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Archives for Silicon Valley

Steve Jobs As Metaphor

Jan
22
2009

An era – a golden time when the boys of Silicon Valley could do whatever they wanted, whenever it suited them – is coming to an end. And the failing health of Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a poignant metaphor for its passing. That’s one reason why the conversations about his fate are so emotionally charged – even among strangers.

Jobs is clearly fighting a serious illness. Whether he is winning and will return to run the company he founded, saved and launched into an entirely new line of business is open to debate and speculation – and there’s been plenty of that. It seems unlikely not necessarily because Jobs is mortally ill but because his illness has sapped so very much of his raw physical presence. He may have to – belatedly it seems – face the fact that his life-saving surgery for some sort of pancreatic cancer, in fact, altered his life. Like all of us, he is mortal.

And, like all of us, he and the company he runs are being told they must obey the law. The Securities and Exchange Commission has expressed an interest in the timing of news and announcements about Jobs’ health and, like many inquiries the commission launches, it may mean nothing. Except that they’re paying attention.

And this, my friends, this is the end.

You see, Silicon Valley has skated along quite nicely, thank you, without a whole lot of regard for the government. This was in no small part because the government had little interest in Silicon Valley. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, enormous fortunes were made by a small group of very well-connected insiders who invested in small start-ups, took those companies public and reaped the rewards. It was a glorious and wonderful time. It gave us The Internet. And the Internet has changed our lives. And yes, that accomplishment should be rewarded.

But there was a fair amount of cheating as you might expect when a small group of very smart people realize that they can game a complex and seemingly opaque system because the rules haven’t quite caught up them. The cheating and the attitude about cheating (“everybody does it”) was – and to some extent is still – the problem.

When I worked as a business columnist for one of the local papers here in Silicon Valley, it was understood that the SEC simply didn’t have the resources to evaluate, check or even investigation suspicions about public offerings made by tech companies. It was taken for granted that the cautionary statements included in the boilerplate in the SEC documents were sufficient to warn investors. After that, the market would measure whether a company was succeeding or failing and investors would react accordingly. You buy the stock, you take a risk. End of conversation.

The market, many said, was the ultimate arbitrator. Insiders – start-up CEOs, venture capitalists, seed investors – couldn’t help it if the market raised stocks to 10 or 20 times the pre-IPO value. They couldn’t restrain the public’s appetite for these shares; the market made their stock, purchased for pennies, worth dollars. That was just the way things were and everybody understood it. When the tech bubble had collapsed, a lot of people who had believe the promise of the Internet lost a lot of money but in the end, the SEC shrugged. The market had prevailed.

Well, a few million home foreclosures later (everybody, it seems, was also lying on their mortgage applications) and the government is not shrugging anymore. The days of regulatory oversight are coming to the valley. Which is why Jobs failing health is such an apt metaphor. I’m not predicting the death of innovation or the wholesale regulation of the venture capital business but I won’t be surprised at all to see the idea floated. Some venture funds hold hundreds of millions of dollars from their limited partners, unions, pension funds and public university endowments. Besides, it’s been clear for some time that the practices of the banks that the valley depends on for its paydays – those multi-million dollar trips to the stock market known as public offerings – are going to be tightly overseen, regulated and controlled.

Like it or not, like Apple’s ailing CEO, tech companies born and bred in Silicon Valley are going to have to answer a lot of tough questions. Their privacy – which is really nothing more than their sense that they and only they know what’s best – is going to have to become a bit less opaque. Their firms are going to have to run cleaner; their investors are going to have to disclose more. Total control – the ability to ignore or worse, bully, the government – is gone.

As painful as it is to see him so frail and ill, Steve Jobs, raised in the anything-goes atmosphere of the valley is in sickness, as he was in health, the embodiment of the place and it’s thinking. That’s one reason why so many are fixated on his health; why no one will let him alone. There is often no tangible reward for those who are smarter better or faster; for some things there is no inside track, and in the end, we all face the same fate.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 5:48 PM | Permalink

Getting Real About The U.S. CTO

Jan
8
2009

It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that Silicon Valley is complete binary in its passions. It’s only feels like it’s either fully on or fully off. But when it comes to politics, that statement rings more true that it does with others. And right now, the valley is fully “on” for Obama.

The fact that the president-elect has a Blackberry habit almost as bad as his nicotine addition (and harder to break) adds to the allure. It’s not just that Obama “gets” the Internet and the culture it’s created; he uses it. And clearly, to judge from his campaign, he likes it.

