Don't Look Back

How to innovate? That was both the spoken and unspoken question on everyone's minds at the Wall Street Journal's memorable D Conference this week in Carlsbad. How can we radically improve the experience and value of interacting with one's digital device? What is the next chapter in the evolution of information and entertainment technology?

How to innovate? That was both the spoken and unspoken question on everyone's minds at the Wall Street Journal's memorable D Conference last week in Carlsbad. How can we radically improve the experience and value of interacting with one's digital device? What is the next chapter in the evolution of information and entertainment technology? What, if anything, comes after the personal computer and the Internet? What's the next act, the new new big thing?

The great masters of innovation dominated the event, expertly choreographed and prodded by the WSJ's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher. They were all there (or almost all) at D this week, the legendary figures who have built the industry: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Ballmer, John Chambers, Steve Case and Eric Schmidt. And the captains of traditional media spoke too -- the CEOs of Viacom, Time Inc, CBS and the President of News Corp. And, if that wasn't enough, political innovator John McCain kicked the event off and cinematic innovator George Lucas showed up to remind the audience that there was more than a slight difference between videos of exploding coke bottles on YouTube (which he described as "circus") and Star Wars. D's audience was stuffed with star business, technology and entertainment innovators too, including a few -- like Martha Stewart and Frank Quattrone -- guilty of over-innovation.

So what did these champion innovators tell us about innovation?

Uber-innovator Steve Jobs stole the show on this one -- at least in terms of his advice. Don't look back, Cupertino's great seducer pulled the strings of the D audience. Apple went rotten in the Nineties because the company became fixated with the past rather than the future. So when he came in the second time to repeat his magic, the biblical Jobs confessed, he shifted their gaze, swiveled their heads, and commanded his Apple army to look forward rather than back.

Ironically, at D this year, we had a maturing industry as much focused on the past than the future. The event was dream for technology history mavens. The highpoint was the joint appearance of Gates and Jobs, the two most illustrious figures in contemporary digital pantheon, waxing lyrically about their collective past. It was the Bill and Steve show, compelling stuff for geek nostalgists, but not necessarily helpful for those of who looking forwards rather than backwards. We even got an audible sob and a noticeable tear from Jobs when quoting the lyrics from the Beatles "Two of Us" :

You and I have memories longer than the road that stretches out ahead

But there may be less romantic reasons for technologists to be shedding a tear too. As Walt Mossberg, reminded Jobs and Gates, the personal computer or its operating systems hadn't changed substantially over the last decade. Mossberg made the same point to Eric Schmidt too about Google's search interface. This hadn't changed significantly either over the last five years. Indeed, one of the most eagerly anticipated new company launches at D -- Jason Calacanis' Mahalo -- a search engine that replaces the algorithm with an editorial staff of real human-beings -- is challenging revolutionary digital with the fake-subversion of analog.

So, at an event at which the great digital innovators celebrated innovation, the next big wave of innovation wasn't clear. That's worrying for those of us who value the exceptionalism of the digital business. Without constant innovation, digital will become routinized. Without revolutionary innovation, American personal computers will go the way of the American automobile. Silicon Valley will rust into Detroit. And the real innovators will move onto something else like biotech or green innovation.

Is there anything new out there in the digital universe beyond the absurdly over-hyped iPhone (just another expensive phone with music), inane user-generated-content sites and yet more search engines? Fortunately, there is. If Jobs can quote the Beatles on the past, then I can quote Bob Dylan (from "Ballad of a Thin Man") on the future:

Because something is happening here/But you don't know what it is/Do you, Mister Jones

Actually, Mister Jones, I do know what is happening. If you scraped away the Bill and Steve show at D this year, the future could be seen. Or, more accurately, the future could be felt. The future, I suspect, is touch. The future is the integration of the computer into our physical reality. The dangerously metaphysical Second Lifers have it the wrong way around. The future is not a spiritual immersion into a fake world, but the immersion of the personal computer in our real world. The awkwardly oracular Bill Gates hinted at this when asked about his vision of digital life in five years time.

I don't think you'll have one device. I think you'll have a full-screen device that you can carry around, and you'll do dramatically more reading off of that.... I believe in the tablet form factor. I think you'll have voice. I think you'll have ink. You'll have some way of having a hardware keyboard and some settings for that. .... You'll have your living room, which is your 10-foot experience, and that's connected up to the Internet, and there you'll have gaming and entertainment, and there's a lot of experimentation in terms of what content looks like in that world. And then in your den, you'll have something a lot like you have at your desk at work. You know, the view is that every horizontal and vertical surface will have a projector so you can put information [on it]. Your desk can be a surface [where] you can sit and manipulate things.

Gates is wisely looking forwards rather than backwards here. Note, in particular, his faith in the "tablet form factor" and his notion of that our "desk can be a surface where you can sit and manipulate things." What Gates is predicting that we'll be able naturally write on our computers (ie: they will become like paper) and our desk will be a place in which the digital will spill into real life. Gates is saying that our whole desk will become a personal computer. The analog will be digitalized. The computer will become genuinely personal.

Ironically, the one company at D unambiguously showing off the future was Hewlett-Packard, the original Silicon Valley garage operation who have surfed wave after wave of digital innovation. At D this year, HP was displaying a stunning 16 ft wide by 8 ft tall fully interactive touch screen. The logical extension of their latest TouchSmart PC, this screen is a more natural, more human than the traditional computer screen. HP were also displaying visual content that moved seamlessly from screens onto the world around them, thus fusing together their displays with real life. And HP are promising many more technological breakthroughs which will allow other tactile gestural interactivity with our computers. This, rather than exploding coke bottle videos or flashy phones -- might well be the future of digital. Tactile interactivity is what can make technology friendlier, more intuitive to all of us. This is what will seamlessly integrate digital into our analog lives.

Note to Walt and Kara: this year was really wonderful -- but, next year at D, let's look forward rather than back. Please select speakers -- from innovative HP, for example -- for whom the new new thing isn't just memories.