Wi-Fi Phones are Coming

By David Needle

May 27, 2009

High-profile venture capitalists say Wi-Fi phones will be a catalyst for changing data services.

What's next in tech? For the past eleven years, the Churchill Club has taken a crack at answering that question with a panel of high profile venture capitalists proposing and debating trends as part of the annual Top 10 Tech Trends event.

Last night's dinner event before a packed Hyatt Regency hall here covered Web trends, alternative energy and even a bit of hardware--the latter proving one of the few predictions to be roundly voted down, at least from an investment perspective.

The hardware prediction was that e-reading devices, like Amazon's Kindle and future ones based on flexible displays are primed to take off. "Oh, it's coming, we'll all have one," said Joe Schoendorf, a partner at venture capital firm Accel Partners. "But no one [i.e. investors] will make money any money on them." Schoendorf and others on the panel agreed e-readers are one of many hardware categories that end up being low margin, commodity items.

One very specific and potentially disruptive prediction came from Steve Jurvetson, managing partner at Draper Jurvetson Fisher, who said telecom is becoming radically restructured.

Jurvetson said if eBay follows through on its plans to spin-off VoIP provider Skype as a separate company, it will spawn a spate of mobile devices with built-in Wi-Fi for making free phone calls.

"We're finally going to see Wi-Fi phones you can use to talk on for free and that will be a catalyst for changing data services," he said.

Jurvetson actually made similar predictions at the Tech Trends event back in 2006, noting "Cordless phones with Skype and then the Wi-Fi phones are coming."

The data deluge

Anne Winblad, a partner at Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, predicted the "unstructured data deluge" will spawn a new class of companies focused on managing and extracting value from such real-time sources as Twitter.

"Every click, message and tweet is rich data amassing at exponential rates," she said. "Gartner predicts enterprise data growth of 650 percent in the next five years and 80 percent of that data will be unstructured."

She said current back-end systems and relational databases aren't designed to handle unstructured data. "We see this as a disruptive trend and a huge opportunity."

Winblad's prediction garnered the most debate, with Jurvetson arguing that predictions of massive data growth were nothing new and date back at least 17 years to forecasts by IBM (NYSE: IBM). "Oracle's been aware of this for over a decade," he added.

Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures, jumped to Winblad's defense, noting that the difference is that new approaches are being taken to deal with the onslaught of data. "I contend there's a massive opportunity where things find you based on your proxy, like we'll all have personal assistants to sort and filter and connect you based on unstructured data.

"This is unlikely to come from IBM [or other traditional software company," Khosla added. "It's more likely to come from another Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin]," the founders of Google. "I personally believe there's a lot of value in this because the next thing we need is data reduction."

Ram Shriram, managing partner at Sherpalo Ventures and a founding board member of Google, agreed, though he warned such solutions don't appear to be imminent. "To have personal assistants you need a much better user experience, but it's a big opportunity, much bigger than for structured data," he said.

The rise and importance of the real-time Web, as embodied by services like Twitter, was also debated. Shriram noted Google News already updates about every ten minutes. "The real-time Web has to not be overrun with spam or it's less useful and we're already having those problems. I won't disagree the real-time Web is very important. He cited examples like finding out about traffic problems or a water main break.

"Someone twittering on that is very useful," he said.

Several panelists also made the point that in the digital economy, many smaller companies will succeed without venture capital. One example cited was the many startups selling programs on the iPhone App Store and the rush by other mobile players to add their own mobile storefronts, thus opening up more opportunities for startups.

The YouTube generation

Schoendorf predicted we're at a major turning point because "this will be the first college graduating class that does not recall life offline. The behavior of that single fact will change everything we do, who we employ, how we employ them, compete with them and how we sell to them," he said.

Schoendorf also noted this generation doesn't read newspapers and that YouTube traffic on a monthly basis is bigger than the entire Internet was as recently as 2000.

Jurvetson quibbled with Schoendorf assertion that rise of the Internet makes this generation uniquely positioned to bring change. "It's not about Internet usage, all young people bring change," said Jurvetson. "Twenty years from now there'll be disruption again and the younger generation will lead the change. Apple, Microsoft and Dell were all started by someone in their teens."

Khosla, a legendary Silicon Valley figure who was a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, now invests in alternative energy companies. He said the Web is one aspect of a "massive disruption coming in a lot of areas, mostly enabled by tech."

On the question of alternative energy, Khosla said there a lot of promising technologies but to succeed it has to make economic sense to be pervasive. "Five percent of Californians will try anything," he said, drawing a good laugh from the audience. For clean tech to succeed, he says it also has to be "main tech" as in mainstream.

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com.



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