This has led to all sorts of silly conversations, mostly about the job of “chief technology officer”. With breathless enthusiasm, the names of some of the smartest folks in town have been mentioned. Google’s Vint Cerf (aka “father of the Internet”) or its CEO Eric Schmidt. Even more ridiculous: Bill Joy or Stanford professor Larry Lessig. It’s been suggested that the job was cabinet-level, meaning the CTO would be in touch with the president regularly.

Yes. Well. All these suggestions assume that the CTO job within the U.S. government will be akin to the CTO job within a high tech start-up. The job held by the guy who is either the founder or the inventor who turned the founder’s ideas into real products, thereby changing the world – for the better, of course.

The U.S. CTO will be a similar visionary, goes the thinking. Someone who can convince the government to change copyright laws, create and enforce net neutrality, put all government records on the Internet, create email accounts for all bureaucrats, and make Congress put its proceedings on-line. A miracle worker, in other words. But no administration needs a room full of visionaries; it only needs one. And we elected him in November.

Which is why U.S. CTO job is probably going to go to someone who knows how to run something. Something big. Like a large high tech company with a history of buying, developing, refining and commissioning software and hardware for its employees. If Cisco CEO John Chambers weren’t a Republican, he’d be perfect. Assuming he’d take the pay cut. For my money, the speculation about John W. Thompson – recently retired (!) CEO of Symantec and one of Silicon Valley’s few African-American executives – is closer than any of the “Internet famous” visionaries’ names being bandied about.

The reality is that the Internet infrastructure the U.S government uses has been built with the 20th Century equivalent of paperclips, bubble gum and duct tape. Various agencies have gone their own way in getting on the web and the confusion is a little bit like what happened when the airlines started selling tickets on-line. There was the system the company used; the system customers used and God-only-knows what else in the middle. Like the old SABRE system, the government needs help. Badly. And that’s what the U.S. CTO is probably going to end up doing.

That doesn’t mean the job isn’t going to be important. It just means it’s not going to be West Wing glamorous. It can’t be. Can you imagine the breathless drama over the ordering of another 1,000 Apache servers to, for instance, get the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement division up and running on the web so inspectors can share maps, photos, reports and information as seamlessly as they do at say, Boeing? Hmmm. You’re not staying up past 10 p.m. to watch that an neither am I, even if it is on Hulu.com.

What many of the folks new to politics – and this is Silicon Valley – forget is that the U.S. government can move markets by purchasing to somewhat dramatic effect. Quietly. Over time. A government purchase can create a de facto standard not just for the feds but for state and local governments. Getting government procurement agents to realize that all software doesn’t come from Redmond is one part of this process of changing how the government sees the Internet. So is the idea that off-the-shelf might just work for their needs. And “open source” doesn’t mean stolen; it can, in fact, mean low-cost and reliable.

That change will push a lot of money into the tech sector. It will foster a lot of low-key innovation and, by the end of the next four years, it will probably give us a lower-cost, more efficient federal government.

All these are obvious ideas to anyone with a working knowledge of how the mechanics of the Internet actually function. But for many many people in government agencies, this is news. The reality is that a working on-line presence – internal and external – doesn’t cost very much money and may, in a few short years, save the government a lot of money is one that I’m betting you’ll hear the Obama administration start touting in a big loud voice. It only makes sense.

But these initiatives won’t be announced in the Rose Garden while Obama’s Silicon Valley faithful look on with delight at how the Internet is now cool. They’ll be rolled out without a lot of fanfare as part of the way a restructured U.S. government should work. And if the U.S. CTO is successful there will soon be little difference between the folks who “get it” and those who never thought there was anything to “get” in the first place.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Atlas Shrugged….

Nov
13
2008

It’s been a lot of fun watching Silicon Valley this past election year. It’s quite a contrast to political apathy and almost religious faith in free markets – think Ayn Rand with a laptop – that once carried the day.

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The realization that things around here had changed came when finance, tech folks, start-up CEOs and reporters watching Obama’s victory speech said, almost in unison: “Hey look, Sam Perry’s on TV …. with Jesse Jackson? And Oprah!

Even though he’s going to raise their taxes by a lot, Silicon Valley went for Obama in a big, big way. And Sam Perry – a former reporter, an investor and advisor to start-ups (even this one!) – was part of that effort. So was Netscape founder Marc Andreessen who’s taking credit for introducing Obama to the wonders of social networks.

It’s a change, make no mistake about that. Ten years ago as tech people and their financiers began to understand the reach and depth of the Internet, there was a lot of talk about how states would become less influential. There was a lot of babbling over at places like Wired magazine about how the web was going to give rise to individual action that would, eventually, do away with the need for government and nations.

