Once High-Flying Tech Takes Its Medicine

Large doses of humility, realism and renewal were administered at Agenda 2002, where the technology elite this week gathered to ponder the toughest tech economy ever.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Large doses of humility, realism and renewal were administered at Agenda 2002 here, where the technology elite this week gathered to ponder the toughest tech economy ever.

Agenda, which in the past set the technology direction for the coming year, has become a sober affair where attendees congratulate each other on remaining employed amid the rotten market for digital technology. But theres one thing that hasnt changed from the heady days of the past: The two-day fall affair is still held at one of the nations poshest resorts, the Phoenician.

While many of the faces are the same – Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, software industry veteran Gordon Eubanks and VC extraordinaire Vinod Khosla – the exuberance of the dot-com era and PC boom has vanished. Gabbing about stock options and the next round of funding was about as appropriate as dropping trou.

Whats more, industry movers and shakers such as Bill Gates, Andy Grove and Steve Ballmer no longer bother to show up, choosing instead to send subordinates in their place. (Video Ballmer gave a lackluster Microsoft pitch in a short clip.)

"I see it as the end of a 10-year cycle and the fall of the computer industry as the center of the universe," says Centerbeam Corp. CEO Sheldon Laube, who has attended all 15 invitation-only Agendas.

This years Agenda also marked the debut of prize-winning journalist and author Jim Fallows, who as moderator and chief interviewer scored high marks for mixing it up with guests. His predecessor, technology inventor and now venture capitalist Bob Metcalfe, was gracious in handing off the Agenda baton.

"His world view is very timely, and his questions are 10 times better than mine," Metcalfe said. "Hes not an industry nerd or pundit."

Still, Metcalfe points to the tough job Fallows has getting attendees to fork over the thousands of dollars they routinely did to attend such affairs in the past. "A lot of conferences today are in deep yogurt," he added.

The Sept. 11 tragedies came up only once on Day One of the conference when Fallows at the outset asked for a moment of silence for tech workers lost in the tragedy.

If Agenda doesnt attract the absolute elite, it still gets a pretty good crowd of movers, shakers and tech have-beens. Palm Pilot inventor and Handspring Chairman Jeff Hawkins moved and shook. But a review of the booklet listing the 350 or so attendees reveals a substantial number of individuals whose tech influence has either waned or disappeared entirely. Yes, its a very middle-aged crowd who can afford to go, absent of the younger dot-commers who no longer exist.

So what if Gates doesnt come anymore? said Paul Vais, a general partner with VC firm Apax Partners and a veteran of five Agendas. "We get too bogged down if the Forbes 400 shows up," he said. "To me this group has more influence on the economy than they did 15 years ago. This isnt about dot-coms selling dog food anymore."

In fact, Metcalfe says Agenda is all about "brain food." However, there may have been too much of it on Day One. Hawkins dissertation on the workings of the Neocortex, which was followed by Dr. Lawrence L. Weeds review of flaws in the way doctors operate, strayed from the core tech topics the assembled wanted to hear about.

"My only complaint about Agenda is that this is a bit of departure from the technology area," said Keynote Systems CEO Umang Gupta. No doubt, they want advice about how to survive in tough times.

But understand that these people would not be here if they were not optimists at heart. The long-term prognosis for information technology is good. The creators and developers just have to get through the brutal quarters that lay ahead if they plan on attending next year.

If the insiders say its bad, then how bad is it? Write me at [email protected]