Even in the famous Route 128 technology belt, this area only partly resembles California's Silicon Valley. Some of the most important technology companies here are minicomputer manufacturers, or so-called systems houses.
For them, customer service -- rather than keeping abreast of the latest technological changes -- is usually the top priority.
"For good, obvious reasons, building the next better mousetrap is often the most important consideration in Silicon Valley," said Tom West, the vice president of systems development at Data General Corp. and one of the people spotlighted in the "The Soul of a New Machine," the best-seller that documented Data General's efforts to build its first 32-byte minicomputer.
"Systems companies like ours are managed for a somewhat longer-term payback."
It's natural to compare the two technology centers at opposite ends of the country, which are alike on one hand and different on the other. There are about 152,000 electronics manufacturing jobs here compared with about 205,000 in Silicon Valley. An additional 25,000 jobs exist in programming and software development compared with fewer than 6,000 in Santa Clara County.
Both areas have been in the vanguard of development of interrelated industries that have stimulated the growth of the American economy at a time when the smokestack sectors have been waning. Each has attracted a substantial share of venture capital and built its own venture capital community to transform ideas into products and jobs.
And each area can credit its evolution as a technology center to the existence of a first-rate engineering school -- the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and Stanford University in Stanford.
On both coasts, success also has been accompanied by some of the same problems. The slowdown in technology has caused layoffs in the Boston area similar to those that have plagued Silicon Valley. In April, for example, Computervision Corp., a Bedford manufacturer of equipment for computer-aided design and manufacturing, laid off 950 employes.
Meanwhile, skyrocketing housing prices around Boston rapidly are approaching Santa Clara County's infamous levels. Prices soared more than 20 percent in 1984 alone, which means that a modest house in a Rte. 128 suburb like Lexington usually can cost $150,000.
Moreover, the fierce pace and chronic change common in technology companies have taken a familiar toll on the personal lives of workers along Route 128. Social workers and psychologists say that the technology industry breeds the highest divorce rate, partly because one spouse finds it hard to relate to the workaholic ways of the other. Workplace turmoil alone is a problem.
"Organizations are changing at a faster pace than people can assimilate," said Joel Siegel, a clinical social worker in Chelmsford. "We constantly hear about people who get two to three new job titles in one year. The name of the game is change, and that creates a feeling that nothing is solid."
Yet for all the similarities between the Boston area and Silicon Valley, the differences may be even more striking.
For one thing, the economy here is even stronger. The unemployment rate in the metropolitan area is less than 4 percent -- compared with about 5 percent in Silicon Valley -- and jobs of every stripe are abundant. Buildings have been popping up steadily downtown and in the suburbs, and the crush of weekday traffic easily rivals the jammed freeways of Silicon Valley.
Moreover, there is much more to the Boston-area economy than high technology. This is the financial hub of New England, a mecca of higher education, a major government employment center and a burgeoning market for wholesale and retail trade. High technology, which is credited with turning around an economy that nearly was moribund 10 years ago, has restored the vigor in other sectors.
In 1975, Massachusetts had an unemployment rate of 11.2 percent, highest among the nation's 11 major industrial states. Last year, the Massachusetts jobless rate averaged 4.8 percent, the lowest among key industrial states. California, by contrast, had an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent.
"High technology has completely rebuilt this area's manufacturing sector," said James Howell, the chief economist of Bank of Boston.
Such a comment would be meaningless in Santa Clara County, where virtually no factories existed before the eruption of semiconductor fabrication plants and other low-rise technology facilities.
"When I think of Silicon Valley, I think of people who view high technology with a religious ferver," said Jonathan Rotenberg, the 22-year-old president of The Boston Computer Society, a PC user group with 16,000 members.
"Some of that is true here, too, but much less so. In Boston, there's a great deal of history and a variety of cultural roots that shape people's view of the world. There was nothing in Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley except for orchards."
