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Tech Industry

The end of tech history?

Against the backdrop of worries about the imminent demise of Moore's Law, CNET's Charles Cooper asks whether Silicon Valley is really in for a big fall.

If you want to explain why the technology industry finds itself in a rut, Monday morning quarterbacks have fingered any number of scapegoats.

First they blamed it on the dot-com implosion. Then they attributed it to greedy vulture capitalists. Now they're linking an apparent malaise to the withering Moore's Law.

Time to get a tighter grip, folks.

The oft-quoted observation by Intel's co-founder--that the number of transistors in a computer chip doubles every two years--has been a bedrock assumption in the computer industry for more than two decades. But if past is prologue, then the likelihood of an end to this remarkable run is leading some to draw the wrong conclusions about the likely future of Silicon Valley. I'd make different points: Technology does not advance along a straight line, and progress is naturally accompanied by periodic lulls. The dire predictions for the post-Moore's Law era are perhaps less remarkable for their insight than for what they suggest about people?s patience--or the lack thereof.

Some perspective on how things have developed up until now might help. In the mid-1980s, the computer business was in far worse shape. Sales were stagnating, while bankruptcies and consolidation spread throughout an industry that mostly catered to home PC users and technology geeks. But the sky had not fallen. Better hardware soon turned up in the form of more powerful 16-bit and 32-bit computers. Along with the emergence of local area networking, which helped foster widespread corporate PC adoption, a multibillion-dollar business was off and running.

By the early 1990s, however, the industry again appeared to have hit a wall. The hottest technology of the time was the utterly boring CD-ROM. Pen computing generated a lot of buzz,
In the mid-1980s, the computer business was in far worse shape.
but nothing would come of it until Palm and its PDA offshoots launched a decade later. When it came to cyber on-ramps, the best of the bunch was dowdy Prodigy, followed by Compuserve and America Online (in distant third place).

At best, the online experience was painful; at worst, it was medieval torture. Few people outside of the military and academia used the Internet. Video on demand was considered to be a far more promising field--and we all know how that ended up. Then Netscape happened, and everything changed overnight.

Today, Silicon Valley is still licking its wounds, recovering from its recent excesses. But if you think the well of innovation has run dry, consider the following:

• Web services adoption: It may not sound sexy, but it's extremely important to the future of electronic commerce. Lingering disagreements over definitions of key Web services standards are gradually getting resolved.

• Wireless: Wire-free portability is shaping up to be one of the big stories of 2003. This is about a lot more than free Web surfing at the corner coffee shop.

• Linux: The Penguinistas continue to be the most surprising story in all of computerdom. Like a lot of people in my profession, I've been late in understanding the real significance of this story. For that matter, so has Microsoft, where Linux is now Enemy No. 1. Who woulda thunk it?

Contemplating the future is risky business, and I'll leave the prognostications to others. But if there's one common thread between the '80s, '90s and the start of this new decade in technology, it's that there's always something new under the sun.

•  •  •

Tech 2003: Greed, interrupted?
There may be a new world order a hemisphere away, but judging from events during the past week, it remains business as usual in the cozy, coddled boardrooms of Silicon Valley. Consider the following:

• Hewlett-Packard shareholders received a contemptuous response from the company after passing a well-considered proposal requiring their approval before management doles out any more ridiculous severance packages (worth more than 2.99 times an executive's base salary and bonus, for example) to departing execs. Instead of doing the right thing, management fudged, saying it will "duly consider" the recommendation.

Huh? That's a kind way of saying, "Don't stick your snoot into our decision-making process." But the mandarins sitting on HP's board of directors are in dire need of a wake-up call after

The mandarins sitting on HP's board of directors are in dire need of a wake-up call.
paying out $14 million to Michael Capellas, the company's former president, when he resigned to take over as CEO of WorldCom.

• Broadcom announced that it will take a charge of at least $238 million to pay for the cost of allowing employees to trade underwater stock options for shares. The company's management says it had to do this in order to retain talent--this during one of the softest job markets in the history of the technology business. This wins the "Chutzpah of the Year" award by a country mile.

• Richard Brown, recently bounced as CEO of Electronic Data Systems, walked away with a severance package in excess of $32 million in cash and stock. That tidy payday is so big that it will require the company to take a charge of 6 cents per share in the first quarter. Nice work if you can get it.

Maybe the public is as dumb as the local gentry obviously assume, and its memory of recent corporate excess has already been relegated to the status of ancient--and thus nonessential--history. But we've been down that road once before and know where it leads. Before these folks repeat the follies of yesteryear, they would handsomely benefit from a refresher course.