12 Big Questions for Seattle Tech in 2012

12/27/11Follow @curtwoodward

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having just one big enterprise’s DNA in their system, they might have two or three, including some of the hottest companies in the country—not to mention connections.

There’s no way that can’t benefit the region. But it relies to some degree on an overheated market for talent in Silicon Valley staying too hot. It’ll be interesting to see which of those Silicon Valley interlopers are still here at the end of 2012.

Can our education system keep up?
The Great Recession has technically been over for a while now, but the stagnant economy continues to hurt the ability of governments to do the things that are truly needed to provide for a vibrant society. Topping that list is education, and in a region that does not have a large private or purely technical university to lean on, the University of Washington is the Seattle area’s only real academic source of next-generation computer science and engineering talent.

Washington’s over-reliance on sales taxes, however, means that the economy needs to make a hard turn in the upward direction before the state is able to put significant dollars back into the higher education system, not to mention the difficulty of making sure it gets spent on the highest-demand programs like computer science. The answer for paying the bills at UW has been ever-higher tuition, and probably very soon variable tuition rates for people taking on the higher-paying and high-demand majors.

There’s a real push and pull here in the business community too, by the way. For every startup or mid-sized company that just needs more bodies to tackle their work, there’s a big-name tech company that doesn’t think the UW should dilute its brand by just churning out more people. How the UW’s new president and provost handle this question will be a key thing to watch in 2012.

Will more big-company veterans hit the streets with their own startups?
California companies poaching talent isn’t the only brain-drain worry for Microsoft and Amazon. It’s the lure of the startup scene, where people who’ve toiled away in a major company for years and have some money to sustain themselves decide that it’s finally time to take the plunge.

I don’t have a great handle on how significant the flow of talent away from the big two is at this point, compared to other times in history. But with examples like former Windows Phone manager Charlie Kindel and former Microsoft technical fellow Gary William Flake among the latest class of prominent Redmond veterans taking the leap, it’s a good bet that there could be some interesting new companies and ideas bubbling up from big-company refugees in the coming year.

Can Windows Phone and Bing make strides?
The newest version of Windows Phone is probably one of the best-reviewed software products of this past year—even people who love to hate Microsoft were pretty much in love with the operating system, which was described as the first truly innovative challenger since Apple’s iOS took over the market.

Bing continued its uphill climb against search dominator Google, taking ever-more significant slices of the market if you count the fact that it powers aging portal Yahoo’s technology. As a side benefit, Bing continues to be the search technology of choice for other tech companies who are more afraid of Google.

But can they finish the job and become true competitors? Microsoft is losing gobs of money on Bing, and at the same time seeing Google’s Chrome eat into Internet Explorer’s browser market (not to mention Google Docs and Gmail). Windows Phone, while lovely and intuitive, has a long way to go if it hopes to catch up to iPhone and Android in terms of devices and developers.

Will Clearwire complete its turnaround and build an LTE network?
Maybe the most terrifyingly thrilling company to watch in public this year was Clearwire, the Bellevue-based wireless network provider. It entered 2011 having just lost founder Craig McCaw, the godfather of wireless in this region, and heads into 2012 with a new clutch of cash to finance its transition into a new type of network, one based on Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology.

But that doesn’t mean the company can start relaxing. Its relationship with majority shareholder Sprint has been a taxing one, and the rest of its existing financial backers weren’t exactly reaching for their pocketbooks when Clearwire needed cash.

Clearwire made an early bet on WiMax technology for its fourth-generation network, and bet wrong. Now it has to catch up to the rest of the industry’s move to LTE, and do it with a reluctant major partner that has plenty of its own problems. But with wireless spectrum so scarce and necessary, Clearwire may have the rock-bottom asset it needs to hold things together.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Robyn

    There is a lot of anxiety about startup talent nationwide (the Statesman covered this issue recently). Austin startups are struggling, and travelling, to find engineers and developers as well. As in Seattle, the city relies on one university more or less (University of Texas) to get its techies. Austin has its pros and cons (there are legal advantages for an Austin startup for example) but really the talent crunch is nationwide and it simply shouldn’t be that hard to recruit. Yes, there will always be competition, but we’re reaping what we’ve sown in terms of educational investment in this country.