Accidental Empires, Part 6 -- The Airport Kid (Chapter 1c)

Sixth in a series. Serialization of Robert X. Cringely's classic Accidental Empires makes an unexpected analogy.

The Airport Kid was what they called a boy who ran errands and did odd jobs around a landing field in exchange for airplane rides and the distant prospect of learning to fly. From Lindbergh’s day on, every landing strip anywhere in America had such a kid, sometimes several, who’d caught on to the wonder of flight and wasn’t about to let go.

Technologies usually fade in popularity as they are replaced by new ways of doing things, so the lure of flight must have been awesome, because the airport kids stuck around America for generations. They finally disappeared in the 1970s, killed not by a transcendant technology but by the dismal economics of flight.

The numbers said that unless all of us were airport kids, there would not be economies of scale to make flying cheap enough for any of us. The kids would never own their means of flight. Rather than live and work in the sky, they could only hope for an occasional visit. It was the final understanding of this truth that killed their dream.

When I came to California in 1977, I literally bumped into the Silicon Valley equivalent of the airport kids. They were teenagers, mad for digital electronics and the idea of building their own computers. We met diving through dumpsters behind electronics factories in Palo Alto and Mountain View, looking for usable components in the trash.

But where the airport kids had drawn pictures of airplanes in their school notebooks and dreamed of learning to fly, these new kids in California actually built their simple computers and taught themselves to program. In many ways, their task was easier, since they lived in the shadow of Hewlett-Packard and the semiconductor companies that were rapidly filling what had come to be called Silicon Valley. Their parents often worked in the electronics industry and recognized its value. And unlike flying, the world of microcomputing did not require a license.

Today there are 45 million personal computers in America. Those dumpster kids are grown and occupy important positions in computer and software companies worth billions of dollars. Unlike the long-gone airport kids, these computer kids came to control the means of producing their dreams. They found a way to turn us all into computer kids by lowering the cost and increasing the value of entry to the point where microcomputers today affect all of our lives. And in doing so, they created an industry unlike any other.

This book is about that industry. It is not a history of the personal computer but rather all the parts of a history needed to understand how the industry functions, to put it in some context from which knowledge can be drawn. My job is to explain how this little part of the world really works. Historians have a harder job because they can be faulted for what is left out; explainers like me can get away with printing only the juicy parts.

Juice is my business. I write a weekly gossip column in InfoWorld, a personal computer newspaper. Think for a moment about what a bizarre concept that is—an industrial gossip column. Rumors and gossip become institutionalized in cultures that are in constant flux. Politics, financial markets, the entertainment industry, and the personal computer business live by rumors. But for gossip to play a role in a culture, it must both serve a useful function and have an audience that sees value in participation -- in originating or spreading the rumor. Readers must feel they have a personal connection -- whether it is to a stock price, Madonna’s marital situation, or the impending introduction of a new personal computer.

And who am I to sit in judgment this way on an entire industry?

I’m a failure, of course.

It takes a failure -- someone who is not quite clever enough to succeed or to be considered a threat -- to gain access to the heart of any competitive, ego-driven industry. This is a business that won’t brook rivals but absolutely demands an audience. I am that audience. I can program (poorly) in four computer languages, though all the computer world seems to care about anymore is a language called C. I have made hardware devices that almost worked. I qualify as the ideal informed audience for all those fragile geniuses who want their greatness to be understood and acknowledged.

About thirty times a week, the second phone on my desk rings. At the other end of that line, or at the sending station of an electronic mail message, or sometimes even on the stamp-licking end of a letter sent through the U.S. mail is a type of person literally unknown outside America. He -- for the callers are nearly always male -- is an engineer or programmer from a personal computer manufacturer or a software publisher. His purpose in calling is to share with me and with my 500,000 weekly readers the confidential product plans, successes, and failures of his company. Specifications, diagrams, parts lists, performance benchmarks -- even computer programs -- arrive regularly, invariably at the risk of somebody’s job. One day it’s a disgruntled Apple Computer old-timer, calling to bitch about the current management and by-the-way reveal the company’s product plans for the next year. The next day it’s a programmer from IBM’s lab in Austin, Texas, calling to complain about an internal rivalry with another IBM lab in England and in the process telling all sorts of confidential information.

What’s at work here is the principle that companies lie, bosses lie, but engineers are generally incapable of lying. If they lied, how could the many complex parts of a computer or a software application be expected to actually work together?

"Yeah, I know I said wire Y-21 would be 12 volts DC, but, heck, I lied".

Nope, it wouldn’t work.

Most engineers won’t even tolerate it when others in their companies lie, which is why I get so many calls from embarrassed or enraged techies undertaking what they view as damage control but their companies probably see as sabotage.

The smartest companies, of course, hide their engineers, never bringing them out in public, because engineers are not to be trusted:

Me: "Great computer! But is there any part of it you’d do differently if you could do it over again?"

Engineer: "Yup, the power supply. Put your hand on it right here. Feel how hot that is? Damn thing’s so overloaded I’m surprised they haven’t been bursting into flames all over the country. I’ve got a fire extinguisher under the table just in case. Oh, I told the company about it, too, but would they listen?"

I love engineers.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen in most other U.S. industries, and it never happens in Asia. Chemists don’t call up the offices of Plastics Design Forum to boast about their new, top-secret thermoplastic alloy. The Detroit Free Press doesn’t hear from engineers at Chrysler, telling about the bore and stroke of a new engine or in what car models that engine is likely to appear, and when. But that’s exactly what happens in the personal computer industry.

Most callers fall into one of three groups. Some are proud of their work but are afraid that the software program or computer system they have designed will be mismarketed or never marketed at all. Others are ashamed of a bad product they have been associated with and want to warn potential purchasers. And a final group talks out of pure defiance of authority.

All three groups share a common feeling of efficacy: They believe that something can be accomplished by sharing privileged information with the world of microcomputing through me. What they invariably want to accomplish is a change in their company’s course, pushing forward the product that might have been ignored, pulling back the one that was released too soon, or just showing management that it can be defied. In a smokestack industry, this would be like a couple of junior engineers at Ford taking it on themselves to go public with their conviction that next year’s Mustang really ought to have fuel injection.

That’s not the way change is accomplished at Ford, of course, where the business of business is taken very seriously, change takes place very slowly, and words like ought don’t have a place outside the executive suite, and maybe not even there. Nor is change accomplished this way in the mainframe computer business, which moves at a pace that is glacial, even in comparison to Ford. But in the personal computer industry, where few executives have traditional business backgrounds or training and a totally new generation of products is introduced every eighteen months, workers can become more committed to their creation than to the organization for which they work.

Outwardly, this lack of organizational loyalty looks bad, but it turns out to be very good. Bad products die early in the marketplace or never appear. Good products are recognized earlier. Change accelerates. And organizations are forced to be more honest. Most especially, everyone involved shares the same understanding of why they are working: to create the product.

Reprinted with permission

Photo Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive

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