Gossip Columnist to the Nerds : Digging Up the Digital Dirt in Silicon Valley with Robert X. Cringely

Tom McNichol is a San Francisco-based writer. His last article for the magazine was "The Gospel Truth," about the search for the historical Jesus

The cursor on the computer screen pulsates like a racing heartbeat as Robert X. Cringely, gossip columnist to Silicon Valley, searches expectantly for a hot tip. Cringely's office at InfoWorld, the PC trade publication where his weekly "Notes From the Field" column appears, is really a giant nerve center. Most days, he receives about 30 e-mail messages, a dozen faxes and letters and two dozen voice-mail messages from assorted techno-weenies imparting confidential details about a product, embarrassing behavior by management or a juicy tidbit about a competitor. Today, it's inside information about Microsoft's upcoming version of Windows, code-named "Chicago"; tomorrow it will be word that a poorly designed piece of Apple software can send your fax to the wrong person.

Cringely is Silicon Valley's Father Confessor, but he definitely hasn't taken a vow of confidentiality. Every week, he pans through the slurry of information that flows his way and prints the best nuggets. Cringely's work is widely praised (mostly by computer grunts), almost as widely vilified (mostly by executives), but it is seldom ignored by those in the industry. "His stuff is wonderfully cranky and irreverent, which I think Silicon Valley deserves," says management guru Tom Peters.

The notion that this industry could spawn a gossip columnist may seem strange at first. But inside information is the grease that lubricates the entire computer business. Like politics and the entertainment industry, high-tech companies are in the business of selling what is essentially vapor. In all three industries, big promises are made ("No new taxes!" " 'Last Action Hero' is Schwarzenegger's best!" "This is the last software upgrade you'll ever need!") that often don't live up to their advance billing. That's where Robert X. Cringely, the digital Liz Smith, comes in.

Cringely isn't his real name, but it might as well be. During the seven years he's written the column, the 41-year old former foreign correspondent and Stanford professor, who came to work at InfoWorld because he needed the cash, has become Bob Cringely. Many times, even he can't tell the difference. "I'm a method journalist," Cringely says. "I sit down at my desk and I become Bob. My life is like the movie 'Groundhog Day.' I go to sleep and wake up and I'm Bob again. Bob has his own phone line and whenever I answer it, I'm Bob. I have people I've talked to every day for seven years as Bob."

Cringely is more than merely a cyber-gossip, a repeater of tales told out of school. He's a keen observer of the computer world, bringing a sense of humor and perspective to an industry that's sorely lacking in both. By being technically savvy enough to understand the world of computer nerds while not quite being clever enough to threaten them, he has managed to access the inner workings of the industry.

With computer magazines now one of the hottest fields in publishing, Cringely is not without competition: John C. Dvorak writes for several magazines and a pseudonymous Spencer F. Katt pens a "Rumor Central" column for PC Week. But Cringely's incisiveness and subversive humor have made him the columnist computer people turn to first.

Cringely portrays himself as a kind of Information Age Philip Marlowe, rooting out the shadowy mysteries of Silicon Valley. Every column contains two or three exclusive news items about a product not living up to its billing, surrounded by a running serial of his life, loves and battles with the barons of the computer world.

His lack of reverence for the industry's giants is neatly summarized by the title of his 1992 book, "Accidental Empires--How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date." To Cringely's heretical way of thinking, the computer industry happened more or less by accident, the people who made it happen were amateurs and, for the most part, still are. Cringely has his pudgy finger on the throbbing pulse of Silicon Valley, where the winners download giga-bucks and the losers stare at a taunting message that forever flashes across their computer screens: Abort? Retry? Ignore?

WE'RE WITH BOB IN A GARAGE IN PALO ALTO NOW, ON ONE OF HIS many field trips to the future of Silicon Valley. There aren't any cars in the garage, just five computers sitting on an L-shaped table. Bob's here to take a test drive of a new software program developed by six Stanford University graduates, three of whom live in the adjoining house. To picture the space, think back to the group house you shared with your friends after high school--the vacant refrigerator, the tumbleweed-sized dust balls, the cloth sofa that gave off a cloud of dust every time someone sat on it. But instead of using this space to throw keg parties, the six Stanford grads pooled $15,000 of their own venture capital and went into the garage to develop a new piece of software that searches databases more efficiently than anything now on the market.

