e-mail from the valley

e-mail from the valley - Ever since the personal computer boom, innovation has rolled in as regularly as the surf on the Pacific. There has always been something new - PCs, enterprise computing or computer networking - the swells all coming in at convenie

by NICK DENTON, a founder of First Tuesday, is CEO of online newsaggregator moreover.com (nick@moreover.com)
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ever since the personal computer boom, innovation has rolled in as regularly as the surf on the Pacific. There has always been something new - PCs, enterprise computing or computer networking - the swells all coming in at convenient intervals. Indeed, the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs even likened their skill to that of a surfer: catch the wave too early or too late and you would end up dunked; find the perfect wave, time it just right, and the returns make up for all the risk.

Until now. Some Silicon Valley veterans are starting to wonder whether their time is up, whether there are any more waves. And a growing number of the 1990s generation are heading off into sabbaticals, or more normal working hours at blue-chip companies.

Linked to the Nasdaq decline, the dry-up of funding and simple exhaustion after half a decade of 80-hour weeks, this scare is the most threatening of all those to hit Silicon Valley's self-image. But if the surf season has ended, we can see why by looking at current buzzwords.

B2B. Business-to-business services offering a marketplace for steelmakers suffered as badly as consumer internet companies in Nasdaq's spring stock meltdown. Part of the sector - ventures providing software solutions to big businesses - has recovered, along with the share price of market leaders such as Ariba. But these are companies that look suspiciously like the enterprise resource planning software giants that are anything but new.

The B2B exchanges, which got all the business school graduates excited with their new models, are generally in trouble.

Infrastructure. The emblem of this sector is Loudcloud, a glorified web hosting company set up by Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape. His own trajectory tracks the change in Silicon Valley - from software that defined the internet to server computer maintenance. Is infrastructure the new thing? Hardly. Infrastructure is Silicon Valley's safe haven - always has been - and that is why the sector is reassuring to newly risk-averse venture capitalists.

Optical networking. A subset of infrastructure, the part that can claim novelty, this is extremely lucrative. However, there is a growing sense that it is the last unpopped bubble of the tech boom. And, even if valuations are justified, the excitement is lost on most venture capitalists and entrepreneurs: the technology is too arcane to understand.

Wireless. When moreover.com, the company I helped found, went out on a dollars 21 million investment round in April, I received a piece of advice: 'Include a slide on the wireless opportunity,' I was told. Such was the valuation magic of a play on the merger of the internet and mobile communications.

Well, the backlash against this has already started - at least in Europe - as reporters wake up to the fact that consumers are rejecting the first generation of mobile internet phones. The mobile internet will have its day, sometime in 2003. Until then, there will be plenty of start-ups drowning.

As Silicon Valley's old hands would say, it's all about timing.

P2P. Person-to-person is the hottest phenomenon right now. Its popularity reflects the success of person-to-person exchanges such as eBay compared with the monolithic online stores such as amazon.com, weighed down by the inventory it has to carry. Another boost to P2P has been the astounding success of Napster, the online music exchange, to which I am listening as I write this. But there is a big question. Do P2P services work only where they allow individuals to infringe companies' intellectual property rights? If so, person-to-person is unlikely to spark a new generation of start-ups.

Biotech. The current interest in biotech is, in fact, evidence of the loss of faith in computer industry innovation. After five years in the internet, a friend is seriously considering a return to college to study it. He figures that, by the time he returns to the job market in his late thirties, he'll have a chance to ride the next big wave. Implicit in that is a belief that the internet is over.

These are just today's fleeting obsessions. With so many analysts, reporters and opinion-leaders trying to justify their existence and fill pages, Silicon Valley's technology-hype complex is probably minting a new phrase even as we speak. But there is a difference this time. As quickly as a new trend emerges, so it is debunked. B2B lasted all of five months. P2P may survive no longer than the verdict on the Napster case.

All these waves lack conviction and so, ultimately, this is reflected in a dearth of new start-ups. For every stereotypical business school carpetbagger who started companies in Silicon Valley in the expectation of gigantic financial reward, there is a founder who believed he was changing the world. Now some of that drive has gone. It appears that the world has had enough change for the moment

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