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The death of the cool

What happens when attitude no longer sells? CNET News.com's Michael Kanellos traces the downfall of Be and The Industry Standard to something far deeper than a contracting economy.

During the same week, multimedia software specialist Be Incorporated got sold to Palm for $11 million, the once high-flying technology magazine The Industry Standard shut down, and I found myself shopping for curtains in Mervyn's with my mother-in-law.

It just goes to prove one of life's cruel maxims: You can only be in for so long.

Although Be was an operating system developer and the Standard put out magazines, the two companies were deeply linked through an overt posture of...let's call it hipness. Though the business plans may not have explicitly stated it, attitude was an inexorable and necessary part of their lifeblood.

Be was founded by Jean-Louis Gassee, a sometimes surly albeit charismatic Frenchman, who rose to fame for his previous work at Apple Computer. The Be operating system promised to revolutionize multimedia and computing entertainment and, at a minimum, Be believers hoped to enjoy a superior computing experience over those clods still plodding away on Apple or Windows machines.

Some did, but not many. Last year, revenue came to $480,000, while losses totaled $22.3 million.

"Be's trouble was people like you telling the entire world lies about how we must accept a monopoly and disregard any choice in personal OS choices," one Be fan wrote after the sale.

Similarly, The Industry Standard advertised itself as the society page of the New Economy. The company held fancy rooftop parties at its turn-of-the-century brick building on the edge of one of San Francisco's most fashionable downtown shopping districts.

During its zenith, the magazine even went to the length of painting a massive billboard on the side of a building to point out the locations of its different administrative offices. It was as if the company expected its human relations department to wind up on package tours. The Silver Star Deli seemed to cower in its gaze.

Fifteen-minutes-of-fame syndrome?
Coolness, however, can be a slippery concept. Once something is in, after all, it's out.

Staying in the limelight requires constant reinvention, intangible aesthetic qualities and sheer luck. Madonna, Campagnolo, Andy Griffith (three hit TV shows over three decades--go figure) and the company that makes Eskimo Pies pulled it off, but not many others have.

To compound the problem, few, if any, objective standards exist in the attitude industry. Unlike Microsoft or Intel, companies rooted in attitude can't merely increase the speed of their products or add features. Instead, they have to strike an intangibly appealing chord.

But more important, coolness takes a huge emotional, personal commitment. People have to bond with the object of cool, as it will be held out as an outward manifestation of their values and ideals. It is their life in paper or plastic.

And, unfortunately for Be and the Standard, we're talking about office products here. Staplers, Post-it Notes, mouse pads and desk chairs might feature novel designs or come in fun colors, but few take them to heart. These are tools. The Pentel RSVP might come with a better chewing texture than the Sanford Pocket Accent, but in the end, consumers will adapt to the circumstances that surround them.

Apple: The company, the cult
Apple has shown both the advantages and the shortcomings of becoming a cultural icon. It has drawn a legion of fierce partisans during its 25-year history. Fans from around the world regularly tune in over the Internet for keynote speeches from CEO Steve Jobs.

Collectors sell 20-year-old PCs to each other. A few years back, a couple of people tried to get appraisers from "Antiques Roadshow" to come up with a price for an Apple II autographed by Jobs himself. The segment didn't make the air.

The love for Apple also transcends performance. Sure, Apple fans can quote verbatim from benchmark reports. But when they speak about the company, they talk about how the six-colored logo represents a symbol of freedom and autonomy.

On the flip side, Apple has seen better days. In 1993, it was the number one PC maker in the U.S., with a 13.4 percent market share, according to IDC. Last quarter, it wasn't in the top five. Although the slide has been attributed to Apple's failure to license its OS in the early days, it also was caused in part by emotional shallowness on the part of the rest of the world. A lot of consumers don't want a lifestyle. They want a machine that will hook into an old Lexmark printer and let them play "Redneck Rampage."

For Be and the Standard, a failure to find a widespread or lasting emotional core may have proved their undoing. Forget the massive debt or dwindling revenue. The companies marketed attitude. And a lot of people spend their days trying to escape from attitude.