I first heard the complaint two years ago, mentioned in passing in the halls of computer trade shows. Last spring it came more frequently, whispered in disbelief at parties for the industry's elite. Now a week doesn't go by when the subject doesn't come up in a phone call, whined loudly and matter-of-factly by industry veterans: The computer business is no fun anymore.
Current and former CEOs, public relations practitioners, and trade reporters all voice the same frustration, in that self-questioning tone usually reserved for rants at professionals with admitting privileges to Rubbermaid-furnished hospital wards.
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The reason may be gleaned from the shift in Byte Me issues since May 1994: industry innovation and excitement have all but been replaced entirely by financial statements and anxiety. High-risk bets placed by investors now demand high returns and require greater fiscal scrutiny. And no one has ever accused accountants of having too much fun.
But writing 199 Byte Me columns leads me to suggest a way to put the fun back in dysfunction: Cultivate a healthy appreciation for the absurd. And no matter what other things the industry may lack, recent trends indicate there is no shortage of absurdity. Some examples:
-The rush to embed PCs into damn near everything that moves... or doesn't. If Microsoft's AutoPC initiative isn't enough, late last month CNet's News.com reported that Japan's V Sync Technology had a prototype of a 333-MHz Pentium II computer built into a refrigerator. This puts 128MB RAM, a 3.2GB hard disk, and Web browsing in a door-mounted touch screen. Those comments about embedding Windows in a toaster? They were supposed to be a joke.
-The imminent demise of paper. Every few months some company comes up with a new gadget to replace pressed dead trees. A recent study conducted by Interquest and the University of Virginia reassuringly has found that even though electronic documents eventually will overtake it, "the life expectancy of paper as a key medium for reading and communicating over the coming 10 to 20 years is very good." And may be even better in bathrooms.
-The assumption that "Internet" is a synonym for "profit." The number of firms that have simply put the word "Web" in their business plans only to see their share price skyrocket is a wonderful demonstration of the one-born-every-minute dictum applied to the stock market. Egghead, for example, saw its share price nearly double when it abandoned its national storefront operation and became a Web-only retailer that, at best, can only reach one-quarter of US households. If Egghead, Amazon.com, and other Internet ventures have developed business models to emulate, the real short-term stock market play is in manufacturers of red ink.
-The appeal of the Dancing Baby. This churning, gyrating diaper-clad computer child, created for software developer Kinetix in 1997 as Baby Cha-Cha, has moved from a Web-site phenomenon to a January guest spot on Ally McBeal and a new (and more appropriate) incarnation as a churning, gyrating devil on Fox's Millennium early this month. If this is the pinnacle of the application of high-powered computer workstations, I submit developers have been eating too much British beef.
The computer industry is indeed less fun than in the days before hobbyists were replaced by lobbyists, and the industry became a force in the world economy. But if savoring the absurd isn't enough to reinvigorate a business suffering from psychological burnout, there is always another alternative, unpalatable as it might be: getting a non-virtual life.
In the shorts
Bob Rosner, author of Working Wounded (Warner Books), a lively new manual on common workplace aggravations, conducted an informal streetcorner poll that perhaps provides too much illumination on the attraction of working from home. The top vote-getter to the question of what office workers like most about telecommuting was "the ability to work in your underwear." Personally, I prefer to work in my own underwear.
A study from International Demographics featured in the online newsletter Iconocast shows the Seattle/Tacoma area is 13th nationwide in the percentage of people on the Internet. Seattle's no. 13 spot (equating to 34 percent online penetration) among 84 metropolitan areas is roughly the same as Seattle's ranking among national TV markets. Coincidence? Or potential marketing tie-in for WebTV owner Microsoft?
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for computer industry companies and the co-author of Marketing Online for Dummies, can be reached at email@example.com.
Homepage of the dancing baby creator