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Tech Industry

A guide for would-be conspiracy theorists

The IT industry has spawned all kinds of creative thinking, CNET's Michael Kanellos says. Here are some tips for joining in.

The high-tech industry has paved the way for monumental breakthroughs that have altered everyday life. It's also been one of the world's leading sources for conspiracy theories.

Barely a week goes by without the publication of a new, ornate theory about Company X's plans for domination of the planet, or at least domination of the market for personal-connectivity solutions. Look at other trade publications and witness the difference: Rarely do you see people hotly debate whether International Harvester has lost its soul.

Google is the latest company sitting in the star chamber. Will the search giant try to buy Skype, as some have speculated, and turn the telecommunications industry upside down? Are all of its latest moves merely an indirect attempt to distract Microsoft?

The tech industry is centered around logic but ruled by emotion.

Google recently a sentence saying it does not do horoscopes and chat, leaving open the possibility that the search giant may indeed offer astrological guidance along with Google Talk. Perhaps Zeus had been displeased with the company's impertinence? Will the company start offering all sorts of New Age content?

The reality is likely far more pedestrian. Google, after all, is an accidental success. It originally concentrated on selling search tools to corporations--and was running out of cash, according to board member at the VentureOne conference in April. The company then decided to emphasize the search part of the business, which was growing by word of mouth. Since then, it's become the Web's premier site for finding information on topics such as bomb building and bestiality. (I think this is correct, but Google refuses to talk to CNET because of a previous story.)

As a result, the company is probably just testing a variety of ideas to see what captures the public imagination. When you have a few hundred thousand servers, testing new services on the Web is cheap.

That explanation, though, is somewhat dull. So plots emerge.

The primary explanation for the prevalence of conspiracies is that strange, unexpected events do occur. IBM sold its PC unit after the prediction fell flat for years--and to a Chinese company, no less. Corporations adopted open-source software, despite heavy-duty skepticism about it. After years of disparaging Intel processors, Apple Computer announced plans to adopt them.

But wish fulfillment plays a big role, too. When you get down to it, the industry is centered around logic but ruled by emotion. Thus, many of the theories can be actually be boiled down to "Dell is terrible because they're more popular than I'd like," or "The sales guy from Oracle really bugs me."

How can you come up with your own theories? Here's a simple, five-step method:

1. Base everything on circumstantial evidence. This comes straight out of medieval times. Take as many disparate surface details as you can and try to discern meaning in them.

Two weeks ago, for instance, some wags speculated that Intel would abandon the x86 architecture at the Intel Developer Forum because the company: a) said it would come out with a "new" chip architecture and b) said it would provide better power performance. But the prediction was wrong.

Accuracy isn't necessarily important here. John Dvorak, among others, said he predicted the Apple-Intel deal two years in advance. However, he predicted that Apple would adopt Itanium. Apple didn't, but he still asked for credit.

2. Assume the people you're dealing with are geniuses or, alternatively, dopes. A good rule of thumb to apply here is that, if the company is struggling to make money or regain market share, they are deep thinkers, three steps ahead of the competition. If they are successful, they have the collective brainpower of a hungover gibbon.

It's sort of the reverse of what you see in history. Napoleon was considered a genius until he lost. Bill Gates often gets criticized for lack of imagination, mostly based on the fact that Microsoft does, in the end, emerge victorious.

Assume the people you're dealing with are geniuses, or, alternatively, dopes.

3. Play up insignificant facts. A lot of people claim Apple was behind the success of USB and wireless notebooks. Yes, Apple unfurled wireless notebooks in 1999, but Dell and Compaq Computer did about the same, at approximately the same time.

Next week, Apple is expected to release a phone with an MP3 player or a portable video player. Never mind that Sony and Samsung have similar products. If Apple does it, there will be some claim to originality.

4. Focus on the omissions. Forget what a company does. If there's an ad on Yahoo's site for a logistics coordinator, does that mean they'll try to take on Bekins and Mayflower in the shipping and storage industry? And by the way, how come eBay hasn't mentioned its cafeteria in recent quarterly reports? Are they giving up that front? If it's unspoken, it's true.

5. Everything is really a distraction for a bigger plot. Sony often gets motives read into its moves: It's the Knights Templar of consumer electronics. The PlayStation was supposed to be the Trojan Horse that defeated computing. The Cell chip exists to undermine Intel. When the company got into movies way back when, demonic fantasies of vertically integrated entertainment swirled.

As it turned out, the only thing Sony was up to was layoffs.