Future in Review (FiRe) 2009 roundup

Future in Review (FiRe) 2009 roundup

Over the course of last year, I did 25 different events, all of them focused on mobile. However, there was one event that truly stretched my thinking and worldview and that was the “Future in Review” conference (see last year’s review here) hosted by Mark Anderson, CEO of Strategic News Service (SNS). It exposes one to multidisciplinary subjects from global warming to nuclear weapons, from oceanography to medicine, from mobile to cloud, from economics to space rockets, it’s all here, nicely packed in a 3 day conference.

FiRe 2009 started with a brilliant keynote address from Prof. Veerabhadran Ram Ramanathan, Distinguished Prof of Climate Sciences and Director who is quite possibly the most authoritative person on the subject of climate change. He started his work way back in the 70s, decades before Al Gore made it glamorous. He is the one who has been measuring the impact on our planet one measurement at a time. He took us through the journey of his career culminating with a stark warning and a message of hope.

ram  134 

Things have deteriorated to such an extent that if we don’t check the downward spiral, many of the significant sources of water such as the Gangotri Glacier in India will disappear in 10-15 years. If you stop and think about it – that’s just stunning and has calamity written all over it. If the source of Ganges disappears, the life that has built around the river for thousands of miles before it goes into the Bay of Bengal will be unsustainable. I grew up in Roorkee, a town on the banks of the Ganges, so the point hit home very strongly. I have been thinking about this issue since the PBS documentary “On Thin Ice” by David Brancaccio and Conrad Anker – one of world’s leading high altitude climbers. 75% of the world’s fresh water is stored in glaciers and at the current pace of destruction, within 15-20 years most will be severely depleted. And there are still people in high places who don’t get it.

It was not all doom and gloom but a ray of hope in his experiments that left us less depressed by the end of the keynote. He is working on a number of experiments to identify and cure the main sources of pollution and carbon in the atmosphere like the Project Surya to reduce air pollution and global warming by cooking with renewable sources. Or the unmanned drones (pictures above) to measure brown cloud particulate composition to get a handle on how pollution travels (did you know that it only takes 2-3 days for pollution in China to come over the US and then another 2-3 days to reach Europe and the cycle continues – pollution is flat and globalized – thinking that it is only a developed world problem or developing world problem is foolish, also foolish is waiting on the other party to move first).

Best wishes to Ram and his team to educate, illuminate, and find solutions to the toxic problem of our times.

131 (with Mark Anderson)

Next day we moved into the full-fledged conference mode with 30 min rapid fire sessions from 8-5. The morning started with Mark talking to Stephen Evans of BBC World Service (he is a great interviewer btw) about how we recover from the current crisis and if technology will lead the rebound? Answer is Yes! and we are already seeing signs of it and others in the industry like Bill Gates and John Chambers have been echoing the same thing as well. Later Mark interviewed Mark Hurd, CEO of HP who had a hard time sitting on his feet so the discussion was done standing up.

070 (Mark and Mark)

He emphasized that the future is in the packaging of software, services, hardware, and network rather than siloed solutions. Haven’t we heard that before. Hurd is a numbers guy and can recite P&L spreadsheet from memory. He suggested that we will see more of the same for the reminder of the year and that the services business is yielding good profits for HP now. There was also quite a bit of discussion on the latest buzz word “Cloud Computing,” what it means and how does everyone profit from it.

Several industry heavyweights like Werner at Amazon, Amitabh at Microsoft, Russ Daniels at HP were at hand to discuss what CC means to them. While there is a lack of industry consensus on the meaning, it more and more looks like the reallocation and redistribution of resources – physical and electronic in a manner that drives efficiency and cost reductions for startups to behemoths. From a consumer point of view, it will always be a blend of solutions that take into account the privacy and security of data. My recent hard drive failures has forced me rethink my backup strategy.


(My panel on the future of Wireless Broadband – Fred, Chris, David, Hugh, and Rama)

Photo copyright © 2009 by Sandy Huffaker Jr

Later in the day, I had the privilege to host the only mobile session of the conference “The Future of Wireless Broadband” with five amazing panelists, Dr Fred Kitson, Corporate VP, Motorola, Chris Pearson, President, 3G Americas, Dr. Hugh Bradlow, CTO of Telstra, Dr. Rama Shukla, VP, Intel, and David Achim, President, SkyFiber. I have written about the subject in great detail over the last couple of years so it was great to bounce some questions to the best minds in the space. Highlights of the discussion:

  • Hugh, ever a purist, defined 4G as 100Mbps.
  • Not a surprise, but the latest surge of smartphones is causing the networks to panic and follow the upgrade path esp. for HSPA+, LTE, and WiMAX
  • Rama said that 4G is more about the business model than about the technology. A business model that enables and opens up the ecosystem at a low price thus fostering innovation and services in an accelerated way
  • Hugh added that it is also about the spectrum as what’s available and how it can be utilized for new services, new technologies, and new business models
  • Being a provider of the backhaul technology (a choke point in the network evolution), David discussed how the backhaul technology will need to be upgraded at an accelerated pace if we are to deliver 10Mbps+ speeds.
  • Fred brought in the perspective from the device and infrastructure provider and they are doing well with both WiMAX and LTE and that newer devices with much enhanced capabilities will drive more demand for bandwidth as well as the need to optimize applications to conserve batteries (which is another areas that needs innovation and breakthrough)
  • Chris gave a summary of the LTE efforts of operators around the world with folks like Verizon accelerating their rush to 4G due to end of lifecycle of EV-DO while others like ATT are pursuing a slightly slower approach trying to maximize the output from HSPA+.
  • Hugh has been playing with newer set of “alternate devices” like sensor networks, telemetry, projection glasses and so on and so forth and sees their importance in the growing ecosystem.
  • Australia is dedicating $43B to broadband expansion to 90% of the consumers in the country. An equivalent US investment will be close to $350B and we are investing $7B (stimulus package). As I have said before, the stimulus package was a huge missed opportunity and the govt. could have done much better.
  • The flat rate economy is not sustainable and something has to give in the future
  • The availability of broadband impacts consumer behavior and we are likely to see very diverse models and services emerge in the coming days

