Last week I attended FuturTech 2006, a conference hosted by the University of Michigan (UofM) Ross School of Business in nearby Ann Arbor. The goal for the conference (which is an annual event) was to bring together students, faculty, and industry leaders to discuss the role of technology in business. It is an interesting conference because it is mainly organized by students from the UofM Business School, the School of Information, and College of Engineering. I do not have official numbers, but I believe there were 350-400 attendees. Most were people who are directly part of the UofM community, but I did see some other local tech. entrepreneurs there as well.

The conference opened with a keynote address on Thursday evening which I missed. Here are some tidbits from the sessions I attended on Friday:

  • Keynote Address by Sanjay Pol (Cisco VP). He talked about the previous “waves” of network-enabled applications we have experienced (static content, reengineering of business processes, dynamic content) and how Cisco and their customers are thinking about the next wave. From his point of view, the network will become much more intelligent with complex policy being enforced by Cisco gear. For example, some phishing attacks can be prevented or at least mitigated at the network level. All in all, an interesting talk. Full disclosure: I own a small amount of Cisco stock.
  • Panel Discussion on Digital Identity. The panelist were an interesting collection of technologists (IBM, Microsoft, VeriSign), business/financial experts (VISA), and legal experts (Sonnenschein, Nath, & Rosenthal). The discussion was moderated by Phil Becker from Digital ID World who did a nice job. Unfortunately, the topic of digital authentication alone more than filled the space allotted. Whenever I hear people talk about public key cryptography, smart cards, etc. I always come back to the fact that these technologies do not lend themselves to “bottom up” deployment as well as most of the other things that have been widely successful on the Internet. But I guess we will get there someday, or someone will invent a better mousetrap.
  • Tech Fair. A lunchtime event where business people and students showed off their products and services. I had an interesting discussion with Jake Braly from Outfoxed about the wacky world of Firefox extensions, the Outfoxed user interface, their business model, and so on. In general, I am a little skeptical about social search taking off among the masses, but the idea is interesting. Outfoxed will need to balance the needs of the community they build with their corporate need to bring in revenue (e.g., selling ads and user-preference information vs. maintaining a network based on trust).
  • Keynote Address by Michael Wilens (Thomson CTO/COO). Michael was a very entertaining speaker. He described the four businesses his company is in (Legal & Regulatory, Scientific & Healthcare, Learning, Financial) and how Thomson has moved from a traditional publishing company to a content + software + services company. He told some great stories about how different (and difficult) it can be to innovate in an environment where all of your customers are risk-adverse. Apparently, the only group that is more risk-adverse than doctors are lawyers. Michael mentioned the challenges — and costs — they experience each time they introduce an new user interface (his advice: instead, add value by making deep, functional changes under the covers when possible). He gave an analogy for all of us who own digital cameras: having the correct white balance setting is crucial, and while many cameras let you adjust the white balance, most of us just want to “take the damn picture.” His job is to help his customers do the same thing with Thomson’s content products.
  • Panel Discussion on the Future of Social Networks and eCommunities. Moderated by Paul Resnick from the UofM School of Information, this was a wide ranging discussion where nearly all of the questions came from the audience. Panel members included Sunil Thakur (WahIndia), Lada Adamic (Asst. Professor in the School of Information), and Kurt DeMaagd (Slashdot). Everyone agreed that while we have come a long way, social network is in its infancy. Is there value in the network data? Yes. Do most companies at some point have to struggle with the “what’s good for the company may not be good for the community members” problem? Yes. There also some discussion of content creation by community members and how that is starting to have a big impact at sites like MySpace.
  • Panel Discussion on the Future of Mobile Broadband. This was the last session of the day, and my notes are shorter. Panelists included people from Research In Motion, Sycamore Networks, AeroWire, and Cisco. The discussion was wide-ranging, sometimes optimistic, sometimes pessimistic. Technology problems are just a small part of the picture as people are fighting the lack of standards, the control exerted by the large wireless carriers, and the risk that the scarcity of licensed spectrum will limit who can play in this space. None of these are new problems, but they do not seem to be going away. One interesting thing that came up that I was not aware of is the push to use technologies like WiMax to bypass the local copper and fiber and allow competitive local carriers to reduce costs and sign up more customers. The panelists also touched on the issues with multiband devices (battery life is a killer right now, but integrated chips are starting to appear now). And security and privacy remain near the top of the list of concerns for businesses who are using wireless technology.

During the conference there was also a “quick pitch” business idea competition that took place at the same time as another session I attended and a few additional panel discussions. I would’ve liked to see more give-and-take with the audience in some of the panel discussions, but overall it was an interesting day. There was no charge to attend this year’s FuturTech conference — a real bargain considering the nice venue and the fact that breakfast and lunch was provided. Oh, and they gave away an iPod and a Blackberry during the keynote talks.