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Lessons from a Web 1.0 archeological dig

Think the tech set is getting carried away? Our writer found a BroadVision lint brush, a RedHerring smart card, a BackWeb first-aid kit and some dot-com boom perspective while cleaning the garage.

The nuclear winter in technology talk sparked by Marc Andreessen wasn't exactly on my mind as I got rid of some boxes in the garage over the weekend.

But beneath a tub of paperback books and snow chains I'd managed to never use, there was an archeological treasure: boxes of old reporters' notes and Web 1.0 tchotchkes from an array of tech boom companies my wife and I wrote about in the 1990s for publications such as PC Week and Business 2.0.

Andreessen: Sage or cranky old man? Seth Rosenblatt/CNET Networks

There was a lint brush from BroadVision (an e-commerce software company...still in business) a smartcard from a RedHerring conference (the original RH), and a first-aid kit from BackWeb Technologies (treat information overload!). Who gave me that giant clown pez dispenser? I have no idea, but it still creeps me out.

The Web-inspired tech boom was an extravagant affair, of course, and it didn't end so well. This time? For all the "tut tuts" about pricey parties and weak or flat-out delusional business models at little social networks, the inevitable bust (and there will be one at some point) won't be as crushing as the last one. There hasn't been a wild market for initial public offerings. The tech stocks that have mushroomed mostly belong to very profitable companies like Google and Apple. And the only people who stand to lose their shirts are venture capitalists (of course, if you're a venture capitalist this isn't something you take comfort in).

In short, relax folks. Irrational exuberance, as off-putting as it may be, is a normal part of the boom and bust cycle of the tech industry. But--and this is a big caveat--let's not so quickly dismiss what Andreessen had to say about hoarding cash and preparing for bad times ahead. Here's a guy who's run the gauntlet from the wild days at Netscape to the hype of his high-risk, e-commerce hosting outfit Loudcloud, which after the dot-com bust was turned into a more sensible software company. Now he has Ning, his social-networking company trying to make a go of it. If you want to learn about drunkenness, as they say, go to the town lush. If you want to learn about starting an Internet company, there are worse people to go to than Andreessen, who's still just in his 30s.

Was Andreessen being self-serving last week? Maybe. Alarmist? Sure; for all the genuine concern about the economy, tech spending seems to be chugging along. Still, word leaked Monday that someone is giving Jeff Dachis $50 million to start something that looks a lot like the 2.0 version of Razorfish, that giant e-commerce consulting company from the '90s--so it's not like the tech industry isn't capable of repeating old mistakes.

Now about those boxes. Let's start with the PC Week boom-era cover stories:

"Virtual economics: A house of cards." The June 1999 story asked, "How long can Internet firms continue to shun profits for growth?" It turns out the answer was about 18 months. Swap in today's "social networks" for "e-commerce companies" and we've got ourselves a discussion.

"BizTalk: All Talk?" In January 2000, we had been waiting for about nine months on new technology Microsoft called BizTalk. It was cloud computing before cloud computing. Guess what? They've finally delivered on cloud computing.

"Warning! E-com Under Construction." Think Twitter has had a rough go of it lately? At least they're not costing anyone hard cash. In the first half of 1999, eBay, Charles Schwab's online system, and E-Trade all suffered major outages. The culprit: popularity and probably some database glitches. But they did fix the problem, as will time. Now Twitter just had to find a way to make money.

Other, more painful items included:

Prospectus for Ziff-Davis IPO. Before CNET bought ZDNet and the Ziff magazines went into their slow decline, ZD (PC Week's publisher) was a tech powerhouse. Note to self: Even the biggest publications can be undercut by smaller, more innovative competitors.

Volvo brochure. On a 30-year-old journalist's salary? OK, so I got carried away, too. But I really did think those ZD options would be worth something.

Receipt for a $500 salon junket. Incredibly, my wife convinced her bosses at the old Business 2.0 to let her review a swanky salon, and pay for it! Ah, the good old days of tech journalism. No, I don't know what that had to do with technology either.

COBRA application form. Yep, the party had to end. My wife and just about everyone else at the old B 2.0 was laid off in the so-called merger with Time Warner's eCompany Now. When the requisite letter asking if she wanted to extend her benefits at her own cost arrived in the mail, we knew the gravy train had officially gone off the tracks.

Anyone who participated in it and claims they weren't caught up in the Web 1.0 bubble is a liar or Warren Buffett. Those execs and writers of the dot-com boom faced plenty of naysayers. And in fairness to Andreessen, a target for many of those naysayers, I think he was just trying to sound cautious and used overly hyperbolic language to make his point.

I do remember reporters who covered the PC boom in the late-'80s groaning at all that "World Wide Web nonsense" as I downloaded my third or fourth free Netscape Navigator browser of the month. And when the people I thought were nabobs of negativity covered the PC boom, the reporters who covered the mini-computer boom before that probably thought those silly desktop computers were nonsense, too.

It's the fine art of old-person condescension. Much of that unsolicited advice is best ignored, else you never take a chance. But it's also good to squirrel away a few pennies, just in case the old dude is right.