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A huge private equity tech investor predicts who will win the AI wave


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In almost every conversation so far this week at the World Economic Forum, generative AI has come up.

In our interviews on and off the record, Brian Sozzi and I have been hearing about whether it needs to be regulated, how companies are integrating it, the speed at which it’s moving, how it’s being monetized.

And we got a bit of a framework on how to invest in it from Robert Smith, the founder, chairman, and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. The firm has about $100 billion in assets under management, mostly invested in enterprise technology companies.

First of all, he points out that it will be integrated into how companies operate, just like past innovations like the internet and the cloud. So, how will money be deployed?

“The first wave is going to ultimately go to the hardware vendors,” Smith told us in an interview. “The next wave will be these super scalers” like Microsoft, Amazon, and Alphabet. “The long tail is going to be the enterprise software companies. The small and medium businesses aren’t going to build their own solutions tests. They’re going to come to their enterprise software vendors and ask, ‘How do we utilize gen AI to create more effective and efficient productivity in our businesses?’”

To be fair, Smith is an enterprise software guy, so it makes sense he sees opportunity there. And of course, the enterprise software companies echo his sentiment.

ServiceNow CEO Bill McDermott is already seeing demand for generative AI services flow to his bottom line. He said the discussions in Davos are making it abundantly clear that CEOs believe they need to invest.

“These CEOs that are here know that they’re investing heavily in technology because generative AI in particular can give them an outcome. So it’s not technology for technology’s sake,” he said in an interview. “This year, $5 trillion will be spent on technology, most of it on software and services. And gen AI is the moment in which the CEOs are no longer thinking about investing. They know they have to invest because if they don’t and their competitor does, they may not be around too long.”

That said, these CEOs are talking their book. And there are others who think the hype has gotten ahead of itself. Much like the enthusiasm surrounding autonomous driving that took more time and complexity to deliver, generative AI-powered everything might not be here quite yet.

“2024 is going to be kind of the year of the AI letdown,” said Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince. “I don’t think these products are going to come in 2024. They may not even come in 2025. I think they’re coming, but it’s actually going to take us learning how to do engineering in a different sort of way.”

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