Silicon Insider: Bush and Technology

Mr. President-elect, when it comes to high-tech, you are missing the point. Already.

One might imagine — given that the electronics industry is America’s largest manufacturing employer, the key dynamo of all the country’s economic expansions of the last decades and about the only positive force in its international trade balance — that presidents may actually take the time to learn something about the subject.

I doubt that presidents Reagan or Bush ever knew the difference between gate arrays and Gatorade. Bill Clinton, in his usual manner, made a few empty gestures in the right direction (the White House Web site), but he never did seem to get it himself — indeed, a few well-chosen URLs might have saved him from impeachment.

Of Clinton’s two memorable gestures toward tech, NAFTA and Web-enabling the schools, the former was a GOP initiative and the latter showed he knew nothing about the digital economy.

Cluelessness Not, in Itself, a Bad Thing

Of the two candidates in the most recent, endless, election, Al Gore obviously understood tech far better than George W.

In fact, to my mind, the single most surprising image of the whole campaign (besides Al’s drunken dancing on loser night) was the cocktail napkin doodling Gore did on information technology for Red Herring magazine. Unfortunately, the doodle, like the campaign, showed that Gore got technology, but he didn’t get tech. His was the statist world of business book gurus, not the entrepreneurial reality of high tech’s mean streets.

In the end, he would have been a disaster for U.S. electronics, smothering it to death in a well-meaning regulatory embrace.

That brings us to our new president. On the campaign trail, and in the debates, George W. proved, in regards to tech, to be … well, clueless. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. After all, many veteran Silicon Valleyites would argue that the worst thing that ever happened to this town was that we got noticed by Washington. Up until then — say, 1985 — we had a pretty free run.

And that Wild West era put in place most of the structures that keep the Valley thriving to this day — in spite of Washington’s endless and usually misguided meddling.

Invited to Austin for All the Wrong Reasons

So the real question is: will Dubya listen to the right people?

And there, so far, the news isn’t good.

It’s one thing to bring in experienced veterans to fill your Cabinet. In a snake pit like D.C. the more experienced jungle fighters you have on your team the greater the likelihood of your survival.

Fortunately, it doesn’t work that way in high-tech. There, extra stripes on your sleeve are usually a liability. For proof of that, look at a list of the most important tech companies of each of the last five decades. The one thing leaps out at you is that almost no company ever makes the list twice.

In other words, if you are on top of the pile today, chances are you’ll be an also-ran tomorrow. Remember how Microsoft was going to rule the world? How Apple was going to come back and reclaim the field? How Intel was unstoppable? How Amazon was the Next Big Thing?

If you want to know where high-tech is going, never ask the current winners. They can only tell you where it’s been. Instead, seek out the hot insiders, the fast-moving newcomers, and the mavericks. And the only way to find them is to know the industry intimately.

The Way Things Were

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