One of my favorite paintings is an early work by the British artist David Hockney. The picture has become an icon of California. It depicts a home in Los Angeles, but it could easily pass for a scene from one of the grander suburbs of Silicon Valley. It shows an endless blue sky, an angular house clad in glass, a pair of palm trees, a diving board and ripples of white paint emerging from an iridescent swimming pool. The painting’s title is A Bigger Splash.I’ve occasionally thought about this painting and its title during the course of the last couple of years. It sometimes seems like a parody of Silicon Valley: the beckoning promise and expanse of the flat pool, the explosive squiggles of paint that threaten to splatter the sky, the invisible nature of the creature that caused the perturbation, and the sheer, high-spirited boastfulness of the title.
You would be hard pressed to think of a series of bigger splashes or more optimistic statements than those contained in the press releases issued by so many startups just one year ago. Think of those eagerly greeted birth announcements that have since turned into obituary notices (or pending obituary notices): Kibu, Boo, Eve, drkoop, Chipshot, living, Miadora, Mercata, Garden, MVP, Bigwords, Mondera, Pets, HomeWarehouse, MotherNature and TheStreet (all of which have “.com” in their official names), Della & James, iVillage, Bravo, Internet Capital Group, idealab!, Fogdog Sports and, of course, that wonderful epitome of understatement, divine interVentures. It was a period when the only motto that seemed to matter was “Time to Empire,” and when entrepreneurs and venture capitalists had been portrayed as salvation from all the world’s woes.
But this new generation of Emperors and Empresses was as woefully ignorant of the fate of its predecessors as all willful optimists. Think back to a prior generation and the spring of 1985, when the future was all about personal computing hardware and software. Then the equivalent roster contained names such as Gavilan Computer, Osborne Computer, Kaypro, NorthStar,VectorGraphic, Imagic, Fortune Systems, VisiCorp, Borland, Activision, Software Publishing, Forefront, Victor Technologies, WordStar International, Priam and Dysan. Back then, newspapers and magazines panted just as hard as they turned Silicon
Valley mortals into icons.
If you survey all these former highfliers and ponder the causes of their demise, you might conclude that beyond the names and industry segments nothing much has changed about Silicon Valley. On the whole, you would be right.Yes, the traffic has become heavier, salaries have risen, rents have escalated and today’s company founders no longer recognize former heavyweights such as Rod Canion or John Sculley. But whether it is the spring of 1985, or the spring of 2000 or, I daresay, the spring of 2005, there are many things that are eternal about Silicon Valley.