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Cloud Player: Robert Scoble, Startup Liaison Officer Rackspace Part 1

We recently had the pleasure to sit down for an extended conversation with Robert Scoble, an all around tech guru and currently of Rackspace. Our conversation covered a range of topics, from his focus in technology, to how cloud computing has changed IT, to the way new innovation is occurring in the startup space.

This is the first of 2 parts. Check out Part 2.

Robert Scoble

Tech guru and Rackspace Startup Liason Officer Robert Scoble shares his thoughts on cloud and more.

Gathering Clouds: You’ve been involved in the technology space for some time. What has led you to where you are now from a career perspective, and how has that paralleled the trends that you’ve been really interested in?

Robert Scoble: I’ve always been interested in new things ever since getting an Apple II when I was in Junior High. My dad was an engineer and that got me into the technology world of Silicon Valley. For the last 10 or 12 years since I started blogging, I’ve been mostly focusing on building new social media, or media properties, and seeing a new world evolve. At Fast Company, I was first focused on the innovators, the people who were doing something new. I really didn’t care that much about what had already been done. So I didn’t give too many interviews unless they were showing me something that was new in the product, or a new technology that they were developing. We’ve had thousands of interviews with CEOs of various startups or even some bigger companies like Salesforce. Here at Rackspace, I’m working to build a media team that is covering startups because we know that they are the ones who are generally pushing the boundaries the hardest. And we understand where they are taking their businesses and what they’re trying to do. They’re going to see opportunities and competitive threats before anybody else. And then by building media and sharing that on YouTube, or wherever, we’re going to build a brand that demonstrates that we’re open, transparent, nice and bleeding edge and all that. So Rocky (Robert’s producer) and I are building a media team sort of like what Red Bull has, that extends beyond the brand to connect it to a new idea beyond their basic product.

GC: You’ve moved from huge tech companies like Microsoft and Rackspace to startups to Fast Company and back again. But how do you characterize the way the technology space has changed and how has that influenced your career choices?

RS: Well, the Internet has gotten dramatically more important. In 1994, most people didn’t know what the Internet was. When the web came out back in 1994, I was one of the first people to talk about ICQ (instant messaging). Back then, I was working for a programming magazine, organizing conferences. That’s really what first got me into blogging. Blogging happened because Google came along. If you look at just in the last 12 years since I’ve started blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Quora, and Flipboard have all evolved. Subsequently, the iPad and iPhone have evolved. There have been huge developments and what I’m focusing on now is the contextual world of mobile, social, big data, wearable computers and sensors.

But how has this changed in the last few years? The distribution has dramatically changed. Twitter, Facebook, and Flipboard are very different approaches in terms of how to get audiences than businesses were using a decade ago. The technology of mobile has radically changed so the data that we are able to collect and search for is very different. The way a person captures information, whether though video, audio or photographs, is very different.

GC: You’re currently a part of Rackspace. What’s exciting to you about the cloud computing space?

RS: All the stuff that has me excited in the contextual world needs internet infrastructure to connect it all and to do data processing. In the old world, you would have to over-buy the stack of servers because you didn’t know what kind of demand load was going to show up in the next couple months. Cloud makes it very inexpensive to start a company and very inexpensive to connect different data sources from different companies. For example, that’s why I was so interested in meeting the CEO of Factual earlier today. A business can create an app-focused company on Google Glass that grabs location data from a database, mixes it or fuses it with data from another source and build a new user experience. That was just not possible before cloud computing. Or if it was, it was extraordinarily expensive. Now it costs a few thousand dollars to start a company like that. That means we’re seeing a ton of new apps, new use cases, and new things from food spotting to home snaps, letting you take pictures of a house and see how expensive it is, to Yelp to Google Maps, all sorts of fun things.

GC: Considering all these different iterations of apps and use cases, what do you see as the most immediate points of conversion? How do you see those changing over time?

factual

Factual: Getting smart with data.

RS: Data streams are increasing in velocity due to increases in numbers of sensors. Those are going up exponentially. The ultimate example is the self-driving car which generates 760 megabytes of data per second off of the sensors in the car. That data needs to be dealt with, both locally in the trunk of the car, as well as on the cloud as data begins streaming. Think about building a Toyota in 2020, where part of your mandate is to incorporate self-driving capacity. Those cars are going to gather so much data about the world that they’re passing through. Where do you put all that data? And what kind of database do you need? This is not a situation where you want to go to Oracle for the data technology. Factual is using a range of data technologies that did not exist four years ago, whether it is MongoDB or Hadoop, etc. And that’s exciting to me.

I think the world is seeing an exponential growth in sensors, wearable computers, and social data. We are seeing a billion tweets every 36 hours right now. In 18 months, that’s going to be two billion tweets. There’s also exponential growth in locational data, whether it be Foursquare or Factual or Facebook check-ins or Google Maps. Together it creates new opportunities for a consumer to access a more highly personalized product. For example, your ski goggles are going to be your ski goggles. And if somebody else puts them on, they’re not going to feel right because those goggles are already customized to you. Google Now is trying to tell you what’s next on your schedule, more about the world that you’re living in, and what you need to know next – the traffic between you and your next meeting, for instance.

