I’ve been a committed skeptic about cryptocurrencies and their underlying technology, blockchain, pretty much since I started learning what they were. Given the plunge in values of currencies no one seems to need and the high hype-to-utility ratio of the tech it is based on, I’m feeling pretty good about my skepticism.
And yet, two sets of comments I heard at the Fortune Global Tech Forum in Guangzhou last week gave me pause. After all, it’s somewhere between ill-mannered and foolish to refuse to be open-minded about topics others find so redeeming.
The first argument, voiced by Chinese entrepreneur Lei Chen of the digital services company Xunlei, is that blockchain offers an alternative to an Internet dominated by a few giants who mastered its technology 10 to 20 years ago. I’ve heard this line of reasoning before. The Internet giants control our data and all meaningful digital commerce. The only way to opt out of their system is to build an alternative system that doesn’t rely on the first one. Enter blockchain, a framework for tracking goods and services not dependent on the Internet. I can’t judge if blockchain is the answer. But it is persuasive that the best and the brightest would look for a way around the tyranny of Google and its ilk.
Similar was the there-must-be-something-to-this rationale of venture capitalist Jim Breyer regarding cryptocurrencies. Breyer acknowledges not being able to see the value of “crypto” himself and also that the field is currently all but dead. And yet, again, he sees the passion of researchers at the likes of Stanford and Tsinghua devoting their careers to figuring out applications. When the best minds pour their passion into something, Breyer reasons, something good typically comes of it.
Fads follow predictable boom-bust cycles. If the ideas were any good to start with, what happens next is something more substantive. Even if I don’t see it, it’s certainly possible that phase is somewhere on the horizon.
Unstoppable Microsoft: The software giant, which has been on a heck of a roll this year, is reportedly close to rolling out a new OS to challenge Chrome. Microsoft’s past attempts to launch a “Windows Lite” have fallen short, but this time may be different thanks to a “super lightweight, instant on, always connected” product that will shed the Windows name.
Sprucing up Skype: Microsoft also announced it will add real-time captions and sub-titles to Skype. If the roll-out is successful, it could mark a rejuvenation for the video-call service, which has become something of a dog’s breakfast since Microsoft acquired it in 2011.
Taming Tumblr: After Apple removed its app from the App Store over a child porn incident, Tumblr announced a stern ban on all adult-related content. The decision is a dramatic one given that porn reportedly accounts for 10-20% of the site’s traffic.
Google Play purge: Google has booted two popular Chinese app developers, Cheetah Mobile and Keeka Tech, from the Play store. The move follows reports the companies used keyboard and file manager apps to carry out massive ad fraud.
Cloud battleground Europe: Alibaba is seeking to compete with Amazon not only in e-commerce but cloud computing. The Asian giant’s focus is Europe, where it has opened several new data centers, but it faces an uphill battle: Alibaba has only 0.3% of the cloud market there, and companies are wary of entrusting IP to the Chinese company.
ON THE MOVE
Alphabet’s Waymo hired Deborah Hersman, former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, to oversee safety…Former Adobe and Microsoft exec Jon Perara is going to A.I. startup Highspot to be CMO…Lyft hired former McKennon consultant Megan Callahan to be its first VP of health care…A coalition of Colorado companies hired nobody despite spending $500,000 on a marketing campaign to lure Silicon Valley workers.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The friendship of two extraordinary Google engineers is at the heart of a lovely, must-read New Yorker feature. It tells the story of Sanjay Ghemawat and Jeff Dean, who are the only employees to reach an exalted “Level 11” status at the company, and explains hard topics—MapReduce, TensorFlow, AI—in very readable language. The piece also recounts the phenomenon of how people who work in pairs often account for genius.
After years of sharing their working lives, duos sometimes develop a private language, the way twins do. They imitate each other’s clothing and habits. A sense of humor osmoses from one to the other. Apportioning credit between them becomes impossible. But partnerships of this intensity are unusual in software development. Although developers sometimes talk about “pair programming”—two programmers sharing a single computer, one “driving” and the other “navigating”—they usually conceive of such partnerships in terms of redundancy, as though the pair were co-pilots on the same flight. Jeff and Sanjay, by contrast, sometimes seem to be two halves of a single mind […]
In life, Jeff is more outgoing, Sanjay more introverted. In code, it’s the reverse. Jeff’s programming is dazzling—he can quickly outline startling ideas—but, because it’s done quickly, in a spirit of discovery, it can leave readers behind. Sanjay’s code is social.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Why Apple Waiting Until 2020 for a 5G iPhone Makes Sense By Don Reisinger
BEFORE YOU GO
“I come from a line of Irish maids who worked for the first families of America, the Mellons and the Gores, wealthy, aristocratic families like the Bushes.” As former President George H.W. Bush lies in state, writers are sharing touching tributes. One of the best comes from the New York Times acerbic political columnist, Maureen Dowd, who describes the unlikely friendship she developed with “Poppy.”