This week’s WebSummit held in Lisbon has been an eye-opener in many respects. It not only provided an avenue for technology startups to show off their wares and for potential investors to check them over, but it also fostered open discussion on almost all sectors of the digital world – with the striking exception and virtual absence of communications service providers.
They were there, I’m sure, but not openly. They were likely roaming the floors checking out what’s new, but they didn’t appear on the list of keynote speakers, they didn’t have big exhibition stands (with the exception of Kazhak Telecom) and they hardly came up in general session conversations. Despite all their talk of digital transformation, they seem allergic to this gigantic digital world event that is closing in fast on Mobile World Congress in terms of numbers.
Could this indicate that communications in the digital world has finally become what we have all feared – just a commodity? Are CSPs and all the new-fangled tech stuff around 5G just background noise to what is a massive digital festival revolving around everything web or internet-based? I don’t recall anyone here even mentioning 5G or transformation, for that matter. Mind you, it is physically impossible to cover everything that goes on.
It’s like entering a different world where people in suits look very out of place ( and are probably from the investment community); where gluten-free organic brain-food stalls have very long queues, and where water and coffee are dispensed freely every 100 meters too keep the night owls going through their busy days.
Most striking of all is the large percentage of women here. This is no testosterone-fueled telco event – this is truly an ‘equal’ environment where women’s voices are not only heard, they are listened to – from keynotes right through to product pitches on the floor. It’s fantastic and hardly a booth babe to be seen. So refreshing!
And what a program. Not a second to spare at the main arena that seems to house many thousands flowing in and out to catch one of the constant 15 -20 minute presentations, chats or panels that cover every aspect of the internet world. From there to each of the four pavilion floors that have everything from product pitches to in-depth debates going on in every corner.
On the news front, Google talked about the real threat of cyber warfare in future; Uber showed off its answer to “urban aviation” that will appear in Los Angeles’ skies in 2020; President Trump’s campaign manager was quizzed about Russian meddling; publishers and regulators opened up about fake news, with one claiming it was already destabilizing democracy as we know it and that it must be tackled, from every quarter, most urgently.
We saw Sophia and Albert Einstein, two autonomous robots from Hanson Technologies, debating about AI and whether it and their ilk were a threat to humankind. The fact that they outshone their bumbling human inventor (in a silly hat) as he tried to moderate must have sent a chill down many spines in that packed venue.
With over 2,000 media people in attendance (I’m sure the free breakfasts and lunches had nothing to do with attracting them) and an estimated 60,000 attendees, the event should have stretched the resources of Lisbon, but apart from the peak hour over-crowding on the metro system and the ridiculous two-hour strike by Uber drivers, the city managed admirably and provided stunning weather the whole time.
Perhaps the most endearing feature of WebSummit is that it doesn’t look or feel over-commercialized. It sticks to its core values of bringing together all aspects of the ‘web’ (I can’t think of any better overarching word) in a convivial atmosphere, a bit like a matchmaker. Everyone from the smallest app startup to the biggest technology investment houses rub shoulders. Speakers tend to be the people that make things happen rather than CEOs on ego trips. The moderators are professional without being slick. It all just works. Let’s just hope it continues this way.