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Tuesday, May 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Divining tech's future this pundit's idea of fun

Seattle Times senior technology writer

SAN DIEGO — In the tech industry, Mark Anderson is known for throwing a wild beach party here every year.

But a peculiar syndrome is common among the inventors, investors and executives who attend the Friday Harbor technology pundit's annual San Diego shindig: stretch marks on the brain.

Called Future in Review, or FiRe, the conference is one of a handful of events where technologists, investors and journalists gather to discuss issues and trends such as broadband cellphones, personal robotics, nano-fusion and globalization.

Attendees are subscribers of a weekly technology newsletter published by Anderson, an entrepreneur, investor and consultant. Among this year's speakers and attendees are Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Wipro Chairman Azim Premji and Larry Brilliant, director of Google's philanthropy.

Michael Dell also came and offered insights into his company's missteps, including a warning that it would miss financial forecasts, a warning that shocked Wall Street last week. "We kind of underestimated what was going to happen competitively," Dell said.

It's an interesting time for this crowd, which is trying to make sense of tectonic shifts in the technology industry.

The "four horsemen" of the PC-centric 1990s — Microsoft, Dell, Cisco and Intel — have lost their footing, and telecommunications companies are regaining their former stature with today's emphasis on networks and mobile devices, according to Sol Trujillo, chief executive of Australian phone company Telstra.

To help figure out where things are going next, Trujillo suggested people keep in mind major shifts taking place:

• "Tilting of the globe" resulting from the rise of China and India and the decline of Europe. This is creating new market opportunities, turning labor into a global commodity and increasingly influencing the design of network-connected devices.

• An increase in life expectancy around the world. This suggests more multigenerational households in the future. An aging population also calls for more simple device controls and interfaces. It may also create opportunities for health-monitoring systems such as "body area networks."

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• Increasing importance of online relationships, particularly among the footloose younger generation. Governments, banks and phone companies have to figure out how to establish relationships with people who may never register for a phone landline, live in a series of rentals, change jobs frequently and store their contact info on Yahoo! One possibility: assign a domain name to everyone at birth.

Here are some of the other observations shared Monday. More will be posted today at my online Web log, or blog, at www.seattletimes.com.

Computers and genes: Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, predicted genome research will lead to another industrial revolution as entrepreneurs capitalize on the research and experimentation done by nature over the ages — evolution — and stored in DNA.

Smarr used to think supercomputing was for things like simulating supernovas before "these biologists came along."

"We thought, 'Biology is squishy stuff; why would they want a supercomputer?' "

IP in India: India's intellectual-property protections have upgraded over the past two years and are now nearly 80 percent to 90 percent as strong as they are in the U.S., according to Azim Premji, chairman of Wipro, one of India's leading tech companies.

Now Premji's nervous about the relative lack of IP protection in China, where Wipro has offices. "When an abuse would take place, we are not sure the government would move to our support quickly and the laws of the government would support us,"' he said.

Another digital divide: Jonathan Murray, Microsoft's worldwide technology officer, said even as technology races ahead, there's a risk that some people will choose to opt out, creating a second digital divide.

"Will we see a new breed of people in society who decide they don't want to be digitally enabled?" he asked. "Will that create another discontinuity in society we need to address?"

His other looming concerns include limits governments may place that restrict industry's ability to take advantage of new technologies. He's also concerned the tech industry isn't prepared to deal with the social responsibility and ethical issues presented by advanced technology.

Changing security: Mac users shouldn't be complacent about security, Symantec Chief Executive John Thompson said.

Windows has presented a bigger target for cyberattacks, but the nature of the threats is changing. Instead of broad virus attacks, hackers are increasingly focused on attacking individuals — regardless of their computer type — and stealing their money and identity.

Thompson also had choice words for Microsoft. He said he's not worried about competition from Microsoft's new security offerings, but he suggested Symantec, maker of Norton-brand security products, will pursue antitrust remedies if Microsoft doesn't play "fair."

"If they deliver their classic technology portfolio, we're not concerned at all," he said. "However, if they do something that is unfair, then that will be something that will be difficult to compete against, but we'll have other venues for making our point."

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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