One of the more articulate folks on this point was Avram Miller, then an executive at Intel and one of the smarter thinkers about where that company was headed. This year Miller has been a strong advocate of Barack Obama’s presidency. Which seems like it’s a contradiction. If you believe the state is less important, why do you care who runs the place?

“I don’t know that I’ve changed my mind,” says Miller. “For me this wasn’t so much about politics,” he said of the recent election. “It’s was very simply good people versus bad people.” Miller also makes another observation about Obama’s candidacy that shows him to be a member of the “one-man” school of historiography. “The right person has to have the right situation. But the right situation doesn’t create the right person.”

The high minded talk of the valley’s intellgentsia – and Millers’ a member in good standing – is usually reflected in how it conducts business. Make no mistake: there are practical aspects to all this enthusiasm. Silicon Valley has long been a cash register for the Democratic party but it’s leadership has often been happy to limit itself to that role: a dinner, a fundraiser and getting to drop the Leader of the Free World’s name in conversation. This time, they’re after bigger game.

Recently powerhouse venture capitalist John Doerr, suggested to his fellow Harvard Business alums that DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – be returned to its original purpose. Doerr’s idea was that DARPA, which created and fostered the initial growth of the Internet, could do something similar for “green” technology.

In other words, Doerr would like the U.S. government to get back in the business of incubating start-ups. They may well need the help. The credit crunch has hit many of these operations hard. When it comes to this new class of investment, there’s no such thing as “virtual.” Companies need to borrow money to finance construction and development of physical things.

Talk of the “green New Deal” that the Obama administration may create – public spending for the development and construction of clean energy source like turbine farms, solar panel displays – would amount to something of a bailout for firms like Doerr’s that have invested in these companies. So would the administration’s decision to lift federal funding bans on stem cell research. Both would funnel a river of money to high tech companies.

That’s not necessarily bad. But it’s different. And while many of those intimately involved in this volte face are going to insist that that they haven’t changed their outlooks or approach – the market is still the market, politics is still a dirty business, entrepreneurs are still marvels of independent thought and action – those of us who have watched politics for a long time know better.

The Bush administration outraged men in the valley like Miller who place a great premium on competence. Obama’s candidacy was able to capture their imagination and his intelligence gave them faith that he’d actually do a good job. But that still doesn’t mean the valley loves politics. “Politics has really become a means to its own ends,” says Miller. “I think most politicians are disgusting. I just thin of them as guys who’s primary mission in life it to get elected.”

That’s exactly right, of course. You can’t get anything done unless you’re in office. But what about the idea – one hardly original – that an involved electorate, voters who care, will elected better, more suitable politicians? Well, says Miller, perhaps. “I find it difficult to argue with that.”

Posted by Chris Nolan at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Talk is Cheap, Flattery Priceless

Nov
13
2006

Readers, please excuse me as I veer – slightly – off topic to discuss a bit of business that’s come to my attention. It’s time, once again, to engage in a bit of sorting out among us competitive on-line publishers and give Gawker founder Naughty Nicky Denton a much-needed spanking.
Seen the redesign of Gawker Media’s attempt to cover Silicon Valley, ValleyWag? If you should wander over there, you may be struck, as I was, by a few things. First, they’re selling a few more ads this week than they have in the past: There are fewer house-ads, anyway.
Two, the damn thing looks a lot like our old site right on down to the Courier typeface. We still use Courier, of course, but we’ve tinkered with it just a teeny bit – as Gawker did overnight will undoubtedly do as it learns its lesson – to make it more readable. So we’re gracefully accepting on that score, the most sincere form of flattery: Imitation. They’re trying to look like us! How sweet.
That’s not the only reason we’re blushing with modest satisfaction. The “new” Valleywag, says Denton, is going to write about money, not so much about sex. And it’s going to write about Silicon Valley CEOs and other movers and shakers, not so much about “the little people” who just happen to have their private lives caught on tape. And that nice Nick Douglas who helped start the column is looking for a job.
Just a little repositioning? Maybe. But you know things are really in bad shape when Mr. Denton himself – a man who swore off San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the West Coast generally – decides to hang around the small backward village of San Francisco until he finds someone to run ValleyWag.
It’s all sooooooooo flattering. But I’m afraid I’ll have to demur on that public offer of a job, Nicky. It’s almost exactly 10 years since I sat down and wrote a memo outlining the purpose of my Silicon Valley column “Talk is Cheap.” That memo (copies available on request) began very simply: “This column is about money.” That you struggled to that conclusion over the weekend is not a huge surprise.
Of course, all this gives me an excuse to talk about how well we’re doing here at Spot-on. Since it launched a year ago, Spot-on has seen its traffic quadruple – that’s without resorting to porn videos. We have tripled the number of writers with more on the way. Our business focus – to provide larger outlets with smart commentary and good writing on a range of political, social and cultural affairs – is moving steadily and surely in the right direction as our quality editorial attracts customers, readers and investors. In the next few weeks we’ll be announcing deals that will take our writers well beyond this site to outlets much larger than anything Gawker – with its pathological fear of outside investment and its apparently faltering dependance on ad revenue – can reach. Being respectable isn’t easy – people sneer and call us “small” – but we’re out to build a business, not cash in on a fad.
So good luck finding another writer to do your money-first, sex-when-necessary bidding, Nicky. It’s not going to be easy. I know. I set the bar. It’ll be fun to see if you can find someone tall enough to reach it.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 3:09 PM | Permalink

