The Editor's Spin -
Mergers and Acquiescence
Stephen F. Nathans
May 2001 |Is Bob Newhart the most overrated comic actor in the history of television? It's hard to recall anyone of his stature and reputation whose schtick was so unabashedly dependent on the use of fellow cast members as props for his arch observations. For all his witty virtuosity, Newhart's approach was staggeringly one-dimensional. Did the man ever draw a laugh without acting stupefied at the stupidity of whoever shared the screen with him; exposing the buffoon before him with his halting delivery? As one-trick ponies go, he was quite skilled. But you've got to dock the guy a few yuks for aiming all his barbs at human stand-ins for the broad side of barns.
But Newhart didn't always make things so easy on himself. I can't see what was going on inside the old recordings of his early stage actclassic LPs like The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Bob's best bit in the prop-free Button-Down era was a mind-bending number called "Introducing Tobacco to Civilization." He'd portray the head of the "West Indies Company" in England receiving a telephone call from Sir Walter Raleigh, responding in disbelief as "Nutty Walt" struggled to explain a mass shipment of something called "tobacco."
"What's tobacco, Walt?" he'd ask. "You say it's a kind of leaf, and you bought 80 tons of it? You bought 80 tons of leaves? This may come as a surprise to you, Walt, but come fall in England, we're kind of up to our..." He'd continue, increasingly dumfounded, "You say it has lots of uses? What are some of the uses? What's snuff? You take a pinch of tobacco, and you shove it up your nose? OK...or, what's that? You put it on a piece of paper, and roll it up? Don't tell me, Walt, don't tell me...you stick it in your ear, right, Walt? Oh, between your lips, then what do you do to it, Walt? You set fire to it? Then, you inhale the smoke? Well, I think you're gonna have kind of a tough time selling people on stuffing burning leaves in their mouths."
It only takes a little perspective to see the absurdity in the commonplace, how odd and distorted the things that seem ordinary to us might look through someone else's eyes. Imagine how the latest economic downturn (we called them "Panics" in our more callow economy of a century ago) might appear to an outsider unschooled in how mass media manipulations insinuate themselves in our collective consciousness. Imagine how strange it would seem to discover how fragile and volatile is an economy where capital is so arbitrarily invested and shuffled about, based on indicators and formulae rather than resource surfeits and allocations. Especially, when those indicators and formulae are invented in the same universities where English professors build careers on relentless rehashes of the "deconstructionism" that Bob Newhart fully explained in 5:52 of stuttering standup.
No famines, floods, epidemics, or other phenomena of resource deprivation have set Fortuna's Wheel a-spinning here, save those rolling regional blackouts. Only "doubt," "concern," "uncertainty," and "fear," if you follow the headlines chronicling the NASDAQ and Dow's recent sags, based on some vague sense of possible cyclical retrenchment that only an infinitesimal percentage of those reacting to it even begin to understand. And they surely don't understand much else, those ex-laissez-faire loss cutters who've rushed to sell low to save fortunes whose utter disappearance somebody convinced them was a foregone conclusion. And all to find shelter from a storm whose eye is only in its beholder.
Phantom fears aside, said-storm's impact on our corner of the technology industry is undeniably real. In typical cart before the horse fashion, folks who would surely have kept their heads and held on if it had been up to them have succumbed to the tide, and washed ashore. The widely reported demise of dot coms is a mostly discrete concurrent occurrence, but the recent spate of sales and mergers among many companies that have played crucial roles in building this technology from the beginning is evidence enough that you don't need a war to have casualties. Seems like half of what we report these days is who sold off to whom, who dropped out of which market, and we're invariably talking about companies whose names have peopled these pages for years. Ricoh DMS' withdrawal from the U.S. market was an unexpected consequence of media price wars and anticipated dry-ups in the PC peripheral market (concomitant with dramatized drought conditions in the PC market itself). Storage market stalwart Cygnet has been looking for a buyer for some time now; only time will tell if its lapsed product development will resume under the auspices of Trace Affex, and if we'll see promising offerings like its striped, RAID-style DVD jukebox take tenuous steps into whatever remains of our hysterically shrinking economy when the dust settles on that deal.
Perhaps most unsettling of all, was Smart Storage's just-ink-dried sale to OTG Software. Never saw this one coming, and I'm none too sure Smart Storage did either. These guys have done a great job remaining independent of storage hardware interests for several years now, leaving them free to gauge the various read/write storage market directions from a pure software position, and partner astutely and accordingly. They've also shown a knack for seeing downfield better than their peers by shifting away from jukebox-based CD quasi-duplication (with which old allies JVC have never gotten anywhere) and DVD-R premastering (increasingly OS-bound), and leading, with their Infinet solution, the transformation of static and marginal hierarchical storage management into the hip and cogent world of rich media asset management.
But who knows where that goes under the OTG regime? I have to give them credit for seeing a good property in Smart Storage, but it's anybody's guess how they'll use it. Here's hoping they don't survey their new holdings (next-wave technologies that they are) and say, "What's that you say? A hot drink made from beans? Gee, Walt, who's gonna buy that?"