Mousetraps

Mousetraps

Article from Issue 107/2009

 

Dear Linux Magazine Reader,

What a time it was, back in the countdown for the new millennium – the days of the dot-com bubble. We were all astronauts then, on some kind of space-bound shining chariot guided by hyperbole and powered with pure nitrous oxide. From my vantage point, as a high-tech writer operating virtually from a not-so-high-tech corner of the world, I mostly watched it all unfold through the miracle of my web browser, but I still have lots of memories.

I sometimes wonder if someday my grandchildren will say, "Can you tell me about the dot-com era, grandpa? Tell me about the dreams. Tell me about the gold-plated schwag. Tell me about the nineteen-year-olds trading their stock options for original Picasso paintings."

If they do ask, I have a feeling I won't disappoint them. I have plenty of stories about those days, even though I didn't exactly manage to retire young. I certainly remember exhilarating moments when we all felt like we were watching history unfolding, and I guess we were, even if the history was that we were all in a collective trance.

New technologies have been bubbling up ever since the start of the computer era – or, arguably, since the start of the human era. What really intoxicated everybody in the dot-com time was all the money that was bubbling up. Venture capitalists were so crazy with desire to throw money at promising startups they devised a whole new way of doing business that didn't even require a clear idea of how to turn a profit. As our online information trove at Wikipedia puts it, "A canonical 'dot-com' company's business model relied on harnessing network effects by operating at a sustained net loss to build market share (or mind share). These companies expected that they could build enough brand awareness to charge profitable rates for their services later."

The whole game plan was to pour as much money as possible into building brand awareness. Down at the implementation level, that meant glossy brochures, symphony sponsorships, and lots of presence at trade shows.

A company with only a few customers could nail down prime booth space at a major conference, and sometimes that booth resembled a colony of bees, with several excited marketers in matching yellow shirts swirling about the edges launching demos and chattering about the role the company would play in the new paradigm. Usually somewhere in the middle of this hive was the "queen" – the visionary leader of the group (either a technical whiz or an equally impressive "ideas" type) who had put the whole deal together and was confidently working to tease a real product from all that promise.

These memories of the past are an interesting backdrop for the world we are living in now, with our big, glowering recession and all the new attitudes about money and investment. It would be tempting to think our world now is almost the opposite of how we were living back then, but I've recently been thinking maybe it isn't so different.

As I walked the floor at OSCON last month, I was pleased to see several new startup companies. As before, these companies are created and guided by adventurous entrepreneurs with a vision. Unlike in the boom, many of these entrepreneurs are working alone or with only a small staff. They'll get more scrutiny from the media (and the venture capitalists). Some of the tasks that would have been left for PR consultants they will be handling themselves, but they are excited about what they are doing – and some of them really do have good ideas. Now, as before, some will succeed and others will fail, but whichever way it ends up for each of these new mousetraps, I have a feeling this era will also have its stories.

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