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Tech Industry

Perspective: Buck up or keep whining

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says that's the choice facing a technology industry seemingly more keen on moping and blaming geopolitical crises than on how to snap out of the tech slump.

When the World Economic Forum convened in 1997, the forum's organizers transformed the event into a veritable coming-out party for America's high-tech elite. So much of the talk at this annual gabfest for the world's political and economic leaders was about new business models, new technologies and new economies that the European, Asian and South American representatives could only watch and wonder at it all.

Six years later, however, the tech CEO making the biggest stir at Davos, Switzerland, was Bill Gates, whose philanthropic foundation had donated $200 million to aid poor nations. Otherwise the Silicon Valley zeitgeist was summed up by Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers' declaration, "Tech for the sake of tech is over."

Chambers' pithy--and decidedly downbeat--assessment was of a piece with the times. As they departed the slopes of Switzerland, technology CEOs were fretting about yet another winter of discontent. But after two-and-a-half years of malaise, why can't the people running America's technology companies come up with more creative responses to the downturn?

Blaming Saddam only goes so far. He furnishes a convenient excuse for everything that's gone sour, but the technology industry slipped into recession long before Iraq ever turned into the story du jour. That's not to ignore facts on the ground. Truth be told, customers say they are more likely than not to postpone big IT purchases until a resolution to the latest geopolitical crisis.

Blaming Saddam only goes so far. He furnishes a convenient excuse for everything that's gone sour, but the technology industry slipped into recession long before Iraq ever turned into the story du jour.

Yet that still raises the question of whether CEO leadership in Silicon Valley, so lionized during the go-go days, is all that it's cracked up to be. Where's the imagination? Where's the outside-of-the-box thinking? Unfortunately, ordering yet another wave of mass layoffs doesn't qualify as evidence of managerial genius. Been there, done that.

At a certain point you have to ask the uncomfortable question whether these folks are really up to the enormity of the task ahead. These are tough times, but economic history did not end when the bubble burst. You wouldn't know that from the whining and moping that have dominated so many conference calls in the current earnings season.

And just to prove that contrarian thinking does pay off, consider the turnaround story that's taking place over at Yahoo under Terry Semel. Before he took over as CEO in May 2001, the ship was listing at 40 degrees and going down fast. Online advertising was tanking and Yahoo didn't "own" any special content (as did America Online.) An example of dead man walking, the experts said.

But after taking several months to think up a new strategy, Semel imagined a different Yahoo, one where its users would pay for a menu of value-added services. Few observers thought much of his chances. After all, this was the Internet and content wanted to be free. The experts were singing a different tune after Yahoo raked in some $89.4 million in fees and listings business--including an undisclosed amount from premium services--in its last quarter.

Terry Semel doesn't yet qualify for induction into the CEO Hall of Fame but regaining at least some control over Yahoo's destiny is no small achievement--especially in these insipid days when the conventional wisdom has it that the only strategy is to batten down the hatches and wait for the squalls to pass.