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In the news: HP’S ‘chief seer’

Over the years, there have been more interviews than I can count with a wide range of media. In some cases, the press give you a nickname such as the ‘chief seer’. The following is a collection of questions from an interview with the San Jose Mercury News. So here are the answers to the […]

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
6 min read
In the news: HP’S ‘chief seer’

Over the years, there have been more interviews than I can count with a wide range of media. In some cases, the press give you a nickname such as the ‘chief seer'. The following is a collection of questions from an interview with the San Jose Mercury News.

So here are the answers to the most common questions:

Q:  Do you really have two interns living with you at your house?
A: Yes — this is the second year I've invited a few of my summer college interns to live at the house.  One objective is to have an opportunity to provide 1:1 mentoring to college students with the hope they find it a useful experience before they graduate.  The other objective is for me to learn from them (reverse mentoring).  You have one kind of relationship with your kids (my kids are either married or about to graduate from college) and a different one with young professionals anxious to make their mark on the world.
Q: So … you're the “Chief Seer”!  Is that an official title?
A:  That's a tag that Stuart Sikes, the president of Parks Associates (an industry analyst firm) gave me.  I'm not even sure what it means … does it mean I'm supposed to use a crystal ball?
Q: Why do you believe it will take so long for some of your predictions to become reality?A: One thing I've learned over the years is that predicting the future is dangerous.  History has shown that we tend to over estimate what will happen in the next 10 years while under estimating what will happen in the next 20.  Keep in mind that the dates I used in the interview are when I believe the prediction will be mainstream – not when the they first appear.

Press tend to ignore that there is a team involved in innovation and I've had killer teams.

Phil McKinney

As a final comment, I tend to not like these kinds of interviews/articles since it ignores the fact that there is an entire team involved.  Its not about me … its about the team.

Needless to say, I have a killer team.

The Mercury News interview: HP'S ‘chief seer' sees virtual worlds expanding

Mercury NewsArticle Launched: 07/06/2008 01:39:11 AM PDTPhilip McKinney sees a future of virtual collaboration, pervasive networks and cognitive devices that adapt to their user's personality.

Those ideas will come to market in the next 20 years, the veteran Hewlett-Packard executive said in his keynote speech at a recent conference on digital living, convened in Santa Clara by the Parks Associates research firm.

It's McKinney's job to think about the future. Dubbed the “chief seer” by Parks President Stuart Sikes, McKinney runs HP's Innovation Program Office, which works to convert ideas into viable commercial products. He also shares his ideas in podcasts and a personal blog (

In his speech, McKinney described a process of rethinking technology to change the way we live and work.

In 20 years, he said, it will be more common to interact in “Second Life-like” virtual communities, where people send graphical avatars to virtual business meetings. And we'll have the tools to be always connected – if we choose – to a pervasive digital network.

McKinney expanded on those predictions a few days later, in an interview at the HP campus in Cupertino. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Q We've all heard “the world is flat.” But will virtual meetings remain a tool for business, or will it gain wider use for the home?

A Oh yeah. The challenge that we keep hearing from the marketplace is that people are much more mobile so how do you stay connected to your extended family?

There's a lot of technologies, but the problem is they're still not very easy to use. My grandmother lives in Cincinnati; she's 93. I'm not going to give her a PC with Skype on it so I can have a video chat with her. But if I can embed it in something else to where she just turns her TV to Channel 4 and she's connected with me in my house in San Jose – that's where the opportunity is.

Another dynamic in the consumer segment is what we refer to as the “gray wave” – people over 55. Many of them are raising their kids and taking care of aging parents. People are seeing early hints of where technology could help with some of those things.

Q You believe companies should pay more attention to this gray wave, that it's not just the young, hip kids who are going to be buying this technology in coming years?

A Right. Everybody is out there chasing the 18- to 25-year-olds. The problem is the 18-25 market segment is shrinking by 6.5 percent a year. Over 55 is growing 8 percent a year. Fifty percent of all disposable income is in the 55-and-older category. So it's not a bad category to be thinking about.

Q You suggest that Second Life-like communities will become common for work as well as recreation. You also said they will need to gain legal status. Why?

A The problem with distance collaboration is: You can schedule a meeting on a particular topic, but you miss out on casual conversation. That's a role Second Life can play. Some companies are using it as a virtual water cooler.

The challenge is when you start creating those kinds of social networks, there's productivity and output generated. But if I get in a virtual collaboration with somebody in another country and we invent something, what creates the basis for ownership? If there becomes a dispute, where do you take that dispute? That's going to have to be addressed.

Q You predict a “pervasive network” by 2025. How will we experience that?

A I'm not a believer that there's going to be one means of access that's going to be ubiquitous. Wimax is not the silver bullet. 3G, 4G, 10G is not going to be the answer. It's going to be a combination of wireless access technologies.

So what's needed, then, are devices that can seamlessly stitch all these access means together. Kind of a first proof point is the technology Qualcomm is delivering around Gobi (a first-of-its-kind chip that works with two different cellular networks). Now you've got to do 20 of those different combinations and you'll start being pervasive.

Q At HP's Innovation Program Office, I understand a third of the ideas come from outside the company. Why do you want outside partners?

A The reason is that at HP, we're 160,000 employees, we're $110 billion in revenue, we've got 600 Ph.D. researchers in our labs. You could get the false impression that we can invent anything. But there are really smart people outside these walls. The challenge is how do you make HP the partner of choice?

One thing we do is assign a sponsor, one single person to help these outside companies or individuals navigate HP. Smaller companies don't always know who to call. So this helps them present their idea, have the right discussions and then get a clear signal back on whether it's something HP is interested in.

Q One of your tips for innovation is to stay up late, because that's when your filters are down. (The mental filters that rule out wild ideas, which might turn out to be good ones.) Do you still do that?

A Oh yeah, it drives my wife crazy. The idea really is to go back to things you'd do before you were successful, before you learned that you've always got to be on your guard.

Also, if you're in an area that you're comfortable with, the filters get really built up. When I'm forced to think about a different segment or marketplace that I'm not familiar with, it gives you different insights.

The medical industry is one thing I'm involved in now: I came from a telecom and tech background, but I've been spending a lot of time just standing on hospital floors, watching.

Q What are you looking at?

A We don't talk about future (products). But you can look at the current situation in the medical field – where you've got spiraling costs, you've got an infrastructure that is still very paper-based. You can look at incidents of medical errors from bad information.

A third area that is interesting in the medical industry is the wealth of historical information. Can you use it as a data-mining exercise, and look for early indicators, so that you can be predictive and start a process of prevention rather than treatment?

It isn't just, “Let me sell you another million PCs.” It's around, “How do you bring technology to solve fundamental issues? Can you come at it with a different perspective?” That's what I'm working on.

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Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


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