Facebook “will outpace Google” in five years time

The opening session at Silicon Valley comes to Oxford provoked a controversy over whether Facebook will be a larger company than Google in five years time.

The controversy was provoked by one of the members of the panel in response to a question from the audience.

On the panel were Brent Hoberman (founder Mydeco), Kim Polese (Marimba), Nick Hughes (Signal Point Partners), David Upton (Prof Operations Management, Oxford Uni), Anil Hansjee (Google), Monique Maddy (eZuza), Saul Klein (Index Ventures). You’ll remember Hansjee from Sitges, when he told us about the phalanx of lawyers the Great ‘Ogle was hiring to fight off aggression from Saint Steve of Cupertino.

Klein said that as much as he thinks Google has a “long way to run”, he would bet that Facebook is more valuable because it can build more big big businesses on top of itself. The fact is that 500 million people are now connected by Facebook, with one application developer building a billion plus business on top of it.

Hansjee shook his head. But Klein said it will be one of the biggest technology fist fights ever. Apple and Microsoft, for example, was not really a fair fight.

Hansjee said that he “really admired Facebook” and they have incredibly powerful tools. He said that Facebook is entertainment, and flirting and social activities and graphs will not remain the same as it was. Social networking was only one component of what Google wanted to do on the web. These are complicated problems that relate to problem solving that Facebook is simply not geared up to do and isn’t in its DNA, said Hansjee.

And so to the rest of the proceedings, before this spat emerged.

Cisco, Microsoft, Intel are minor players
David Upton started proceedings by asking what were  the less well known companies and investors that let Facebook, Linkedin and the others grow.

Hoberman reckoned that what was a niche technology became a mass market technology because of companies like Cisco and Microsoft – they’re hardly less well known, however. Polese said TCP/IP opened the field to social networking.

Hughes said that he’s a great advocate for mobile technology and there are five billion handsets out there – an invisible market that’s coming into its own in emerging markets. Hansjee said that the lower cost of storage and bandwidth made the technologies work for the mass market, but the flip side of that coin was the human perspective. “Within us all there’s a massive desire to communicate, articulate and express our views. There’s always a technology driver but there’s a set of tools that have created an unstoppable force.”

Maddy believes ease of use and allowing people to collaborate in different ways have given things a lot more breadth, while Klein said that Intel, Cisco and Microsoft were the carrier vehicles for the TCP/IP stack. AOL didn’t get enough credit for creating the notion of a mainstream mass market internet company. But the giant everyone else rested on was Netscape.

Klein said that the next 15 years of the internet was Maslow’s internet, where healthcare, water, food distribution and energy would underly the second version of the web. “Obviously shopping and entertainment will continue to be disruptive,” he said. We haven’t seen the Netscape or the Alta Vista of the energy web, the healthcare web, and the food web.

Google’s Hansjee said we’re beginning to capture data about food and energy and it will be possible to add value once that data was captured.

Professor Upton said US banks are looking at Google at being threats, and at what Google can do to the banking system.

The panel was asked how internet companies are influenced by politics.

Klein, a co-founder of Skype, said that the markets where people try to block Skype are markets where there are incumbent telecoms businesses and where people didn’t want competition. In China,  it’s around freedom of speech and Skype was blocked because a state owned telecom company didn’t want to have revenue cannibilisation.

Polese said the internet is the most powerful tool for democracy that’s ever existed and resistance will evaporate because people will self organise as well as the commercial interests that are involved. There’s no stopping the march.

Google’s Hansjee said that politics can help and enable innovation. From a policy perspective governments can do a lot including taxation to help to progress the internet. He didn’t mention China, nor Street View

Anyone can build a company. Honest.
Google constantly tries to out-innovate its own products because it knows if it doesn’t someone else will.

Polese says the technology is ubiquitous now and it was tied up in a few companies, but now anyone can build a company. The younger generation is not only interested in social networking, but in green technology and other social matters. Not everyone can be a billionaire by building a social networking site.

Technology needs to be human
Hughes said emerging companies will move directly to the newer models. Klein said that technology has been elevated to such a level as well as entrepreneurship that it seems like it’s the answer to all problems. Without understanding human factors such as how things fit into peoples’ lives, we elevate technology too highly. Skype was designed to be simple and it was fundamental to success, as well as Apple and Twitter. When would 900 year old institutions like Oxford, Yale and Harvard put design in front of students?

Maddy said there are 1.2 billion people with mobile phones but with no bank account. People have to know how mobile phones can seamlessly fit into their lives.

Bricks or mortar at Oxford University?
A chap asked whether Oxford spending £1.5 billion in the future, of which one billion was bricks and mortars, is a good investment.  There was a long silence. Then some nervous laughs.

Polese said that it’s not just the technology that’s the point in matter, it’s the way teaching might change. Klein said that while distant learning and the web is a great way to distribute knowledge, for “great brands like Oxford” taking university into remote locations is a very very powerful business model.  Europe has a very big challenge ahead of it by either exporting intellectual capital or brands or hunkering down in the UK.  Oxford University could be a torchbearer for this.

Oxford’s Upton said we needed to change our models of learning to help with the hunger of skills around the world. “There is a place for people to get together”. Oxford has holographed students into classes to be “part of a platform”.  He doesn’t know whether the university is doing the right thing or not in choosing between bricks and mortar and virtual classes.

Google said Hansjee was getting involved in video and audio in remote locations and that’s just round the corner.

Someone asked about journalism and paywalls.  Hoberman, who is on the board of the Guardian Media Group, said that the main point is you take yourself out of the conversation if you put yourself behind a paywall. That argues about changing the shape of journalism and what the Guardian calls “mutualisation” to get readers involved in the conversation.

Maddy asked whether there was controversy about paywalls because people regarded news as free. People are willing to pay for other things rather than news.  

Polese said the question is about the quality of the journalism that makes people want to come back and read it again. She said one good example is the Huffington Post and we’re seeing some models emerging where there’s high standards of journalism and design. We kept our counsel.