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

July 10, 1994|Tom McNichol | 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.

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