Articles Irish Times

An Irishman’s Diary – The Silicon Valley

Monday, August 26, 1996

Most areas exist in two places at once. They have an actual existence on the ground, and an imagined existence in the minds of people that think about them. People who have never been to London can tell you about Big Ben and red buses.

And people who have never been to the Silicon Valley in Northern California can tell you about the hot-shot computer companies that are based there.

Of course there’s a gap between the truth and the perception. Most people’s ideas of London are correct but stylised – like the Underground map, which shows the right stations, but skews the distances between the stations.  When you visit London, it’s not exactly how you imagined it, but the things you thought you’d see are there somewhere.

So what about Silicon Valley? This small area is exerting an ever-increasing influence on our lives, and even the names of its hi-tech companies bring to mind gleaming visions of the future – Oracle, Sun, Netscape, Electronic Arts, Informix, Cirrus Logic. Surely the place itself must be something to see, that it should be a home for such creativity and endeavour.

In fact, the gap between the idea of Silicon Valley and its reality is immense. The first obvious problem is that the Valley doesn’t really exist – look on a map, and you’ll see Santa Clara County and the towns strung along the 101 highway from San Francisco to San Jose: Foster City, Belmont, Redwood, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Cupertino. This is Silicon Valley, but because it isn’t marked as such, even finding the place requires an act of imagination.

It’s not much of a valley either. The peninsula that arches round the Bay and ends at San Francisco is largely flat. Silicon Freeway might be a more accurate name, because Interstate 101 cuts straight through the area, and highly-paid computer experts spend a frightening amount of time sitting in traffic jams on it. At least this gives them the chance to examine the large number of personalised license plates on display – how long before people’s e-mail addresses start appearing on their cars? From the highway you can see very little else, except a succession of signs telling you the names of the invisible places you’re passing through.

Once you get off the freeway, the sense that this place is not really there still prevails. Take Netscape Communications, for example, the current darlings of the Valley. Last summer, having reached the ripe old age of 16 months, they were launched on the stock exchange in a share offering that at the end of the first day’s trading valued the company at $1.96 billion. Overnight, Marc Andreessen, their 22 year-old vice president of technology became worth more than $50 million personally.

Yet drive past their nondescript Mountain View offices (no mountains, no view), and try to imagine what could be worth $1.96 billion inside the closed blue blinds. Even if the Netscape buildings are filled to the ceiling with gold bars, that still might not account for all the money. Somehow it should all look different.

Although on reflection, it’s very appropriate that there’s nothing to see. On a hillside near the airport is a huge sign declaring, ‘South San Francisco – The Industrial City’. One of the characters in Douglas Coupland’s recent novel Microserfs has a more appropriate suggestion: ‘If they changed it to “Post-Industrial City”, it might be meaningful.’

Very few of the companies here ‘make’ anything in the old sense. Previously, a site of industrial innovation would leave an indelible mark on the landscape, but instead of dark satanic mills there’s manicured grass, and neat two-storey offices. Future archaeologists will be hard-pressed to work out what was going on here; the best they’ll be able to find will be a few Snapple bottles and Coke cans left over from the free supply that most companies give their programmers.

The 4000 or so high-technology companies in the Silicon Valley generate $200 billion in revenue annually by rearranging ones and zeros to create software. They don’t even make silicon chips here any more – too messy and dirty. The companies’ products are shiny ideas, and their assets go home in the evening and watch Melrose Place and Friends.

Intellectual property, not real property, is the important thing. You’re closer to visiting the real Valley when you’re downloading the latest software over the internet from your flat in Cork than you are actually standing outside Sun Microsystems, or driving along Infinity Loop on Apple Computer’s ‘campus’.

However, one company does seem to acknowledge the intangible quality of their business. Oracle Corporation’s buildings are huge cylindrical structures situated beside the bay. They look very curious until you realise that Oracle’s main work is in database software, and in computer documentation a database is commonly shown as a cylinder. The buildings are a physical representation of an insubstantial idea. Perhaps this is the information age’s version of High Gothic architecture, where cathedrals soared upwards to represent the idea of the heavenward urge towards an approachable God.

