In the 1980s and 1990s, the Lotus Development Corporation was famous for the 1-2-3 spreadsheet and the email system Notes. For Dataquest 15 years, we had got Lotus President Jeff Papows to write for us. For Dataquest 40 years we get him again to throw light on the tech world of the 2020s. He is currently the CEO of ShopAdvisor.
You have had a software career spanning nearly three decades and have seen success with many companies. What is the most important trait for a software company to survive and any special tips for the Age of AI?
Software companies are about the human brain trust. There is no manufacturing, there are literal physical assets. It’s about people. It’s about inspiration. Back in the day at Lotus I was convinced and convinced with 10,000 of my colleagues and employees that we are changing the way people live and work. We did but it takes tenacity, some trial and error and lots of organizational resilience. Steve Jobs once told me, “Your customers will never love your products before you love and motivate your workforce. One always comes before the other.” Steve was right of course. Clarity of vision, passion, and respect for those enlisted in the pursuit of great things lead to the real paradigm shifts that matter.
Has the Gen AI era begun or is it all hype? How will it change the CX space, in terms of predictability of the customer’s needs? Will ecommerce get a greater advantage than the real world?
AI is real and it’s not going away. It’s more help than hindrance but it will require pragmatic understanding of where it enhances experiences. The greatest downside is “disinformation” and that’s where things need some smart degree of regulation. That said I’m not hopeful. I once testified in the United States Senate during the government’s attempt to paint Microsoft as a monopoly. I told them then there are three kinds of time – clock time we all understand – Internet time, which is 10X faster, and government time which is always ten times slower. I testified Microsoft was too complex and too far ahead of their ability to grasp things for their intervention to accomplish anything. I was right, it was a wasteful media circus. AI can’t simply be about better forms of IVR services and frustrating customer experience. We have enough robotic evidence of that today. Call any Fortune 500 customer service line and you’ll see that in nano seconds.
How has shopping, retail and ecommerce changed in the post-Covid era? What are the trends that lasted from the pandemic and the ones that perished? What kind of disruptions will we see in this space?
Shopping in this paradigm is about intelligent proximity. I learned that with the success I had with my last software enterprise ShopAdvisor. It’s real time explicit opportunities presented at just the right time, not simply ecommerce and links to Amazon. There has been “retail Armageddon”, the age of big shopping malls, but honestly, I don’t see it. I haven’t been inside a store in years. The pandemic certainly accelerated the retail disintermediation curve but it’s lasting and real. Navigating personal preferences on the Internet can be improved with AI, with reacting to the cookie trails we leave behind and with learned preferences.
Why not India, you have the people, the education, the technology wherewithal. The weakness to avoid is a picture painted in part today of India as just a cheaper alternative to other computer science skills. You can be so much more than that.
India has set a goal to become a tech and economic superpower by 2047, 100 years after its Independence. How realistic is this goal? What its strengths and weaknesses in this regard?
It’s like any goal, it’s realistic if you believe it to be, and believe it passionately enough to make it happen. Why not India, you have the people, the education, the technology wherewithal. The weakness to avoid is a picture painted in part today of India as just a cheaper alternative to other computer science skills. You can be so much more than that. It can’t simply be labor economics. It has to be like all things in the Information Age about innovation.
In an interview with us in 1997, you talked about the incredible journey from collaborative computing maturing into the age of network computing. At that time, you mentioned that the hardest part was getting business leaders to understand what the terms meant. Today what are the new challenges in the age of collaboration and AI?
More than that I predicted in 1995 that asynchronous text-based communication mediums such as email and SMS would eclipse “human voice” as the principal world communications modality. I got criticized and it was at the time somewhat self-serving as I was after all reinventing email. It was hard them get people to believe in a massive shift in the way we live and work, but we were right. Today is no different but we need to take AI, it’s benefits and find the tools to put in people’s hands every day for them to see the horizon. People lived in their Lotus Notes inboxes it became visceral, I had tens of thousands of disciples attend Lotusphere every year it became a movement. We need that “everybody” interface for these new technologies. Build it and they will come.