OPINION

US Tech Market Leadership at a Crossroads

Qualcomm went to Washington, D.C., last week to host an event focused on preserving and protecting the United States’ unique leadership position in the technology market.

The keynote and panel were populated by ex-government officials and experts on trade and technology who pointed out that, regardless of which party is in power, government is ineffective and non-competitive when it comes to competition in world markets.

Government entities often propose remedies for domestic problems that have handed entire markets over to other countries. At one time, the U.S. dominated industries like oil and gas, consumer electronics, automobiles, and trains. Except for Apple clawing back some of one of those markets, control and leadership now belongs to others.

Let’s talk about what the panel indicated needs to be done. Then we’ll close with my product of the week, an Indiegogo project called the Obsbot, a video conferencing camera that impressed me a lot.

Accept Change, Fund Innovation

Qualcomm’s event keynote was given by Susan C. Schwab, who is an expert on negotiating out-of-trade disputes, serves on several critical boards, and a former Ambassador.

She highlighted that the world is undergoing massive change which means there are also vast opportunities and risks. Market leadership migrates where it is best nourished and supported. She pointed out that the open market movements of the past are eroding toward nations which will drive even more turmoil going forward.

Schwab told us that a particularly troublesome trend is governments thinking they know better than the markets and trying to use their strength to be kingmakers. She argued that the primary goal of government should be, if the country, any county, is to remain competitive, is to fund and otherwise fully support innovation and accept risk-taking at every scale.

Companies that win in this increasingly volatile world, she explained, will be those that are fleet of foot, can see these emerging opportunities, are willing to take the needed risks, and have the skills to take advantage of those opportunities.

Schwab delineated that the free flow of ideas and information will be critical to assuring the success of these efforts, regardless of where they might exist. She argued that countries need to collaborate to create coalitions while avoiding extreme nationalism, implying Russia is an example of getting that so very wrong.

In short, countries that behave badly will face catastrophic economic, technological, and political penalties.

US Government Must Stop Working Against the Economy

After the keynote came a powerful panel of qualified experts on governance, government process, trade negotiations and government procurement:

  • Paul Michel — a retired federal judge focused on strengthening U.S. technology rights
  • John J. Hamre — CSIS President and CEO, and Langone Chair in American Leadership
  • Katherina McFarland — Commissioner, U.S. National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence and Chair of National Academies of Science Board of Army Research and Development
  • Ellen Lord — former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisitions and Sustainment
  • Robert Atkinson — President of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

One of the most troubling things the panel shared was that for decades the U.S. government, regardless of administration or which party was running it, has been at cross-purposes to what should be its primary goal concerning trade and market leadership.

I’ve been concerned about this as well, particularly regarding the antitrust division which successively has crafted remedies for bad corporate behavior that have handed markets over to competing countries.

Shift of Focus Needed

Of particular concern to the panel are IP losses to China, and China’s willingness to fund at extreme levels efforts for market leadership, resulting in increasing trade deficits and the ongoing erosion of existing market leadership by the U.S., with technology now at critical risk.

The panel didn’t suggest that companies shouldn’t be punished for illegal, anti-competitive behavior. Yet, the way I see it, if we held the executives accountable, rather than the company itself, then the employees and investors who had nothing to do with the decisions in question, wouldn’t be collateral damage — and the U.S. wouldn’t constantly be at risk of losing leadership and control of the few remaining industries that fuel much of the country’s economy and offset trade deficits.

Particularly when it comes to government purchasing process, rather than excessively focusing on cost, focus instead on promoting innovation and creative solutions to difficult problems while allowing for failure.

DARPA Projects Exemplary

They pointed out that an excellent example of doing this right is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA largely drove autonomous car development effort for years. It is uniquely funded and directed so that the head of a unit can make huge bets during their 5-year limited term, which has resulted in some of the most impressive technological advancements in the world.

GPS, stealth planes, real-time speech translation, gallium arsenide and the internet (Al Gore aside) were all massive successes that came out of DARPA projects. Projects in progress include Z-Man (which is kind of a spiderman technology that allows people to scale walls unassisted), underwater express troop transport torpedoes, fully bionic limbs, the Switchblade (initially a remotely controlled but eventually autonomous fighter drone), and advanced exoskeletons (wonder if Sigourney Weaver is on that project?).

