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Columbus sails out Deja's door

Deja.com, the newsgroup-portal-turned-consumer-review-site-turned-product-guide, is suffering not only from its longstanding identity crisis but a bad case of the blues following its scuttled IPO and, this week, the sudden departure of its president, Fran Columbus. Rumor has it that Columbus was ousted after only three months on the job.

    With the smog of doom and gloom hovering over the Valley these days, it's hard for a tech journalist to stave off chronic feelings of contentment and satisfaction.

    Bad news is our bread and butter, after all--so with my vigor and self-esteem renewed, I decided to stop taking Innuenda, the antidepressant Dr. Helmut Fraeme-Relais prescribed for me, and face life unalloyed except by the occasional cigar and accompanying five or six snifters of 18-year-old Laphroaig.

    If it weren't for the nasty Innuenda withdrawal symptoms--the incessant telephone ringing in one's ear, email in-box chimes, and barely intelligible whispers--I'd send the remains of my prescription to Deja.com.

    Rumor has it that the newsgroup-portal-turned-consumer-review-site-turned-product guide is suffering not only from an identity crisis, but also a bad case of the blues following its scuttled IPO and, this week, the sudden departure of its president, Fran Columbus.

    Rumor has it that Columbus was ousted after only three months on the job.

    Neither the rumored-to-be-deposed president nor her erstwhile executive colleagues nor their entire public relations department (population: 1) returned the Rumor Mill's calls. But mere hours after our first inquiries, Columbus mysteriously vanished from the Deja.com Management Team page, her extension started connecting to the receptionist (who manifestly lacked the gravitas to be president), and her email began bouncing like an e-commerce start-up's checks.

    Maybe it's just the Innuenda withdrawal symptoms, but voices suggest that morale at Deja.com has been moldering away since the company's IPO failed to materialize, though recent private placements have kept cash from running out. Intimates of the company praise its new comparison-shopping technology (a competitor of MySimon, which CNET--my boss--acquired earlier this year) but wonder whether the high-profile ambitions of CEO Tom Phillips are ever likely to be satisfied. These sympathetic souls wonder whether the company isn't more suited to the role of acquisition target.

    Either way, chief operating officer David Wilson is going to have his hands full. According to that staff page, he's now multitasking as COO and president, which is exactly twice as many job titles as he had yesterday morning. What a difference a day makes!

    Several people wrote in about Marc Andreessen's Wired profile, which quoted the talkative engineer-turned-entrepreneur-turned-wannabe-policy wonk calling his abandoned brainchild Netscape a "ghost town."

    "Andreessen turns into the parking lot and the car weaves past a half-dozen Netscape buildings," Wired reports. "'It's a ghost town,' he jokes. 'They rent out all these cars and park them in the lot so that it appears that there are people in there. I went inside recently and there's no one--it's empty.'"

    To the disappointment of car rental agencies in Mountain View, Calif., Netscape strenuously denied that it was erecting Potemkin parking lots.

    "We have too many people here," said a Skinformed representative. "There are so many people we had to move 500 people to the iPlanet campus (which Netscape runs with Sun Microsystems) in Santa Clara."

    For the record, the Netscape head count remains around 1,500, according to the company, approximately what it was at the time of its acquisition by America Online. Who knew?.

    Last column's "Top Ten List of Reasons CNET buying ZDNet is good" was penned by an anonymous ZDWit.

    Yet reason No. 3 aroused particular alarm: "No more Malathion spills."

    "I work for Macromedia, which recently moved into new subterranean digs in the basement--excuse me: "concourse" level--of the 650 Townsend building," wrote one reader. "We have noticed some odd smells, although our sensitive olfactories determined the odor to be mainly sulfur in content rather than Malathion, likely sewage-related. But now we hear there is also Malathion in 650 Townsend? I would really like to get the full skinny on this issue. Our environmental health, or at least environmental paranoia, hangs in the balance."

    Always interested in the full skinny, the Rumor Mill called Macromedia and ZDNet's Townsend Street landlord to inquire. The Malathion spill rang a bell.

    "I think that was when there was still a flower shop," said a building manager. "There was a spill about two and a half years ago. When the tenants were notified, two ZD employees complained of nausea, though they were on the fourth floor, five floors away."

    When we caught up with our nasally attuned Macromedia source with the heartening news that Malathion was a thing of the past (unless, like Deja.com, you're in New York City), we were assured that the sulfurous smells had also abated.

    "They put some sort of cap down here," the reader reported. "It was kind of a nasty smell. Otherwise we've been enjoying it." I'm off my meds now so I need you more than ever. Cheer me up with your rumors.