Every industry has its share of falling stock prices and earnings warnings, but you can always smell blood in the computer and Internet markets when companies suddenly start shunning certain words or terms that have come to be associated with outright failure or simple fatigue.
Over the years, “push,” “portal” and “intranet,” along with terms like “application service provider” and “dot-com” – to cite but a few examples – have come to be spurned in Silicon Valley boardrooms. But at least those instances were understandable, since the terms in question had been unrelentingly hyped to begin with. Technology fads have their own laws of gravity. What gets hyped must be purged, just as surely as what goes up must come down.
But there was no such logic to the verbal sleight-of-hand employed last week as Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer strove to justify their surprise betrothal. When these two companies started referring to their bread-and-butter products not as personal computers but as “access devices,” I smelled blood.
Someone needs to point out to Carly Fiorina and Michael Capellas that a striped, odoriferous, omnivorous, mustelid smells just as bad as a skunk. But even as I sit here typing spurned words on my access device – a Compaq Armada M700 laptop, as chance would have it – I cant help wondering how such a bad smell came to be associated with the machine that in two decades has thoroughly redefined our culture and our vision of the future. What heinous sin on the part of the stalwart PC now prompts Simon Peter denials from two companies that built legendary fortunes making and selling personal computers?
“Access” is not a feature newly associated with the personal computer. Even 19 years ago, at the dawn of the PC era, it was clear that access was among the brightest promises of this device. When Time magazine named the PC its Man of the Year in 1982, it quoted then-Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kresiky observing, “What networks of railroads, highways and canals were in another age, networks of telecommunications, information and computerization are today.”
In defense of Fiorina and Capellas, an argument can be made for defining a category of network node that goes well beyond personal computers. But gush as you might about the loudly prophesied post-PC era and visions of high-speed, wireless Internet appliances, right now – and for the foreseeable future – the “access device” category consists almost entirely of PCs. The network is proving to be a stubbornly slow, often unreliable platform, which is why we so often process words, crunch numbers, design graphics and perform myriad other tasks on an isolated device that spends much of its time – and realizes much of its value – accessing nothing beyond its own hard drive.
That will almost certainly change, which is why Fiorina seemed much smarter last month as she stumped the country telling industry groups, lawmakers and anyone else who would listen that the technology sector would never again flourish until bandwidth roadblocks were removed. That assertion is perfectly logical. As the network becomes the computer, bandwidth increasingly defines the processing and bus speeds of the PC. But todays reality is a dial-up world in which constant improvements by the likes of Advanced Micro Devices, IBM and Intel in chip design and bus architecture are increasingly marginalized – a disaster in a market built on planned, even accelerated, obsolescence. The industry needs ubiquitous broadband now. Instead, it finds itself held hostage by the Bells.
But redefining the utility of the PC by focusing only on its capacity to access information over a network is ridiculous. The personal computer is not a thin client. It is not a dumb terminal. Contrary to the blathering of Wall Street analysts, it is a richly versatile tool that will be with us for a long, long time. Instead of running from this legacy, HP would do well to embrace it – especially at the very moment when Microsoft is releasing Windows XP, a vastly more stable operating system that requires 2 gigabytes of disk space, gobs of memory and fast processing speeds.
Carly, Michael – get a clue. Whatever your fantasies about the service market, whatever the promise of your server business, you will begin your marriage as the worlds largest PC company. You will succeed only through management savvy and product design that emphasizes quality, innovation and imagination. Running from your nature and your heritage is a sure recipe for failure.