Silicon Valley VCs don't want Obama's money, think Google is passe

Twelve trends to invest by, if you've got the money, from a passel of tech-savvy types gathered at the Churchill Club.

I always enjoy wild hand-wavey prognostications about the future, so I was pleased to attend the 11th annual Churchill Club Top Tech Trends event last night, moderated by my former co-workers from Red Herring, Tony Perkins (now running Always On) and Jason Pontin (publisher of MIT Technology Review). Of the 12 trends, two really made me take notice. Most of the rest, which you can see at the end of this story, were pretty standard projections from existing market circumstances.

Trend prognosticators, left to right: Tony Perkins, Vinod Khosla, Steve Jurvetson, Ann Winblad, Ram Shriram, Joe Schoendorf, Jason Pontin. Rafe Needleman/CNET

Interesting trend #1: Centralized search will fall

Venture capital whiz-kid Steve Jurvetson gave an impassioned pitch for this trend, which he called, "The triumph of the distributed Web." He said the aggregate power of distributed human activity will trump centralized control. His main point was that Google, and other search engines that analyze the Web and links, are much less useful than a (theoretical) search engine that knows not what people have linked to (as Google does), but rather what pages are open on people's browsers at the moment that people are searching. "All the problems of search would be solved if search relevance was ranked by what browsers were displaying," he said.

Jurvetson believes that the future is "federated search," in which the Web's users don't just execute search queries, they participate in building the index by the very act of searching, immediately and directly.

What I find most interesting about this concept is that we can see it already happening, although via a different technological vector. Twitter Search is real-time search. It tells you what people are saying right now, and on popular topics, it gives you far more current information than Google. I think Twitter Search also shows us that Jurvetson's vision of search, while compelling, is incomplete. To get the real-time wisdom of the crowds for the purpose of search, you have to know not just what Web pages people are displaying, but exactly what is on those pages, and you probably also want to know what's showing up on users' computers in apps other than the Web browser.

I am not sure the Web's users will want to participate in the creation of this search engine, nor am I convinced that there's a lot of value in the concept for obscure or "long tail" search queries. But the idea is interesting, and I certainly agree that the value of real-time searching, as well as social-network-aware searching, will increase dramatically and quickly.

Interesting trend #2: Washington D.C. will prove to be a poor VC

Moderator Jason Pontin, a self-described liberal who "finds our president as dreamy as the next man," broke party rank and echoed a popular sentiment in the room of wealthy (and traditionally mostly Republican) venture capitalists, to say that the Obama administration's plan to invest in new technologies is doomed to fail. While acknowledging that the administration's heart is in the right place, he pointed out that traditionally, direct investment in technology by governments doesn't work out well. He said the United State's subsidies on ethanol, France's decision to skip the Internet in favor of the state-sponsored Minitel, and Japan's direct investment in supercomputers as it tried to spend its way out of a recession were examples of poor investments. "Government is a particularly poor judge of new technology," he said.

Other panelists agreed, including the strongly Republican co-moderator Tony Perkins. Panelist Joe Schoendorf of Accel said, "The VC model works. Tech doesn't need more capital." (Of course, nobody wants the government moving into their turf; Accel is a venture firm.)

While I agree that best role of government, when it comes to new technology, is to encourage ends and not directly fund means (you can encourage energy independence in general without paying for particular technologies), it's not always the case that government can't play well in this field. The CIA's venture firm, In-Q-Tel, for example, actively fosters the growth of start-ups, and many of the technologies developed on those dollars have national security as well as economic benefits. In-Q-Tel portfolio company Ember, for example, has contributed to the development of the ZigBee wireless standard that will end up in the next generation of smart appliances.

Panelist Vinod Khosla's trend "maintech not cleantech" was in the same vein ("maintech" meaning mainstream technology). Khosla doesn't think government subsidies will drive down carbon emissions. (He also thinks that "fringe" environmentalists don't make much of a dent. "Five percent of Californians will buy anything," he said, referring to the Prius.) Khosla's money is where his mouth is: His "renewable portfolio" has funded companies working on fuel technology, engines, building materials, and plastics. "Nobody wins betting against Vinod," panelist Ram Shriram said.

All the trends

1. The millennials are here. Everything changes. The current generation of graduating college students won't remember a life offline.

2. Advanced batteries will be most popular energy investment in '09 and '10 and will provide best returns in the medium term.

3. A deluge of unstructured data creates the next great information leaders. ("The dark matter of the enterprise is unstructured data," said panelist Ann Winblad.)

4. Wireless broadband will be one of the only IT sectors to see increased funding this year and in the future.

5. Maintech, not cleantech

6. Power and efficiency management services will see a flowering through investment and innovation.

7. The triumph of the distributed Web. (This is Interesting trend #1.)

8. Health care administration will be the fastest-growing sector. (The panelists were so bored by this trend they didn't even discuss it.)

9. Consumption of digital goods on mobile devices is the growth story of the coming decade.

10. Electronic displays will prove the hottest investment in hardware this year and next.

11. Washington D.C. will prove to be a poor VC. (This is Interesting trend #2.)

12. The rumors of the demise of the reporter have been exaggerated.

See also: My Twitter reports from the event.

 

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