Friday, March 28, 2014

Words of the Woz and other ETS Takeaways - we need Invention, not Innovation

If that headline is all you remember from ETS, I'm a happy guy.

Am back and mostly recovered from the Energy Thought Summit, held earlier this week in Austin, TX. This is definitely my kind of town, and if you missed the basics, here is my photo summary post from Tuesday. In short, ETS was the first conference put on by Austin-based Zpryme Research, and it was a great success.

If you weren't there, not to worry. Zpryme has posted video of the sessions, both on their site and on YouTube. Just poke around there and check out whatever strikes your interest - all the sessions and keynotes I saw were great, and I still need to check out the sessions I couldn't catch.

For those who don't know, I've been active in the smart grid space for several years now, mainly due to the overlap and opportunities for players in the communications space. I've got feet planted in both gardens, and as an Advisor to Zpryme, I have an ongoing role with their Premium subscription service industry reports, and a largely behind-the-scenes role in developing the conference.

Enough preamble. Let me share with you a few key takeaways from ETS, starting first with our star attraction, Steve Wozniak.

The title of this post is the main message for me. He's totally right - we need more invention, not innovation, and he wasn't shy to say that he's concerned about Apple in this regard. For the last while, they've mainly been tweaking (perhaps milking) their iPads and iPhones, but there haven't been any game-changers. I've been saying for some time that the business market - UC in particular - is there for Apple's taking, but I highly doubt they'll go there. Talk me later about that if you like.

Anyhow, there's definitely a difference between these terms. In my view, innovation tends to be about doing old things in new or better ways, and it's usually incremental. Invention, of course, is making up a whole new game, where everyone is starting from scratch, and by virtue of first mover advantage, you get to make up the rules. We're not seeing much of this these days, but when you least expect it, invention just shows up from left field. I'm absolutely convinced that the ultimate mobile device has yet to be invented - there are pieces of it here and there, but nobody has truly nailed it. Could Apple go the way of RIM? If they're not careful and stop inventing, you bet.

If you follow my writing, you'll know that I'm skeptical about how innovation has so much cachet in today's business lexicon. It's very easy for vendors to talk about how their offerings will enable innovation, and that's exactly what execs want their employees to do. Whatever. Technology is just a tool - no different than a typewriter or pencil and paper. Real innovation comes from hard work, inspiration and the infinite power of human imagination. Furthermore, innovation is usually the product of individual effort, not groupthink, so be careful when vendors infer causal links between collaboration and innovation. I'd better stop now.

The Woz is very much a pragmatist and an everyman when it comes to assessing the value of technology. It was refreshing to hear him talk about technology and smart grid in practical terms. He's more concerned with the health of the planet than lowering our energy bills, and he kinda walked the walk by arriving at the venue in a Tesla (electric vehicle), and rolling up to the stage on a Segway - amidst the common folk, down the aisle and not from a puff of smoke on stage. Gotta love that.

Finally, for the math geek in all of us, he left us with one of his ruling principles of life:

H = S - F

Got that? I don't know if he uses this for all his other talks, but I loved this one:

Happiness Equals Smiles Minus Frowns

So simple, but so hard to do. This could only come from the left coast, but I'm with Steve 100% on this one.

Otherwise, there were many other highlights, and I want to quickly share three here:

1. Andres Carvallo moderated the Smart Grid Realization panel, and while a lot of the dialog was dry, I took away one strong message - you need a strong grid before you can have a smart grid.

Well said, and it applies equally well to the communications space, especially with the big rush to the cloud. Do we really know how strong it is? How much has it really been tested? Don't all those security breaches worry you? Is there enough regulation in place to ensure a strong foundation? Do we have the right regulations and policies, or does this need a rethink?

These questions were certainly relevant at ETS, as the panel cited how emerging economies are making smart grid investments based on a weak foundation. The North American grid is aging, brittle and not very flexible. It performs very well most of the time, but not all of the time, and needs a major overhaul to keep up with how our needs are evolving.

2. Karl Popham moderated the electric vehicle panel, and joining him were speakers from major auto makers.

A core issue is how best to support consumer preferences when it comes to choosing between a conventional vehicle and one powered by electricity and/or batteries. I found strong parallels here between the need for telecom vendors to offer premise-based and cloud-based UC/VoIP, and the challenges faced by the channels in selling them.

Related to that is the existential threat raised by the likes of Tesla, who cannot access the existing channel system run by the dealers. It's prohibitively expensive to build their own dealer network, so they have to be creative- INVENTIVE - and find new routes to market. This is exactly why you see them on display in shopping malls - you have to create awareness before you can create demand, and an awful lot of people are discovering Tesla while out at the mall. Clearly, the crowd at ETS didn't need any help, and we had a real AHA moment, when the audience was asked if there should be an easier way to buy a Tesla. The reaction was an emphatic YES, and if you believe that the auto dealership model is broken in terms of providing choices that consumers want, this was a pretty good indication.

3. Keynote from John Scott of NASA

Another big highlight, especially for the space exploration fans and scientists out there - and there were plenty. Most of what he talked about was too much hard science for me, but there was one segment that really resonated. Mr. Scott presented a compelling breakdown of the timeline for how the atomic bomb came to be. Most of us know the high level history of the Manhattan Project, but he went deeper to explain how the science was developed, particularly in the context of how WW II  was unfolding.

Nothing drives the need for invention more than the threat of being conquered - forget about innovation - and before 1939, the idea of an atomic bomb was simply inconveivable. I loved the way he outlined the chain of events, tests and discoveries that unfolded during this process. When you consider the state of science up that point, it's incredible to see how much can be accomplished during the six year timeframe it took - starting with some vague hypotheses to full realization, and thank God we got there before the Nazis.

Most everything we do today with our "smart" phones is laughably trivial compared to this, and considering they didn't have computers or the cloud back then, I'm not sure we've evolved much as a species. Coming back to Steve Wozniak, we have fantastic tools today to truly make the world a better place, but the masses just want to play games and chat on FB. You'd like to think there would be a lot more invention happening, but innovation is just easier. Of course, invention is happening in disciplines like life sciences, and I think we're going to see more of that in smart grid once the grid gets stronger. In the communications space, I'm not so sure, but I'll save that topic for another day.

Thanks for bearing with me here. Your reward - a smiling Woz and another fun musical moment from ETS.

Very accommodating during the press session after his keynote. Got his biz card too - metallic - very cool.
 The Hot Nut Riveters. They were great - and yes, the guy in the middle is playing a saw - how's that for invention?

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