You Still Can’t Get There From Here

Aug
6
2006

It’s a long way from 4 Times Square, the shiny skyscraper that’s home of The New Yorker, Vogue and other glossy magazines to the San Jose Hyatt, the low-rise hotel that was the temporary home of this year’s BlogHer, a gathering of some 700 women, most of whom wouldn’t know (or care) about the difference between a Blahnik and a Louboutin. An entire country – in more ways than one – lies between the two places.
Reading a (justifiably) much-maligned piece by Nick Lemann in last week’s New Yorker, I kept thinking about the gathering in San Jose. Why? Well, mostly because of the tech guys who braved the conference, returned home and spent a fair amount of bandwidth looking down their noses at what happened. And they used the same dismissive tone as Lemann, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, a well-award writer and solid political journalist, took in his piece about “citizen journalism.”
Not enough people at BlogHer talked about technology and when they did it was rudimentary, say the Big Boy Bloggers. The conference was was really…uh, personal. My favorite came from Microsoft’s former on-line voice, Robert Scoble. In a long, rambling post Scoble admitted that well, he kind of had a good time and boy those big (non-tech) corporations really seemed to know how to market to women! Lemann in his piece “Amateur Hour” talked about how no important national reporting was getting done on-line. It’s small beer, he said, comparing a group of post – most written by women, oddly enough – to church newsletters. It’s not important, he says, again and again.
Listen carefully. In both cases – Lemann and his antithesis, the Geeks – you’ll hear the complacent sound of the insider explaining why his clubhouse can’t possible admit just anyone who applies. This isn’t anything new, particularly with Lemann. As for geeky men and women…well, you don’t need me to weigh in on that one.
Now, Lemann deserves being taken to task for handing in a poorly-researched and sloppily reported piece. Any story about on-line technology that quotes from 2003 is off to a bad, bad start. And yes, some of what goes on at BlogHer (like lots of other conferences) is annoying and trivial but it’s not a conference about technology and, yeah, some of that “feel-good sister” stuff drives me nuts, too.
But – with a few notable exceptions, the best by Rebecca MacKinnon – the denunciations that are flying back and forth in all cases here just aren’t on target.
To start with, I’d like everyone to stop using the word “blogging” when they talk about all forms of writing on-line. Microsoft doesn’t tell you that its Word program is only for writing letters does it? So why must a “blog” by definition be something related to the gathering and processing of information with an aim toward professional-like reporting and writing? Some sites built on blogging software are nothing more than an improvement on the “cc” line on an email. Others are political advocacy sites. Some, like Spot=on., are media businesses, run for profit.
This is why I talk so often about “stand alone journalism.” Placing the emphasis on a specific piece of software, as the Geeks like to do, means we writers would bog down in small-minded thinking about products and features. Putting technology first also lumps everything happening on-line in the same category, a classification dictated by the way in which the information is delivered. Both are unfair and both arguments have, sad to say, found supporters with people who should know better; many media-savvy writers use the word “blog” to mean “I’m important again – look at my mastery of this new technology.” One result? Big Media writers like Lemann have been guided by very myopic views of how technology is changing the business. Tech Geeks hew to very narrow ideas about how their miracle products should be used and for much of the past few years they’ve been calling the shots. That’s a mistake. There is a large middle ground here; much of it unexplored.
When we talk about changes in the media business, we’re not really talking about “blogging.” The changes in the Big Media universe are changes being wrought by the Internet; the network that now connects almost all of us that allows us to hear the poorly served when they complain which they have more of a reason to do – because they’re poorly served. The ‘net is relentless and ruthless in its ability to foment change and to keep fomenting change upon the changes it’s already created. BlogHer and the rise of the “citizen journalist” are examples of the broadening use of the Internet for a variety of purposes and their cumulative effect on the network is to make established authorities less important. Many of those established authorities – be they tech geeks or Columbia professors – are shocked to find out that they do not matter. They’re coping with it in different ways by each doing what they’ve always done without much regard for how things are changing. Tech folks are defensively sticking to their code; Big Media boys are huddling in the offices of their glossy magazines.
The large gathering of “Mommy Bloggers” is just one more example of just how poorly served women are by our society as a whole. Like tech bloggers who have sprung up to serve the Geeks of Silicon Valley, or the political bloggers who have risen up to grind their partisan axes, these women have been ignored and they’re frustrated. Their work – raising children – is trivialized; their sensibility (what about the children?) mocked and their achievements (“I’m a writer,” says Grace Davis) are patronized. There are plenty of audiences like this out there – some like Debbie Galant’s Baristanet are gathered around cush suburbs; some like Global Voices, have risen up to serve a gap in international reporting. Others are more nefarious: If you don’t think Al Queada is a web-based business and communications network, you should reconsider. Treating them all the same because they’re all on the Internet is as silly as saying anyone who sits in front of a keyboard for more than 20 minutes a day is a secretary. It’s just not true anymore. And it never will be again.
And that’s a New Yorker story – a good one. Too bad Nick Lemann’ll never read it. It’s being written on the web.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 4:03 PM | Permalink

