Techies question the value of tech

July 21, 2008: 9:35 PM ET

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By Michal Lev-Ram

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. - Is technology making the world a better place? That's just one of several big questions that a panel of tech luminaries tackled at Fortune's Brainstorm: Tech conference, a three-day, invite-only event that brings together some of the top executives in the industry.

The conference kicked off with a panel on how technological innovation is affecting the world. Participants like Michael Dell, founder of Dell (DELL), and Salesforce.com (CRM) CEO Marc Benioff discussed the next wave of innovation - platforms and collaboration - and the value of technology for businesses and societies.

One of the major advantages that technology has brought to companies is the ability to listen to customer feedback like never before, the panelists said.

"The mechanisms you could use to listen [to customers] were massively turbocharged with the Internet," said Dell, who recently returned to his former role as chief executive. His company expects to have about 2 billion conversations with customers this year alone.

But it's iPhone-like open platforms -- the type that enable developers to create all sorts of applications -- that the panelists said are bringing about the next wave of innovation.

"I don't care if you're in software," said Gary Hamel, director of the Management Lab and another panelist. "Even a toy company like Lego can build a platform that allows people to innovate."

One audience member even suggested that a platform-based approach be used in car production. That idea was quickly shot down.

As for the question on whether tech is making the world a better place, most participants agreed that it is: "Technology has definitely made the world a better place," said Hamel. "What the Internet is doing is megapowering people to create like we've never seen before."

But Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com, had another take: "I'm not sure if the world is better with technology, but maybe the world is faster."

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About This Author
Michal Lev-Ram
Michal Lev-Ram
Writer, Fortune

Based in Silicon Valley, Michal Lev-Ram covers enterprise and mobile technologies for FORTUNE. Prior to joining FORTUNE, she wrote for CNNMoney, Fast Company, Popular Science and other business and technology publications. She was also a staff writer at Business 2.0 and holds a B.A. in journalism from San Francisco State University.

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