SXSW has a more cerebral feel, with cross-disciplinary speakers from outside tech and an emphasis on big ideas.
Now in its fourth year, the Web Summit in Dublin is being heralded as Europe’s answer to SXSW Interactive. A record 20,000 people attended the 2014 event last week (from 500 when it started), and the speaker lineup included everyone from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Nest founder Tony Fadell, former Apple CEO John Sculley and Google VP of engineering Anna Patterson to a smattering of celebrities (Bono, Eva Longoria, Lily Cole) for light relief.
So what happened when the great and the good of the tech world descended on Dublin? Despite Eva Longoria’s appearance, the event felt more tech- and tech-industry focused than SXSW, and was perhaps the lesser for it. SXSW has a more cerebral feel, with cross-disciplinary speakers from outside tech and an emphasis on big ideas. There was a polarization between the major names onstage and the exhibitors, which were mostly still in developing stages and seeking investment; more mid-level new companies could have rounded it out. And more women—it’s tricky with tech conferences, but this felt very male. I would also love to have seen more exploration around the convergence of transmedia, gaming, entertainment and tech, where so much interesting stuff is happening now. In terms of access to the superstars of Silicon Valley (and, rapidly, the world at large), however, the Web Summit was difficult to beat.
Big Data and privacy were naturally front and center, as well as the future of media, marketing and advertising in the digital age. Content—what makes good content, how to use good content, etc.—was a constant. Tech giants and multinational lifestyle brands touted their innovation programs (Unilever and Coca-Cola both held talks about theirs) and startup-support initiatives. Among the tech stars, there was a recurrent focus on company culture and the struggles they’ve had in identifying who they are, how to build a company DNA and attract the right people. Some of the highlights:
Stripe’s rapid ascent into the world of payments: When I mentioned Stripe to the head of innovation at a major payments company two years ago, it was dismissed as a blip. The company is now worth $1.75 billion. Stripe is quickly gaining ground on PayPal and others in the space, and is now managing Apple Pay. Stripe supports Alipay payments and is facilitating Twitter and Facebook payments. When asked how big his business could get, co-founder John Collison, 24, said, “It’s a question of how big online payments could get.” So, pretty big, if we’re going to be integrating mobile platforms into our taxi payments and store transactions.
Next, Collison said he wanted to help U.S. and international brands enter the Chinese market. Collison also talked about wanting to remove some friction in e-commerce and payments—a subject that comes up a lot in our recent report on payments and currency—by storing consumers’ financial IDs, as long as security is ensured. Find the talk here.
Oculus Rift and the future of personal communications: Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe said that long term, the most exciting thing about his company’s virtual reality headset is the potential to revolutionize communications, in the same way email and telephones have. He envisions people wearing headsets to feel as though they are in the same room with others around the world in real time—3D phone virtual reality/augmented reality communication, in other words. Iribe also hinted at smart garments working in sync with Oculus Rift games to make them more immersive and multisensory. Find the talk here.
Tech giants commission research and expand business services: Tech companies are ramping up their role as enterprise facilitators, offering a raft of services to businesses. Amazon had a major stand for its Web Services cloud computing service. Twitter’s Adam Bain discussed offering enterprise tools like enhanced search, Twitter social data analysis and consulting thanks to the acquisition of Fabric, an app development company, and a partnership with IBM. Twitter is also commissioning research from MIT Media Lab to better analyze how people use Twitter and how information spreads. He also said Twitter was exploring emotion of shopping and what inspires the impulse to purchase. Find Bain’s talk here.
Facebook’s Erik Johnson spoke about Facebook Atlas, the new ad-measurement platform, in the context of digital natives. He described “FOBO” as the new FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)—that is, the fear of being offline. Jonson says the traditional cookie is over: It’s of little use in a mobile-first world, especially since he said 40% of browsing starts on one channel and ends on another. Atlas’ proposition is that it joins up the dots between channels and cross-pollinates offline data with Facebook profiles, as well as granular insights into online consumer behavior in relation to ads. Plus, Johnson said any data registered by shoppers as they pay in stores can be cross-referenced with Facebook profiles for those who submit their details.
I imagine this will raise questions for companies like Sugar Inc., whose business model is based on the content-to-commerce ecosystem. What happens to affiliate retail without cookies?
Where does Nest go from here?: Tony Fadell, CEO of Google-owned Nest, talked about the challenges of building thermostats that work in the context of global markets, where architecture and energy usage patterns are hugely disparate. He said Nest’s aim is to create social change and help the environment; its business interests are not monetizing data. Time will tell. Find the talk here.
Watch for Part 2 of my Web Summit wrap-up tomorrow.
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