Paris may have as many as 50,000 cafes, restaurants, and bars, and yet to see a French person on their phone, tablet, or laptop in one is comparatively rare: not for Parisians the 'flat white and laptop' culture of San Francisco, London, or New York.
It's not that Parisians aren't connected – they are, with smartphone penetration estimated to rise to 66 per cent of the population this year. It's more that in the French capital, public spaces are designed for people to meet and speak face to face. (Inevitably, that included the wifi-free conference I've just attended.)
So Paris might seem like an unlikely host for Cloud Week 2015, a EuroCloud-branded mix of seminars and conferences. But EuroCloud is an unusual organization: an umbrella group whose national members interpret their shared agenda in rather stereotypical ways: the UK focuses on small businesses via the G-Cloud, Germany advocates community rules, and France is pursuing a strongly national approach. (In the pre-internet days it worked with Minitel, after all.)
Cloud Week events kicked off yesterday afternoon with the Visionaries Conference, a series of personal, TED-style mini-presentations on what the next ten years holds for 'the' cloud. As such, this imaginative, free event was akin to a portfolio movie, a collection of stories with an over-arching theme. It also represented a welcome break from the conference norm, a fact acknowledged over a two-hour gourmet lunch (“In France, we make time to eat!”) by one of the organizers who said:
We're the last of the dinosaurs, still running cloud conferences.
The Visionary speakers included, among others, Ray Wang, senior analyst and president of Constellation Research; Pierre Janin, chairman of AXA Bank; Rachel Delacour, CEO of BIME Analytics; Chiseki Sagawa, the quiet, but laser-focused director of Fujitsu's Platform Strategies Unit and its Global Software Centre; Jérome Petazzoni, developer and systems administrator for software container specialist Docker; and diginomica's own Phil Wainewright (whose presentation will be published here separately).
Wang kicked off, declaring:
Cloud is creating insight economies, jump-starting growth, but we need a sense of balance.
In his view, the cloud means we are living in a “post-sale, on-demand business economy”, in which we no longer buy products, but instead choose experiences and outcomes:
Every piece of data is the core of these new business models.
Wang's favourite example of this is FedEx, the delivery company that opened up its data and systems to customers and, by doing so, both improved and reduced the cost of its customer care. That's what all businesses have to do to succeed in the cloud economy, he suggested. Emerging into this post-sale environment is the Internet of Things, which Wang described as “bringing life and context to inanimate things” – including our surroundings.
At this point, car-share giant Uber received the first of several mentions at the event, with the timely context being Uber Technologies' decision to suspend its UberPOP service in Paris from this Friday, after backing down in an angry confrontation with Parisian taxi drivers. (We've all been there). UberPOP allows passengers to use their Uber app to hail rides from unlicensed drivers, which the taxi drivers maintain is illegal under French law.
The subtext is that taxi drivers have been disintermediated by the cloud; Uber just happened to get their first. Despite their anger at the disruption the cloud has brought to their livelihoods and to a highly regulated industry (which, it should be acknowledged, protects passengers' interests as well as drivers'), I'd say the industry's best response would be to focus on accessibility and customer service, which means flipping the service-provider's attitude from “you're privileged to have me serve you” to “we're lucky you've chosen us”. Most London cabbies have always understood this, but taxi drivers in Paris and New York (where Uber is massively popular) are a long way behind.
The link to Wang's picture of increasingly open data, systems, and the IoT, is that Uber creates new layers of information that can be used within cities for traffic planning and other applications.
Wang concluded his presentation with an echo of Sir Tim Berners-Lee's comments at IP EXPO in London last year:
Privacy is not dead. The problem is how much privacy you trade for convenience.”
An internet bill of rights – “a right to be disconnected and not to be judged” – is essential in this emerging context, he said, in order to prevent individuals from being oppressed by their own data.
Next up was AXA Bank's Pierre Janin, prime mover of his company's Soon smartphone-only bank account (no call centers, just an app, through which you can chat and manage your finances). Janin said:
We want people to forget this is a bank. We want feelings, humor.
Despite this notable success, he described the cloud as representing a “leap into the unknown, and that is uncomfortable for someone in charge of a large business”.