But DARPA is the exception, not the rule, and most other efforts are incredibly risk averse because, if you fail, it can not only be career ending, but congress might call you to testify and embarrass you to everyone you know and most who you’ll now never meet.

In short, the panelists’ concern was that China is pulling out all the stops to compete with and displace the U.S., while legacy U.S. departments are inadvertently helping them accomplish this because they aren’t directed to protect U.S. markets. Instead, they seem to be expert at assigning blame and killing those markets in the process.

Dysfunctional Government

Much like it was in the post 9/11 attack report, it was clear that a great deal of the problem with responding, blocking, or even anticipating the attack was different government divisions that were unable to, or refused to, cooperate with each other.

The government is at its heart dysfunctional. Rather than focus on the symptoms, the panel suggested that an effort be made to focus on the core problems. If you increase efficiency and intelligent cooperation, you can lower the risk of falling behind and increase the opportunities for success.

One thing they recommended that I don’t think will work is a blend of business and political types. It’s been tried several times and generally fails because the businesspeople don’t understand government process and the government people don’t understand business priorities.

What is needed is people conversant in both business and government processes to act as mediators and translators so the two groups can work in concert. Otherwise, the businesspeople burn out quickly and the effort fails, often after the government types have predicted that failure. Other issues, like the disparity in compensation and privilege, don’t help these efforts either.

One other troubling thing the panel mentioned is that China is flooding standards bodies with people in an apparent attempt to control those standards. For instance, 6G is at risk of becoming a Chinese-led, advancement which would be a huge nail in the coffin of U.S. tech leadership.

Wrapping Up

The Qualcomm Leadership 2022 event was one of the most interesting events I’ve attended. While it was streamed, the recording isn’t available which I think is a shame. Alex Rogers, who drove the effort, is one of the most highly regarded experts and leaders in global affairs and leads Qualcomm’s QTL licensing division. Qualcomm is an IP company, so protecting and assuring IP ownership as an incentive for innovation is critical to its future.

The panel wasn’t particularly critical of any one administration but was united in its view that assuring, protecting, and building U.S. technical leadership was closely tied to national security. Should we fall behind, the next war won’t be in Ukraine but will directly impact us. The weapons will be trade, and we are not prepared to win that war because our government is working against itself.

I said the event was interesting. I didn’t say it was uplifting. But they did make excellent points that should have a higher priority in any government’s list of critical goals.

Technology Product of the Week

Obsbot Tiny 4K AI-Powered Webcam

If you’ve ever been in a video conference room, chances are you saw a large camera on an automated gimbal that would track whoever is speaking. This kind of camera is particularly useful when giving a presentation when you need or want to move around, or just need to stand up and stretch your legs.

Virtually all desktop cameras today are fixed and will attempt to use their wider field of view to do much the same thing without moving the camera, but you are still limited to what the fixed camera can see.

But with the Obsbot Tiny 4K webcam you can move much more aggressively, and you can take control of the camera through its app to aim at someplace else, say an object on the table you are sharing, the view from your office window, or someone else who joined you in your home or work office. Here’s a video of this thing in action:

Part of the attraction is that it is motorized so it just kind of looks cool doing what it does. When it isn’t being used, it aims the camera straight down, so you’ll know if someone else is using it to spy on you (a common concern with many video conferencing camera users).

Obsbot Tiny 4K AI-powered webcam
Obsbot Tiny 4K webcam

They make three sizes of this camera. The one I got is the Obsbot Tiny 4K which sells for around $269 — though be prepared to pay extra for accessories if you want a remote control, adapter cables or an HQ mic. There’s a non-4K for $70 less, but I personally think the 4K is worth it.

Another nice thing about the camera is that while it can be mounted on top of your monitor, it can also run underneath if your monitor is high, or the top of the monitor is covered by a cabinet like my wife’s screen. Her desk is in the kitchen, so this would allow her to maintain a video call while cooking.

They also have a larger unit for bigger rooms, but it is sold out currently. Another in the line, called Obsbot Me, can be used for selfies as if you had your own camera person.

I just ordered the Obsbot Tiny 4K webcam for my wife (don’t tell her), and  it is my product of the week.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

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