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Technology changing for better, Coburn says

Madison, Wis. - Pip Coburn offers a different framework for selling products to what he calls, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, "real humans." And given his forecasting credibility, established largely for predicting the dotcom bust, he's bound to have the ear of executives attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison's ninth annual E-Business Institute Conference.

Coburn, founder of Coburn Ventures and author of The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Others Crash and Burn, will be one of the key speakers at the Oct. 24 gathering. The conference, which will be held at Monona Terrace, will explore a variety of e-business topics, including online threats to business brands, information security, and supply chain management.

Coburn hopes technology executives come away from his presentation with a new sense of who they are serving, and how that should drive new ways of thinking.

"Most of the technology world, over the last five-and-a-half decades, has really been sucked into thinking in a very, very egocentric way about what can be produced and what can be created, as opposed to what the end-user will benefit from, and what the pain of adoption will be for the end-user in that process," Coburn said. "So I look at the creation of new technologies as a necessary ingredient, but unfortunately most of the technology world has looked at that as a sufficient ingredient for the generation of new markets."

Coburn's book, which explains why some technologies are adopted and most are not, was published in June of this year. Coburn believes it will remain applicable as long as people remember the lessons of the technology crash. When the NASDAQ Stock Market went from 5,000 down to 1,100, he said people started looking for new answers, and they still are. In this case, crisis was the mother of invention and the agent of change.
"That built-it-and-they'll-come mentality no longer seemed that intelligent or that appropriate as stockholders lost 80 percent of their money in the average equity, and most of the dotcoms went to zero," he said. "That created a crisis, and some new language is now available, or rather the market is now open-minded to some new language of how to solve some of the problems that may have been with us all along, but really weren't that popular to address during the 1990s."

The real Y2K crisis

The decade of the 1990s featured all the hallmarks of peace and prosperity, but twin tremors - the pending technology collapse and the growth of terrorist networks - were rumbling under the radar. In 2000, when technology was near its peak market strength, Coburn gained fame for predicting a prolonged slump in global technology equities.

Having studied change, specifically monumental change, he detected an emerging and ominous pattern.

"What I saw in 2000 were a few things at the company level," he said. "The major companies in technology started missing earnings estimates. That wasn't a good sign, and that was also a new occurrence. The growth expectations that Wall Street had for those companies were still enormous, and the valuations around those companies were also enormous by any historical framework."

Not for long. What ensued was a hard economic landing, complete with massive layoffs, accounting scandals, executive perp walks and, ultimately, new ways of looking at problems.

Warm up act

Not to mention new problems to look at, and new opportunities to attack them. Asked if there was anything on the horizon that concerned him, Coburn didn't hesitate.

"Oh yes, global warming," he said. "From a technology standpoint, I think global warming will be one of the largest investment opportunities over the next 10, 20 years, period. Period.

"It's an enormous investment opportunity for new technologies. So when we find these areas that concern or crises that arise, often times that's the opportunity for new technologies to gain market."

Will these technologies simply quantify the problem, or actually play a role in solving the problem? Coburn is a firm believer that society never really solves its problems, but it does apply band-aids.

"Rarely does a new technology solve a problem because it has some type of external byproduct that we can't envision initially," he said. "For example, Google is in some ways creating better communications for people all over the planet, and that's something that most people on the planet think is an extremely good thing.

"Now, inadvertently, I suppose Google is employing 500,000 servers around the world. That's an awful lot of servers that command an awful lot of energy power, and Google is forcing the hand of many other players. So from an effectiveness and efficiency standpoint, we're going to pay a price for the amount that we're demanding from all these servers that we're placing all over the world."

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