The last few months have brought a cascade of pleas for unholy
alliances (commonly called consortia) among big firms to pursue
commercial opportunities in the likes of lasers, X-ray lithography,
superconductors and, of course, high-definition TV.
Just a few years ago, Silicon Valley was the center of
rip-roaring, Wild West competition. Now its biggest firms and their
industry associations (such as the Semiconductor Industry
Association and the American Electronics Association) have become
The former high-tech upstarts and their slick lobbyists hog the
national media spotlight and are defining the economic policy
debate. Their agenda:
- More protection from foreign ``cheaters.''
- Relaxation of anti-collusive legislation (such as anti-trust
- Greater Department of Defense involvement in a lengthy list
of ``critical'' technologies.
But there is another story, if you look beyond the nightly TV
news and The Washington Post. Consider the business section of The
San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley's paper of record, on June 8,
1989 - a day chosen at random.
The lead item is about Acuson Corp. of Mountain View, Calif.
Never heard of it? Shame on you. The 1978 startup had $169 million
in sales in 1988 and a tidy $28 million after-tax profit. It's the
leader in domestic ultrasound medical technology, with a 21 percent
Chief Executive Officer Samuel Maslak studied ultrasound at the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then took his skills to
Hewlett-Packard. But he left because, ``HP and I didn't share the
same sense of urgency in developing ultrasound technology.''
Maslak initially refinanced his home to start the company,
though today he's a beneficiary of substantial venture capital.
(Over $20 billion of unsung self-financing and aunt and uncle money
goes into an annual business-startup pot that is many times the size
of the formal venture capital pool.)
Maslak is not the only HP refusenik. Steve Wozniak did a stint
there and couldn't find much enthusiasm for his ideas, either. So
he and Steve Jobs (unhappy at Atari), neither with a university
credential, teamed up to start Apple Computer.
Billion-dollar Tandem Computer, world leader in on-line
transaction processing, is also among those owing a debt to HP.
Tandem's founder, Jim Treybig, left the big outfit because it failed
to support his then-mildly exotic proposal.
So $10 billion Hewlett-Packard is now a part of the
establishment - a place at which clever people train, before
departing to do the world's truly interesting (risky) work.
Whoa, don't write Hewlett-Packard off so fast. After a couple
of somewhat rough years, the company is sitting in the cat-bird seat
these days. Why? Because its bet-the-company plunge into
reduced-instruction set computing (RISC) has led to a major success
with its new Spectrum series of minicomputers. …