Technology is literally going down the toilet -- the digital toilet, that is.
A Japanese firm drew belly laughs from a conference of high-tech executives here this week by showing off a computer-controlled toilet it recently began selling in the United States. The $5,000 Neorest from Toto, already popular in Japan, automatically raises and lowers the lid, flushes the bowl, deodorizes the room and even replaces toilet paper with a water sprayer called a "personal cleansing system." You push buttons to control the degree of heat and water pressure for cleansing your "under carriage."
"Within the next 10 years your typical experience in the bathroom will be a thing of the past," Toto's Lenora Campos proclaimed at "D: All Things Digital," a three-day technology conference sponsored by Dow Jones & Co.
Americans may laugh, but more than 60 percent of Japanese households already use some kind of automated cleansing system, Campos said, making digital toilets more popular in that country than microwave ovens.
Another speaker described how technology is changing bathroom habits in South Korea, too. Geesoing Choi, president of digital media for Samsung Electronics, said his bathroom in Seoul is equipped with a big-screen TV. "I cannot stop my temptation to watch the news, even in the shower," confessed Choi.
Choi and Campos were two of the more comical presenters at an event where even chief executives seemed playful when they were throwing rhetorical darts at each other. One theme they explored was the state of innovation in the information technology industry, which, judging by the half-dozen new gadgets shown, seems to be reviving -- if haltingly -- after a prolonged downturn.
If the mood felt playful, it also seemed more get-down-to-business than at the same confab last year. This year, the entrepreneurs and tech titans seemed reenergized and confident about the future.
Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates kicked off the event Sunday with a talk in which he seemed more relaxed and personable than usual. Yet his hyper-competitive streak showed when the subject turned to his company's latest arch rival, which he seemed reluctant even to name: Google.
Gates said Microsoft has been working to create its own Web search technology and will roll out the capability at its MSN Web service next month. He dismissed Google's much-praised relevancy formulas as "nothing we can't do." He acknowledged, however, that Google has had a "galvanizing effect" on his company's efforts to improve Web search and claimed that would help consumers in the long run. In order to woo users away from Google, Gates said it won't be enough to match the quality of its search results: Microsoft will have to do better. "That's what we've got to do," he vowed.
Gates said many Web searches that generate "bad results" today will be improved by more nuanced relevancy formulas in the future, which will "take into account who you are and where you are" when you enter a query.
Google sent its chief executive and a bunch of evangelists to attend, but the firm's impending stock sale and prohibitions on saying anything that might be perceived as hyping the value of the company meant it fell to Oracle Corp.'s Lawrence J. Ellison and leaders at other companies to respond to Microsoft.
Ellison lobbed his usual tart-tongued antitrust allegations about the Redmond software "monopolist" -- even as Ellison's own bid to take over rival PeopleSoft Inc. was on trial elsewhere in California, with federal regulators trying to block his merger on antitrust grounds.
Ellison derided Microsoft for talking to European software maker SAP AG about a possible merger, talks that SAP and Microsoft have since said led nowhere. Ellison said he found it inconceivable that the world's largest software company could have bought the third-largest software maker without regulators "noticing." He suggested regulators would notice "every time Bill [Gates] plans his next monopoly."
"Maybe The Washington Post will be next," he said.
Sarcasm aside, Ellison said a major trend in business software is toward greater standardization. Five years ago, 85 percent of Oracle's software required heavy modifications when it was installed inside corporations. "Today," he said, "90 percent of the software goes in without modification."
SAP chief executive Henning Kagermann echoed Ellison on the move toward standardization, saying SAP regularly integrates new features created by smaller companies into its own software suite because customers don't want to do the messy integration work themselves.
Other chief executives, including Apple Computer's Steve Jobs and Hewlett-Packard's Carly Fiorina, crowed that their firms were great innovators while insisting that rivals were failing to innovate.
Jobs, for example, said Microsoft's new line of Media Center computers "has been a huge flop" because they are not "seamlessly integrated" with other audio-visual devices in the home. Then Jobs trotted out a new doodad Apple will start selling next month for $129. His so-called AirPort Express performs a trick that Microsoft's Media Center computers will be adding to their repertoire this fall as well -- sending music from a personal computer to stereos elsewhere in the home over a wireless network.
One effect of having so many CEOs on stage in quick succession was to highlight their seemingly narrow focus on corporate agendas and lack of big-picture concern about the kinds of technology that might actually improve people's lives.
Jobs, for instance, sounded suspiciously like Gates when he signaled he has no intention of opening up Apple's popular iTunes music store to make the songs it sells compatible with devices playing music in different formats, such as Microsoft's Windows Media.
"We believe we can innovate much more if we control the technology," Jobs insisted before an audience that was all too familiar with the financial motives prompting companies to cling to proprietary technology.
Another trend that was hard to miss was how incredulous Asian tech execs are about the lack of a plan in the United States to offer super high-speed data access to homes.
Masayoshi Son, chief executive of conglomerate Softbank Corp., a big broadband player in Japan, said cable and DLS broadband services here are "so slow" that he doesn't consider them broadband. Broadband offered over phone lines in Japan is about 10 megabits per second, Son said, roughly 10 times faster than the typical speed of Internet access available from U.S. phone and cable companies. He and others blamed U.S. telecom regulations for the disparity.
Yet Verizon Communications chief executive Ivan Seidenberg reiterated his company's goal of delivering super-fast "fiber to the premises" to 50 percent of the homes it serves within five years. Seidenberg also said his firm is about to roll out its own Internet phone service to compete with challengers such as Vonage Inc. that offer discounted Internet calling.
But Seidenberg talked with greater fervor about his plan to lay fiber to doorsteps, acknowledging it was a "survival issue" for the beleaguered phone company because it will allow Verizon to offer so many new services. "The world of services will be ripe for the taking if we can get 100 megabits to the home," he declared.
He didn't mention toilets, but maybe Verizon should consider offering tech support for Toto toilets.
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is email@example.com.