Tech titans took the stage on the first morning at the World Economic Forum for a panel focused on changes in the digital landscape: bandwidth, privacy, data and business transformation. The speakers were Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T; Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo; Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce; John Chambers, CEO of Cisco; and Gavin Patterson, CEO of BT. The moderator was Forrester Research CEO George Colony.
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff noticed that this was normally the session reserved for Nobel laureates giving their economic forecast for the year, only to be replaced by tech CEOs. Why? “They’re smarter,” joked moderator George Colony. Yes, Benioff said, also joking. But his next point is well taken: Technology has taken over so much of society and is changing things so rapidly that economic forecasts are becoming less reliable. Tech trends are what people want to know about.
Chambers said it was video. He’s always selling; Cisco generates a lot of its revenue from videoconferencing and networking gear to carry video. “It’s how I do business. It’s how I watch my grandchild. How I can see if a sales person hesitates on a forecast.”
Marissa Mayer said it was the iPhone. “The average person checks their smartphone 150 times a day and I’m at the high end of that. Mobile is setting the trend in our business.” She mentioned later that 2014 is the tipping point for Yahoo, when its mobile traffic will cross over and exceed traffic from the PC. “We have to be ready for that as a company,” she said.
Benioff pulled back his shirt sleeve and showed the FitBit he can no longer live without. “I lost 30 pounds wearing the Fitbit; I do 10,000 steps a day. But here’s the amazing thing: Last week I got a call from Michael Dell. He asked if I’m feeling okay. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘I’m worried about you,’ he said, ‘because I’m your friend on the Fitbit network and noticed you hadn’t worked out in the last 3 days and wanted to make sure you’re okay.’ ‘He’s competing with me,’ said Benioff. ‘I had a cold like everyone in San Francisco and decided not to work out to get ready for Davos.’ Benioff reflected on what this kind of public display of health behaviors is going to mean, both for those who opt in to being social about their stats and those who may not be aware of how much is being shared. “Here I am a public company CEO and people know if I have a cold. People are maybe going to know my heart rate, glucose level. The personal enlightenment you get from this technology today is so awesome but what does it mean when everyone knows everything? That call from Michael changed my view.” He asked for a show of hands of how many in the audience wear health monitoring bands. About a third raised their hand. “We’re not thinking about it yet but we’re going to be thinking about it.”
AT&T’s Randall Stephenson said that broadband mobile video is changing his life. He noted how many iPads were being held up videoing the panel and how when he was here in 2009 there was none of it. Like Chambers, Stephenson is a new grandfather. He saw his one-year old grandchild kiss his wife’s iPad and realized how much technology can personalized everything. “Video changes how we all behave and interact.”
With so much scrutiny on the Obama Administration’s attempts to check the spread of unwarranted and unexpected snooping by the NSA, Colony at one point asked a great question: How will technology vendors be protected from the NSA? What one request would you make to Obama?
Mayer said her request would be for more transparency. “So we can tell our users how many and what type of requests we’re getting and how they’re being used.” Has customer trust been damaged? “I definitely think trust has been hurt. Not only here but in other countries… We already have a transparency report for local government requests and disclose what kind of requests they are but we want to do the same thing on NSA level and we’re prohibited from doing that.”
Chambers noted that, as a manufacturer of network equipment, he doesn’t get the same requests as service providers like Yahoo but, he said, “We need rules for the road that everyone can live with in U.S. and among our allies… We need to know how countries will work together. I would request every government to work together on this.
BT’s Gavin Patterson said that regulation is often several years behind technology and that’s especially the case in this sphere. In his call for more and better regulation around government data requests, “We have to make sure it’s not intrusive and protects the rights of the individual. It’s too murky at the moment and we need clear guidelines as to what’s acceptable and not.”
Benioff said the discussion about the NSA and data privacy over the last 6 months is “way overdue… Only through transparency will we get back to trust… Trust will drive customer choice because the customer has to have the choice about exactly where they want their data and how to manage it and see it and it cannot be anonymous. I think our model is closest to where we need to go: customers can choose what country their data is run out of. They can go into the data center, see it and monitor it. Tech vendors have to provide this kind of transparency and can’t pin it on the government.”