Po Bronson's bitter cup of Java
Wired alumnus sets his sights on Silicon Valley with his retelling of the Java story
After an uproarious first novel satirizing Wall Street bond traders, Po Bronson casts his wicked gaze on Silicon Valley with The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, his second book. Bronson's story suffers from only one major flaw: Bronson actually seems to like some of the hard working hackers he's supposed to be lampooning. (1,500 words)
Congratulations to Richard Tatum, the winner of last months Tribute Band Contest. For contest results see sidebar.
The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest is the story of how the invention of Java might have taken place in a parallel universe. Its protagonist, Andy Caspar, is a young engineer with a marketing background. He has managed to land a position at La Honda, a prestigious, SRI-like nonprofit research lab. The director of the lab, Hank Menzinger, is under the thumb of one of the lab's corporate sponsors: Omega Logic, a Cyrix-like chip maker. The lab's chief scientist, Francis Benoit, is a brilliant computer designer, a refugee from Omega who bears a grudge against the company for sacrificing one of his chip designs on the altar of product marketing.
Everyone at La Honda wants to get assigned to the hot new research project: the 686 microprocessor, which, as the name implies, is the next step in the bigger-faster-hotter evolution of the CPU. Omega has to deliver the 686 to remain competitive, so its fortunes depend on La Honda's success. La Honda, accordingly, is under tremendous pressure to deliver the hot chip on time.
Andy does not end up on the high-profile 686 team. Instead -- for reasons initially unknown -- he gets put in charge of another project, an unglamorous one: to design the best computer possible for $300. The brilliant "ironman" scientists and hackers at La Honda look down on this project, initially called VWPC (for Volkswagen Personal Computer), because it seems to involve mundane economic decisions rather than cutting-edge research. But Andy manages to recruit a team of quality engineers and get them enthusiastic about it.
The VWPC team quickly figures out more creative ways to build a low-cost computer than by merely cobbling together a bunch of cheap parts. Their first idea is to do without a hard disk drive and have the computer get its software from a network server instead. Sound familiar? Well, then one of the engineers decides to define a simple, compact programming language for the new computer, and he creates a simulator for an existing PC that can run programs in the new language. Sound more familiar? Finally, this engineer figures out that he can create a simulator for any kind of computer, thus making any computer capable of running programs in the new language... get it?
As the book proceeds, the VWPC project takes on a life of its own, much bigger than its makeshift lab within the idealistic yet unremunerative confines of La Honda. More and more people begin to see its potential, and they take various interesting and amusing actions to advance their interests. That's where the satire comes in. Bronson plays around with many of the peculiarly capitalist phenomena that surround ideas in the technology industry -- our society's ultimately flawed attempts to bottle up ideas and ascribe ownership to them. Who owns an idea -- who benefits from it? Is it one person, his manager, a group of people, the organization for which the people are working, a funder of that organization...? The existing ways of answering these questions depend on such artifacts as intellectual property rights, noncompete agreements, majority ownership, lawsuits, and so on. Any one of these seemingly mindless factors can determine who gets rich and famous and who has to sit jealously on the sidelines.
Many factors wax and wane in the life of the Network Computer idea during the course of this book. First, Omega Logic forces La Honda labs to kick the VWPC team out, because the VWPC is threatening Silicon Valley's "world order": the symbiotic relationship between bigger-faster-hotter chips from semiconductor makers and feature-creeping bloatware from software houses like Microsoft. But kicking Adam and Eve out of the Garden only makes things much more complex, because now Andy and his cohorts can go startup and develop the VWPC as a commercial product. He has a new company, and it needs money. The bigwigs of Silicon Valley aren't sure whether this thing is a threat or an opportunity, but they are now sure that it cannot be ignored. Suddenly, everyone is angling for a piece of the action, regardless of merit.
Wheeling and dealing -- Silicon Valley style
Bronson accurately captures the nuances of Silicon Valley-style wheeling, dealing, and conniving, and carries them to delicious extremes. We get to meet testosterone-driven, bull-headed macho men who run big technology companies, like Lloyd Acheson, Omega's CEO; slick, sniveling venture capitalists and eccentric private investors; paranoid lawyers; textbook antisocial nerds; enterprising journalists looking for the "human angle" on what is inherently un-human activity; and various other characters. Each one of these has his or her own agenda as well as something to HIDE. Eventually, it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish all the players without a scorecard as the fast-moving action of the Valley's conflicting yet inexorably intertwined interests becomes more and more complex. Yet, like a Seinfeld episode, all the craziness gets resolved neatly -- and quickly -- in the end.
I did not enjoy The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest as much as I did Bombardiers. Perhaps it's because I'm more familiar with the former's subject matter. I found myself reading Bronson's technical passages carefully, hoping to catch him in an inaccuracy (and not succeeding; his level of verisimilitude is quite high), and thus distracting myself from the humor. Also, it's unfortunate that Bronson picked a technology so transparently similar to Java, even though his version of the its development differs from that of the real thing (which started, not with the Network Computer concept, but with a language called Oak that was originally intended for interactive TV set-top boxes).
And the satire in this novel is not as strong as it was in Bombardiers. There's an element of vitriol, of outright nastiness, in that book that The First $20 Million lacks. In Bombardiers, all of the characters had something wrong with them; here, Andy Caspar is a clean-cut, all-American boy. This novel is like a cross between Bombardiers and Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, the clever yet gentle story of the lives of young Microsoft hackers who leave the company to start their own multimedia business. It's clear that Bronson admires people in the technology business who create new ideas and hates to see them subjected to corporate mauling; he didn't seem to admire anyone in investment banking. Maybe that's the difference.
Bronson is at his best here when telling little vignette stories that capture the foibles of the industry or his characters, such as the one that opens the book, about fashion photographers haplessly combing the halls of La Honda in search of super-nerds to become models for their Gap-like advertisements, or the one about a jet-lagged Lloyd Acheson b.s.-ing his way through a high-level dinner schmoozefest in Europe. He is also very, very good at explaining complex technology and financial transactions so that anyone can understand.
But even though some of his barbs have dulled a bit, The First $20 Million Is the Hardest is a worthwhile, funny book -- especially to non-initiates looking to get a glimpse into Silicon Valley's peculiar way of life.
About the author
Bill Rosenblatt is an enterprise IT architect at Sun Microsystems, where he specializes in media technology. Reach Bill at Bill.Rosenblatt@sunworld.com.
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Thanks to all of those who entered the Tribute Band Contest in last month's column. Congratulations to Richard Tatum of North Hollywood, CA, for being the first person to send in the correct answers and wining a CNN Interactive baseball cap. The correct answers are:
|Tribute Band Contest Results!|
|Tribute Band||Tributee||Origin of Name|
|Sukie Jones||Aerosmith||From lyrics of "Back in the Saddle"|
|Sabbra Cadabra||Black Sabbath||Band name|
|Soft Parade||Doors||Name of album|
|Voodoo Child||Jimi Hendrix||Name of song|
|Dressed to Kill||Kiss||Name of album|
|Time of Dying||Led Zeppelin||From song "In My Time of Dying"|
|Theatre of Pain||Motley Crue||Name of album|
|Power Windows||Rush||Name of album|
|Tramps Like Us||Bruce Springsteen||From lyrics of "Born to Run"|
|Unforgettable Fire||U2||Name of album|
Stay tuned to Bill's Bookshelf in future editions of SunWorld for more exciting contests!