The Turbulent High-Tech Industry

I was a professional programmer from 1980 to 2006. I have a friend who programmed even longer, and from time to time, we like to reminisce on how some of the mightiest High-Tech companies have fallen.

They were proud, multi-billion-dollar companies.

Lotus 1-2-3, Sun Microsystems, Yahoo, Digital Equipment are but a few that have fallen. A frequent commenter on chicagoboyz who retired as a renowned and published surgeon, worked for Sears as a summer job many years ago. He made the point that if someone at Sears had the foresight and put their famous catalog on the Net back in the 90s, perhaps they would have been where Amazon is today, and not dying a slow and painful death.

Even I have been guilty of that lack of foresight. When Google decided to buy YouTube for $1.65 Billion, I couldn’t understand the rationale. I thought they were nuts. After all, who cares about a service that will publish any jerky and amateur video the uploader desires? What do I know?

Well, today it is one of my daily streaming habits. I love the UK exotic car restorer, Iain Terrill, who will go into an in-depth history of his “car of the day”. In his latest video he showed through some sleuth work the actual Ferrari that Ferruccio Lamborghini drove that in the legendary story, that so enraged Enzo Ferrari to the point that Lamborghini decided to put a better clutch in it from one of his tractors, and start to build his own supercar.

To be sure, there is plenty of slop on YouTube. I am mystified how people can post junk with the video jerking, twirling, having wind or planes drown out their voices… They have no pride in their product and that reflects on themselves.

It isn’t as though “film” is expensive.

But I have used it to learn how to do a small job on a car. You have to sift through the chaff sometimes to get the wheat. Correction. Not sometimes, but all of the time.

So, I didn’t have a whole lot of vision or foresight that the founder of YouTube had.

One of the classic stories of missed opportunities concerns the things that PARC (the Palo Alto Research Center) developed that owner Xerox refused to integrate into its own company. After all, they were a copier company. Why would they need these developments?

One was the Graphical User Interface, which today is on all things computer from your smart phone to your desk top.  The other was the mouse, which the GUI used. Or in the case of your phone, your finger substitute.

Steve Jobs saw the implication while on a visit, and that is what became the Apple MacIntosh. Bill Gates quickly followed with his Windows. They had the vision.

Very few people could stand traveling with me. When I am going cross country, I generally have no fixed plan as to a scheduled stop. I stop for the night where I stop. I stop and see what I want to see, and frequently make detours.

My friend Inger, from my car club, is a rare exception. Although she had the practice, being a cruise director for Royal Viking Line. While leading land excursions she learned to expect the unexpected.

“Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome” is not only the motto of the Marines, but the Norwegians.

So we set out last Saturday to see something High Tech in, where else, Silicon Valley. We discussed what to see, with the San Jose Tech Museum and the Winchester Mystery House as possible destinations. The latter, admittedly not High Tech, was owned by an heiress of Winchester Arms, and, so the story goes, felt she would be immortal as long as she continued adding things to her house. So you will see stairways going nowhere, among other strange things. Wonder what the carpenters thought, although as long as they were getting paid…

There are plenty of things to see there, including a “high tech” tour. You can see all the famous garages where companies such as HP, Tesla, and Apple started.

I suggested, as we passed Fairfield on I-80, that we should have lunch at where Google started, and then go see the current headquarters.

Since I was driving We had a conversation of the pros and cons and then mutually decided that would be the goal.

I can remember back in the 90s when the World Wide Web was first gaining steam. Earlier, computers were what we call text-based, with people actually having to type commands on a screen to do what they wanted. Remember MS-DOS?

This is where the developments at PARC would revolutionize computers.

And 2 search engines I remember were Yahoo and Alta Vista. When you used them, you really had to separate a lot of chaff to get a few grains of wheat. You might get 50 search results, of which maybe 5 had the possibility of having what you were looking for.

Yahoo was the dominant force in the 90s. A few years ago they were sold and broken up, because the parts were worth more than the whole. Alta Vista? As far as I know, they are gone.

Anyway, my High-Tech story today is a story of winners and losers. Big winners and big losers, for the story of technological progress can be more like a seismic shift. You are either still there having caught the wave or you are left behind.

 Two young Stanford graduates, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had developed a better search program.

By some accounts, they disagreed about nearly everything during that first meeting, but by the following year they struck a partnership. Working from their dorm rooms, they built a search engine that used links to determine the importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. They called this search engine Backrub.

Soon after, Backrub was renamed Google (phew). The name was a play on the mathematical expression for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros and aptly reflected Larry and Sergey’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

The story, as I heard it, was that they first tried to sell this program to the established search companies, Yahoo and Alta Vista among them.

Nobody was interested.

So they had a lunch at Buck’s Restaurant in Woodside to decide what to do.

By the way, just seeing their artifacts along the wall and the restrooms is worth the visit. Plus they have great food!

Seen in the men’s restroom at Bucks, plus dozens of pictures of B-29 nose art

From there, we drove 20 miles or so to the result today of that luncheon meeting.

The Google headquarters was far larger than I expected. Imagine a “city within a city”. Imagine driving over a mile and seeing nothing but Google buildings.

The new massive headquarters with what Inger called the “whimsical roof” will have no heating or air conditioning, according to a workman. They will get these functions from the ground, if I understood them right.

The new Google headquarters in Mountain View. There is an adjacent identical building going up next to it, plus a mile of associated Google buildings!

How they are going to do that I have no idea.

But I have learned to not be skeptical about the future.

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