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DVR box is dying, Woz' wisdom and other cool things learned at SNW

Woznoak says innovative projects, not tests, should determine a student's grade; the popular DVR follows your every move

SANTA CLARA, CALIF. - Every time I attend an SNW show, which equates to 20 in the past 10 years, I tend to learn something new because I get to speak with many cool tech people from many interesting industries.

That was certainly the case this week when I interviewed Richard Rothschild, TiVo 's senior director of IT and facilities -- and a distant relative to the European banking dynasty.

While I don't own a DVR (relax, I plan to), speaking with Richard offered some fascinating insights into the world of online and television entertainment.

For one, those set-top boxes you cherish so much because they offer sans-commercial entertainment programs, also keep track of all your TV habits.

The information gathered by the DVR is sold by TiVO and other device makers to clients that use them to create laser targeting marketing and advertising programs for individual viewers.

Some even combine the viewing information with data compiled by retail store membership cards to determine how effective ads have been. Yes, that's a little creepy, but it's the marketing world where we now live.

I also learned from Rothschild that you'll probably be saying goodbye soon to that set-top DVR box, as TiVo is now partnering with flat screen manufacturers to integrate DVR functionality into television sets.

He also sees the DVD going the way of the CD, (sales of which will be overtaken by digital music next year) as streaming video grabs more and more market share. TiVo already partnered with Netflix to create the Watch Instantly streaming-movie service on TiVo HD-compatible set-top boxes.

In the future, likely deals with cable television providers like Comcast and tablet makers such as Apple will allow consumers to customize their television viewing experience. For example, Rothschild said software integration with mobile devices could allow you to remove those annoying banner ads that sometimes show up advertising one television show as you watch another.

Tablets and other mobile devices will afford future TV viewers the ability to open a second screen on their television that's linked to the content they're viewing. Consumers will be able to exchange comments with online friends about the show, or they'll be able to search for information about the television series or movie they're watching, he said.

"So if you like the shoes that woman's wearing on the show while you're watching it, you can search for them and buy them online," Rothschild said.

Woz on what drives innovation

Among the cast of characters at this SNW was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who gave a keynote speech on the first day of the conference.

Wozniak, better known as Woz, typically speaks as if he's spent the last 15 minutes of a flight preparing his comments - they come off as if made from a bulleted-list of points and very much off the cuff. "I'm supposed to speak here for half an hour. What do I speak about?," he said, as the event moderator walked away, leaving him alone in front of a lectern and microphone.

I've interviewed Woz before and he comes off as a down-to-earth man with great passion for technology. More importantly, he shows great compassion for others as well as hope for the future.

He likes to say that he wants to leave a "bit of good behind" wherever he goes. That is no doubt why, after leaving Apple, he was a fifth grade computer sciences teacher for eight years in his hometown of Los Gatos, Calif.

You just can't help but like him more each time you hear him speak. This time was no different.

Besides answering boilerplate questions about why he left Apple and what it was like to be a contestant on the reality show "Dancing With The Stars," Wozniak focused his presentation from a theatre stage on the the importance of scholastic and corporate innovation.

Nothing, he said, has changed our lives over the past decade more than technology innovation. "It opens new business sectors, creates additional wealth that didn't exist before," he said. "That means we have greater efficiencies, which just means that we have more money left over for other things."

Public education remains a passionate subject for Woz, who was unabashed in saying that schools today are far too structured and thus impede innovative thinking - which is key to "the artistic side" of technology.

At issue, he said, are rules that tell each student exactly what they should be studying and when.

The learning cycle between what is taught and when a student is tested on it is far too short, he proclaimed. Short learning-testing cycles, Wozniak said, are nothing like the projects that technology innovators are afforded in real life.

When pressed by an audience member about how schools should judge student performance, Woz said they should be given one long product at the beginning of a semester and graded on their results.

"A really innovative person is known for something that usually took an awful lot of thinking, maybe even over years, and a lot of development in a laboratory putting it together and getting it to work. And it's new and it's different. And it's not something you read about in a book," he said.

"In school, intelligence is a measurement," he continued. "If you have the same answer as everyone else in math or science, you're intelligent."

