Fortune Brainstorm Tech 2012: Camping with Eric Schmidt, Marc Andreessen, and Tony Fadell

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I’m inside a tent, high up in the Colorado mountains. Outside it’s raining heavily and the thunder is loud.  The experience reminds me of the summer camping trips I took as a kid.

But the tent is huge, and my fellow “campers” are some of the most high-profile leaders and innovators in technology, business, and design.

We’re gathered in scenic Aspen for Fortune’s annual Brainstorm Tech conference, and as a first time participant, I have to say the event lives up to its reputation. Orchestrated by a smart and energetic team from Fortune, the tempo is fast and furious, and everything is run with extreme precision. It’s a great ride, and more fertile ground is covered in the first 3 hours of day one than during the entirety of many other events.

Smart mobile software rules the world

Zynga’s Marc Pincus on stage

 

With almost 50 different sessions across the 3 days of the event on a wide range of topics, it’s actually quite tricky to draw out one key conclusion. But the big realization for me is that across domains and types of companies, all leaders were effectively focused on the same three things: Software, mobile, smart. These three words encapsulate some of the big trends swirling at the event and in the minds of tech’s biggest players:

  • While physical products are extremely important for people and their understanding of the world, the most important products today are in fact very clever software connected to the cloud, wrapped in beautiful hardware. Software drives, hardware follows. Fact points that support this is that Michael Dell only mentioned the word “PC” once in his session, and that only one of Dell’s 4 business units is focused on “boxes,” while 45,000 people at Dell are in the software services unit.
  • For most technology companies, data is becoming the most important strategic resource, not money. Data – when utilised well – enables smart real-time decision making, and crucially it also allows tailored service delivery for each customer.
  • Web businesses used to disrupt traditional businesses. But today, no large web business is safe from mobile-first disruptors. Facebook should be afraid of Path, Google Maps of Foursquare, PayPal of Square, etc. Mobile-first businesses are forced to prioritise and focus, and in order to survive they must design simple and elegant service solutions. This gives them strategic advantages in a world that’s quickly going mobile and where first-class service design is paramount.

While much of the conference has been covered, I couldn’t help but share some of my favorite highlights from inside the big tent.

Tech party like it’s 1999

“I think the fact that software is becoming so important is actually leading to a new kind of hardware renaissance.” -Marc Andreessen

 

I loved the big predictions from co-founder of Netscape and Silicon Valley venture capital legend Marc Andreessen. It was inspiring to hear Marc talk about the scale of the opportunities today, compared to what he saw in the late 90’s. He made the point that people were really excited about building international Internet services in the late 90’s, but the addressable market was very small compared to today, and now is the time to go to work for real.

The late-night tech celebrity boxing match

“Eric, you do a fantastic job as Google’s minister of propaganda.” -Peter Thiel

 

Peter Thiel, the provocative Silicon Valley investor, founder and former CEO of PayPal, and first outside investor in Facebook, took on Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, in what turned out to be an epic verbal boxing match. Thiel came out with some particularly confrontational statements: “Google likes computers more than people in many cases. That’s why they missed the social networking revolution.”

It turned the debate into an amazing spectacle with these two industry giants. You can read the full match report here.

Can China innovate and build brands?

“If you’re the smartest person in a million, if you’re in China, there are 1,300 people as smart or smarter than you.” – Andy Mok, Managing Director, Red Pagoda Resources

 

A great session on innovation in China focused in on the West’s arrogant view that the Chinese can copy, but can’t innovate. This is dangerous thinking. There’s already massive innovation in China (but maybe of a different nature from what we experience in the West). Over time, the rise of the creative culture in China will bring about new service innovations and original design that will make a global impact.

 

“Design thinking” is dead – long live great design

“I don’t believe in Design Thinking” – Fuseproject’s Yves Behar on what design is all about

 

It was great that Fortune included several sessions focused on the importance of design. I participated in a session on “Technology Made Elegant and Simple,” and I also enjoyed the “Design Matters” panel. Both Tony Fadell, father of the iPod and more recently the Nest thermostat­, and Yves Behar, the creative guy behind Jawbone and Fuseproject, shared some great insights that sparked a lively debate. Tony and Yves dissed the much hyped “design thinking,” with Yves commenting to great applause, “I don’t believe in design thinking. The best designers make things.” Hear, hear.

For more insights into what was an inspiring and exciting three days in Aspen, check out Fortune’s coverage here: http://money.cnn.com/technology/brainstormtech

 

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