Silicon Insider: Disappearing Institutions

I'm beginning to sense that we are entering a killing season for many of our biggest and most venerable institutions. They won't go easily, or even quickly, but by this time next year we will look up and realize that many of the mighty companies and organizations that seemed so dominant in our lives for so long, have suddenly become less important, less powerful, and much less vital.

These Great Deaths don't occur on any particular schedule, but they do seem to come in bunches. If they have a cycle, it doesn't match economic upturns and downturns, or elections, or even the change of generations. You just look up one day in 1965 and the icons of just a few years — Studebaker, Philco, LIFE magazine, Top of the Pops and Adlai Stevenson — just don't seem to matter any more. They just seem older, smaller, and less consequential. Now everybody seems to be talking about Ford Mustangs, the Beatles, and the Great Society.

In the last few months I've noticed a comparable tectonic shift under way. Maybe it's the consolidation of the new world after 9/11 or the pervasive use of the Web or just because we are weary of talking about the same old people and the same old things. But something important is changing. And by this time next year, I suspect, we'll look back and wonder why we ever thought of these things as so damn important.

Here are my candidates for the gods awaiting expulsion from the zeitgeist:

The Mainstream Media — Whatever your political views, it's got to be obvious that something has gone terribly wrong with the traditional press in the last year. The scandals, like that of Jayson Blair, are the least of it. Far more disturbing is the growing recognition by the general public that the mainstream media is becoming profoundly biased, not just in the coverage it gives to stories, but in the stories it chooses to cover at all.

You don't have to be GOP partisan to be profoundly disturbed by the divergence in coverage between George Bush's National Guard experience and John Kerry's service in Vietnam. And who can't dispute the obvious difference between the daily coverage of the two campaigns — especially when leading journalists admit it themselves, using the lamest of explanations?

When you can predict beforehand the spin any political or international story will take in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and most egregiously, the Los Angeles Times, something is dangerously amiss.

But even worse is the growing recognition (first exposed by the Internet) that the MSM is consciously withholding stories from us, apparently deeming certain stories too dangerous, too distracting — or most terribly, too contrary to their own world view — to reveal to us Unwashed Masses.

I've been involved with the newspaper, magazine and television businesses now for a quarter-century and I can't remember seeing anything quite like this. The press has always had an establishment bias, meaning that it typically gave short-shrift to minorities and the poor. But that was largely ignorance. This is conscious, arrogant and with a very precise goal.

Internet Access

What makes this even more chilling is that we might not have ever known about this duplicity if it hadn't been for the Internet. If the bloggers and posting sites hadn't run with the stories and driven them to the forefront of public debate, we might never have known about them.

So, ask yourself: Will you ever fully trust the mainstream media again? Will you ever again depend upon the traditional media as your sole source for any news story? Your answer will tell you a whole lot about the fate of Fourth Estate in 21st century America. We may well mark August 2004 as the date when this country's dominant media institutions abrogated their responsibility to conduct objective reporting, turned their back on the First Amendment and forever lost their hard-won place at the center of American life. And in the process they may have turned journalism over to another medium, the Internet, that has no constraints, that is driven as much by gossip as facts, and that rewards the outrageous and loud. Thanks.

The HP Way

Hewlett-Packard — It was the greatest company on earth, certainly the greatest large company. Enlightened, progressive and innovative, Hewlett-Packard was the HP Way, the most admired and imitated business philosophy in history. Even now, when you see the HP logo on a PC or a printer, you find yourself harkening back to the legendary HP instruments and calculators.

But HP isn't HP anymore. The new management of the firm, deciding that the old philosophy — the one that trusted the employees of the company to come up with the right ideas — was old and in the way, and killed the HP Way. It was, in fact, the most revolutionary business model ever attempted, which may be the real reason it was suppressed.

In its place, HP's management promised to restore the company to glory by turning it into a low-cost, mass-producer of near-commodity products. The Samsung of Silicon Valley.

You know what happened. The company's stock is down 20 percent this year. Its products are falling behind in quality surveys and being outpriced by foreign competitors. And these days, for Hewlett-Packard, the company of "Invent," the idea of an innovative new product is an Apple iPod with the HP logo slapped on it.

The Demise of Rock

Rock/Pop — The top touring acts like Aerosmith are geriatric, the cutting edge bands like Radiohead are drifting into ever-more obscure music, the most popular performers are forced into shocking behavior to camouflage music devoid of new ideas and the hottest band on Earth, Coldplay, makes (as the joke goes) rock music for people who don't like rock music. Doesn't anybody give a damn about popular music anymore?

These days pop music looks like soft core porn and sounds like Mantovani; while rock music (what little there is) is mostly recycled riffs from a decade ago. Three generations of kids hit the streets moving to an infectious beat and shouting the lines to their favorite songs. Who does that nowadays?

People have declared the death of rock now for 30 years. But this time it's different. Jazz, as it lost its cultural importance, drifted into obscurity, nostalgia and Muzak — the same thing that is happening to rock and pop today. Add to that the rise of music downloads, with their ability to let young people explore all sorts of diverse and historic avenues of recorded sound without the cost of buying complete albums — not to mention the ability to store 10,000 already recorded songs — and what incentive is left to listen to endless crappy new music in search of a single hidden gem? Rock and pop, the soundtrack of most of our lives, is heading for niche status, overrun by C&W, rap and, no doubt, something refreshingly new.

Whither Windows?

Microsoft — Microsoft is so big, so dominant and has been at the top of the electronics industry for so long that it is hard to imagine it ever losing its eminence.

But this week's announcement that "Longhorn," the long-awaited update to its Windows OS, is still two years off is a warning that Microsoft may have begun to lose its edge.

The simple fact is that nobody really likes Windows. It's old and klunky, vulnerable to hacks and viruses, and it acts like a governor on the throttle of the newest generations of high speed processors. But it's the biggest game in town and the safest buy. As people used to say about IBM, nobody ever gets fired for buying Windows.

But the comparison to Big Blue is an apt one, because IBM, like Microsoft the most dominant tech firm of its era, was eventually tripped up by bloated and uncompetitive products, growing customer frustration and the drag of legacy systems. It's not hard to see those same problems growing and festering at Microsoft.

Now Windows users are being told it will be another two years before they can even hope for an upgrade. Will they wait — especially with Linux growing more robust by the day? With Apple likely upgrading its OS twice during that time? And with Microsoft's reputation for being late on everything connected with Windows?

One thing for sure, no one seems scared about Bill Gates and Co. these days.

Michael S. Malone, once called “the Boswell of Silicon Valley,” most recently was editor-at-large of Forbes ASAP magazine. His work as the nation’s first daily high-tech reporter at the San Jose Mercury-News sparked the writing of his critically acclaimed The Big Score: The Billion Dollar Story of Silicon Valley, which went on to become a public TV series. He has written several other highly praised business books and a novel about Silicon Valley, where he was raised.

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