Apple, Marvell and the promise of changing the world

Analyst Opinion – Early on in Apple’s life, Steve Jobs had a now famous meeting with John Sculley to recruit him to run Apple. John was running the second most powerful beverage company in the world, Pepsi, while Apple was arguably the number 3 or number 6 computer company (depending on where you put Digital Equipment, HP or Commodore). The phrase Steve used to convince John, who knew little about computers, was “do you want to spend the rest of your life selling colored water or do you want a chance to change the world?” The irony of this is that if you look at the one segment Apple dominates, MP3 players, it is the technology equivalent of colored water. It is big, but not Pepsi big and I believe Steve promised much more. What seems ironic is that Steve appears to have gone out of his way not to change the world and he really shouldn’t be making fun of Bill Gates.  So what would it truly mean to change the world?  

Marvell is actually demonstrating what it means to change the world and this came to me this week while at UC Berkley attending an event at Sutardgja Dai Hall on Citris. Marvell’s co-founder Weili Dai walked us through what she, Citris and Marvell are doing to change the world and make it a better place. This goes well beyond MP3 players and embraces broad concepts like energy conservation, developing students into change agents, sensor nets, and innovation sourced in non-traditional “street smart” education.  

Let’s talk a bit about the amazing work Marvell’s founders and the Citris teams are doing to change the world.

Students:  The seeds of change

One thing that has always been clear is that youth drives great change. Apple, Microsoft, and Google were all developed by kids fresh out of school. Some who never even finished college. Citris was designed to be a mega incubator. What makes it different is it doesn’t just house engineers or technology specialists nor is it supported by one company. It houses social scientists, legal professors, manufacturing experts, and the core technology skills needed to launch companies. It has launched 76 startups in its short existence.  
Rather than the typical approach of getting undergraduates and graduates to write papers, the underlying metrics are based on building marketable products. The effort has a sharp focus on world changing, for the better, offerings. For instance. the three products they showcased at the event would have broad implications on the world.

World changing initiatives

One product wedded a microscope to a cellphone so that people in the field trying to identify and track diseases could inexpensively and quickly send back images to centralized organizations and perhaps prevent the next outbreak of a swine flu like source or help track the spread of another disease. The cost of the solution, including a phone, would likely be under $300 (at volume ) initially and would drop sharply as technology and volumes improved.  

The second product was a connected thermostat that would bridge a home network and a proprietary utility network so that utilities could remotely turn down air conditioning systems in homes and eliminate the threat of brown outs. The device could also be used to turn off other home appliances to both protect them and to further eliminate the chance of power outages due to capacity problems.   Savings in energy and new power plants will easily scale to the billions and, widely deployed, this would have a material impact on global warming. This product is already in production and you’ll be able to buy them at Home Depot shortly.  
The third, called Mobile Millennium, was the potentially most controversial product. It turns cellphones with GPS chips into sensors which can be used to monitor traffic. The controversial part is that the technology could also be used to track people, which, in the case of your own kid, might be ok. But  tracking you might be an issue. Used properly, it would create a better, and cheaper, real time view of traffic and provide ways to not only route drivers around it, but to reroute large numbers of drivers potentially reducing traffic itself significantly. There is no additional hardware involved, it is simply a software application that works on RIM and Nokia phones at the moment (in beta).   

Marvell’s role

Marvell is one of the major backers of this initiative which is driven by Marvell’s founders and at least one of their children. While they do benefit, if their technology is used in any of the possible solutions, the real change they are driving is by focusing students on practical projects early – projects that embody technology, human behavior, the law, and business fundamentals so that the result is more practical innovation and fewer kids with degrees and no clue about what to do with them in the real world. With the success of this effort, they are moving to teach other universities in the U.S. how to use the same methods and potentially ensure that the U.S. remains one of, if not the, most innovative country in the world.  
What is fascinating is the incredible passion that surrounds this effort pouring right out of Marvell,  coupled with the atypical belief that a better world benefits everyone. That is the kind of change that I think Steve Jobs initially was talking about, it is the kind of change that I think everyone can be very proud of, and it is the kind of example that I think every company should set.

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.