Joe Kraus and Graham Spencer, two of the young Stanford whizzes, sit Cringely down in front of a computer and begin to demonstrate the new software designed by their firm, Architext. Kraus is president of the fledgling operation, which is why he's the only one wearing a tie. Spencer is the main software designer, which is why he's wearing a scratchy wool shirt with a white undershirt peeking underneath.

The program they've come up with basically allows users to navigate very efficiently through large databases. Imagine you've been assigned by your company to find out about trade policy in Singapore. In a conventional database search, this can be a very time-consuming chore. If you type in the word "Singapore" in a database containing recent newspapers, magazines and trade journals, you're likely to get back a mammoth list of stories about Michael Fay being caned--interesting, but unlikely to please your boss. You could narrow your search by typing in "Singapore/trade policy/United States," but you'd still get back too many stories and only those that contained those specific words. The Architext program allows you to simply type in "trade policy in Singapore" and get back a compact list of citations, even those that don't contain the same words as your query. Among human endeavors, this may not rank with the development of the polio vaccine, but thousands of companies are desperate for tools to make sense of the wealth of information they can get electronically.

"Right now, we have information overload," says Cringely. "We have instant access to everything, which means we have insight into nothing. The trick is, how do you extract knowledge from all that information? Those are the tools we need to take the next step in computing."

Cringely is impressed with Architext, and even more so with the practicality of the Stanford whizzes. He hears from garage entrepreneurs all the time, many of whom don't have a very strong real-world orientation. Cringely knows one tinkerer who claims to have developed a superior computer architecture that unfortunately involves throwing out everything that's been invented up until now. But the six Stanford grads, running on rice, beans and moxie, have come up with a practical product that's already attracted the interest of several companies. They are now trying to persuade four large firms to invest in their software,

It's this adolescent enthusiasm that Cringely believes is America's secret weapon in world trade, particularly against the Japanese. The first generation of computer hackers, of which Bill Gates and Apple's Steve Wozniak are the most famous examples, were socially inept nerds who didn't conform to the usual teen-age standards of masculinity and coolness. Their solution was to create a new world in which they set the standards. The 1990s version of the young computer wizard is somewhat more interested in making money than impressing his peers, but shares much of the same "I'll show them" adolescent defiance. This, Cringely says, puts the Japanese, who place a premium on conformity and teamwork, at a considerable disadvantage. The Japanese may have more efficient workers, but we've got better geeks.

When the Architext demonstration is over, we depart through the kitchen, passing a 50-pound bag of California white rice. "It's almost empty," one of the wizards says ruefully.

Cringely gets in his car and heads north on 101, back to his office in San Mateo. As we pass through bedroom communities that owe their existence to tiny wafers of silicon, he reflects on prospects facing the valley's newest players. "The move out of the garage will be more wrenching than they expect," says Cringely. "And there will come a day when Joe, the guy with the tie, finds out he's not the head business guy any more. But that's two years down the line. These guys are going to do just fine."

WHEN CRINGELY RETURNS TO HIS OFFICE, AN EAGER INFORMANT is cooling his heels at reception. The publisher of a national telephone directory on CD-ROM has shown up with news about one of his competitors. Needless to say, the news is not good. According to the tipster, his competitor's product has been dropped by several software distributors because of faulty data. And not only that, the product claims to have 80 million phone listings when it really only has 69 million. Cringely jots down the information without committing himself to anything.

"Well, there's nothing earth-shattering there," he says after the tipster leaves. "False advertising is the norm in the computer business. You always see features advertised on the box that aren't in the product. They used to put black tape over the features they took out, but they don't do that anymore because they think it looks tacky. Honesty is tacky. I like that."

Cringely assiduously cultivates his sources, which sometimes involves laying down a fine layer of manure. By feigning interest in even the most inconsequential tip, he lays the groundwork for the source to bear fruit later. Someone in the product support division of a large computer company recently e-mailed Cringely with news that former California Gov. Jerry Brown was using an NCR Safari notebook, and not only that--he had just ordered new batteries! Cringely messaged back and said, uh, thanks, keep me in mind if you come across anything else interesting.

