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Etre 99: to be or not to be

Highlights from the CEO schmooze

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It was supposed to start at 16.00. The two presenters are sitting in the corner talking to each other. The time is now 16.40. No one knows what to do or when to do it. You've guessed it -- this is Etre 99 Containing what I hope to be some insights and useful observations, my notes follow. If you don't have the time, just scroll down to the bottom for my overview of the event.

Etre is like a ballroom dance class stuffed with technology CEOs who are learning this year's steps and groping around for partners. Some land up in bed together, metaphorically. Some land up in bed together. Fights can start. Most attendees drink too much and don't sleep enough. It's always chaotic but Alex Vieux's special brand of anarchy produces results. This year is Etre's tenth anniversary and if memory serves me correctly, I've been to eight.

Alex's opening address pointed out some meretricious factlets about the future of technology and the history of Etre. He had the sweet delight of trailing some gloriously erroneous predictions made by former speakers fortunately balanced by some that were spot on.

Michael Rodgers from Newsweek talked a huge amount of sense. According to Paul Safo (from the Institute of the Future), we tend to overestimate the impact of technology in the short term but underestimate the impact of technology in the future. Rodgers proposition was that the future will be challenged by globalisation. Global players will win the biggest prizes but the hurdles of legislation, logistics, culture and language will all ensure it won't be an easy ride.

Alan Cane observed three milestones in the last ten years. First a change that swept away the old barriers between platforms and disparate systems.

Then came the coalescing of divergent industries that hitherto had nothing in common e.g. telcos and computer makers and now mobile manufacturers. Now, globalisation is shaking out the parochial players even if their offerings are still strong.

Palmware showed a piece of software that it refers to as a 'hyphen' that sits between various handheld technology platforms and the applications that run on them. It's called MPS and what appears to make it distinctive is that, it is OS agnostic, enabling hardware architects to deliver a plethora of ready authored applications on new platforms as soon as they launch. They are a pre-IPO company and this offering seemed like a pipe dream to me (it probably was). For those who don't know,

QXL.com is an on-line auction system. They explained a curious notion that would appear to differentiate their customers from traditional auctioneers like Sothrbys and Christies. QXL's customers refer to having 'won' rather than 'bought' things on-line. It's like a game to them and the entertainment value of QXL makes customers regulars. QXL is already strong in Europe, in multi-currency, multi-VAT etc.

They are very anxious to ride the faster, e-commerce growth rates in Europe so Euro-expansion seems the way to go. Their business model addresses both the consumer-to-consumer and business-to-consumer sectors. The auction model offers a value proposition both to buyers and to vendors as both parties see great value due to low middle-man margin and very low transaction costs. QXL's mission is simply to be best of breed auction offering and based on their valuation, it is. Fashionably it all started in Notting Hill, UK but neither Hugh Grant nor Julia Roberts figured in the prospectus.

NetMind has some technology that spots changes on the web or within databases. The software supports polling and event-driven scenarios and it handles structured and unstructured information. Handy. Jeff Brewer from GoTo.com tried to explain how they were different from typical portals and search engines. In short, they had bright yellow backgrounds on their slides and more automation in the service offering. GoTo appears to deliver more of what YOU want (pull) rather than what they want to force on you (push).

Then Qualcomm. Last year, Dr Irwin Jacobs spoke and presented a dreary missionless company pitch that baffled the audience. This year, it was marginally less dreary but still mystifying. He explained how CDMA penetration was such a success with 35 million users worldwide - not really a compelling argument in Europe as non of them are here. Described 3G (third generation) products that support 2 megabits per second data rates for mobile users.

Everyone - including me - wants this stuff but do we care if it's from Qualcomm or the GSM standards committee? He mentioned the future of mobile would be driven by the Internet. Mobile data would be crucial and voice over IP would be a secondary consideration. I still can't understand what Qualcomm's core competency is. Is it a phone company or is it a chip shop (i.e. do they make microprocessors?) or is it a standards organisation? Who knows? Hopefully next year some more clarity will emerge.

Bill Owens from Teledesic explained how his company's technology was aiming to replace the 'last mile' (typically bits of copper in the ground) with a network of communication satellites. His talk was particularly appealing because he had no slides and he talked altruistically about providing bandwidth in the middle of Africa.

CMGI talked a big game. They seem to BE the Internet bubble. $3.8 billion in cash and marketable securities seemed like commitment. Not only have they invested in early net companies (Lycos, Geocities etc) but they have started some.On the way is MyWay.com which they claim to be the first dynamic html site that automatically builds home pages for you based on what you do and where you go. Let me assure you that this is NOT new. Our colleagues in Autonomy have been building sites that do this for ages.

Magnitude Network offers radio on ISPs and he flagged Flycast and Acknowledge as being rather cool too. Roel Pieper was typically candid. What happened to Compaq? Making the CIO into the CEO must be termed an 'experiment'. Digital was currently at the 'end of the beginning'. Eckhardt failed because he wanted to build a $50 billion company. He failed to assimilate the problems caused by two major acquisitions. (Exactly what I foretold at the time readers). Philips - where Roel went after Compaq - has failed to 'get it' with respect to the new tech globalisation issue. They simply won't survive in the straitjackets of Europe and traditional consumer electronics. Alex suggested that Philips was actually a dinosaur and Roel didn't deny it.

Paul Delinger, CEO of Broadview, made a comment that was so odious I wanted to run to the podium and hit him. He told a European audience that the US offered the finest enterprise culture on the planet - how dare he say this to an audience of Europeans in Europe. The sad truth is though - he's absolutely right. Katrina Garnett from Crossworld Software explained that software is no longer a development business it is a testing arena. Developers just sell the stuff and buyers become unpaid testers. Will the new small software companies take over the world? Katrina maintains that all the big old software companies have an Internet strategy and they won't go away easily. While they have bricks and mortar which is a disadvantage, they also have momentum which is not. When asked how she coped with running a successful company and having two children and a baby, she said it was all about balance - not easy but just about possible in the macho world of technology.

Peter Bonfield (CEO of BT) made some useful points. Firstly mobile IP will be led by Europe. The adoption of GSM guarantees the follow-on technologies (thus forget Qualcomm). When challenged about lackadaisical ADSL provision in the UK, Peter protested that it will be available by March 2000 to cover 6.5 million homes. (news since is that BT have cut these plans back). He confirmed that there is no reason why BT won't get bought. BT's partnership with AT&T could be portentous... He talked about the Internet delivering a real 'social revolution' and that we should take good care because 'it's happening on our watch'.

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