An Interview with Paul Saffo

Shen :   Well, one of the things I've heard -- I'm not sure if it's totally true, but it might be, is that, around the Bay Area, the Internet is lot more popular than in the East Coast. And I wondering if you knew why? Or have ideas?
Saffo :   The adoption of Internet happened a bit faster and earlier here than elsewhere. But I think the rest of the country's catching up. And it does tend to be the high-tech center. I think it happened here first because there were a lot of folks who were already Internet users. We've got a lot of academic communities and business communities that were heavy users of the net. And, of course, Stanford and SRI were places where all of this began originally. And I think Palo Alto was the first city to have a web site for classifieds and employment.
Shen :   Why do you think this is the high-tech capital of the nation?
Saffo :   I think another way to ask the question is: Why has the valley stayed so central to high technology for so long? Because it's pretty unusual that the valley has gone as long as it has, and, of course, that then makes your question that much more poignant because if it's gone on for longer than most places already, then why hasn't it gone out?

The secret to Silicon Valley's success is that it's constantly reinventing itself.

I think what is happening is that in fact the most important thing about the valley is that it's not the same place that it was 5 years ago, 10 years ago. It's a very different place than when Mssrs. Hewlett and Packard started their company. But it's already a very different place than when Nolan Bushnell started his company (Atari).


Bill Hewlett and David Packard

The secret to Silicon Valley's success is that it's constantly reinventing itself. The secret to it continuing to be a high-tech center is that it is a place that continues to ruthlessly reinvent itself, to ruthlessly drive old companies out of business, start new companies. That turnover is, I think, the secret to our success.

The open question, though, is whether the valley is suffocating in its own waste products. You know? People came here because it was a beautiful place to live, a fascinating place to work with really fabulous world-class institutions, Stanford and Berkeley. And it was low cost of living. That was 1950s. Now it's expensive; it's crowded.


I'm pretty confident that the valley will keep reinventing itself. We're not going to go into oblivion.

One would think twice about driving back to San Jose from here (Palo Alto) after about 4 o'clock in the afternoon. Houses cost a lot, and life in the blander part of the valleys is anything but high in quality. That's what worries me. Especially the urban sprawl. It looks like another 10 years, there'll be houses all the way from San Jose to Monterey without a break.

Gemperlein :   Can technology in any way remedy these problems, the ones it has created?
Saffo :   Yes. But will it? We have choices about how aggressively we want to use it to improve our lives in Silicon Valley. So far, the way the valley's worked it, was a shift even as recently as, check me on this, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, there was a lot more manufacturing going on in the valley. Back in the early days, Apple actually made computers in Silicon Valley. And maybe the plant's still in Fremont; I'm not sure. So we kept all the development and research here and marketing and spun things out elsewhere. As the valley fills up with research and more marketing, at some point, some of it's got to go off somewhere else. But I'm pretty confident that the valley will keep reinventing itself. We're not going to go into oblivion.

Really brilliant minds stayed at dying companies too long. Then there's no regeneration.

Route 128 (near Boston), the East Coast equivalent of Silicon Valley, has run into real problems. They work for one company and don't job hop like we do in Silicon Valley. In Silicon Valley, if you stay in one company for more than about 3 years -- unless you're with Hewlett-Packard -- they wonder what's wrong with you? Why are you still there?

In Boston, if you left after just 3 years, they'd say, hey, what are you? One of those West Coast types? Really brilliant minds stayed at dying companies too long. Then there's no regeneration. And so they drove Wang and DEC into oblivion, and there were no new companies to start up. So they don't have the regeneration.

Gemperlein :   Here in your office you have some artifacts, can you talk about them.
Saffo :   Some are obsolete, and some are failed, and some are big successes. Here's the Curtas calculator. This was a mechanical calculator. This is what serious nerds carried around with them if they didn't use a slide rule in the late 1960s. And it was displaced by electronic calculators from Wang and the like. It looks like a coffee grinder.
Gemperlein :   Did you lust after one of those when you were a kid?
Saffo :   When I was in 7th grade. They were advertised in Scientific American, but they were way beyond the budget of a 7th grader. And I actually found this a few years ago in a sailing shop in Sausalito sitting on a shelf.

Somebody must have used it for navigation on the ship. I asked about it and the shop keeper called it "our U-boat submarine decoder device." I told them what it actually was. And look, it was made in Liechtenstein, which no one thinks of as a center for computing. But once upon a time, it was.


The valley is not really built on the spires of earlier companies, but on their rubble.

Other things in this office are the K&E log-log duplex decitrig; It was the Cadillac of slide rules, with all the fins.

Teachers had these in classrooms. They'd hang it on the blackboard and they would show students how to use the calculators or how to use slide rules.

Gemperlein :   So these aren't so much failed objects as much as they're more passe ones?
Saffo :   Well, things from history. We always think about being a success, but there are vastly more failures in the valley than there are successes. And the valley is not really built on the spires of earlier companies, but on their rubble.