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Silicon Valley of the Doldrums

Sarah Lacy Perhaps the most enduring quality of Silicon Valley's business leaders has been the ability to see The Next Big Thing. Make the right bet, and you're a billionaire with rock-star cachet in the local tech set. Call it wrong and, well, that leads to the Valley's most endearing quality -- the ability to laugh when things go horribly awry. This is so whether it's the pen-computing fiasco of the early '90s or all those companies that were sure millions could be made selling pet food online during the dot-com boom.

So on Nov. 9, with a mixture of curiosity and optimism, about 500 people attended the seventh annual "Top 10 Technology Trends" event hosted by the Churchill Club, a local business networking group. This is the Valley's chance to make the big calls for the next year, and just maybe share a few yuks if those predictions prove way off base.

MORE THUD THAN BOOM. As always, it was a panel of heavy-hitters. Churchill Club mainstays Esther Dyson, editor-at-large for CNET Networks (CNET); John Doerr, general partner at the venerable venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; and Roger McNamee, co-founder of the private-equity firms Silver Lake Partners and Integral Capital Partners were joined by Joe Schoendorf, a partner at the venture firm Accel Partners. These are people who know more than a little bit about making the right call. Doerr, for example, has backed Sun Microsystems (SUNW), Amazon (AMZN), and Google (GOOG) in his long investment career.

What was remarkable about this year's Churchill Club panel was how unremarkable the panelists' predictions turned out to be. Even the moderator, Valley gadfly Tony Perkins, the founder of the venture capital-focused magazine Red Herring, had difficulty getting the panelists to mix it up. "This is the most practical set of 10 trends," Doerr said. "It's hard to find something I really disagree with."

Too bad. Fiery discussions and bold predictions are a Valley mainstay. While it may be a stretch to say the Churchill Club panel typifies the Valley's doldrums, it sure doesn't say much when even the big thinkers aren't thinking terribly big.

MIDDLE KINGDOM MIGHT. Take the rise of Web logs, or blogging. The panel agreed blogs will change the way mainstream media operates. But that has already happened, as McNamee pointed out. Just ask CBS News anchor Dan Rather and the staff of 60 Minutes, whose infamous flub about President Bush's National Guard service on that show was uncovered by several bloggers. Or even Perkins, who launched his own blogging company two years ago. Called AlwaysOn, it's growing 50% per year and is already profitable (see BW Online, 11/11/04, "Betting on Tools that Power Blogs").

Adding to the "state the obvious" list, the panelists said the next big technology innovations could come out of China. They said California will become a world leader in embryonic stem-cell research, thanks to a voter proposition that granted $3 billion in research funds. And they boldly predicted text messaging will become more pervasive. "Why can't I get a text message when someone uses my credit card or a reminder to take my medicine?" asked Dyson, signaling some of the new ways text messaging may be used in the future.

In fairness, their milquetoast predictions have a lot to do with an innovation lull in all of tech. Take McNamee's prediction that corporate info-tech spending won't see another big jump. Although companies will spend on piecemeal computer systems here and there, they won't flock to one big technology all at once because there isn't a new big technology to which they can flock.

CONTENT EVERYWHERE. Besides, they've barely scratched the surface on the Internet projects started over the last few years. "There will be a huge wave of do-it-yourself software," Dyson said. "It'll be like being in the restaurant industry while everyone is doing home-cooking."

The outlook for consumer technology is more exciting, said Schoendorf. The panel's single provocateur said every consumer-electronic device is obsolete, and consumers might as well toss them out. Technology will quickly move to devices that allow consumers to download music and movies wherever they are.

Beyond just hooking your digital-music player to your car stereo, he sees a day where car-music systems are synchronized with home-music collections. "Everything goes wireless, and all the content is in one place you can use anywhere," Schoendorf said.

REVOLUTION, OR EVOLUTION? McNamee, however, believes that's overstating things. Again, his caution is probably warranted. Consumers won't throw everything away. They'll migrate to new technologies over time. Is there a consumer-electronics revolution? No, it's more like an evolution. That's not to say the business is dead, but other than digital-music players, it's unlikely to get the pulse pounding.

The same can be said for the 40-mile stretch of office parks and million-dollar homes between San Jose and San Francisco. Is Silicon Valley dead? Hardly, but it's sure not as exciting as it used to be.

Tech's Top 10 Trends

1. Web services will evolve and create new businesses

2. Patients will demand online medical records

3. Corporate computing won't see big changes for at least five years

4. The next big tech innovation will come out of China

5. Blogging and other online content will force traditional media to change

6. California will lead the world in embryonic stem-cell research

7. Text messaging will become more pervasive

8. New consumer technologies will appeal to more than just young hipsters

9. Every consumer-electronic product you own is about to become obsolete

10. Utility computing will keep tech spending strong Sarah Lacy is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in the Silicon Valley bureau

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