and horror that distracts me from whatever I’m trying to accomplish. In A9’s case, it’s the multi-columnar format. And when I see people proposing ways of adding to the numbers of columns you concurrently search – frankly, I tune out…

Hossein Eslambolchi, I’m afraid, probably wins my wooden spoon for worst presentation at a conference ever. And I’m prepared to stand up right now in front of the world and say that I know that I’m being unfair. Like several other papers delivered at ETech this year, it was absolutely clear that there was substantial value lurking somewhere under the surface, but the speed of communication, the language, the unspoken assumptions and the complexity of the slides made the whole thing entirely unfollowable. As a communications exercise it completely failed. And that means – unfortunately – that it became impossible to determine whether what he was saying made sense or was exciting or not.

The panel was substantially better in quality than either of its two preceeding talks. But from my perspective, conceptually at least, VoIP is a solved problem. What I’m waiting for is effective implementations – little more than that. Once that’s been done, then I guess the applications of incorporating speech into other areas (TV’s / software etc) make it worth reinvestigating, but I cannot articulate how uninteresting I find some of the core questions about regulation and hardware vs. software.

To be fair to the panel, however, two panellists did engage my attention. Bill Schlough talked about ubiquitous wireless internet access in the SF Giants ground – which I still don’t really understand the point of at this moment in time (but still fascinated me with possibilities). But it was Stewart Henshall who made the most substantial personal impression. He gestured at a couple of core issues which seemed to me to be about culture changes brought in by technology changes:

“I ask people two questions – ‘what’s your skype strategy?’ and ‘what’s your presence strategy?’ – Skype moves your use of voice from telephony to a kind of intercom where rather than closing a line down you just temporarily mute it. The social net reflects a revolution in the way that we use our tools. There’s always been a tension to use a communications technology to get things done, but now communications technologies are being used to connect, to create communities…”

The final talk I’m going to heavily abbreviate in this section was by Kris Lichter from IBM about the Genographic Project, a bold attempt to study migration patterns and movements of our distant ancestors, the first humans. There’s very little I can say about this, except that it was engaging and I would recommend that people explore it in more depth. The very brief notes from this part of the afternoon are captured here: supernova_tuesday.txt.