THE SILICON BOYS
And Their Valley of Dreams
By David A. Kaplan
Morrow. 358 pp. $27
I'm willing to grant David Kaplan this: It would be hard to write a book about the entrepreneurs largely responsible for the computer revolution without resorting to smirky hyperbole about the amount of money they've been making. One would have to have lived under a rock for the better part of the past 15 years not to have had it drummed into his or her head that the chip-makers and code-bashers out West were getting obscenely, mind-bogglingly, description-beggaringly rich. Were Andrew Carnegie around today, he couldn't be a towel boy in Bill Gates's pool cabana.
All true, and yet one could wish that the author of "The Silicon Boys and Their Valley of Dreams" had chosen a slightly less Robin Leachlike way to enter his material. Ultimately, no matter how much the honchos in Silicon Valley may be spending on houses or cars or helicopters or ostrich sausage, what's really interesting about the tech boom is the steak, not the sizzle.
Not that the steak isn't in Kaplan's book. Indeed, once he stops going all goggle-eyed at the tech lords' nouveau-riche excesses, he has a very intriguing story to tell. He captures Silicon Valley and states his thesis nicely: "In this tightly packed terrain, overrun by ugly, low-slung tilt-ups, it's no wonder that so much business gets done. . . . If you mix together obsessed engineers and venture capitalists flush with billions to invest, along with real-estate developers, marketers, and public-relations specialists, how can this Brownian motion . . . help but form a new company or two?" How indeed? And more important, how did all these ingredients come so fortuitously together in the first place?
To answer those questions, Kaplan provides a brief history of Silicon Valley's peculiar culture, showing how a critical mass of gearheads gradually accreted around the nucleus provided by Stanford University's engineering labs, at last starting the technological chain reaction that produced the transistor, then the integrated circuit and finally the microprocessor that made the personal computer possible and the communications revolution all but inevitable. Kaplan traces the peregrinations of most of the engineers who had a hand in touching off the reaction with their hardware innovations, and of prominent players in the second and third entrepreneurial generations who hotted the reaction up by tying in the Internet, then writing the software that keeps everything perking along.
The author really hits his stride when he describes the mare's-nest of interwoven relationships that combine (and recombine) to make a typical Silicon Valley start-up run: Starry-eyed hardware type or code-cruncher meets venture capitalist meets management team, the assignation (at least 25 percent of the time) producing a multimillion-dollar--and sometimes multibillion-dollar--business. For instance: Kaplan tells how Arthur Rock, one of the Valley's first money men, put together the funding package that started Fairchild Semiconductors, the first successful integrated circuit maker, and then presided at the formation of its progeny-by-management-defection, Intel. He was also at the table--ironically, in an Intel staff meeting--when Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak made the presentation that won them the investor dollars to launch the Apple II, the machine that first made computing really personal. Another tidbit: For all the counterculture posturing of master-marketer Jobs, the Apple II might not have gotten so far so fast without a large infusion of cash from a very familiar old-money name: the Rockefellers.
By presenting the true lineages of present-day monoliths that had their beginning as lowly garage ventures, Kaplan lets some of the hot air out of the lone-hacker-
with-a-great-idea paradigm of tech success that has gotten so firmly fixed in the public mind. He shows that even mavericks like Steve Jobs and Oracle's Lawrence Ellison wouldn't have gotten where they are without others' shoulders to stand upon or others' idea banks to steal from.
Idea thievery is one of the dirty secrets of Silicon Valley success, a fact that Kaplan chronicles well: Fairchild from Bell Labs, Intel from Fairchild, Apple from Xerox, Oracle from IBM, Bill Gates (his Borg cube casting an inky shadow into the Valley from its Redmond, Wash., mooring) from nearly everyone. Kaplan captures this cheerfully blatant buccaneer spirit when he quotes Jobs quoting Picasso: "Good artists copy; great artists steal." The larceny doesn't stop with ideas but extends to personnel as well: It seems that venture capitalists are not above dumpster-diving for personnel records at already thriving companies when they're trying to put together talent for start-ups. It's not for nothing that the Valley's bankrollers are also known as "velociraptors" there.
Kaplan devotes much of the final third of his book to relating the cautionary tale of the Web browser war that sprang up inevitably between Netscape and Microsoft, the richest company in the history of the world. Anyone who has paid even passing attention to the business pages knows the outcome: Netscape effectively cried uncle, and has since become a part of AOL. Reading the details is nonetheless fascinating, in the way that watching a python consume a calf might be.
With material this inherently interesting--and the drama of a high-tech industry continuing to unfold in eye-popping ways--it would be hard for a writer of even modest parts to produce a bad book. Kaplan has the chops, and--his occasionally overheated prose and excursions into lifestyle voyeurism notwithstanding--he does not fail. As I finished reading "The Silicon Boys," I had a feeling that I suspect is common in Silicon Valley among those forced to watch as yet another fiscal rocket ascends into the cloudless California sky without them aboard. I wish I'd thought of doing it first.