"So the guy comes back a few days later with this e-mail message," smiles Cringely, calling up a large document on his computer. "It's a history of all of the products his company produces, what works and what doesn't. And it's signed "Deep Throat.' " They always sign it Deep Throat.

He says his informants generally fall into three categories. Some are proud of their product but are afraid that it won't be marketed correctly, or at all. Another group is genuinely ashamed of a shoddy product they've worked on and want to warn customers away from it. And a third spills the beans out of sheer defiance of authority. Cringely twice received a file containing all of Apple's products for the next two years from an employee who was peeved at senior management. He and other InfoWorld staffers used the information in a series of stories about the new line.

Cringely takes pains to keep his true identity a secret, but it's more to build up the character's mystique than to protect his flow of information. The man behind the Cringely mask looks a little like Clark Kent, a self-described "pasty white boy" with thick glasses and gray-flecked hair. He attended the College of Wooster in Ohio, worked for the town newspaper and, for lack of a better idea after graduation, became a free-lance foreign correspondent for more than a dozen daily papers, reporting from trouble spots in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Beirut and Africa. He interviewed Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and noticed the slavish cult of personality that surrounded him, which Cringely says helped him understand Bill Gates and his operation at Microsoft.

He moved to Northern California in 1977 to attend Stanford, where he received a Ph.D in public affairs communication. He remained at Stanford until 1983 as an assistant professor of journalism and immersed himself in Silicon Valley's emerging computer culture. He went to meetings of the Homebrew Computer Club, an organization of techno-geeks, where Steve Wozniak unveiled what would become the first Apple computer.

Cringely joined InfoWorld as a reporter/editor, but it wasn't until the gossip columnist position opened up in 1987 that his cyber-destiny was fulfilled. Two other InfoWorld journalists had written briefly under the Cringely name, but didn't exploit the character's potential the way the third Cringely would. Seven years into the enterprise, Cringely Version 3.0 has built an Accidental Empire of his own. His book about Silicon Valley has been published in England and Japan and made it into a paperback edition in America. Cringely makes periodic speaking engagements, recently addressing a roomful of appreciative engineers at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington, D.C. In addition to his weekly InfoWorld column, Cringely's musings appear on eWorld, Apple Computer's new on-line service and he will host a handful of shows next year on PBS.

Slipping in and out of the Cringely persona has its advantages. "When something goes wrong, Bob Cringely takes the blame," says "Cringely," momentarily stepping out of character. "I just let it roll off. I'm actually kind of a sensitive guy. When I make mistakes--and I sometimes do--I feel horrible." Cringely says he's a softy at heart, and besides, all the mean things he says about the computer industry are true.

But there are those who believe Cringely himself could stand a lesson in the truth. Some in the Silicon Valley are convinced that Cringely's liveliest anecdotes are distortions, if not downright fabrications. One such story that appeared in Cringely's book involves Bill Gates, presented to underscore the Microsoft founder's arrogance. Gates had just demonstrated a new Microsoft product in Ann Arbor when, according to Cringely and his sources, he decided he still had a few things left to prove. Gates, a little drunk at the time, Cringely says, sat in the passenger seat while a companion drove him around the town. Suddenly, Gates commanded the car to stop alongside a group of young blacks standing at a corner. Cringely picks up the story in his book:

"What's happening!" the pencil-necked billionaire cheerfully greeted the assembled boom boxers, who had clearly no idea who or what he was--this bespectacled white boy with greasy blond hair and bratwurst skin, wearing a blue and white plaid polyester shirt and green pullover sweater.

"Bill, let's go someplace else," called Gates' companion from the driver's seat.

"Yeah, Bill, go someplace else," said one of the young blacks.

"Nah, I want to rap. I can talk to these guys, you'll see!"

Gates has said he has no memory of the incident, and his companion in the car, Laurie Flynn, a free-lance computer columnist for the New York Times, says Cringely's account is greatly exaggerated. Gates may have exchanged a few words with someone as he got into the car, Flynn says, but there wasn't any prolonged confrontation or insistence on wanting "to rap."