For companies, this means that deeper understanding about customers and behavior will govern what decisions are made. So think about Uber, which is the mobile taxi limo company. The CEO of that company knows every piece of data about that company: he knows where every customer, employee, and piece of inventory is, all from his mobile phone. It’s true that not every business is to that point yet where they can access every piece of data about the business from a phone. For companies, the trend towards the Uber example means that they are increasingly going to know and be able to access information about their customers in far deeper detail than they did before. So when you walk in the front door of a business like the Ritz Carlton–today they really don’t know who you are–in 10 years they’re absolutely going to know who you are and what your favorite drink is and where you go to buy groceries and more.

GC: But is innovation in this current period truly different from innovation in the past? I mean, you’ve spoken a little bit about the velocity of all this being able to happen, thanks in large part to cloud. But does that mean the ideas are necessarily different? Or is it just that we can now achieve those ideas at a faster pace?

RS: I think both. If you talk to Oakley, like I did for the book I’m currently writing, they told me that Apple came to them last June and said, “We need a ski goggle and here’s a partner we’d like you to work with. And we need it on the shelf by October.” And it got on the shelf by October and they sold out at $650 apiece. So there’ll be a new one this Christmas. The speed of innovation has dramatically increased. The speaker company, Harman Kardon, that owns JBL, talked to me about the same. It’s increasing because of 3-D printing, open source culture, and cloud computing, especially with the ability for businesses to access resources for a few seconds, and then turn them off. General Motors is whipping ass to create cars in far less time than it used to take. It used to take eight years to get a new car designed, produced, and sold. Car companies don’t have eight years anymore, and have to create cars in far less time to successfully get them on the market.

But there is something about cloud that presents new opportunities that businesses just couldn’t access even five years ago. I’m walking around with Google Glass right now, for instance, that knows where I’m looking. My cell phone doesn’t know where I’m looking. So it was impossible to create a new kind of user experience for a cell phone that needed to know where I was looking. Now I can create that, and it’s due to this revolution in sensors that’s coming along, as well as the ongoing revolution in cloud.

GC: As you’re looking out into the business landscape, both in tech companies and more traditional industries that are using tech for innovation purposes, what do you see as missing in terms of both ideas, but also businesses starting to develop those ideas?

Google Glass

Google Glass: Toeing the “freaky” line.

RS: I don’t know that it’s that there is something missing. I notice that some companies are very willing to go over what I call the “freaky line.” For instance, the Google Glass has an eye sensor, which is watching where I look. It knows where my head is, it’s watching what I am, and I talk to it. On top of all that, it’s tracking my location so it knows when I’m in my car or in my house or at work. I mean, that is way over the freaky line to a lot of people. But that lets Google deliver utilities that other companies aren’t able to or aren’t willing to deliver. In three years, I think people’s belief of what is “freaky” is going be radically different than what it is today. And that’s going to create new business opportunities for people who are willing to build wearable computers or sensors, or things that track us in the world or our pets or our kids. We’re already seeing that. There’s an app on the iPhones and Android that you put on your kids and it lets you see where they are. That’s cool, but it is also freaky. You have to get over the fact that you’re being tracked. That’s part of what my book is about: whether there are going to be winners who decide to go freaky.

GC:  How does your current role at Rackspace mean for your focus within this space?

RS: Out of all the companies I can think of, it’s one of the best aligned with what my personal interests are, that is: what is next; what’s new? And I don’t care just about enterprise, or consumer or mobile. I don’t care just about popular stuff. Rackspace doesn’t care that I interview somebody who’s on Amazon Web Services (AWS) or on Microsoft or Google. They just want to know where the future is going. That especially aligned with who I am very strongly, and when I considered other companies to go to, there wasn’t that same aligning of interests. It’s a supporter of open source, open innovation, and collaborative behaviors with other companies, even competitors.

GC: On the topic of open source, what role do open source clouds play in how the space is going to develop?

RS: We like to talk about open source in terms of iOS versus Android. When the iPhone came out it was way ahead, very innovative and unique. When Android came out, at first it didn’t look as good, it didn’t have as nice of an interface, it wasn’t as smooth, and it didn’t have as good a set of applications. But because it was more open there was more innovation on it. Now it has topped iOS in a lot of ways. I’ve seen the new Motorola X Phone coming out next month and it’s going to go way past Apple in a whole bunch of ways. Apple is going to find it difficult to deal with because consumers are no longer waiting for one company to innovate and bring new ideas and applications to the market. If somebody wants to create a new kind of phone operating system, they can write the code themselves. No one has to wait for Apple to innovate anymore.

Right now, the cloud industry has to wait for Amazon or Google or Microsoft to innovate. These are not open source based clouds. If you need something, like a new sensor fusion system, you can’t do it on Amazon. If you need to be able to put the data center inside your own data center or you want to put cloud technology in a trunk of a car, you can’t do that with Amazon. You’re waiting for them to innovate. And with OpenStack, you don’t have to wait.

Check back tomorrow for the conclusion to this interview.

By Jake Gardner

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