Greetings from TED in rainy Vancouver, British Columbia. TED is the conference where art and ideas are as important as technology, and all the powerful people in tech congregate to broaden their minds and, no matter what they tell you, do business. I’ll be reporting from the conference all week with the aim of giving you a sense of what goes on here well before the famous TED Talks hit the Internet.
TED’s opening night was dramatic, as usual. The choreographer Bill T. Jones presented an original work that infused his life and experiences. Television producer and writer Shonda Rhimes delivered a technically masterful piece of rhetoric about how she reconciled her workaholic ways with her desire to find joy outside of work. (Awkward TED moment: Rhimes and non-profit activist Dan Pallotta, presumably away from their young children, urging a roomful of 1,000-plus workaholics away from their children to spend more time with their children.)
The one pure tech talk of the evening was a confident, breezy presentation by Astro Teller, head of X, formerly known as Google X, Alphabet’s much ballyhooed “moonshot factory.” (Moonshot evokes the grandeur of Google’s plans, Teller said. Factory reminds the dreamers of the imperative to have “concrete plans to make them real.”)
Teller spoke convincingly of his outfit’s willingness to fail and of its cultural predisposition toward trying to come up with reasons to kill projects. A scheme to automate vertical farming—the allure was lower land use and proximity to end markets—failed because staple crops didn’t fare well. An effort to build a “lighter-than-air variable buoyancy cargo ship” was too expensive to produce, at $200 million for a prototype.
The sparkle in Teller’s eye is Project Loon, Google’s effort to bring the Internet to 4 billion unserved people via stratospheric balloons. The project hasn’t been without its hiccups—“We’ve busted a lot of balloons,” said Teller—but Google hasn’t killed it yet. Teller says Google is in talks to test its project in Indonesia this year and that five billion more people will get Internet access in five to ten years.
More from TED tomorrow.
Share this essay: http://for.tn/1POieMj
BITS AND BYTES
IBM backs blockchain in a big way. The future of the digital currency alternative bitcoin may be uncertain, but the business world sees plenty of potential for the technology it uses to share information, which is called blockchain. IBM is working on its own variation—which could be used for a broad range of financial transactions—and plans to release the code to the open source community to promote adoption. (Wall Street Journal, Wired)
Three-way merger would create another Japanese PC giant. Vaio, the company formed when Sony Electronics divested its personal computer division, is negotiating to acquire the PC operations of Toshiba and Fujitsu, reports Bloomberg. All three organizations are losing marketshare, but a merger would reduce research and development costs and could have a shot at building a strong niche business in the Japanese market. (Bloomberg)
Apple Pay debuts in China this week. Chinese consumers are already well-acquainted with mobile payments services—358 million people there already use them, more than the entire U.S. population. Apple will face stiff competition from social networking company Tencent (which owns the WeChat messaging service) and e-commerce giant Alibaba (which runs Alipay) in its second largest smartphone market. (Reuters)
SoftBank will pay $4.4 billion on latest (biggest ever) stock buyback. The Japanese company has been purchasing shares to assuage investor worries over the competitive position of its U.S. wireless communications subsidiary, Sprint. The latest repurchase program, which will run over the next year, covers approximately 14.2% of the Japanese company’s outstanding shares. (Wall Street Journal)
Market turmoil casts pall over tech IPOs. Data center equipment company Nutanix filed its IPO prospectus in December. It hoped to go public in January, but its debut date is now uncertain because of the stock market downturn, reports Reuters. Other well-backed, IPO-bouind tech companies that face a similar dilemma: cloud communications player Twilio, security firm Okta, and procurement apps specialist Coupa, according to the report. (Reuters)
Cisco, Pivotal forge sales relationship. Pivotal, which is majority-owned by EMC, specializes in technology that developers can use to create cloud-ready software applications. Cisco needs to ramp its cloud business more quickly to counteract slower sales of its core networking equipment businesses. (Reuters)
IBM introduces new mainframe, designed for smaller banks and credit unions. IBM’s last 15 consecutive quarters may have investors grumbling as the company’s sales continue to decline. However, the company’s business of selling mainframes, the old-school powerful computing systems that banks typically use to handle their transactions, seems to be growing. Now, IBM plans to debut a new mainframe by March that it hopes will continue that positive trend. (Fortune)
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Facebook loses another jurisdiction fight in Europe by David Meyer
Drones could be Verizon’s new disaster response tool by Andrew Zaleski
Netflix now depends on Amazon more than ever before by Jen Wieczner
The Apple iOS and Android price gap just gets wider by Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Adobe Mac app accidentally wipes users’ files by David Meyer
Apple recalls some MacBook USB-C cables by Don Reisinger
ONE MORE THING
Mattel introduces a 3D printer, so kids can make their own toys. The ThingMaker carries a $300 price tag and uses a special app developed by design software company Autodesk. (Ars Technica)