Indeed, character and diversity ooze throughout the Boston area. There are the stately halls of Harvard and the majestic brownstones on Storrow Drive, plus historical sections of town that highlight Paul Revere's ride. And there are the Bostonians themselves, famous for their Yankee individuality, unique accents and the erratic way they drive.
The differences between metropolitan Boston and Silicon Valley are just as significant in the high-technology arena.
Many of the biggest corporations in Boston are minicomputer companies such as Digital Equipment Corp. and Data General, not manufacturers of components such as semiconductors and disk drives. Venture capitalists are more conservative about how they invest their money, and high-technology employes are far less likely to skip from one job to the next.
Unlike Silicon Valley, business forecasts -- even in the best of times -- tend to reflect Yankee sobriety.
It is the younger people here who seem to sense this difference the most. "Silicon Valley is one of the favorite destinations among our students," said Robert Weatherall, MIT's director of placement. "That's where there are so many startups -- and the chance to really make money. That entrepreneurial spirit is exciting."
Some of Boston's relatively subdued nature can be attributed to its base of minicomputer companies. The reasoning isn't entirely valid because Silicon Valley has its share of systems companies, too, including Apple Computer Inc. and Tandem Computers Inc., both of Cupertino, Amdahl Corp. of Sunnyvale and Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto. Still, the notion of putting customer service first surfaces time and time again in metropolitan Boston.
Despite the technological sophistication of its products, Apollo Computer Inc., a highly successful, Chelmsford-based manufacturer of powerful desktop work stations for engineers, boasts as much about its service network as anything else.
"Apollo is a technological leader, but we're also extremely concerned about the useability of our equipment in real-world situations," said David Nelson, Apollo's vice president of research and development. "That keeps us close to our user base and very knowledgeable about applications."
In any case, there's little question that business here is transacted more conservatively.
TA Associates, a major venture capital firm, places far more money in companies that have been in existence for two to four years than it does in startups. "The management team has already proven itself to some extent, so there isn't as much risk," said Jacqueline Morby, a general partner who recently moved to the firm's Palo Alto office.
"If you do a lot of startups, you have to face the fact that a lot of them will go out of business," Morby said.
TA Associates also typifies another trend common among Boston venture capital firms: They're usually run by people with financial backgrounds, not by engineers with management experience at technology companies. Morby, for example, went into the business after obtaining an MBA in finance at Simmons College.
This, too, is reflected in the types of investments that are made. Like most East Coast venture capital firms, TA Associates doesn't consider itself a backstop for a troubled firm in which it has invested.
"If a company gets into trouble, we don't want to think that we can go in and solve their problems," Morby said. "We're not interested in a couple of engineers with good ideas."
The conservative mindset also is reflected in the technology workplace. George Rossi, a high-tech specialist in the Boston office of Heidrick and Struggles, an executive search firm, said technology professionals don't like to bolt from one company to the next.
"People rarely leave one company for another because of dollars and cents," Rossi said. "There is more of a commitment here to your company, its products and the project you're working on. People in Boston are a lot more interested in security."
Other headhunters agree that job movement is more restricted, although they question how much of this reflects attitudes rather than opportunities. "In Silicon Valley, you might have eight or nine companies in one business park doing practically the same thing," said Robert Kleven, the president of a Lexington-based search firm bearing his name.
"I hear that people work back and forth between these companies during their lunch hours. You just don't see that sort of thing here. We have business parks, but rarely do you have more than two head-to-head competitors right across the street from each other."
Still, it seems that Yankee practicality might rule no matter how many companies overflowed business parks. Taking big risks just isn't part of the culture. High tech slumped badly here in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, and Bostonians know that bad times can arise again. The recent spate of layoffs could be an omen of just that.
One pessimist is William Zachmann, the vice president of research at International Data Corp., a major high-tech market research firm in Framingham. He believes that the information-processing industry could suffer flat or declining revenues for the next two or three years.
"I'm not saying that the party is over, but it has probably passed its peak for awhile," Zachmann said.