There were other host of areas I wanted to get into but you can only do so much in 30 minutes especially if you have great panelists. Wish I could have a day long session 🙂 to discuss the nitty-gritty in much more detail. In any case, great panel and insights. Joe Sterling was at hand as well to do an artist rendition of our panel, art below.


As I mentioned before, the conference was filled with very interesting discussions like Ambassador Dennis Hays from Thorium Power discussing a world where the capacity of making nuclear weapons can be taken out of the nuclear materials to only focus on nuclear energy for energy purposes. Boy! won’t that change the geo-political dynamics. John Hagel talked about shaping strategy based on this recent HBR paper and his upcoming book on the subject.

Another highlight of the show is to gather the bright CTOs of leading corporations and give them a practical problem to solve like how to provide adequate safe water for future decades. Hosted by David Brin (cohost of TV ArchiTechs series), the panel delved into understanding the problem and delivering a framework for solutions. Not a typical session you see at a conference. Hey CTIA! how about putting together a problem solving panel for your next show?

I also was touched by the screening of the movie “The Cove” – winner of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award. More details here. Synopsis:

In the 1960’s, Richard O’Barry was the world’s leading authority on dolphin training, working on the set of the popular television program Flipper. Day in and day out, O’Barry kept the dolphins working and television audiences smiling. But one day, that all came to a tragic end.

The Cove, directed by Louie Psihoyos, tells the amazing true story of how Psihoyos, O’Barry and an elite team of activists, filmmakers and free divers embarked on a covert mission to penetrate a hidden cove in Japan, shining light on a dark and deadly secret. The mysteries they uncovered were only the tip of the iceberg.

Visit the Movie home page

It will change your perspective of how you view dolphins for ever and those trips to seaworld will be ever so more poignant filled with self-introspection. More power to the activists like Richard O’Barry and directors like Louie Psihoyos for opening our eyes and making a remarkable piece despite the challenge.

Another highlight of the conference is the interviews of top technologists and emerging startups by BBC’s Stephen Evans. Each gets a sound byte to wow the world (the session is streamed to 150M people). Highlights – Xerox – how can we solve legal cases with technology? Radar Networks – NOW is the unit of change. Vlingo – Speech is changing. IMANI-Ghana – SMS to prevent drug counterfeits, Cisco – virtual reality, voice, and data are the three different waves of innovation, the opportunity for collaboration is immense, Liberty – 5 yr projection 1Gbps wired, 100Mbps wireless peak throughputs, avg – 200Mbps for wired and 10Mbps for wireless, Microsoft – it will be the Chinese century, companies shouldn’t worry about protecting their marketshare in China but worry about protecting their share from Chinese players overseas, Smaato – Mobile Advertising is going to be the most prevalent business model in mobile, and SIMtone – make terminals dumb again and have the network cloud take care of everything.

The current financial crisis was also discussed at length. Many thought Europe is in denial and lack fundamental understanding of the crisis, that China and US are intertwined more than ever before and will have to work together to lead the world out of the crisis, India is largely untouched and better days are ahead thanks to the recent electoral results.


(Larry with Kamran, Mark with Elon)

Larry Brilliant suggested that the vaccines are the best investment in human history. Can’t argue with that one. He also suggested that the world should be thankful to Mexico for releasing the data early and often enough for other countries to take precautionary measures (sometimes to the extreme, I might add). They have suffered significantly and have been ridiculed but hopefully they serve as a lesson for the world in future pandemics.

If FiRe represents the best in multidisciplinary thinking, Elon Musk represents the rare breed of multidisciplinary entrepreneurs. The guy can shift from intricacies of electric cars to the design of rocket ships to solar energy with ease.

3556314187_21aa910f15 (with Hugh at Calit2) Copyright© 2009 Calit2

My best session was at Calit2. I think Larry Smarr has the best office with many 10Gbps links and coolest toys to play with, especially the 125Mpixel Hyperwall. It was also nice to interact with Michael Sims, Manager and Planner for the Mars Rover at NASA and his team using the network and the wall. You can see some cool images below. The second set of pictures are an image of human brain where you can pick out the single neurons with ease.

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Also, interacted with the next generation surface and touch technology that uses pressure as an input as well. Below is me doing a destructive face surgery on a poor soul.


Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the 0-60 mps in 3.9s experience in Tesla Roadster. That car is a rocket.


Overall it was a great conference. I left more curious about more things. The conference also has an intimate feel to it where you can discuss burning issues with top experts and award winners over coffee, stroll, and meals. Registration for 2010 is open now.