Janin then made an excellent point, one which perfectly encapsulates the innovator's dilemma in most cloud-enabled organisations:
I represent a generation of migrants [to the cloud], whereas my children were born connected. Most of today's decision-makers were born migrants, but they are trying to invent the world of the natives.
But for Janin, the “dream” of the cloud is not just about serving the customer in innovative new ways, but also about building a better business internally:
We want to truly live the world of the cloud.We want to make the workplace better in order to serve the customer better, to let our employees be mobile and work anywhere in the world. Not teleworking, no: what we want is to allow them to work without a dedicated office at all. Hierarchy is no longer vertical.
Core to all of this technological change is something much more human: trust, said Janin:
Without trust, we will lose time. We need this trust. We need to encourage it. We need to keep it. So that customers feel like entrusting their business to us, especially when it comes to data about their health.
Rise of the robots
Fujitsu's Chiseki Sagawa was the only speaker to set out a recognisably futurist vision, in which he postulated a 2025 dominated by robots in the home and in the workplace: an archetypal Japanese point of view from a man who lives in a highly automated city, Tokyo.
But while the word 'robot' has been in the lexicon for nearly a century, Sagawa suggested that robots (both machines and software bots) are the next logical step from cloud technologies, facial recognition, 3D printing, and networked intelligence.
Sagawa's vision is becoming real much faster than many people realise. Humanoid robots such as Honda's ASIMO (which Sagawa described as a “hero” for Japanese people), NAO, Pepper, and Romeo (all made by French company Aldebaran) are crossing from the research lab into the networked home. Last week, the first commercially available production run of Pepper robots sold out in Japan in just one minute. (Disclosure: I'm one of the few private citizens in the UK to own a NAO-25 humanoid robot.)
But what made Sagawa's vision compelling was his claim that the mass-industrialisation normally associated with robotics is a red herring:
We are moving to a future of mass individualisation, fast-moving and specialised. But there must be harmony between the analog and the digital, otherwise our vision will destroy us.
While robots are getting smarter, thanks to AI plus wifi connectivity, future 'smartphones' will actually be cheap and dumb, with the power of the cloud behind them, said Rachel Delacour, passionate CEO of French business intelligence company, BIME Analytics. Low-cost devices that interface with the cloud will be the dominant tech in 2025, she said, and described fitness trackers as the “best thing that has happened to human beings”, offering the “virtual oxygen of tomorrow”.
Networked intelligence and big data analytics will also open up truly scientific insight into the world's economic problems, she claimed, allowing us to wipe out cycles of economic catastrophe. 2025 will be a time of global rebalancing, Delacourt suggested, with cloud analytics allowing a redistribution of wealth, both globally and within nations, by identifying new skills hotspots and micro-businesses. It will also help eliminate gender inequality, with fewer constraints on women.
The role of women in IT was a theme picked up on by DevOps specialist Jérome Petazzoni of software container firm Docker. He said that open source development is not, today, the meritocracy that he’d imagined as a student. Worse, he said that women holding prominent positions in open source development are often subjected to harassment.
Today, software containers represent the second wave of virtualisation, said Petazzoni, reducing the gap between 'dev' and 'opps', in the cloud:
Virtualization means that I can order a server from Amazon and keep it running for a few hours for a few euros. No one will ask me what I'm doing, there is less red tape, it's streamlined. Netflix creates new [virtual] servers and destroys the old ones whenever it introduces new features. If you have to order a physical server each time, that would be impossible. Virtualization creates better quality.
Despite the Greek 'No' only hours before, Greece wasn't mentioned at the Visionaries Conference, perhaps because it represents a threat to the grand European project. “A break-up of Europe will never happen,” said a EuroCloud spokesman to me, privately. “And if it does, so what? There are no borders in the cloud!”
That, of course, just isn't true, as the European Community knows only too well, with France, being arguably its most inward-facing member.
That aside, the conference represented an intriguing perspective on all things cloud: personal, national, mannered, and eccentric, with the wider Cloud Week programme embedded in historic venues around Paris.
The Visionaries Conference acknowledged that Cloud Week was a little behind the times, but it made up for it by offering a fascinating glimpse into the next decade.