Aside from the Oracle buildings, though, it’s very hard for a visitor to reconcile the power and reach of the area with the reality of driving the freeway and walking on the grass. Even when you’re standing right in it, Silicon Valley seems hardly there at all.

(first published in The Irish Times, Monday August 26th, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish Times

Articles Film Irish Times Technology

Apple’s Mission Impossible

Wednesday, August 14, 1996

Computers in movies have come a long way since the nerdy Matthew Broderick in War Games. In the current hit Independence Day, Jeff Goldblum saves the world by dialing up the alien invaders from his laptop, and in Mission:  Impossible Tom Cruise uses his computer to defeat the nasty double-crossing spies.

With hi-tech movies all the rage, the opportunity for product placement has not gone unnoticed by the computer industry. While Microsoft might look to have the real world sewn up, in the neverland of tv and cinema, Apple reign supreme – and it doesn?t cost them a penny.

On TV, Chandler in Friends, Scully in The X-Files, and the casts of Melrose Place and Beverley Hills 90210 all use Macs, but it?s in the movies that computer product placement really gets big.Steven Spielberg is credited with starting the trend with the film ET in 1982. The lovable alien was seen gobbling Reese?s Pieces sweets, and sales increased by 66 per cent.

Apple was involved in another Spielberg hit, Jurassic Park, and in films such as Forest Gump and The Firm But with Mission Impossible and Independence Day, the company has emphasized their involvement by running a series of tv commercials based on clips from the movies.

?Apple gains the benefit of being seen by millions of people in the hands of celebrities that those consumers seek to emulate,? said Suzanne Forlenza, manager of Film/TV Placement and Marketing at Apple.

?We pay for the production of the TV commercial (as we would any TV commercial we do). In exchange, we get images, special effects, celebrity endorsement, and more, for free. The quality and level of content we are able to use is incredibly high.? she said.

So how much does it cost to have Jeff Goldblum save the world with a PowerBook? Nothing, according to Apple: ?No money exchanges hands at all,? said Suzanne Forlenza. ?We provide the computers requested for on-camera usage on loan, all being due back to us at the end of the filming.?

Apple might has been criticised for not having the business acumen to match their technological innovation, but in this area, they seem to be on a winner.

While they will approach production companies, they are just as likely to have people approach them. ?Frankly, we are absolutely overwhelmed with requests. so we are reacting to satisfying the requests. The good news is we have established excellent relationships throughout Hollywood, so we have first crack, typically, at all the big films,? said Forlenza.

On Mission: Impossible, for example, part of the deal was that Tom Cruise and the rest of the goodies would use Macs, while the baddies were kitted out with IBMs. ?We have a standing insistence that we will only be in the hands of the good guys,? confirms Forlenza.

What makes Apple?s coup so impressive is the amount of money other corporations will pay to get their products in the shot. Laurie Ann Mazur is a writer and social commentator based in New York and co-author of the book Marketing Madness (A Survival Guide for a consumer society).
?Huggies paid $100,000 to outfit the infant in Baby Boom, and Philip Morris reportedly paid $350,000 to make sure James Bond smoked Lark cigarettes in License to Kill.?

Forlenza argues that they save the film money: ?A computer company is able to offer a great deal of value in the computers they provide.  It helps the production save money and offset costs. The less value a product offers, the more dollars they would be charged.?

So both computer company and movie production company are happy. But what about the audience? While it might be argued that using real products in movies enhances the film?s realism, Laurie Ann Mazur is unconvinced:  ?This practice is inherently deceptive – another kind of stealth advertising. When a celebrity endorses a product in a television commercial, viewers correctly assume that he or she has been ?bought?. But when the same celebrity uses a product in a movie, viewers are more likely to accept the endorsement, at least at an unconscious level.?

Tom Muth, a multimedia consultant based in Kansas City, agrees:
?Most people don’t understand that product placement occurs in almost every film, particularly the big blockbusters.?

It?s no surprise, therefore, that it?s becoming an increasingly important area ofmarketing for Apple. ?It?s growing in that computers are becoming standard gear for all types of people in the movies (the doctor, the lawyer, and others) and also in the number of films that have a technology sub-plot.?

So expect to see more Macs appearing at your local cinema. But only in the hands of the good guys, of course.

(first published in The Irish Times, August, 1996)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesTechnologyFilm