Supernova 2009

Ppeople at a conferenceCommercial Air travel is not a barrel of fun these days but leaving home at 4:30 in the morning enabled me to get an early flight and a smooth trip to San Francisco. The return trip two days later was a different story. Airlines can’t control the weather and occasional maintenance issues are to be expected, but the frustrating part is the lack of good communications on the ground at the airports and the lack of integrated systems resulting in getting different information — kiosk, overhead displays, ticket counter, at the gate, airline lounges — for the same flight. The maintenance issue was fixed quickly but the “paperwork” to get approval for takeoff required a couple of hours.  Most of us have similar stories — there are a number of my airline stories here in the blog.
This was the eighth year for the Supernova conference — run by Kevin Werbach who is a leading expert on the business, policy, and social implications of emerging Internet and communications technologies. Kevin has a good track record of anticipating key trends along the path to the Network Age. Supernova attracts CEOs, bloggers, entrepreneurs, academics, practitioners, visionaries, policy experts and industry thought leaders. Like all conferences, the best part is catching up with friends and colleagues and comparing points of view.
There are a couple of unique things about Supernova. It is the only conference that connects with one of the world’s foremost business schools — the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The other unique feature is how “connected” the attendees can become with the speakers and each other. Supernova offers a live video stream, a twitter feed, and live blogging to enable attendees and remote participants from all over the world — there were 200+ people from numerous countries in San Francisco this year — to all jump into the conversation.
It is very difficult to summarize what I learned at Supernova. Every year it is mind expanding. I feel fortunate to be there and participate in the dialogue and stay somewhat on the edge of what is evolving. The mobile Internet continues to gain momentum — seemed that everyone there had an iPhone. Last year I reported that social computing was mushrooming. Not sure what word describes the current status — maybe all-consuming. There are serious discussions going on in the development community about how (not whether) to standardize identity, authorization, and applications across the various social networks in some sensible way. Privacy has always been an issue but as storage cost approaches zero, everything we say or do will be saved. Twitter is the tip of the iceberg. The telecommunications operators continue to consolidate and continue to offer poor customer service and a lack of choice. 
Kevin kicked things off at the Mission Bay Conference Center (UCSF Campus) with his view of the “changing world”. The afternoon panels focused on how pervasive connectivity is altering everything from our social interactions to our cities and how the infrastructure of the Internet is quietly being transformed. The rise of cloud computing and broadband applications are shifting the landscape for both network operators and service providers. Anil Dash talked about how networking is beginning to make government more efficient and collaborative. Peter Gruber talked about the turmoil in the motion picture industry where it is becoming harder to predict what consumers will want. Avatar — to be released in a couple of weeks — cost $350 million to produce while Paranormal Activity is said to have cost $11,000. Which one will make more money? Chris Anderson, of Wired, talked about how a clever designer can use three-D software at home to design a physical object and then “manufacture” it on a $750 three-D printer in the basement.
Day two was at the Wharton San Francisco Campus. During the Opening Plenary Session, JP Rangaswami, John Hagel, Umair Haque, and Ellen Levy talked about the financial crisis and whether it is a permanent discontinuity in market economics or just a temporary bump in the road? The consensus was that the current recovery is temporary and there are big problems ahead. John Hagel cited that big business has had a steady decline in return on assets for decades and there is no sign that it will reverse. Not a pretty picture. I am more optimistic than any of the panelists.
Another interesting panel was about whether “There is a Media Business?”. Their consensus was that the world doesn’t need newspapers, record labels, and TV broadcasters as we know them but it does need journalism and distribution mechanisms for quality entertainment and information. The focus of the discussion was whether innovative new forms of online media will replace what is lost as traditional industries collapse? Most of us would say yes.
My friend and moderator Tim O’Reilly moderated a discussion about “Going with the Flow”. We are moving from a world of web pages to a rich and continuous stream of information. Emails replaced by tweets. A web page about train schedules replaced by real-time data on where the trains are at the moment. Reading a review of something replaced by tweets of where someone is having a meal and what music they are listening too. For some, all of this is too much, even for some techies. One thing I can say for sure. The trend to more and more information about everything and everybody is not going to reverse any time soon. Hopefully kids will learn that posting things about their social activities today may prevent them getting a job or getting elected in the future. There is a lot of room for some common sense.
The panel about telecommunications was really good. Paul DeSa from the FCC gave a glimmer of hope. The FCC really wants to maintain an open Internet, deploy broadband throughout the country, and keep competition going to increase innovation. As I have written here many times, I am convinced that Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T do not share any vision that might reduce their monopoly power and profitability. I am all for profitability but only in a competitive marketplace. The lack of adequate competition is why prices are high, contracts lock us in, Internet speeds are exaggerated, and customer service is poor. I am not in favor of expanded government but in the area of telecommunications the government is our only hope in the short run. Looking forward to Supernova in 2010.