Ave Atque Vale IBM PCs

In 1987, IBM’s chairman, John Akers, made the strange comment at an industry conference in San Francisco that IBM would not participate in any “commodity” businesses.” I was the news editor at PC Week at the time and we took the statement as an indication that Big Blue was getting tired of the PC business. Trying to get Akers to clarify his statement was difficult as relations with PC Week and IBM were pretty strained – all of the time – and we were in their doghouse for reporting their decision to scrap the clone-killing “MicroChannel” bus to return to the industry standard preferred by corporate customers with big investments in third-party expansion cards.

The news this morning on the front page of the New York Times that IBM is seeking a buyer of its PC and laptop business is an interesting coda to the most significant three decades in the history of technology. The company’s decision to create an “open-architecture” machine in its rush to enter the market for PCs in the early 80s let the genie out of the bottle forever, creating an immense gold rush of cloners, independent software publishers, and add-on makers that transformed the world as we know it. Watching poor IBM try to stuff that genie back into the model through FUD, architecture shifts, and occasional stabs at litigation was a great spectator sport from the vantage point of PC Week.

My colleague at the time, Jim Forbes, who went on to host DemoMobile, and is now fishing away his retirement in San Diego, made the prescient comment that PCs were turning into toasters, and it was time to find another line of work than writing about them. “PC Week is going to turn into ToasterWeek,” he said.

Well, PC Week turned into E-Week and IBM is throwing in the towel. I can’t help but feel old and nostalgic. Gone are the days when the world got truly excited about new machines coming out of IBM’s labs. It’s impossible to convey the excitement that was stirred up when IBM released the 16-bit AT, the 32-bit 386, and the drama that followed as Compaq and Dell tried to match the state of the art with their own clones.

Now the machines are indeed toasters. The moral of the story is buried somewhere in the strategy of standards. The Mac is still a closed standard, and while the cuddly machines may deliver better margins to Apple, they are still fringe boxes, as fringe as they were twenty years ago. Compaq is gone. Gateway is moribund, and only the manufacturing geniuses at Dell are significant players. IBM, in making the decision through the late Don Estridge to “open the box”, to use a non-IBM microprocessor (Intel), a non-IBM OS (DOS), and to permit the great big world to develop applications and hardware with no royalties or penalties was one that transformed the world forever.

Standards always win, closed architectures don’t. Walking the tightrope between open but profitable is, at the end, the secret to success in technology.

Municipal Wi-Fi

Today’s WSJ reports efforts by the telcos to block municipal plans to offer Wi-Fi to their citizens in Pennsylvania. Verizon lobbied the legislature to block attempts by cities to offer free Wi-Fi.

My thinking on telco stupidity and avarice was formed by Charles Ferguson’s excellent polemic, “The Broadband Problem: Anatomy of a Market Failure and a Policy Dilemma “.

Ferguson, former CEO of Vermeer, the company that developed Frontpage, a WYSIWIG HTML editor acquired by Microsoft, is a research fellow at the Brookings Institute. I highly recommend the book.

While the role of municipal governments in granting utility monopolies to cable companies was hashed out in the 1980s — essentially awarding a town or city to a single provider to cut down on infrastructure disruption — Wi-Fi doesn’t involve ComCast trucks hanging devices off of utility poles, provides broadband to the masses in the spirit of POTS for all, and if anything, will goad the lazy Verizons of the world to get off their dark-fiber asses and start eating their profitable T-1 businesses.

I’m all in favor of broadband at all costs, especially in rural areas where broadband is every bit as much of an economic development incentive as roads without potholes. While I rather see the private marketplace do its economic magic, the cozy relationship between the Telcos and public utility commissions insures we’ll never see true free market capitalism at work.

Halo 2 Ships, Teen Productivity to Plummet

There was some after-school drama around the Churbuck household yesterday afternoon, the official ship date of Halo 2, the second version of the first-person X-Box shooter which has dominated the minds of my two sons for the past two years.

Having pre-ordered via Amazon the long delayed second version of the game for the two over a year ago, I have been receiving shipment updates, not from Amazon or the game’s developer – Bungie – but from my ten year-old who has been anticipating the game with the impatient anxiety that used to be reserved for Christmas. His reaction yesterday, the first official day the game was available, when he learned the game had not arrived in the daily mail was on the order of magnitude one would expect from the accidental amputation of a limb or the death of the hamster.

The eldest has already declared that he intends to shut the blinds and eschew college applications and all school work until he dominates the game and explores all of its dark corners. The two natter on at the dinner table about rumored new weapons, aliens, battle tactics and plots like CIA analysts going over satellite photographs.

The USPS package tracking site has been refreshed with the invoice number about a thousand times over the past 12 hours. The news that the disc has left Springfield, Massachusetts and is somewhere on the Massachusetts Turnpike, on its way to Cape Cod, was the cause of more teeth grinding this morning, with demands that if it does not appear in the Cotuit post office by the end of the school day that I will drive to the local game merchant and part with another $50 to get a copy into their sweaty palms by nightfall, before the commencement of tomorrow’s school holiday (Veteran’s Day).

I can find no historical parallels of anticipation and anxiety in my own adolescence. No movie, book, comic, or other entertainment event ever worked me into as much of a lather as this single game has foamed up my sons.

Anyone who has questions about the future of media and entertainment needs to understand the joys of walking around in a virtual world with a rocket launcher and blasting the stuffing out of a virtual sibling while screaming smack-talk.