In subjects other than math and science, such as English, students are given essay assignments where individuality shines, where each pupil goes off on their own and creates an answer that's different from every other student's. And yet, that's not associated with innovation today, he said, but that's exactly the thinking schools and businesses need to apply to computer sciences.

"There can be different answers than what I've known in the past or what I've read or heard," Woz explained.

Technology development projects reward innovators with a feeling of personal pride of accomplishing something no one else has done before, and "that's the sort of thing that inspires you to believe in yourself as an inventor type, not just an engineer who knows the equation."

"The value of these big projects is you learn diligence, lot of repetition. A lot of hard work results in something that's your own. Your own. You built it. You have personal pride," he said. "Personal pride is the strongest motivating force there is."

Wozniak, now the chief scientist with high-end solid state drive (SSD) maker Fusion-io , also reminisced about creating a floppy disk for Apple -- in just two weeks. Why so quickly? Because the reward was a trip to CES in Las Vegas, where he'd finally get to see the lights of the strip. He worked on the floppy on Christmas' day, New Year's Day, every day for two weeks , just for the chance to see Vegas.

The greatest innovation projects Woz participated in at Apple almost always involved technology he was unfamiliar with. But, he said, when you want something for yourself "you work hard to learn it."

"A lot of companies can learn from that [project]," he said. "Let your employees have some resources to help them develop something not for the company necessarily ... [but] because your mind will develop in ways that are beneficial for the company.

Motivation doesn't come from big salaries and stock bonuses but from creating something that you can take pride in, perhaps something that has never before been created before, Wozniak added.

Where technologists land

Another fascinating person I met at SNW was Dave Davies, a wiry man with a bone-crushing handshake and an almost manic passion about his field of work.

Dave's the CIO of Flight Options , a company that sells high-end personal jets the same way that timeshare vacation homes are sold. Companies purchase a portion of the jet's value, or a block of annual flight time.

It's turned out to be a cool business model. Thirteen years since its founding, Davies leads a company with 700 employees, 150 aircraft and 1,300 customers who are the "top 1% of the top 1%," of business leaders.

An hour's time aboard an eight-passenger Citation X jet cost $2,667. For that, you get the use of telephones, a Wi-Fi network, a microwave/convection oven, power outlets and a full refreshment center as you rocket across the sky at 480mph.

Davies and others who'd been with the company from the start sold their equity to partner Raytheon in 2005, but they got together and bought it back in 2007. The company had changed from an IT standpoint, so they quickly got to hard on creating an innovative, flexible IT infrastructure and intuitive technologies.

As Dave sees it, if IT doesn't help drive the business, it'll always be seen as a cost center. And if you want to innovate new technology, first you have to get a business executive to champion it.

While the Flight Options IT shop consists only of 14 people, it is able do a lot of internal software development -- mostly custom apps that aim to make the lives of the pilots, crew and flight schedulers easier.

For example, aircraft crew are required to record a great deal of data about aircraft itinerary, passengers, mileage, fuel use and maintenance, which in the past amounted to three to seven sheets of paper that had to be filled out and faxed to the company's headquarters and then re-entered electronically into a database.

The paper-chase didn't just involve wasted time and long-distance telephone costs, but also led to the possibility that numbers might be transposed as they were hand-written, faxed and then re-entered electronically.

Davies and his developers created an electronic data entry system that eliminated one hour's worth of work for each of four flights per day per plane, for 50 to 100 planes (one-third of the fleet is always down for maintenance).

Davies would love to roll the electronic entry system out on the company's iPhones and iPads, but Apple won't release its mobile device manager code. "I have a team that could stand it up on its ear, and we can't get access to it," he said.

The Flight Options IT shop is now in the midst of rolling out iPads to employees, and Davies said he wants to develop a suite of user interfaces and applications that would let pilots and schedulers monitor trips "so don't have to fire up laptops. They want a more graphical interface for weather forecasts, flight charts and passenger info," he said.

What struck me as Dave talked to me across a white table-clothed table in a small side room was how he chose the technologists who have come to work for him, many of whom have been there for eight or more years.

"They're attracted to the aviation industry," he said. "It's a bit of a romance industry, even if they're not flying or working on the aircraft. I can tell in the first 15 minutes of talking to someone if they're going to work out."

By the way, there are two IT job openings at Flight Options. Inquire within.

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian , or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com .

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