Culture

HP swingers and McNealy's zingers

This Valley used to be a nice quiet place.

This Valley used to be a nice quiet place. People came to work, punched the clock, slept under their desks once in a while, built useful things like semiconductors, solid PCs, and practical software, and were duly rewarded. But then Hollywood got involved, glamour crept into the business, the Internet suddenly was only understandable in TV terms, and we all started believing the hype. Image and money are now everything. I drive the road-rage-saturated freeways and breathe the Bay Area smog, and I think, "Why not just move to L.A.?"

Like farmers planting seeds in the spring, every major tech company now produces beautiful, vapid TV ads that use audiovisual assault tactics to stun the viewer into acceptance. After an ad, Joe Schmo still might not know what Sun or Digital or Microsoft or Intel does, but he at least knows that they can make cool music videos. Trade shows are the same way, full of pomp and blast and flash, more and more run by marketing haircuts armed with reams of focus group data. If Michael Jordan were available to do Comdex, he wouldn't have to work the rest of the year. Why give the consumers and the media facts, when what they really want is entertainment?

Case in point: to legitimize its new user-friendly face, Hewlett-Packard threw a party last night at the San Francisco Design Center and tried so hard to be hip you could see the sweat stains through the gray suits. Desperate to shed his company's enterprise-man image, CEO Lew Platt got up and pelted the crowd with homilies about excitement, spontaneity, and so on, but Lew couldn't deliver the goods reading woodenly from a teleprompter. Showing perhaps just how desperate HP really is, it signed up Cybill Shepherd to do hackneyed Marilyn Monroe schtick. "Either Cybill really loves those new LaserJets, has a niece in the marketing department, or got a super fat paycheck," reported my shocked and saddened field scout, whose warm fuzzy memories of Cybill are now as forever tainted as Cybill's ill-fated date with Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver.

To top off a perfectly dreadful evening, out trotted a '50s band called "Big Bad Voodoo Daddy," replete with vintage suits and big hats. Ooh, HP, you're such a swingin' crew.

It would be enough to drive me to drink if I hadn't already hired a chauffeur. His name is Jack. Thanks to a new study, I know mon cher Jacques and I are much more likely to sit at my local watering hole, study the rings left in the cheap varnish, and not hear a word about the Internet. According to Activmedia, time spent in bars and clubs has decreased 31 percent among Net users. Activmedia says this proves the Net is good for family values; I say it proves that people looking desperately for companionship are now safe at home with one hand on the keyboard.

Meanwhile, Sun CEO Scott McNealy was holding court at the end of Inside Sun Software day. In what seems to be a monthly occurrence, at which members of the trade press and analysts feed Scott juicy topics like shark chum, Scott squeezed off a few one-liners that made even hardened beat reporters chuckle.

When asked what he thought of Steve Jobs's announcement that Apple, the old feisty PC maker, would take on Dell, McNealy shrugged to underline his theatrical indifference, paused a second, and said, "That's like asking me what I think of Amdahl's new mainframe." Et toi! Hey Scott, (snicker snicker) how about acquisition possibilities? Before he could answer, one audience member shouted "SGI!" No doubt a Sun employee planted to keep the gags flowing. Scott ran with it: "I have one word: 'Why?'"

"Charity!" the shill answered.

"Well, OK, maybe for their buildings," McNealy said. To spread it around a bit, he even jabbed his own marketing team as he spied a Sun ad glued to the back wall that proclaimed "Go Home Already," scratched his head and muttered something about getting to the bottom of it after the conference.

McNealy may seem more spontaneous than poor Lew Platt, but you can be sure that he's on a tight leash. When a serious question arose concerning the Sun-Microsoft lawsuit, McNealy waited a moment, at which point a senior Sun flack grimaced and hissed under her breath, "Careful, careful!"

Skinformants within tell me of more behind-the-scenes hissing--especially within the JavaSoft division--over the SunSoft team's royal screw-up of a Java test. (SunSoft is considered separate to the point that they license Java from JavaSoft just like third-party companies.) The official story is that the engineers built a Solaris Java compiler that more or less cheated to score fantastically high on the CaffeineMark Java benchmark, but the compiler was never supposed to go public. The SunSoft marketing team nonetheless got hold of the test data, issued grand public pronouncements of "50 percent faster than Windows NT" as marketing people are wont to do, but they were caught with pants 'round their ankles. The JavaSofties are steamed that SunSoft created the mess a week before a crucial Java standardization vote-- stay tuned to see if there's any fallout if the episode ends up hurting the company.

One Novell employee is giving away some rather expensive tickets to today's Appraising Microsoft conference. Convened by consumer activist Ralph Nader, the two-day D.C. shindig will line up a series of anti-Microsoft speakers and let them fire away. At $1350 for the full conference package, you'd think that the organizers would be a bit more judicious with the allotment of tix, but the said Novellista has sent out email advertising 40 free spaces that can be registered under the company's name. Holy Ghost of Frankenberg! Does that mean Novell spent $54,000 to fill up the peanut gallery?

Meanwhile, Microsoft has apparently gotten hold of the email and is passing it around as evidence that its enemies are trying to drum up as much mob action as possible. Mindful of getting beat up in the rest rooms, the Softies won't be attending. As for me, I'm hiding in the john until every marketer in the Valley is forced to drive a Ford Probe. I'll continue to download, however, so keep sending me those rumors.