Spam Ruminations

The conviction of two North Carolina brothers for spamming AOL users with a fraudulent “FedEx Return Processing” work-at-home scheme is welcome news. The sentence, which includes jail time, was decried by the spammer’s attorney as cruel and unusual, but may serve as the head on a pike for other would be e-morons.

The legal process is serving up a few prosecutions but according to Techweb, Can-Spam isn’t doing the job, citing data by MX Logic that compliance in July fell to less than one percent. Unlike the Do Not Call registry — which is turning into a more accurate representation of Americans than the Census — Can-Spam and various state initiatives to put the lid on spam are fighting the Sisyphean reality that most spam has, or will, move offshore.

The Russian lonely-hearts scam described in Tuesday’s New York Times is a classic.

For the past year I’ve subscribed to a spam filtering service called MessageFire which acts as a POP3 go-between. The service is remarkably good at nailing most spam, but is now commercially unavailable to new consumer subscribers following an acquisition that positions the product as a corporate solution. Still, it can’t filter image-spam – which for the most part is HTML-formatted GIFs of people bumping uglies.

The point of all this is that the arm of the law and the arms race of technology are never going to have an impact on spam. What will turn the tide in favor of the consumer is their rejection – as resoundingly ratified by the embrace of the Do Not Call Registry – of intrusive marketing tactics. Marketers who continue to view pop-ups, pop-unders, telemarketing, junk mail, and spam as statistical shotguns are doomed. Publishers who host such crap, who underestimate the intelligence of their audience, are condemned to irrelevance.

VC off sharply in New England

The Boston Globe reports
on the third-quarter MoneyTree survey of national venture capital activity that the region had a steep drop in venture financing in the third quarter: down 57% from the second quarter, compared to a national decline of 26%.

Divining the reasons is difficult as the summer quarter is traditionally the slowest for v.c. activity in any region. The question is what is driving the region so much lower than the rest of the country? My sense is that IT investment opportunities – the traditional bedrock of the region – have all but dried up. If the early 90s were driven by networking startups founded by displaced minicomputer engineering talent tossed on the street by the extinction of the dinosaurs at DEC, Wang, Data General, et al – Stratacom, Chipcom, etc. – the early part of this decade hasn’t seen the talent spinoffs expected from the region’s early strengths in search services. Alta Vista and Lycos in particular did not cast off much of a halo effect, and the dot.com froth seemed particularly harsh up in Andover as CMGI flailed through its last stages as an investment holding company before being reborn under George McMillan out of the ashes of an incubator into a focus on supply chain management via SalesLink.

The VCs in the region have traditionally been the more sober members of the species, exemplified by firms such as Charles River Ventures which steered clear of the dot.coms and focused on companies such as Parametric. I sense that with a lot of overhang from uninvested funds, the region’s VCs are following two strategies: one, if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything; and second, if you can’t spend what you have, don’t raise more.

The transition from an IT/software technology economy to the life sciences is the big regional story. Lifesciences startup salaries are the highest in the nation in New England, and where the talent goes, so goeth the dollars. Indeed, as the MoneyTree survey reports, the largest percentage of the third quarter funding activity went into the life sciences.

Communities of blogs?

Can anyone point me towards a community model for “bloggers of a feather” — an umbrella community that sits over a group of bloggers with the same special interest

Here’s the scenario. For the last 9 years I’ve been running a site for saltwater fly fishermen — Reel-Time: The Internet Journal of Saltwater Fly Fishing — which began as an experiment in niche publishing focused on community. The 7,500 + users have flocked around a straight-forward threaded forum system (vBulletin) , generating a hundred postings per day.

There seems to be a good opportunity to introduce a blogging model so each can maintain their own content.

Pointer appreciated.

Another reason why I left daily journalism …

Newspapers – especially local rags – occasionally display flashes of brilliance but can be counted on to do the wrong thing every time when given the chance.

Today’s controversy over the Boston Herald running a bloody front page color photo of a dying coed, shot in the eye by a “pepper ball” during a fan riot outside of Fenway Park has sparked the usual hand wringing and reader outrage over the tabloid stooping lower than usual. Pissing on the city’s Red Sox love-fest with front-page bummer art will call on the shrieking handwringers faster than dissing the archdiocese.

Reporting on death was, for me at least, the single worst thing about being a reporter. Knocking on the door of the home of some family man killed in a car crash with the single mission of getting a photo for the story was painful enough, but doubtlessly the most ugly moment in my career was waking up a woman who’s son had been clipped and killed by a hit-and-run driver while walking home from hockey practice in the dark the night before. No one had notified her. The cops messed up. So I found myself on her door step at 6 am delivering the news.

That’s when I decided to switch from dailies to the technology trades.

PCs don’t bleed.

The general idiocy and reputation erosion of the newspaper industry has grown ever more stark as they try to blunder through their online strategies. Prohibiting deep linking, forcing useless “free” registration, and then doing their best to annoy with pop-ups and pop-unders is evidence of their conviction that somehow, somewhere, the public should and will be screwed. I fought pop-ups at a former online provider who shall go unnamed, but lost due to a moron from circulation who heard it was a great way to build print subscription at a Magazine Publisher’s Association symposium. Same employer also bought into one of the most moronic technologies ever inflicted … but that’s another story for another time.

Hey, the first duty of a free press is to turn a profit, but annoying, aggravating, shocking and disgusting the public is no way to insure one.