Customers want a constant connection, says iPass CTO

Sailor on his mobile phone
Image caption Whether at home or on a warship headed to Libya we all expect to be constantly connected, according to Barbara Nelson, iPass CTO

Each week we ask high-profile technology decision-makers three questions.

Image caption iPass CTO Barbara Nelson says wifi technology is coming in from the cold

This week it is Barbara Nelson, chief technology officer (CTO) of iPass.

iPass provides mobility services including wifi network authentication and management. The company has approximately 400 global employees with offices across the US, Europe, Asia and Australia.

Headquartered in Redwood Shores, California, iPass is a publicly traded company with 2010 revenues of $156m (£97m).

What's your biggest technology problem right now?

I think the biggest problem right now is the fact that we have a desire for universal connectivity, and the emergence of cloud based services that drive a need to be connected all the time, but the practicality is that you can't, there are still pockets of the universe that don't have suitable connectivity.

So I think the real technical challenge is how do we facilitate this always connected community when the technical underpinnings aren't there to do that yet.

I think that's an area where we're going to see more innovation as we move forward, trying to really strike that balance over how you get connected, how you stay connected, how you perceive you're connected even when you aren't because the new devices demand connectivity.

The smartphones certainly do, as do the tablets. The cloud based services by their very definition only work when they're connected.

What's the next big tech thing in your industry?

I think to a certain extent the next big thing is actually the next old thing, I think it's the re-emergence of wifi.

While a couple of years ago wifi was seen as just the technology you had until you were lucky enough to get 3G, I think what has happened instead is there's really been a recognition of the need to promote and grow and develop a global wifi network.

It's really in the last year there's been tremendous recognition of that, as a forgotten child that's getting it's day in the sun.

What's the biggest technology mistake you've ever made - either at work or in your own life?

A number of years ago I was working for a company called General Magic. It was a phenomenal company in terms of the calibre of the engineers, and giving them an environment in which they were completely unrestrained.

If you did your best work standing on your head at two in the morning - then that's what you did.

We were called "magicians". There was no formal product management or product release cycle.

In that environment we developed some amazing technology, and some amazing intellectual property. But ultimately it was a complete business failure.

I think one reason was this idea that engineers know what Joe ordinary user needs, and they generally don't.

Engineers like solving very hard problems, so they assume the world has very hard problems.

This was back in 1992, and when I look back at the problems we decided needed to be solved, and the solutions we felt needed to be offered to the market we were 10 years too early.

As a result, what we had defined as the problem we wanted to solve was a device you would carry with you all of the time, that would enable you to get connected any time anywhere, with a user-friendly interface.

Well here we are in 2011 and everyone has one of those.

But this was 1992. And so you ended up with this very sophisticated engineering solution, which cost $1,000 and was the size of a large paperback book.

I think that is what happens when you take very bright engineers - they gravitate towards seeing the hardest pieces of the problem and solving them.

In retrospect I think we would have been far more successful if we had been more grounded in business need.

And I think what I've learnt out of that has been to have a level of pragmatism in how I approach my job and manage my team, and even in how I approach evaluating new technology.

It's not just the new shiny object, it's "let's wait and see if this new shiny object is going to be broadly adopted before we start to solve problems for it".

I would say that's probably been the most obvious one, but would I look back and say that was a mistake?

Personally absolutely not - it was an incredible learning experience. But I'm sure for a shareholder in General Magic, letting their engineering team run wild was not an intelligent decision.

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