March 26, 1997 11:00 AM ET
The PC Forum Diaries: Crichton kvetches and the VCs do bad jam
By Jim Louderback

  This week PC Week Editorial Director Jim Louderback is attending the latest computer industry love-fest, Esther Dyson's PC Forum in Tucson, Ariz. This year's theme: "Life on the Living Web." Here's the most recent page from his personal diary on life among the industry's luminaries. (For more on PC Forum, see our special report.)

Well, last night's PC Forum speaker, the much anticipated Michael Crichton, really got the audience going. The theme of his talk: The Internet sucks for education, and y'all should really be back home spending time with your kids rather than sitting here listening to me.

I suppose we should have guessed that it would be a Luddite's view on technology and its impact on us. From "Andromeda Strain" to "Jurassic Park," "Disclosure," "Congo" and beyond, his theme of technology-gone-horribly-wrong rings clear as a bell. But I guess we didn't expect to hear it here, at the oh-so-optimistic PC Forum. His message did hit home for some people, as the mass migration to the airport evidenced. Even famed extrovert Mark Eppley, chairman of Traveling Software, the Seattle area maker of Laplink and WebX, was on his way to an 11 p.m. flight to Seattle: "Yeah, that's it. I'm going home to play basketball with my son when I get back. 'C'mon, wake up, boy. It's only midnight. Sure, its dark out, but we've got headlights ..."

Sniff, sniff for Eppley. The childless among us, free from guilt, repaired to the lobby bar for the traditional jam session.

Jammed like a thumb

Alas, success has destroyed the jam session. Not the success of the players; they always were worse than most garage bands I've listened to. No, I refer to success of the previous jammers. In days past, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (a Jimi Hendrix sound-alike) was wont to ply his wares here, as were other accomplished musicians, now accomplished digital millionaires. They've become too successful for PC Forum, and the jam session has suffered as a result. Not to belittle the efforts of venture capitalist Roger and investment banker brother Giles. They can lay down amateur Dead licks as well as anyone, but the spark just wasn't there. They clearly needed the efforts of true musicians, such as the talented, velvet-voiced A.J. from Word Perfect and Michele Goguen, independent PR maven. When that group jammed at Demo 97, the audience stayed and begged for more. Unfortunately, the group last night just drove us out into the night.

Banter and banality

The sessions today were mixed -- titillating banter interposed with utter banality. The morning started off with FCC chairman Reed Hundt discussing Washington, politics and his effort to put the Internet into every classroom in America. Take a look at his proposal at www.FCC.gov, and if you like it, send mail off to the FCC. If you don't, send mail to IDG Technology Vice President Robert Metcalfe.

Why Metcalfe? Well, he and John Doerr, the powerful partner from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, sat around the big coffee table with Hundt and Esther, to discuss things. Metcalfe (who, according to Esther, has a new job, one that Dr. Bob would not share with the crowd), is dead-set against the FCC proposal. Doerr played foil to the two and Esther moderated. Metcalfe didn't come off well. But you decide. Read the proposed rule up on the FCC site and pick sides.

That session was followed by a discussion of Internet economics and money-making, marred by the pretentious title: "What would Darwin, Rousseau, Hobbes and Smith have said?" (My best guess is that they would have said, "Say what?") The session focused on major players from inside and outside the Net. Jim Barksdale, president and CEO of Netscape; John Reed, chairman and CEO of Citicorp; Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon.com; and Steve Rattner, the managing director and media deal-maker from tony Lazard Freres investment banking house. It was enthralling to listen to Reed, one of the 40 or so most powerful people in the world, discuss how the Net is changing Citicorp from a closed and inward organization to an open, worldwide 24-by-7 service shop. Also interesting was Bezos trying to elicit sympathy for suddenly facing competition. Jim Barksdale had the best line of the morning: "You talking to me?" in response to Esther Dyson.

Hale-Bopp doo-wop

The last session focused on the ethereal virtual community, featuring my pick of the best guest -- science fiction writer Vernor Vigne (his "Across Realtime" and "A Fire on the Deep" do for Usenet newsgroups what "Snow Crash" did for VRML and the Net). Vigne didn't disappoint. For a summary of some of his key points, check out our radio interview tomorrow. The balance of the session meandered, punctuated by a tortured soul from the audience, faced with building a community for his company, staring down head counts that have jumped from two to 20. Deploy or kill? was his question. Of course, go slow was the unsatisfying answer.

Tonight, it's another cocktail party and then the dinner equivalent of a free swim. It looks like I'm going to hook up with Vigne, Digital CTO Scott Cutler and Pam Alexander's husband, who supposedly purchased a brand new telescope. We're going to head off into the Arizona hills for an unobstructed view of Hale-Bopp. See you at the next groovy industry love-in!

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