Mar 2, 2011

RootsTech 2011 Thursday Keynotes

The opening plenary session at RootsTech 2011 was a great way to set the tone for the rest of the conference. It was broadcast live over the internet originally. I hope the videos are uploaded so others can watch them, and see why all the buzz about RootsTech. (Apparently, some are now online, but not the Thursday keynotes yet.)

First up was a vice president from HP, Shane Robison. Not an obvious choice to lead off a conference about genealogy, but he fit the bill nonetheless. While his presentation wasn't specifically about genealogy at all, it dovetailed nicely into many of the sessions I later attended. He explained the state of the IT industry and where it's going, using pictures and language the average, non-computer savvy genealogist could understand. He spent quite a bit of time talking about cloud computing, and some on the industry terms software as a service (SaaS) and platform as a service (PaaS). Now any keynote by a corporate bigwig wouldn't be complete without a bit of free advertising, and he didn't disappoint. He explained how HP was well positioned for the future, as the only large vendor with solutions across the whole spectrum of cloud computing, from big iron servers down to smartphones. All true, but there's still lots of competition in every space along that spectrum–a good thing in my opinion.

As a certified computer geek and hobbyist programmer, much of his talk wasn't new to me. But one small illustration he made was rather profound. For the last 20 years or more, the IT industry has been all about the T, technology. But more and more nowadays, the emphasis is shifting to the I, information. I'd never thought about that before, but I realize how true it is. We used to have to continually upgrade our computer hardware to be able to run the newest, ever more bloated, software. But today, every entry-level desktop computer is far beyond the required capability to perform the tasks most people need. That fact, plus the ubiquity of large, cheap hard disk drives, and the availability of endless streams of data via the internet have changed the situation dramatically. We're deluged with so much data, it's hard to make sense of it, and figure out which piece is important, and which is extraneous. Those are the kinds of problems being tackled in the IT industry today.


HP TouchPadThere's another reason I was delighted to see an HP executive speak that day. Just the night before, HP held an event they'd advertised with the slogan, "Think big. Think small. Think beyond." It was about their WebOS product line they acquired when they bought Palm, Inc. Each part of the slogan was a new product: the TouchPad tablet, and Veer and Pre3 smartphones. While the Pre3 is merely an upgrade, and the Veer basically a much smaller version, the TouchPad is pretty exciting. I'd been eagerly anticipating the event because I've been a longtime Palm user. (I could write a long, detailed post on the history of the Palm platform, but then everybody would stop reading at this point. So I'll suffice to relate an example from my own experience.)

My primary computer for the last few years has been an Apple laptop. The default applications in MacOS X for e-mail, calendar, and address book are pretty good, and met most of my needs out of the box. When I got my first smartphone, a Palm Centro, it wanted me to install a completely new personal information management suite, incompatible with the existing applications. Instead, I found some nifty software from Mark/Space that synced the phone with Apple's products. Problem solved! It's one of the few software utilities I was willing to pay for. But smartphone technology kept blazing ahead, and the iPhone and multiple Android phones passed me by. So as soon as there was a good deal (free after rebate), I got a Palm Pixi. Like the Pre, it also runs WebOS, which is a totally different OS than the old Palm devices. It's completely cloud-based, and pretty darn innovative. It can pull your contacts, e-mail, and calendar from multiple sources, and I no longer need any third party utilities to sync. I still use the default Apple applications, but they and my phone all pull the data from an online account.

I really like WebOS. It has a great UI, and you can develop complete apps in only HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Much easier to program for than either iPhone or Android. So the TouchPad really intrigues me. The same OS, in a large form factor like the iPad. Especially with some of Apple's recent predatory business practices, they need some good competition in this arena. And while I haven't found any genealogy-related apps for WebOS yet, there will be if it gains any significant market share. Ancestry.com released some great looking apps for the iPad and iPhone, and I'd bet they're already working on an Android version. Here's hoping for a WebOS app as well.

The second keynote was from Jay Verkler, the CEO of FamilySearch, which both organized and sponsored RootsTech. He has quite the resumé, as a former executive for Oracle and multiple successful Silicon Valley start-ups. Now he's an employee of the LDS Church, in charge of their Family History division. He started out with a joke how he's usually the warm-up for the big keynote speaker, but this time it was reversed. The order worked out well, though. It started out very broad and visionary, then he focused it more specifically on genealogy. He explained the rationale behind RootsTech and outlined the process of revamping the FamilySearch websites, which are now based in the cloud, on Amazon's AWS. I think it's pretty clear he's largely responsible for many of the improvements to the FamilySearch website, and the direction they're heading, eventually to all digital.

All in all, two great speeches to start out a hybrid conference on genealogy and technology.

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