How Green Was My Silicon Valley

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 9, 2005; 9:45 AM

It's August 9, 2005. Do you know where your Internet revolution is?

The question is relevant because today is the 10-year anniversary of Netscape's initial public offering.

Those among us who have been around the tech world for that long tend to see that as the start of the Internet boom -- the crazy, fatal business bonanza that despite its implosion is responsible for the fact that more people than not can sit in their living rooms and workplaces and read these words.

Several news sources devoted space to rich analyses of times gone by and what's likely to come.

Forbes magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard kicked off his op-ed in the Wall Street Journal like this: "What a short, strange trip it's been. Ten years ago today, the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia died of a massive heart attack. His last words were rumored to be: 'Netscape opened at WHAT?'"

Karlgaard wrote that many of us might consider these events timepieces, but cautioned us to remember that it's not ancient history: "The most astonishing fact about the 10th anniversary of Netscape's IPO is that number -- 10. Think about the airplane in 1913, the personal computer in 1984. The history of the PC suggests where the Internet is going. In 1980, Apple Computer went public, making centimillionaires of its founders, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. In 1982, Time magazine named the PC its 'Man of the Year.' During early 1983, venture capitalists went crazy, funding dozens of lookalike PC and disk drive companies. The bust came in late 1983 and lasted for three years. Many danced on the PC's grave. One was Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation and considered the father of the minicomputer industry. He said PCs had little use in serious business."

And we know where things went from there.

San Jose Mercury News writer Miguel Helft produced a lengthy story, noting that proselytizers await the second coming of the boom days, but survive on more than locusts and honey:

"It all came to a sudden halt when the stock market began a nearly three-year downward spiral in the spring of 2000. Companies folded. Thousands of investors lost their shirts. Yet others, including many venture capitalists who had unloaded shares before the bust, enjoyed untold fortunes. That has sustained the mystique about outsize returns in the venture industry. The result is that venture capitalists continue to collect money from pension funds, endowments and other large investors seeking to diversify their portfolios. In addition, investors from Europe and Asia are joining the parade. Says Jim Breyer, one of the valley's most respected venture capitalists: 'There is far too much money.'"

Still, Helft wrote, the sizzle surrounding the Silicon Valley market doesn't mean that things ever will be the way they were again. Among the factors holding back such a resurgence, he said, are the shift of technology jobs overseas and investor wariness toward start-ups going public at the same ferocious rate they did during the heyday.

"Even the good news is tempered: Some veteran venture capitalists worry that, once again, too much investment money is flooding into the valley," he remarked. "If true, it could lead, in an eerie reminder of the late '90s, to the funding of flimsy ideas, followed by a slew of meltdowns."

My colleague Ariana Eunjung Cha at The Post reported on how some technology investors in the Valley are financing companies dedicated to improving the world as well as impressing investors:

"'People are looking to have more meaning in their lives,' said John Doerr, a partner at uber-venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. 'It is a sign the technology community is coming of age.' Doerr became famous for funding some of the Internet's biggest success stories, as well as some of its most spectacular failures. These days he focuses mostly on health care and energy companies and has been applauded for helping get California's $3 billion stem cell initiative passed and for promoting small loans for entrepreneurs in the developing world."

Cha offered examples of companies attracting attention these days: "Ion America Corp., for instance, is working on technology to create a clean energy source from hydrogen that would reduce pollution and dependence on foreign oil. Savi Technology Inc. is making radio identification tags for container cargo that it hopes will help border security officials keep out bombs or other weapons. Satiety Inc. is fighting obesity by designing a tubed instrument that may reduce complications from stomach surgery. Former Homeland Security Department chief Tom Ridge said he recently joined the board of Savi because he is 'very interested in any technology that can help create a safer and more secure America.'"

Maybe the best question to ask ourselves as we look at the next 10 years is: "What would Jerry do?"

Steve Cases Practices 'The Lifestyle'

Among the technology titans taking a different investing tack is Steve Case, the former head of America Online. Washington Post reporter Annys Shin delivered the details in the story "AOL Founder's Latest Lifestyle Choice."

"Case is investing $20 million in a producer and distributor of yoga and Pilates videos, part of his ongoing bet that activities once associated with a new-age lifestyle are going mainstream. Case is going into business with Jirka Rysavy, chief executive of Gaiam Inc., who lives in a cabin outside Boulder, Colo., with no running water and an outhouse for a master bath. Rysavy said he and Case had 'an alignment in mission.'"

Well, never mind what I said earlier about locusts and honey. But based on the details reported in the Post, they ought to be the most gourmet locusts that money can buy: "Rysavy said the company does not accept advertising and sells items online such as composting toilets, a bat conservatory made of western red cedar, and a zafu -- a large beanbag-style seat filled with natural buckwheat hulls designed to support the body while in the traditional lotus position. Gaiam DVDs are distributed by major retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart, and Rysavy estimated that the company has more than 50 percent of the market share in yoga and Pilates videos. Last year, the company reported revenue of $96.7 million."

I don't know how I feel about the composting toilets -- my environmental sensibilities might need to reconcile themselves with some other sensitive issues. I can safely say, however, that if you've never rested your head on a pillow stuffed with buckwheat hulls, you've never lived.

Hat Trick

New York Islanders owner Charles Wang wants to build an office complex on the site of the Nassau Coliseum, and is prepared to renovate the arena and keep the hockey team there until 2025. The star attraction of the building site would be a 60-story tower called "the Lighthouse."

County legislators are well aware of this, Newsday reported , having received e-mails seeking their support -- every 10 seconds in batches of 100.

They're not happy, the paper said: "'No one appreciates getting spammed,' said Legis. Lisanne Altmann (D-Great Neck). 'This is legislative junk mail as far as I'm concerned.' Worse, lawmakers say, much of the e-mail is coming from people outside Nassau County -- from Staten Island, Brooklyn and Suffolk."

So who's doing it? Ask the Islanders fans: "'They send you a free hat if you sign up,' said Angelo Tedesco, a Ronkonkoma hockey fan who e-mailed legislators. The Islanders Web site offers free hats to fans who e-mail their support of the Lighthouse project, he explained, speculating that legislators had been deluged because the Islanders made a big trade on Wednesday. 'Everyone went to the Web page, saw the free hat offer and went for it.'"

Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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