They Fought the Law, the Law Won

Jul
23
2006

For this bubble, it seems Silicon Valley will have a sheriff and a deputy, too. It’s about damn time.
The U.S. government – finally! – means business when it comes to how Silicon Valley conducts its affairs. For Bubble 2.0 the valley is going to have to join the real world, you know the one with real, regulator oversight, non-partisan legal advice and objective accounting? That real world, the one in which the rest of American businesses are located.
That’s the message blaring out from Saturday’s New York Times and Friday’s Wall Street Journal which carried news that the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, one Kevin V. Ryan, is conducting an investigation and has managed to – gasp! – get indictments against Brocade Communications for back-dating the stock options it gave employees.
The reaction from folks who’ve been working and living in and around tech businesses for the past 10 years? “Oh, so NOW you’re interested?” Man….talk about your barn doors and horses…..
Ryan, a local boy, was appointed to his job in 2002. Educated at St. Ignatius – the alma mater of some of the city’s sharper (but strictly masculine) legal and political minds – he’s worked in Alameda County and was appointed to his current job from the state’s Superior Court. He announced his indictments with another Californian, Former Congressman Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. In other words: They’re interested. Real interested. Oh, and they know their way around.
Ryan knows state politics – he was a Pete Wilson appointee to the bench – and Cox, former member of the House Commerce Committee, is no P&L neophyte. He’s also forgotten more about that tax code than half the lawyers in Palo Alto have ever learned. And, oh yeah, even though Cox works in Washington, he doesn’t think of California “out there.” Having lived and represented the state – from Newport Beach – for years, he thinks we’re part of the Lower 48 unlike the rest of the East Coast.
In other words, there won’t be any of this fancy “new economy” mumbo jumbo with Cox and Ryan around. Nah. These guys are the law. The smart law.
You can hear the caterwauling, can’t you?
With 80 (or more) companies facing some kind of SEC or Department of Justice inquiry on how they treated their employee stock options, Silicon Valley’s execs are sure to make the claims they always make. It’s a really fancy version of “but we’re special.” The first objection? This is the work of a politically ambitious prosecutor!
Probably. But guess what? It doesn’t matter. He’s got the job. You don’t. And, oh, don’t rush to get all partisan here. Cox and Ryan are Republicans and they’re going after Republicans. Verisign’s Stratton Sclavos and Lawyer to the Stars – All the Stars, Larry Sonsini ain’t Democrats. Which is telling. Ryan and Cox are smart enough to play fair when it comes to where they’re looking. It’ll make their cases stronger and – both being good lawyers – they know it.
That’s not to say there isn’t a political element to all this. Embarrassing the Democrats is probably somewhere on the agenda, not too far down. The state’s political leadership, save Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, were all in office during the Bubble 1.0 and they used Silicon Valley’s ambitions like an ATM: punch in a few code words, get a lot of checks. The Clinton Administration’s SEC took a big long, comfy nap for much of Bubble 1.0, worried more about boosting economic growth than keeping an eye on what was going on off – way off – Wall Street.
That’s one reason why the valley’s persecuted millionaires, get to make somewhat outrageous complaints about those who might regulate them. They don’t understand – it’s the market! You can’t control the market! This is my favorite excuse; I only wish Adam Smith and his “hidden hand” were this popular in how the valley actually conducted its affairs. The “it’s the market” excuse was used from about 1997 to 2001 to explain why IPO shares issued to executives – the “Friends of Frank” plan was the most notorious – weren’t gifts; they were just “tips” that happened to be really, really lucrative. No, you can’t control the market. But when you’re making the market – as so many companies did back in the late 1990′s with the help of their bankers – well, then you have an advantage. Particularly when, as Ryan and others are alleging, companies cooked the books and back-dated option grants to make the well-off even wealthier. You can do that when you’re a private company (although it’s still dicey) but not when you’re playing with shareholders.
