Catching up with Avie Tevanian (Q&A)

As the former Apple software chief embarks on a new role with private equity firm Elevation Partners, he talks to CNET's Ina Fried about his old company, which phone is in his pocket, and what brought him out of retirement.

Apple's former software chief was pretty happy in retirement. But the opportunity to again influence the next generation of consumer technology lured Avie Tevanian back to work, this time on the money side.

Private equity firm Elevation Partners announced on Tuesday that Tevanian is joining its ranks . Shortly after the announcement, I had a chance to talk with Tevanian about a wide range of technology topics including his former employer, the biggest trends in technology, as well as whether he'll have to trade in his iPhone for a Palm Pre.

Here's an edited transcript of our conversation:

Q: What have you been up to lately? I know you were on the board of Tellme when they got acquired and you are on the board of Dolby.
Tevanian: For the most part, I have been happily enjoying retirement, which mostly means family time and stuff like that. I did a few little things related to angel investing, which took a little bit of my professional time.

What made you want to get in the VC game?
Tevanian: First of all it's not the VC game, it's the private equity game and there is an important difference. I've been a friend of Elevation ever since they started many years ago. I've obviously known (former Apple CFO) Fred (Anderson) for many years. I've known other people there for a while.

They got to the point where they wanted to expand some of their expertise in terms of the people they had on board. As you know, about a month ago they brought (former eBay executive) Rajiv (Dutta) on board and today I'm joining. I really like the people here and I really like the opportunity.

What are some of the things going on in the market that interest you the most?
Tevanian: I just love, generally speaking, the consumer technology area. I think it's a source for eternal innovation. When I was at Apple I was in it. I got to create a lot of it. Here at Elevation we can do some more of that by working through a bunch of other companies. I have a hard time pinning it down to one specific thing, because I don't think you need to. I think there's a whole bunch of different areas, whether it be mobile or social networking. They are all interesting.

How much do you see things as having shifted in the software industry since you left Apple? Are there things that you were just starting that are mainstream now?
Tevanian: We just talked about social networking, which was nascent when I was at Apple and now it is everywhere. This is almost a tech movement to the cloud. We had done a little bit of this stuff back in those days. It's one of those things that is going across all products almost, or all services.

It's been a while since you were at Apple. What do you think about how the company has done since you left?
Tevanian: I am thrilled they are doing so well. I am happy to see them succeed so much. Generally speaking, the products you see I saw early versions of them when I was still there. It is great to see them turn out so well.

If you are interested in the consumer technology space, almost by definition you probably will be going up against Apple. What do you think that will be like?
Tevanian: I look at it more that it's just such a huge market. Yeah, sometimes there's competition. But sometimes there's cooperation and sometimes there are just things that are completely different. I don't worry about that too much.

In the consumer technology space, I'm sure Apple is one of the companies you watch. What are some of the other companies that are particularly noteworthy?
Tevanian: If you look at some of the biggies today, if you talk about the Internet and related things, you've certainly got Apple and you've got Google and Facebook. Everybody else is at a level below. You could start to name dozens of companies.

What phone do you carry around today and do you see that changing?
I still have an iPhone. I think that's OK since the software on it is OS X, which is one of the the things I did at Apple. My guess is I am going to end up carrying multiple phones, which amazingly a bunch of people do.

Maybe a Palm phone?
Tevanian. Probably. I would think that would be a good bet for one of them.

Are there any things today that you see as overhyped?
Tevanian: I've learned not to get too negative on technologies that seem overhyped because sometimes they still work out. I've learned in my career to keep an open mind and so, if there are some things that in the back of my mind seem overhyped, I keep that in my mind and say, "Gee, I am going to watch this and really see what happens." I would never want to accuse something of being overhyped.

There's a lot of talk right now around new user interfaces, things like voice and touch. How big a deal you think that is going to be?
Tevanian: I think it's already been a big deal. The whole touch interface is probably at its very early stages, which is interesting because I know when I was at Apple we were working on it many years ago, certainly before I had left. It's good to see it getting out there. Everybody is starting to use it, but my guess is there is still a lot more to be done there.

What kinds of things do you think we will be doing three, four, or five years from now in terms of how we interact with devices? Do you think the keyboard and mouse will still be there, just augmented?

Tevanian: Old technologies rarely go away quickly. They usually do, as you say, get augmented by other technologies and every technology has a purpose. You're typing away at your keyboard right now. No matter how good somebody makes a touch interface on a phone, it's going to be a while before you take your notes on a phone. Unless you find yourself in a place where that's all you've got and now you are thankful you can jot a few things down. These things tend to generally be additive and they tend to find their proper roles. I think that's what we'll see happen.

 

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