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Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google Inc., was a keynote speaker at the 2007 Kellogg Technology Conference.

Digital domain

Kellogg Technology Conference explores tomorrow’s tech today

By Aubrey Henretty

2/9/2007 - “Anybody here have a cell phone?” Robert Dotson ’89 asked a crowded Tribune Auditorium as he stepped up to the podium. Scores of hands went up. Dotson grinned. “Go ahead and flip them on.”

As president and chief executive officer of T-Mobile USA, Dotson had a vested interest in keeping cell phones ringing, even at the risk of disrupting his own keynote address at the Feb. 7 Kellogg School Technology Conference. The student-organized event brought industry leaders, academics, students, alumni and other members of the Kellogg community to the James L. Allen Center to discuss “The Digital Lifestyle,” this year’s conference theme.

Dotson’s remarks followed cell phone technology from its humble beginnings to its present ubiquity. In the past decade, said Dotson, rapid technological advances have brought a kind of “self-imposed obsolescence” to the industry. Where the lifespan of the average cell phone was two years in 1996, today it is merely eight months, he said, and while consumers have historically tolerated call failure rates as high as 18 percent, they are becoming more discerning as the technology matures and becomes commonplace. “If my toaster doesn’t work one in five times, I’m not putting the bread in,” the Kellogg graduate said.

Though optimistic about the potential of GPS technology in cell phones, Dotson expressed skepticism that many of its current uses — for example, a message on a customer’s phone alerting her that she has friends in the area — would catch on. “If you have a friend two blocks away and they haven’t called you, there’s a reason,” he said. Many in the audience laughed. “They’re not your friend.”

The day’s events included two breakout sessions for panel discussions. In “Creating value in the digital age: How do traditional media companies adapt?” panelists discussed the central question, as defined by moderator, Kellogg Media Management Program Director and Professor Mike Smith, “How can old media get young?” Panelists included McGraw-Hill eProduct Development Vice President Michael Junior ’98 and NPR Digital Media Vice President and General Manager Maria Thomas ’92.

Junior said McGraw-Hill, perhaps best known for producing student textbooks, has considered exploring digital media opportunities for several years, which has had the dual effects of bringing the company closer to its target audience (students) and teaching the company which platforms to avoid: “We’ve had students say to us more than once, ‘Leave my iPod alone. You are not as fun as my music.’” He added that the demographic as a whole remains fickle: “The jury is still out on exactly what students are looking for.”

On the subject of exactly what young people are looking for in media, panelist Chris Waldron, executive producer at Turner Broadcasting’s Cartoon Network, offered his perspective. “Video games,” said Waldron, who is currently working on a multi-player online game with Cartoon Network. “We’re coming off of television being the dominant form of media, and I think video games are next.”

Rounding out the conference were morning panel “Funding a Venture in 2007” and afternoon panels “The New Frontier of Marketing & Advertising” and “Innovation and Product Life Cycle Management.”

Marissa Mayer, vice president of search products and user experience at Google Inc., delivered the conference’s second keynote address. After a crash course in the Internet search company’s philosophy, Mayer said the next big thing in search is likely to be streaming video.

“There’s all kinds of questions that can only be answered by video,” said Mayer. For example, if a user wants to know how to prepare a meal or change a bicycle tire, an HTML document isn’t necessarily going to be helpful, according to Mayer. She described a high-ranking document she had recently found in a search for “how to build a snowman,” saying it was full of strange, ambiguous or incomprehensible steps to complete a task that is by definition child’s play. “It was probably the most awkward piece of English prose I’ve ever read,” she said. “For queries like these, video is the answer.”

Kevin Johnson, president of Microsoft’s platforms and services division, delivered the afternoon’s final keynote presentation. The conference was followed by a reception.