GE's CTO Mark Little on tech leaps in 2013, and 2012's Christmas Netflix outage

Packages of General Electric light bulbs are displayed on a hardware store shelf in San Rafael, Calif. What kind of bright ideas does the company have in store for the coming year?

This holiday week we are looking into the future of tech in 2013. Our first guide is General Electric's chief technology officer Mark Little. He's looking closely at the energy industry.

"We see incredible advances in driving up efficiency," says Little, "lowering emissions from products, driving clean technologies around wind turbines and solar, driving grid efficiency, a new suite of aircraft engine technologies coming out that drive up power and efficiency making transportation cleaner and more efficient."

GE has been working a more efficient tech -- like tiny cooling devices that could make our laptops and tablets even thinner. But there have been huge leaps and bounds in big tech, too, like the extraction of fossil fuels. That will mean big things for the natural gas industry (and its opponents) in 2013 as well.

"There is an explosion in the availability of natural gas in the United States," says Little. "We have technologies that do it today, but tomorrow we’ll be able to do it at half the energy input, and that explosion in natural gas is going to lead to more use of natural gas and power generation and we have advanced technologies coming out in large gas turbines and even smaller gas turbines that can both drive to new efficiency levels, and to more flexibility of speed of ramping up and ramping down to accommodate the renewables."

Little's company is working on some of those renewables. 

"Ten years ago GE did not have a renewables business," he says. "The wind industry was fragmented, it was small.  The wind turbines were not very efficient or effective and very costly.  We put a lot of technology in there and we now have a $7.5 billion dollar business that is a great part of our portfolio." 

The company's working on more powerful jet engines as well. Little says GE is preparing to release new engines that are 15 percent more fuel efficient and make less noise. That may not sound like much, but he says it's significant.

"I was in the power business for a long time, and back in the early days of my career we used to dream about 50 percent efficiency. Now we’re talking about 62.5, 63.5 percent. You're talking about saving billions of dollars across large systems." 

Of course, Little didn't tell us how soon they're going to invent a battery for my smartphone that will last a whole week. But we're crossing our fingers. Wouldn't that be a New Year's miracle?


If you tried to escape the family this Christmas Eve by firing up your trusty Netflix account, you might have been Scrooged. Streaming TV shows and movies from the website shut off for devices around the country, thanks to a rare crash of the computer servers that deliver its content. 

"It started about 12:30 p.m. pacific time on Monday," says Netflix's corporate communications director Joris Evers. "That was the result of some problems that Amazon services had--which is part of the infrastructure that we us." 

Wait...Amazon? Well yeah. Netflix is a customer of the online shopping giant's separate web hosting business. Some of Amazon's servers in Virginia that store Netflix content online apparently went down. The outage has shed some light on a delicate relationship between two companies, which compete for customers of streaming video. But Evers says the blackout is really more about the new frontier of storing data via cloud computing.

"It's still very early days from a technology perspective," he says. "You could say that this is still maybe not quite the stone age when it comes to the cloud. But it's not far from it."

Evers says Netflix engineers are working with Amazon to make sure this kind of outage can be avoided going forward.

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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