Once a dot-com bastion, Cyberposium widens scope

Executives and entrepreneurs from the worlds of business, finance and academia gathered on the campus of Harvard University’s Business School last weekend for the eighth annual Cyberposium, exchanging ideas and mingling with aspiring MBAs from Harvard and other universities.

Issues such as digital rights management, information security, and the future of technological innovations such as fuel cells, pervasive computing and Web services were at the forefront of this year’s gathering.

Once a bastion of dot-com optimism, the Cyberposium was characterized this year by a focus on business fundamentals, with the eradication of the hype that characterized previous years a top priority for the event’s organizers.

“A few years ago there was a bubble and we had a lot of what you would call tourists in the tech industry – people who had no passion for technology. Starting this year we’ve brought together people who are truly committed to technology,” said Tomo Takada, a Harvard Business School student and co-chair for this year’s Cyberposium.

At the same time, the symposium organizers decided to broaden the scope of the yearly gathering to include more than just “high tech.”

“We started the Cyberposium really to focus on the dot-com phenomenon, but over the years we’ve made a transition from dot-com to high tech and this year from high tech to just technology,” Tokada said.

That change was evident in the seven discussion tracks at the symposium, which added areas such as biotechnology and health care as well as environment and energy to more standard fare like digital media and emerging technologies.

In a forum that once served up discussions with names like “Killer Ideas for B2B E-Commerce” and “Growing a successful Internet business,” however, talks at this year’s symposium were more often about removing the legal and economic hurdles that hinder the adoption of the next wave of technological innovation than starting new companies.

In a round table discussion entitled “Digital Consumers in the New Millennium: An Insider’s View” on Saturday, for example, executives from companies such as RealNetworks Inc., OnStar Corp. and Eastman Kodak Co. spoke of a coming era in which subscription-based, commercial free digital radio such as that offered by XM Satellite Radio Inc. supplants traditional broadcasts and movies and videos delivered straight to consumers’ homes via broadband connections make VCR and DVD rentals obsolete.

Before that can happen, however, companies must develop business and pricing models that are attractive to consumers and that enable media companies to make a profit, round table members said.

“We’re at a point now where we can see a model where, if you have a large customer base to explore…and research, you can develop economic models that work,” said round table member Willy Shih, head of digital media at Kodak.

Kodak’s efforts to tie Internet picture sharing and printing services to digital camera hardware was an example of such a model, but also had the potential to alienate less computer savvy customers who were raised on roll film and drop-off development.

Similar questions were raised in a lively panel discussion of peer to peer (P2P) networks that brought together the likes of online legal expert Jonathan Zittrain from The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, Tsvi Gal, chief information officer at Warner Music Group and Russell Simmons, chairman and CEO of Rush Communications and a co-founder of Def Jam Records.

Presented with the reality of the widespread and illegal swapping of music files, panel members debated the relative merits of a number of corrective measures including improved consumer education, appeals from musicians harmed by file swapping, technological fixes, and threats of law suits and jail time.

Noting that consumers who scoff at the idea of paying for MP3 song files will readily pay to download ring tones for their cell phone, Gal wondered whether the real issue behind the persistence of P2P file swapping networks was the availability of free songs or the success of Napster and Kazaa in creating the expectation among consumers that they shouldn’t have to pay for songs.

Others on the panel, including Simmons and Kevin Bermeister, president and CEO of Altnet Inc., praised the ease of use of P2P software. Rather than trying to snuff out P2P networks through the courts, entertainment companies should embrace the technology and use it to offer consumers superior products at reasonable prices.

Music files that also contain multimedia links to premium artist Web pages might convince online music fans to pay for subscription services rather than downloading songs for free, Bermeister said.

Representing the music industry on the panel, Gal said that the music industry should not try to resolve the peer to peer problem with lawyers alone.

Seeking a technological fix, Warner Music Group will offer digital rights management (DRM)-protected songs online that can be listened to and burned to a CD, but cannot be shared on peer to peer networks, according to Gal.

At a panel entitled “Telematics: Lessons from the Past, Advice for the Future,” the question was not whether there was money to be made from telematics, but rather how much money could be made and which companies are best situated to make it.

“We’re still coming off a pretty big hype curve, where a few years ago you had people saying that telematics was going to be bigger than the car industry it was attached to,” said Chet Huber, CEO of OnStar and a panel member.

Telematics – the combination of computers and telecommunications that is responsible for automobile services such as OnStar – was already close to a billion U.S. dollar industry. The question was how long would it take to become a U.S. ten billion dollar industry, and who would benefit from the growth of that industry, Huber said.

While some panel members saw opportunities for entrepreneurs and start up companies in telematics, others said that the unique safety and reliability requirements of the automobile industry tilted the playing field in favour of large, established automotive industry players such as Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., as well as technology companies such as IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp., in addition to the major auto manufacturers.

“Telematics is an industry for big players. I think it will be difficult for small startups to have any significant impact,” said Jack Withrow, director of telematics at DaimlerChrysler Corp.

In the long term, the development of open telematics systems and the sale of data services software applications that are written to those open standards will drive growth in the industry, Withrow said.

Those features may include the ability of cars to “dock” with home networks via a wireless connection, transmit diagnostic data to a service station in advance of a scheduled appointment, or download software “patches” to fix electrical and performance problems in the car, according to Huber and Withrow.

The message of austerity being voiced by many of the show’s guest speakers did not escape the notice of Cyberposium attendees, who included MBA students, venture capitalists and business men and women who were looking for the next big thing.

“The word I keep hearing is ‘pain,'” said Cyberposium attendee Jason Daily, an attorney at a large Boston law firm. “The customer has pain and you should be the aspirin or – even better – the tourniquet.”

Roberto Silberwasser of Columbia, a second year Business School student, said he felt that there was a more determined, ‘roll up your sleeves’ attitude at this year’s Cyberposium than at last year’s conference.

“Last year we were in a post-trauma situation,” Silberwasser said – the result of both the 9/11 tragedy and the collapse of the Internet bubble. “People were asking ‘Is this happening? When will it end?’ This year, people are asking ‘How can we work in this environment?’ because its not going away any time soon.”

While the atmosphere may be subdued and ticket sales well down from past years, when a black market for Cyberposium tickets sprung up among entrepreneurs anxious to get in to the event, symposium co-chair Tokada said that the success of this year’s event should not be measured by attendance, but by what innovations comes out of it.

“Right now there’s no next big thing. Maybe it’s going to be nanotechnology or biotech, but five years from now maybe a student who started a company will say ‘I got the idea at the Cyberposium.'”