Chatbots don’t seem promising. Disney probably won’t buy Twitter. And Microsoft might be underestimated in the AI industry.
Top tech journalists — Nick Wingfield of The New York Times; Mary Jo Foley of ZDNet; and Jay Greene of The Wall Street Journal — kicked off the 2016 GeekWire Summit by laying out their unique insights into the state of the industry.
They covered a wide-range of topics, from artificial intelligence to driverless cars to the cloud computing race. Here’s a rundown of their comments.
On virtual AI assistants
Nick Wingfield: “Google’s investment in artificial intelligence is almost without parallel in the industry. They have all this experience in mobile through their Android products and virtually one of the largest development ecosystems out there. Yet Amazon has managed to sneak in with a product that no one really expected to be as successful as it was. … It’ll be interesting to see whether this whole product blossoms into something much bigger.
One of the questions I have is, are we going to have one assistant that kind of rules our lives, that we want to take from the home to the car to the office? If that’s true, Google has Android, which gives them daily presence in our lives outside of the home. Does that become sort of an impediment to Amazon over time?”
Mary Jo Foley: “I don’t think there’s one that has the runaway lead. I think a lot of people are underestimating Microsoft. They have some really deep roots in this space — not just Cortana but dating back to Microsoft Research and Bing. I’m optimistic to see what Microsoft does, though I am surprised they don’t have a play in the home equivalent to Amazon’s Alexa.
It will be interesting to see what Microsoft does. They are trying to build Cortana into everything. Even though I work at home by myself, I still feel awkward talking to my PC. But think about if you had Cortana accessible through HoloLens or some type of augmented reality goggles. That gets a little more interesting and it’s a place that is more intuitive to use voice.”
Jay Greene: “Amazon has started to create an ecosystem around the platform. It’ll be interesting to see if Google can catch them. It’s similar to what Microsoft did many years ago with Windows. The key to that success is getting others to build on top of your platform. Amazon has done a really interesting job getting other companies to build on top of the Echo and create these apps. They’ve done some smart stuff that will make it harder for Google to catch up.”
On the “new” Microsoft
Mary Jo Foley: “Microsoft is now focusing on what it’s good at: productivity, service, software. They are ending the period they had trying to beat Apple and Google and I think that’s a real plus. The other thing is how Satya Nadella has changed the culture. I feel like this cannot be overstated. Everybody you talk to that works at Microsoft, they talk about how now there is a lot of breaking down the silos inside the company. People felt like Microsoft’s glory days were over and Nadella has given them a whole new lease on life. More and more, I think it makes a difference on how employees think about their jobs there and how they are willing to stick around.”
Jay Greene: “Culture drives the business. If you have a lousy culture, your business is going to go down. I play ice hockey every Sunday night with a bunch of Microsoft guys and one of them just walked up to me last week and told me, ‘what I said to you six years ago, I take it back. It’s fun to work there again.’ It was fascinating.”
Nick Wingfield: “Let’s talk about the bear case for Microsoft. The $26 billion LinkedIn acquisition is, by an order of three, the biggest acquisition they’ve ever done. They’ve written off the $6 billion aQuantive acquisition; they’ve written off an $8 billion Nokia deal. This is really the test for Satya. If he can pull this off, it’ll show that Microsoft has really changed. If, on the other hand, they are writing down the entire value of this deal three years later, then it’s business as usual.”
On who should acquire Twitter
Mary Jo Foley: “I want to someone to buy it and take it over. It’s become indispensible for my job. But it’s not working well right now. I don’t know who the best buyer is. Google has failed with proving they are good with social. Microsoft has so many social plays with Yammer and now LinkedIn. I’m not sure they are the right buyer.
Nick Wingfield: “On Disney, you could argue that they are a media company. But Twitter has such a toxic community problem with all of the trolling and harassment. It would be very difficult to see that inside the Disney family.”
Jay Greene: “The value of Twitter is the data it generates, and that’s why Salesforce might be interested. It might be valuable for other companies if they can generate some value from the data that people are providing through Twitter.”
Nick Wingfield: “I don’t understand why someone would use bots, but maybe it’s a better question for someone on the millennial panel. For me it’s just easier to go on a website to buy a plane ticket than to do a chat conversation.”
Jay Greene: “I was at Microsoft’s Build conference and they showed off their conversation-as-a-service demo with an employee booking a hotel in Ireland because the chatbot realized the employee was having a conversation about it with her boss and it knew she was a frequent Westin user. The whole process left me scratching my head.”
On the “Internet of Things”
Mary Jo Foley: “You need to pay attention to all three parts of the acronym. You need to have the cloud bandwidth; you need to the things that are sending in the data; and you need to have the tools to process and harness all the data. It’s hard to have all three parts of that. Some vendors are more skewed toward one or the other.”
Nick Wingfield: “I have a few of these things in my house, like a Nest smart thermostat. But I’ve just turned the learning features off because it has a mind of its own and was doing things. I think if you strip away some of the more ambitious things Nest has done, it’s just beautiful, very expensive thermostat. I don’t know if Google would do that deal now for $3 billion-plus. I just don’t know if IoT and the home … this whole idea of your refrigerator and toaster needing an IP address is kind of ridiculous.”
Jay Greene: “I think the enterprise stuff makes a lot more sense. If you think about IoT devices in airplane engines to let folks know when they need to do maintenance, that makes total sense. That is where the money will be made, at least initially.”
On self-driving cars
Jay Greene: “I can’t for it to happen for my Mom. She’s not even a bad driver, but she’s in her 80s, and I would love to feel more comfortable with her sitting in a car not driving. I can totally see it happening and I think it will make roads safer. It will be a better world for us if it happens but I don’t know when it will.”
Nick Wingfield: “I also hope it exists in my lifetime but I’m not sure it will. The one thing I hope is that it’s not used as an excuse to not build public transit. It’s sort of become a mindset in Silicon Valley, that we aren’t going to throw billions for trains and other things, we’ll just do autonomous vehicles. I have a very hard time seeing this solving our transit problems.”
Mary Jo Foley: “I hope so, I really want this to happen. I haven’t driven in 15 years; I live in New York City. So for me, this is all good.”
On virtual reality
Nick Wingfield: “What we’re looking at here with the current VR devices, is like the tablet PC in 2000 when Microsoft introduced it. For hardcore gamers and maybe specialized industrial applications in the case of HoloLens, it’s interesting. But they are too heavy — ergonomically not going to work for the mass market. There are real issues around content and how it affects you. I get motion sickness when I put on the HTC Vive. There is a certain subset that won’t want to wear one and certainly not when you have to spend $2,000 for the headset and a PC.”
Jay Greene: “The industrial applications for HoloLens are interesting. But it’s a niche market. If you’re on a shop floor fixing a broken machine using a HoloLens makes total sense if you can do it in a relatively inexpensive way. But wearing those things does not work for me”
Mary Jo Foley: “I’ve tried HoloLens. The field of view is small, but I think that will improve. The real advance that I think will change this, at least for Microsoft, is they are taking the operating system inside the HoloLens and seed it out to other vendors. Just as they built a whole industry around Windows PCs, they are trying to build an industry around augmented reality, PCs, and devices. If they can pull it off, maybe we’ll see cheaper, rounder, better kinds of glasses or goggles. If they don’t, maybe it’s just a niche.”