And oh, yeah, while we’re on the subject: The word “shareholder” in situations like this is the same as the word “consumer.” And yeah, for politicians “consumers” are “voters.” And yeah, this is politics. But, so what?
They don’t understand – we need these options to stay competitive! Yup. You do. Which is why the playing field has to be level and every company in every industry needs to play by the same rules. Interesting, isn’t that the SEC is looking at non-tech companies as well? Why? For the same reason they’re looking at Democrats and Republicans. The government isn’t supposed to be in the business of letting crooks cheat ’cause it’s good for the American economy. (Many of you may, with reason, say this has not been true of the Bush Administration; for that argument, I refer you to my Spot-on colleague Christopher R. Brauchli who is eloquent on this and other, related, topics)
But this whole competitive argument reminds me of something I find fabulous annoying: Put that stupid excuse about India and China – how they don’t have stock options – away and forget you ever heard it. There’s private property (the right to own stock or property) in China but its existence isn’t that secure and the per capita income in India’s capital is about what your average California business person pays to fly to New York.
Then there’s this chestnut: Everybody does it. Well, clearly they did and maybe some still do. But remember when your Mom asked what you would do if “everybody” jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge? Well that logic applies here as well. Yes, Silicon Valley is special – you guys changed the world and some of you are still at it – but guess what? You play in the public market – as the companies being investigated for back-dating do – you play by the laws as enforced by the Securities and Exchange Commission to protect shareholders (consumers and voters).
And lastly: This is not a crime, no one lined their own pocket. That’s for the courts to decide and it’s cases like this and situations like this that help create our understanding of the law and the regulations that stem from the law. The New York Times – coming late to the story as it does with everything Silicon Valley – did a nice job of exploring the back-dating practice pointing to Sonsini’s law firm as one that apparently advised clients that the practice was legitimate. Wilson Sonsini famously pioneered the practice of taking stock options as payment for its young start-up clients. In hindsight, that seems like a classic conflict of interest – a firm that could benefit financially from taking its own advice to a client – and it’s been unexplored until now. Maybe it’s fine, maybe it’s not. But we won’t know until the SEC makes a decision.
Remember, the government regulates white collar crime by example. That’s why they’re stepping in now – they can see Bubble 2.0 as clearly as the rest of us. And while much of what Silicon Valley will say in response to the investigations, the investigators, the scandals, the indictment and the possible convictions may well be true – it doesn’t matter. This is how regulation is enforced and laws are interpreted.
And while everybody does it and we need to do this to stay competitive and what’s the harm, no one made themselves rich it was for the company so how can that be a crime and politicians really don’t understand the pressure of running a business….in the end, no one gets – or should get – to give lame excuses for cheating. Not in kindergarten. Not now.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 9:37 PM | Permalink

Tired Gore Wired Newsom

Jun
1
2006

Al Gore, once Silicon Valley’s political heart-throb is on the way out. Replacing him? Perhaps – if he plays his cards right – San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Newsom took to the stage at the Wall Street Journal’s “D – All Things Digital Conference” and pretty much told the tech types what they wanted to hear. Technology is a business development tool for all cities, not just for San Francisco, it’s shameful that tens of thousands of San Franciscans are without computers and Internet access. The federal government is of no help.

By contrast, Gore – who reaped the rewards of a Silicon Valley connection when he raised millions for his unsuccessful presidential bid in 2004 – lectured, hectored and annoyed his audience. Partisan Democrats, of course, love his hour-and-a-half chat on Connect, his “interactive” TV station, and his long, involved, complicated and detailed discussions of global warming. But the rest of the audience…uh, warm you say? Really?

