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A dual digital life

Olaf Olafsson, Time Warner's executive vice president of technology, sheds light on his twin roles as a best-selling literary author and a technology strategist.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
7 min read

On paper, Olaf Olafsson sounds like a character straight out of a novel: He's a top technology executive for media mogul Time Warner, a positron physicist by training and, in his spare time, a best-selling novelist in his native Iceland.

Olafsson is making waves on two fronts. After temporarily leaving Time Warner, after its merger with America Online, he returned earlier this year as an executive vice president for technology strategy. He's the one who evaluates strategic relationships with companies like Microsoft. He's also the executive who helps guide the company's ongoing transformation from a cable TV and content company to a digital entertainment provider.

Olafsson also recently published his third novel, "Walking into the Night," a melancholy story about an Icelandic businessman who walks out on his family and career, and takes a bit role in American mythology, as a butler for William Randolph Hearst.

The executive VP took a circuitous path to his double career, studying physics at Brandeis University in the early 1980s. Trying to persuade him to

If this is done right, the same is going to happen to the content industry that is happening to the cable companies.
stay in a Ph.D. program, a professor enlisted the then-head of Sony Corp. of America as moral support. That executive instead offered Olafsson a job in Silicon Valley, which he accepted.

Over the next few years, he founded and headed the Sony digital entertainment division that ultimately introduced the PlayStation to the United States, and he eventually wound up as a vice chairman of Time Warner's online division. The initial period after the merger with AOL was "turbulent," he says, and Olafsson left the company for a while, returning after the shift in management earlier this year.

CNET News.com spoke with Olafsson about the dual life of an artist and a high-powered technology executive, and what it means to help transform an old-world powerhouse in the digital age.

Q: Given that you live in a fast-paced technological environment, what inspired you to write such a quiet, literary book?
A: Well, I guess we all live in a world that's associated with technology and influenced by technology. I've always looked at technology as a tool. One form of media still in my mind is best served by traditional methods, and that's storytelling. Books provide a great way for people to tell stories. Movies are the same. Paper is actually a great technology, when it comes to a novel.

Have you worked creatively in any interactive mediums?
Creatively, no. I must admit that when I want to kill time, or when I want to consume media, I do that by reading a book or watching a film. Or reading magazines. I've never had the interest--and probably for sure don't have the talent--to do any kind of interactive content.

Where does the inspiration for your writing come from? You write about characters fairly far removed from corporate towers in New York.
They probably are. It's tough to say how one gets ideas. In the case of "Walking into the Night," this was actually the first book I've written that was inspired by someone's life. A few years ago, I was having dinner with a fellow Icelander, and he told me the story of his grandfather. It's his grandfather's story that inspired this book. The only touch point with my corporate life is Hearst. William Randolph Hearst plays a big role in this book; this gentleman, the protagonist, is his butler.

Is Hearst's character drawn from some of the people you've met in corporate life at Time Warner?
I actually did a lot of research into Hearst's life and depict him my way. Of course he is fictionalized, but most of the things that happen to him in the novel are based on historical fact.

Paper is actually great technology, when it comes to a novel.
Everything from the type of food he eats to the way he ran his household in San Simeon to the way he ran his business and to some of the financial difficulties he ran into in the late 1930s.

Have you ever been tempted to write about your own corporate world?
Not really. I'm sure it's like everything--people you know, things you experience, places you see, and so on and so forth--it all becomes a part of your overall knowledge base, and when you write, you draw from it. But in terms of setting a novel in the business world, no, I've never been tempted by it.

What kind of technology issues are you overseeing at Time Warner?
If there's one overarching theme, it's the transformation of analog to digital, which manifests itself in a lot of different ways. Anything from digital rights management to file sharing to personal video recorders to, you know, high-definition DVDs and television programming, and wireless distribution. It's all affecting all our businesses, moving them from the traditional world of analog to digital programming--with all the opportunities and potential risks of that transition.

What technologies have gotten you excited, from the perspective of content distribution or from a personal perspective?
In the cable business, we have been very encouraged by a lot of the new services the cable platform is able to offer. Not long ago, a cable company was simply a one-product company; the infrastructure was analog, and what they sold were 50-or-so television channels. Now, the platform has been upgraded to digital. With that, you have all kinds of new products and services, such as video on demand, subscription video on demand and personal digital video recording. You have the ability to manage your content at home and watch TV in a new way.

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In addition to that, the cable platform now offers broadband connectivity though the same infrastructure and is planning to offer voice over Internet Protocol.

How does this affect the content side of Time Warner?
My view of the digital transformation is that if this is done right, the same is going to happen to the content industry that is happening to the cable companies. The content companies will be able to offer their products to the consumer--whether it's television shows or film or video--in a lot more ways than it can today. But that requires, of course, digital rights management or billing systems within the digital infrastructure--so that they don't fall prey to piracy--and an illicit way of dealing with the content.

Is Time Warner interested in expending to alternate forms of distribution, such as WiMax (802.16 wireless broadband standard) or other wireless broadband mediums?
Yeah. Basically, we look at all ways of distributing content, and if someone came up with a way to distribute content on potato chips, we'd do it. As long as there is consumer demand and a secure, reasonable way of doing it--if it makes sense, we're all for it.

The big question over last year is whether the old AOL will be able to adapt to broadband. How do you see that transition going, and what needs to happen to make that work?
It's clearly a change in approach. The management at AOL is embracing the change at this point and is providing products for people who want to have AOL as a communication and content service but might get connectivity from a digital subscriber line or a cable company. AOL does have a lot of customers--25 million in the United States alone--and these are people who have grown up within the AOL environment and are comfortable with it. Many of them would like to continue AOL in a broadband world.

Five years from now, will people think of AOL as a name associated with an Internet service provider or with a content company? When they hear AOL, what will they think of?
The AOL guys will know more than I will, in terms of consumer research. But I think that most people who have AOL today don't think of it as an ISP; they think of AOL as an environment they operate in and live in when they're online. They don't see the Internet connection. What they do see is their e-mail and instant messages and the content categories and chat and so on.

I think they're going to continue to view AOL the same way. The programming will change, with broadband offering you more bandwidth to do things. But I think that whether the consumer gets his connectivity from AOL, the phone company or the cable company, AOL is still going to be the company that provides the environment.

For the last half-decade or so, Icelandic artists have had a growing presence in the American entertainment world. In music, that's certainly true, but you've been a part of this as well. To what do you attribute that? Are people looking to Iceland for a new creative voice?
Iceland is a very creative place, and the cultural heritage is literature. People have been writing for a long time. All the Viking literature was basically written by settlers in Iceland who left Norway after a civil war, sailed west, took some slaves in Ireland and then sailed west again, and found Iceland and settled it. I think the literary gene probably comes as much from the Irish slaves as from the Norwegian Vikings.

It is a very creative place. A lot of people are doing things there that are quite unique. The output defies all logic of numbers. Given how many people live there, you shouldn't have a lot coming out.