Valley Boys

Reading between the lines.
March 19 1997 3:30 AM

Valley Boys

A computer industry roman à clef.

The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest: A Silicon Valley Novel

By Po Bronson

Random House; 291 pages; $23

Illustration by Michael Sloan

Every so often, friends in the computer industry will develop an unrealistically charitable view of their place in the world. "I'm not here to get rich," they pronounce. "I'm here to change the world!" Easy to say, when you happen to be getting rich. Why don't they work in pure research? "Research is an ivory tower," they respond. "Shipping products is the way you change the world." And so they find themselves in the cozy position of believing they're beyond materialism while they cruise around in their Ferraris.

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The characters in Po Bronson's novel The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest have it much harder. The fictional nonprofit research laboratory La Honda provides an opportunity to work with the best people in the field, designing products for other companies to sell. They may be changing the world, but they're also underpaid. They have their reasons for being there: For marketer Andy Caspar, La Honda is an opportunity to leave struggling chip maker Omega Logic and prove he's one of the "Ironmen" who make the technologies that drive the information age. For chip designer Francis Benoit, it's, er, a way to leverage corporate resources without corporate interference. For La Honda director Hank Menzinger, it's a way to change the world without doing the actual work himself. For Omega Logic CEO Lloyd Acheson, uh ... actually it's hard to figure out why his company would fund an external research laboratory instead of having its own. La Honda is an unlikely beast, and pretty quickly into this book it starts to smell a whole lot like a plot device. Only in such a place would the motives of the engineers, designers, reporters, and businessmen in this novel combine in the convenient way they do. Fortunately, about halfway through, Caspar and two engineers leave to form a start-up, and La Honda's strange odor fades into the background.

They're starting a company to make a $300 "VWPC"--the Volkswagen (people's car) of Personal Computers. They can do so only if they ignore the conventional wisdom that every new computer must be faster than the last and do more. What's better, their simplified software will run on any computer, uniting the world in a new technological brotherhood. Needless to say, these mavericks have an uphill battle to sell their idea.

Where $20 Million succeeds is as a character study. According to the book jacket, Bronson has written about Silicon Valley for Wired, the New York Times Magazine, and Forbes ASAP, and he has clearly understood something about the psychology of the place. The misanthropic engineers, the monotonic human-resource drones, the evangelistic marketers, even the nontechnical but talented girlfriend all strike painfully home. I know these people. They are my friends, my co-workers--my wife. We see nerds at work, nerds at play (which is to say, at work), nerds in love, and of course some nerd humor. "If Microsoft made cars ... we'd all have to switch to Microsoft gas," says Caspar. (Have him killed.)

So long as Bronson stays inside their heads, I accept everything that happens, even when the technology and events veer away from a world I recognize. It's only when the plot forces him to hide the cards of certain players, which it does periodically, that my disbelief is unsuspended. When we can see into their heads, Benoit and Acheson are avowed enemies. The next thing we know, they are teaming up to steal the VWPC from Caspar and company, and we can't really see how or why this might have happened. Suddenly they are characters in a novel, not in my life.

The lack of a profit motive is what really jars. Even when our start-up friends go out on their own, they are doing it because it's the only way to get things done. They hardly seem to care about the money. They give away rights for a song. They are totally focused on delivering technology to the masses. I concede that this is admirable, but everyone I know who has gone the start-up route has been pretty certain that they were also in it for the financial upside. It's almost as if Bronson had started believing all the "I'm not in this to get rich" speeches he must have heard as a reporter.

Illustration by Michael Sloan

Otherwise, this book is pretty convincing, and one of the reasons it is, even (or especially) to those in the know, is that its plot is essentially a novelization of real-life technology and events. The fictional VWPC and its enabling software "Hypnotizer" look a great deal like the real-life Network Computer and Java. If you don't already know, Java is a programming language well suited to the Internet. Using Java, you can create programs that are downloaded directly off the Internet and run on almost any computer. In theory, this makes it possible to create a simple computer that runs directly off the network and doesn't even need a hard drive.

The soap opera that begat Java deserved to be written as a novel. Sun Microsystems engineers working on a set-top box for interactive television devised a new language. They were ignored for over a year, until someone finally realized this was the perfect language for the World Wide Web. Sun's marketers and top management fought it out with the engineers for control of the language, and won. Java is now Sun's core technology asset, and most of its designers have left the company.

This user-friendly computer is not, however, the magic bullet that both Sun and Bronson make it out to be. The lowest-common-denominator approach its creators take to solving the problems of today's heterogeneous computer systems is highly controversial, and not just because Microsoft and Intel (who have the most to lose if the Java approach wins out) say so. Java works because it lets everyone run the same program, but it is not clear that everyone wants to run the same program. For example, Microsoft has had a difficult time producing Macintosh versions of its products. Why? Because Macintosh users want Macintosh programs, not warmed-over Windows programs. Java threatens us with a world where every program feels warmed-over in the same way--functional, but not optimal.

$20 Million would be a good read even if you know nothing about computers, but it's an even better read if you do, since it delves intriguingly in and out of the psychoses and oddball situations rife in this industry. Just don't ask any hard questions of the book, because it won't answer them.