It’s not entirely fair, of course, to compare Newsom and Gore. Newsom is only slightly older than Gore was when he took his seat in the U.S. House; Newsom’s never lost an election and he’s only run twice. His re-election effort next fall should – if his unbelievably good poll numbers hold – be a walk in the park. Newsom has more presence and, well, he’s not as intellectual as the former vice president so his answers often border on the practical. And they are somewhat – for a Democrat – not ideological. That’s not the case with Gore. It can’t be, of course, that he’s spent too much time in politics, too much time trying to become president and had too many disappointments.

It’s no secret that Gavin Newsom has national political ambition and lots of it. His plan to provide city-wide wireless Internet access for all of San Francisco is, in many ways, just as dramatic as his letting same-sex couples marry in the city. It’s a far-sighted decision and it puts him well ahead of Democratic Party leadership.

More important, for his next run at political office – which probably won’t be for anything with a seat in the California statehouse – he’ll need money. Silicon Valley is starting to rival Hollywood as the Democratic Party’s cash register. Newsom knows this – who doesn’t? – and he’s shrewdly taking advantage of a local resource.

That some of those local resources – among them top-level Democratic Party contributor John Doerr, a San Francisco property-owner – had to come to San Diego to meet the mayor, tells you how much San Francisco politics needs to really change to accommodate the new tech money. But at least someone’s turning on the lights.

Posted by Chris Nolan at 3:10 PM | Permalink

Back on The Block

Mar
20
2006

With the probably permanent set-aside of Silicon Valley banker Frank Quattrone’s conviction on obstruction of justice and witness tampering, a new era begins in Silicon Valley. One that will probably mark the full maturation of the area’s very healthy financial services business – business that doesn’t need New York.
Yes, yes, the judges have ordered a new trial. But the lawyers who prosecuted Quattrone are in private practice now. And three trials? Well, it does seem a bit much to get a man who, when it comes down to it, did nothing more than send an email. That’s particularly true now that his reasons for sending that mail can’t be implied to a jury. That’s why it’s likely that Quattrone will get a pass from the Department of Justice (NASD, the folks who regulate stock brokers are another matter and they are much less likely to be so charitable, continuing to bar Quattrone from the banking business).
UPDATE:Just goes to show what I know: The Securities and Exchange Commission has over-turned NASD’s decision to bar Quattrone. The story is here and it makes pretty much every other prediction in this column doubly-true.
But his ability to once again move and shake in Silicon Valley – look for him to join a big venture capital firm, soon – will be a continuation of the much-denounced dot.com bubble. But this isn’t the Internet v. “real” world that you hear so much about outside the valley. No, this is another important chapter in the decade-long fight between Silicon Valley’s money guys and the New York financiers. Quattrone has played a staring role in that drama. He’s sure to take center stage again.
See, Silicon Valley is not about the stock market. It’s about selling stock to the market – to reap the rewards of private investments. The valley runs one of the more remarkable private equity pools in the world. You can’t see it. Almost no one talks about. It’s taken for granted, much as the spectacular views down U.S. 280 or the foggy and damp San Francisco summers. But it’s real. Millions and billions of dollars worth of real. It sits with venture capital funds but also – almost as importantly – it sits in the hands of the many people who became very wealthy in the 1990s. (Many of those folks have, in fact, funded enterprises like this one.) They invest shrewdly and carefully in technology that many people can’t – or won’t understand. Those initial investments – pennies on the dollar – pay well for those who are careful and smart. But to get paid, they have to see the stock sold in some kind of public-market transaction. Facilitating that process was Frank Quattrone’s job; no one did it better.
The money made in the 1990s in Silicon Valley did not evaporate in the dot.com bubble. It just sat on ice for a bit. With the Google IPO it started to recirculate. This time, Silicon Valley – which has always hated the dismissive and condescending attitude that oozed from technically unsophisticated bankers from New York – is gonna get theirs. Frank Quattrone will – again – be the man to lead the charge.
Let me be very clear about this: Frank Quattrone’s talent as a banker should not be questioned. For all I have written about the man (and it’s a lot) I have never doubted his intelligence or his ability to speak for and understand his clientele of science-minded geeks. “He vibrated at the same frequency” said one his former associates. I can’t improve on that description.

(more…)

Posted by Chris Nolan at 2:51 PM | Permalink

Google Mail

Jan
24
2006

Mail, we get mail. We get mail about Google and the best notes are almost always from folks who don’t agree with I’ve said.
First up: Bob Holmgren who lives in Menlo Park, CA. He also took the time to indirectly highlight something that I’ve noticed: In refusing to comply with the DOJ subpoena, Google has drawn attention to it – and other Internet companies’ – compliance with foreign governments’ requests for censorship or certain words and phrases. Be careful what you look for, huh?