"I thought (Cringely's) book was brilliant, but I don't think he's afraid to twist anecdotes to make a point," Flynn says. (Flynn, incidentally, was the second of three journalists to have written InfoWorld's gossip column under the Cringely pseudonym.)

Cringely stands behind the story as well as his other caustic characterizations--that Lotus founder Mitch Kapor is guilt-ridden because of his success, that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is an insecure, narcissistic totalitarian and that Microsoft is a frat house that feeds on its young.

"Most of the people who are angry are unhappy about being characterized," says Cringely. "They can't stand the fact that I try to explain the motivation behind their actions."

Perhaps it's fair to say that Cringely sometimes sacrifices accuracy in pursuit of larger truths. He's not the computer industry's Boswell--he's more its Aesop, spinning tales with a moral. "His isn't the official picture of the valley," offers Tom Peters. "But people there tend to take themselves a little too seriously."

CRINGELY'S SKIN STARTS TO take on an iridescent glow after a day in front of a computer, so he welcomes an opportunity to get out of the office. We hop in the Cringemobile and head for Sunnyvale, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley, on another field trip.

We stop at Pacific Data Images, a leading computer graphics company. PDI is responsible for many computer-generated special effects seen in movies and on television--the animated "scrubbing bubbles" that whisk your bathtub clean, the "Monday Night Football" opening in which two helmets crash together and explode and the 1993 Bud Bowl. Who says America has lost its competitive edge?

PDI's facility consists of a large, softly lit room divided into dozens of computer work stations. Enthusiasm pervades the building, as it does at companies all over the Silicon Valley. Cringely peers over the shoulder of an animator who's working on a commercial that will feature cats talking about the smell of their litter box.

Using sophisticated computer software for a cat litter commercial may seem like a frivolous application of the technology and--let's face it--it is. It might be nice to think that the information superhighway may one day allow teams of doctors in different cities to confer about a medical crisis, but don't be surprised if its primary use is delivering "Mrs. Doubtfire" on demand to millions of customers.

"It takes about 20 years for an information technology to go from being an idea in the lab to product used by millions of people," says Cringely. "So, in a sense, everything we're going to use in 10 years already exists. It's just not clear how it's going to be used."

The next stop is Woodside, where Cringely checks up on the progress of his friend, software entrepreneur Joe Adler. Adler, a short, puckish Englishman, has been hard at work launching start-up companies in the Silicon Valley. He's on the verge of launching his third business, which will offer a software package called Magic Theatre. It lets children make their own movies with music, sound effects and narration by clicking a mouse, speaking into a microphone and choosing illustrations--no keyboard is necessary. Adler refined Magic Theatre by testing it on his preschool daughter for about a year.

"Most software for children is based on the theory that there's knowledge out there that you capture on a CD-ROM and then children come along and unlock it," Adler tells Cringely. "I don't believe that at all. Knowledge is what happens in a child's mind."

Cringely's last stop is to a computer surplus store in Sunnyvale called the Weird Stuff Warehouse. Weird Stuff is where computer technology goes to die. Its musty shelves are cluttered with old computers, printers, monitors and peripherals sold to hobbyists at a fraction of their original cost. This is the computer world's graveyard, and the names on the tombstones are some of the biggest in the business--IBM, Digital, Atari, Hewlett-Packard. Bob loves this place; he's like a kid in a candy store. "Look!" he exclaims, holding a huge piece of plastic the size of an Amazon breast plate against his chest. "It's a 13 1/2-inch floppy disk! Can you believe how big this is? And it doesn't hold as much data as floppies do now that are a quarter of its size."

The computer industry's growth so far has depended on built-in obsolescence, where today's breakthrough is tomorrow's scrap. The turnover of both products and people is accelerating, but no one here seems to be looking back. No wonder Silicon Valley is so giddy about the future--it's becoming a land without a past.

"The same things happen over and over again in the computer business," says Cringely. "People in this industry have a very short institutional memory."

That's where Robert X. Cringely comes in, Silicon Valley's own memory expansion kit.

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