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Culture

Skinny's top flops of '97

I don't like to dwell on the past, but the past week of strong drinks and holiday feasts without the interruptions of technology news lulled me into a woozy, retrospective haze last night.

I don't like to dwell on the past, but the past week of strong drinks and holiday feasts without the interruptions of technology news lulled me into a woozy, retrospective haze last night. "Stop the year," I mumbled into the sagging brim of my fedora. "I want to get off."

First and foremost, 1997 put the hype back into hyperlinks. No matter how underhyped vulture capitalist John Doerr says the Internet is, our little corner of the world was once again rife with vapor, grandstanding, and self-congratulation. Which is why your Uncle Skinny is devoting this space to the most embarrassing moments of the year, just to keep everyone humble.

About half-past my fifth egg nog last night, I began to hear voices, the voices of everyone who made it into da Mill in the past 12 months, as they tried to explain away their aberrant behavior.

"We walk like Ralph Nader but talk like Ayn Rand."
--the Barksdale-McNealy Memorial Cowboy Chorus

You remember Ayn: The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, truth, justice, and unbridled capitalism for all? If it sounds familiar, it's because the Silicon Valley hills are alive with the sound of libertarianism: Uncle Sam, stay out of my bedroom and my board room. Sun's Scott McNealy and Netscape's Jim Barksdale are two of the Valley guys chanting this mantra most loudly. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Lexus dealer: the Justice Department's antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft.

On issues like encryption, Net taxes, and the Communications Decency Act, the technolibs sing "la-la-la-laissez-faire," but regarding Gates and company, it's "go get 'em, Janet!" One Skinside observer mused that Netscape, through its support of folks like Gary Reback and Ralph Nader, is actually creating a legal beastie that will one day turn around to bite the Netscape hand that feeds it. After all, couldn't PointCast say Netscape was using its browser monopoly--oops, I mean, what used to be a browser monopoly--to establish a beachhead in the world of push media? If so, there will be a lot more people saying things like...

"To heck with Janet Reno!"
--Steve Ballmer, Microsoft executive vice president

No need for altered mind-states when Steve's in town. Ballmer actually let fly with the above quote at a San Jose, California, press conference when asked if Madame Attorney General and her antitrustbusters might be interested in Microsoft's bundling of Windows NT with other BackOffice software. Granted, Steve likes to tweak noses and have a jolly good time, but under the circumstances, it wasn't the most diplomatic comment. There's probably a method in the Ballmer madness: Spinmeisters in Redmond must have run dozens of possible DOJ "dis" lines for Steve, with the above-quoted winning for its potent combo of "Give 'em hell, Harry!" oomph as well as gentlemanly restraint.

"Never mind the NC, I'd rather be ruining, er, running Apple."
--Larry Ellison, Oracle chairman and CEO

The capacity crowd at spring Comdex was eagerly waiting for Ellison and Ted Turner to show off their new custom news site, which would offer CNN content sorted by a whizbang Oracle database. At first, the Mouth of the South and the Redwood Shores Rogue were humming along, but hilarious hijinks soon ensued as Larry tried to bring up the news site on a Network Computer. (Cue up John Williams's Jaws theme.) First, the poor NC couldn't find the site, then the flustered Larry couldn't find his spectacles. Finally, his attempt to build a customized Web page for Ted went crashing down like Oracle's stock. Doubtless many in the crowd were tingling with schadenfreude at the sight of an arrogant billionaire hung out to dry.

I imagine that Larry--at this point cursing out stagehands and having a large, spotted cow--must have considered strafing the techies responsible for the snafu from his Russian-made fighter jet. Don't worry, Larry--I'm sure Bill's "smart house" garage door doesn't always open for him, either. Speaking of which...

"It was kinda like high school, except I was the bully and the geeks were picking on me."
--Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman and CEO

You could have cut the irony with a tongue depressor at Macworld this summer, as rebel-without-a-DOS Steve Jobs announced that he had cut a deal with his former nemesis. Microsoft, explained Steve from the stage, would invest $150 million in the flailing Apple in a deal involving IE as the Mac's default browser, Office for the Mac for five more years, and a sort of synergistic/harmonic convergence thing between Apple and MS that only Jobs understood. The crowd responded as if it had just found a half-eaten worm in its Apple.

Then the fun really began: Gates appeared via satellite on the stage's jumbo screen, giving the audience the eerie sense that Alfred E. Newman was looking over Jobs's shoulder. Steve scolded the crowd for its inhospitality, but the master media manipulator must have known the effect Gates's giant visage would wreak and used it to deflect some of the heat from himself. To distance himself from Apple's woes, he could simply have whispered two words...Gil Amelio.

"Sure, we lost tons of money, but I've got plenty stashed in my parachute."
--Gil Amelio, former Apple CEO

Gil, we hardly knew ye, but we should have known something was horribly wrong when you started wearing ugly sweaters and collarless shirts in public. Now that Gil is gone and the prodigal Jobs is back, we've gained a bit of perspective and can say with confidence that Gil's golden parachute, his gilded goodbye, ranks up there as one of the wackier moments of 1997. $3.5 million for what, Rhapsody?

Granted, he tried to exit as smoothly as possible, writing a cordial open letter to the tech world in which he reviewed the five crises he says Apple faced when he came in, how he confronted them, and how thanks to his work Apple was much stronger than it has been in recent years. Gil ended with the promise that he would be "cheering from the sidelines," no doubt clapping with ermine-lined gloves. Apple CEO: The world's highest paying temp job. Ah, for the days of Michael Spindler...

"Sure I sold your phone number, but only to marketers who promise not to call during Seinfeld."
--Steve Case, AOL chairman and CEO

It was just a tiny thing, really--a few sentences tucked snugly into the fine print of AOL's terms of service. It stated simply that AOL reserved the right to share or sell its members' phone numbers and email addresses to its business partners. It probably seemed very innocent to Stevie up in the executive suite, but once CNET's NEWS.COM and other media organizations made it public, AOL had a major PR disaster on its hands. Thousands of members wrote to protest the provision and to ensure that their own information would not be cast to and fro in cyberspace.

In the end, Case had the sense to write a personal letter to AOL members retracting this policy, but some heavy damage had been done. You'd think the fact that AOL had suffered through a similar snafu in 1994 might have made him the wiser, but hey, in Net years that was almost three decades ago!

"And for those who can't code at all, we offer the 100 percent pure Java shoelaces."
--Alan Baratz, Sun's JavaSoft president

When Sun realized that developers were having some problems making pure-Java applications that didn't need to call on underlying system resources, its marketing machine cranked into overdrive. It couldn't afford to give a "100 percent pure" certification to every well-intentioned Java developer, so it came up with the next best thing: 100 percent pure pending, for developers who needed positive reinforcement. The idea quickly died, as detractors used it to point to the immaturity of the language and developers scratched their heads in confusion. The campaign's creator was last seen working for NATO, offering the Cape Verde Islands entry into the Partnership for Peace.

I'm running out of bile, but I should at least dishonorably mention Esther Dyson's book; Netscape's use of the nonstandard HTML layer tag on its site; Cybersitter's blocking of the National Organization of Women Web site because it has "a bunch of lesbian stuff on it," according to the software firm's president; and CNET's holiday party policy, which once codified in writing will be available in a leather-bound edition for the low, low price of $45. Make a new year's resolution to send me a rumor.