In spite of your suggestion to the contrary, the Department of Justice did not go after any individual’s information. Everyone agrees on this point. Google and other search engines were asked about aggregated data of the sort the Census Bureau will sell you. (Horrors, another government spying program.) What Google was objecting to was the cost in time and manpower in order to comply with the order. Google says that this was harassment and who could argue? When asked by the IRS to submit to an audit I feel harassed – which is not to say I have a compelling legal argument.

As if to underscore Google’s lack of enthusiasm for the sort of human rights issue you’ve attempted to frame, they’ve now agreed to censor aspects of their search technology for the Chinese market. Manpower and harassment be damned. Wonder if they have Chinese lawyers working against the Justice Department.

Another reader, Tim Cole, who’s in Munich, Germany (I love the Internet) sides with my initial distrust and makes a nice follow-up to what Holmgren has said, particularly in regard to China:

It’s encouraging to hear that somebody else distrusts Google, too. They seem to be every Internet lover’s darling right now for supposedly standing up to the Bush administration, but as you rightly point out, their fight will probably only go so far. Meaning they plan to put up some token resistance and hand out a nice press release saying, in effect, “well, heck, at least we tried!”

Admittedly, I am paranoid about Google (and remember: just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me…) but reading about they way they are shafting their Chinese users by knuckling under to the authorities there, censoring out search terms like “democracy”, “human rights” and “Tiamanen”, I have trouble believing that these, as you put it, “progressive libertarians” care for anything but their own bottom line.

In that case, using “Don’t be evil!” as your corporate slogan seems to carry duplicity to new depths.

And then there are folks who just like us. Terry Heaton is nice enough to say nice things about what I’ve said.:

Excellent piece on the government’s latest foray into our behavior. I agree with you completely. This isn’t about protection; it’s about control – specifically the control of knowledge and information. This is what institutions do – their core competency, if you will. Controlling any form of knowledge or information is a license to print money, and it’s why the Web is such a threat to the status quo.

While I think it might be useful to know which porn search terms people use, that knowledge doesn’t belong exclusively in the hands of our government. Good God, don’t they have anything better to do with our tax money?

Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:51 AM | Permalink

Google This

Jan
20
2006

Google’s refusal to obey a Department of Justice subpoena for information about searches for porn is – you would think – perfect grist for the little opinion mill we’re running here.
And you’re right. But talking at length about the issue goes to the heart of our business – as a Silicon Valley-based Web 2.0 start-up. Like many others working on the web, we depend on Google for many services. Some writers use Gmail. We buy and sell advertising via Google. We use it for searches to add context to what we do. There’s other stuff, as well, and there will be more in the future as we grow and Google gets more savvy about how it offers people editorial on-line and on its site. So talking about Google’s approach to dealing with the government as well as that of its competitors (with whom we also do business deals) presents Spot-on.com with a classic conflict of interest: If we are critical of the companies in public it may well hurt our business relationship with them. If we are guided by what we think they’d like us to say – to preserve that relationship – well, it might damage your respect for us because we’ve pulled our punches.
So, first let me say that I’d really love to have some one else write and comment regularly here at Spot-on on business and politics, specifically the tech business. As we go through this second mini-bubble, the political dilemmas are going to be drawn in sharp and clear focus and as this company’s main deal-maker, I should not be doing this particular editorial job. If you’d like a gig writing about that or know someone who does – we will be adding writers pretty steadily through the summer – send me a note. It’s a great opportunity for the right writer and you don’t need to be here in California.
But back to Google. In the absence of another set of hands, I’ll do the commenting for now. This is a very important story in no small part because it breaks at the same time that the Department of Justice is also saying that the president has full legal authority to authorize secret eavesdropping and wiretaps. The concentration of that kind of power in one office of government is not a good thing; that this administration continues to grab for information about individual’s private lives and habits is well past disturbing.
I have to say that I’m honestly surprised that Google has decided to engage in this show-down. One of the reasons I have steadfastly refused to use Google’s GMail is because I don’t trust that corporation – or any other – to maintain my privacy. When you’re in the business of keeping secrets and not telling people where or how you get information, having private email is a good, good thing. And I know enough and am grossly cynical about Silicon Valley and its business people to know that in circumstances where the choice is business or principle, business is gonna win. As The New York Times story observed: If Google loses its court battle, it will, in fact comply with the subpoena.

(more…)

Posted by Chris Nolan at 10:47 AM | Permalink

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