March 28, 2006
One of my favorite things about being a venture capitalist the opportunity to serve on boards with exceptionally talented, experienced and interesting people.
I recently joined a board with Avram Miller. Avram was one of the earliest to recognize the Internet as a powerful new medium. As a senior strategy and corporate investor with Intel for about 15 years, Avram played a pretty instrumental role in advancing the broadband revolution.
As with many things "on the cutting edge," the current wave of broadband content mania illustrates that what is old is new again. Or, in the lingo of VC truisms, "timing is everything."
I recently discovered an old Wired interview with Avram from 1996. It is a kick, showing that Avram was brilliantly visionary…and a bit ahead of his times.
That said, unlike most of us on the current broad-band-wagon, Avram can truly lay claim to having been on it from the very beginning. (OK, I'll give partial credit to those of you who, like me, were unfortunate enough to have jumped on the broad-band-wagon in 1999/2000).
And guess what? Along with the rest of the team at Heavy.com, we are finding that there is a lot to learn from a wise man who has seen the cycle's ups and downs a few times over.
Here are Avram's thoughts in 1996:
Issue 4.07 – Jul 1996 Fill My Bandwidth, Baby
Avram Miller turns to Hollywood to help keep Intel's chip factories humming. By Russ Mitchell Avram Miller describes the personality of his engineering-trained colleagues at Intel Corp. as "sequential linear concrete." A jazz pianist trained in music theory, the 51- year-old Miller fits a more improvisational profile. As corporate vice president for business development, he's sounding out new ways to supercharge demand for personal computers, nearly 80 percent of which are powered by Intel microprocessors. His main theme is new media. He's spent the last few years pushing the development of cable modems to speed Web download times. Now, with cable modems in market test stage, he's investing Intel's money, technology, and expertise in new-media start-ups. By late summer, Intel and Creative Artists Agency, the Hollywood talent kingpin, plan to open a multimedia demonstration lab in Los Angeles. The idea is to hasten the arrival of rich programming on the Web – and, not incidentally, to sell more chips. Wired: What does an engineering company know about media? Miller : We don't know much about it. We don't have to. We have no intention of becoming a media company. What we're pretty good at is judging whether or not a company has its motivator. Are they smart or not smart? Why get involved at all? Intel's interest is pretty simple. We need to grow the market for personal computers. We're making huge financial commitments by building factories [at least US$1 billion apiece] for products we haven't designed for markets that don't exist. The question is, Can we get value for those investments? If there's a real market for new media, why go out of your way to help kick-start it? The economic value of time. If we grow an extra 10 to 20 percent in one year, we hopefully keep that 10 to 20 percent forever. How did the Creative Artists new-media lab come about? We were talking to people at CAA about a year ago. Their clients were getting interested in new media. Things like Myst had a big impact. People like Steven Spielberg – and others with kids, say, from 5 to 15 – started playing these things. And they started thinking, "Hmm, look at what I could do." So they started putting pressure on CAA to help them understand where the technology is going. The lab is an environment where we can show you how to develop something in this new medium – like a showcase, a window into making an interactive movie. Show them what the Internet is. Hollywood stars feel comfortable walking around the halls of CAA, but they might not want to go to Comdex and play on PCs with the mobs. What other big-shot Hollywood types have you been working with? Care to drop some names? No. Oliver Stone? Susan Sarandon? James Cameron ? I'm not gonnaŠ. Pauly Shore? Look, we do have interactions with the top-name caliber in LA. It's not just actors, it's directors, producers, cameramen, writers – the writers will play a big role in this. You've said that the Silicon Valley culture and the Hollywood culture tend to trivialize each other. What do you mean? I don't mean there's fights. The computer industry has not really understood the importance of protecting content. We tried copy protection of software and it didn't work. So we said what the hell, 30 percent of it is copied illegally, and we build the cost into our business. But there's a big difference between protecting a piece of program and protecting a movie. A Disney movie might have a life of 20 years. If you alter a program, it doesn't work. If you draw a mustache on Mickey Mouse, you've defaced him. On the other side, I don't think the content world has understood how difficult it is to do some of the things they want to do with technology. Your interest in content assumes that you think the bandwidth is available to deliver compelling programs. We're going to start seeing higher and higher bandwidth nets – ATM, ADSL, satellite delivery. But in the next several years, most people will still connect through 14.4 and 28.8 modems. With the advent of DVD and hybrid applications where you combine CD with online service, you'll be able to provide high-quality experiences even at those speeds. Long term, we do need a high-speed connection. Movie people are getting hip to new media, but what about TV broadcast execs? Do they get it? Not really. But they're businesspeople driven by ad revenue and by viewing time. There's evidence that people with PCs spend less time with their TVs. If someone demonstrates that ad revenue can be achieved from Internet programming, these guys are going to get it. Why are the phone companies so brain-dead about ISDN? Things move slowly in the phone industry. They don't think they're being slow. I'm not being unkind. Each industry has its own rhythm. But they're blowing it, aren't they? They are at great risk. What's the coolest project you've got going? The thing we're doing that's furthest out there is Willisville, with Allee Willis (who wrote the theme song for Friends) and Prudence Fenton (an animator from Pee-wee's Playhouse). What sets them apart is their understanding of character development and their understanding of how people can affect the behavior of characters. We're working with OnLive! Technologies, too. It's an amazing experience to meet people through their avatars in the 3-D world. It becomes very real to you. And it sucks up a lot of processing power. And it does suck up a lot of processing power.
I have to say I especially love Avram's thoughts on TV executives. It only took 10 years, but hey, they've come a long way…