Yawn: How Did Big Tech Companies Turn into Big Boring Banks?

If you are reading TechCrunch you probably already realize this fact: Flavor-of-the-month consumer Internet companies have a way of hogging the spotlight. If you didn’t, we conveniently published some evidence of it yesterday.

But that reality predates us by at least a decade. In 1999 when the world talked about Silicon Valley, they usually meant sexy dot coms. The fascinating new reality of being able to do anything from buying groceries to downloading music instantly online was phenomenal (if ephemeral), and everyday consumers tended to miss the far larger, equally disruptive and frequently more sustainable businesses being built in enterprise software and telecom.

But Wall Street didn’t: Larry Ellison of Oracle eclipsed Bill Gates for a short time as the richest man in the world, Sun Microsystems and Cisco Systems were two of techs biggest out-performers of the era and the billions invested in telecommunications made the dot com cash look like chump change. Venture capitalists didn’t miss it either: Substantially more money was put into telecom companies in the run up to the dot com bust, lulled by a sense of false assurance that at least these overvalued companies had “real assets” that could be liquidated if need be.

In 2005 when people were writing headlines about “the return of Silicon Valley,” a lot of people working in technology were justifiably irritated. After all, tech behemoths like eBay, Yahoo, Oracle, Intel, Hewlett-Packard never exactly left. Silicon Valley and the tech industry in aggregate was several orders of magnitude bigger than it was pre-Internet bust, even with all the lost jobs and delisted companies. Veterans griped about sites like TechCrunch and ValleyWag making sweeping statements about the Valley, but really only reporting on a comparatively small-money resurgence in the then tiny consumer Internet space.

That focus on the sexy, social, consumer Web over everything else has only gotten more pronounced as those many of those one-time flavors of the month like Facebook, Zynga, Twitter and Groupon have become bonafide giants. The difference is that now the divergence in attention actually makes sense.

But it’s not necessarily between consumer and enterprise; it’s between old and new tech. It just looks like it’s all about consumer, because we just haven’t seen that many big new enterprise companies yet. (Plenty are building steam, and just keeping it quiet. Others just take time to get traction because traction is represented by paying customers, not just eyeballs.)

I’ve been thinking about this a lot the last few months. Once was during a conversation with Jon Swartz, the veteran tech reporter at USA Today. We were swapping war stories about having to report on big personalities like Scott McNealy and Larry Ellison and Tom Siebel back in the day. And he asked, “What ever happened to those huge personalities?”

Sure Ellison is still around, but he rarely does press and, sadly, his antics are even rarer. And the prickly-but-genius Steve Jobs has morphed into a comparatively boring do-no-wrong deity in popular Valley consciousness. There are few others left to even inspire. The biggest tech companies in the world used to be lead by outrageous visionaries. Now they’re mostly lead by boring businessmen so media trained they couldn’t say anything interesting if their life (or stock prices) depended on it.

It hit me again a few months later when I was talking to Peter Thiel about the state of publicly traded tech companies. We talked about embattled companies like Microsoft, Hewlett Packard, Yahoo and Cisco that can’t seem to do anything right except hang onto core cash cow businesses. These companies have all either had recent CEO changes or investors are calling for them. In the case of Yahoo, both are happening.

I asked Thiel if anyone could really change these companies’ fortunes or if they were just destined to be value stocks, their best days behind them. He said, “The problem is these big tech companies are just like banks now; all they do is print money. And that’s boring. What would you do as CEO? You could just massively fire people who pretend to be innovating and maximize that cash. Think about it– 90% of Google’s projects don’t make any sense. But [these companies] have [all] identified themselves as technology companies. It’s a big part of their self image.” He continued, “(Running these companies) is just not fun. People are too unfair on Carol Bartz. Yahoo is arguably in a tougher position than old media”

And it hit home again a few weeks ago during the All Things D conference during Marc Andreessen’s talk where he outlined many reasons why there isn’t a bubble in tech. More substantial than his rationale of the fact that everyone is freaking out about a bubble means we’re not en masse buying into one was his point about price-to-earnings ratios of the large tech companies. At the time, he noted that Google’s was 13.7, Apple’s was 12, Microsoft’s was 7 and Cisco’s was 7. Some of those are up since his talk, but they still hover between 9 and 15. “That’s what steel mills trade at when they are going out of business,” he said. “Essentially Android is being valued at zero. The public market hates tech.”

I agree that the P/Es of Apple and Google are somewhat puzzling. Let’s set them aside. For the rest of big tech, the market reaction isn’t necessarily without reason. Big tech–the publicly-traded companies that still control so much of our digital lives and the returns of venture capitalists via endless acquisitions–haven’t been giving the markets much to get excited about for years and it’s getting worse, not better. Worse: They’re not giving employees and customers anything to get excited about either.

This was also pronounced during the entire All Things D conference. I don’t in any way mean what I’m about to say as a knock on a competitor. All Things D is a phenomenal event and the only conference I cover these days other than our own. And while I think no one beats TechCrunch at giving startups a place to debut and assembling the biggest names in the venture-backed ecosystem, All Things D’s annual event rules when it comes to bringing together the big names in big tech. This is a conference, after all, that gets Jobs to appear on stage with Bill Gates. And, yet, most of the big tech names trotted out this year — while worthy of the slot by resume– were just utterly boring to listen to.

Nearly everyone I talked to in the hallways remarked on the vast difference in energy and content between the new guys on stage represented by Twitter’s Dick Costolo, Groupon’s Andrew Mason, Square’s Jack Dorsey and Andreessen and, well, nearly everyone else who spoke. Each of the old-tech guard sat on stage, made semi-amusing jokes, and justifications for why they are still relevant and why they’ll get better.

Eric Schmidt’s dour opening keynote that explored all the areas the still comparatively mighty Google has stumbled turned out to be the perfect table setter. Few of the others were as candid, but the same sorry-we-sucked-for-a-while-but-we-swear-we’re-getting-better justifications were there.  Steven Sinofsky of Microsoft talked about how the new version of Office is more Apple-y…if only all the silos in the company can agree to get behind it. Leo Apotheker of HP explained why HP would still win in tablets and why consumerization of the enterprise would benefit HP, not say, a company great at building consumer experiences. Shantanu Nayaren of Adobe said the whole war over Flash with Apple was overstated, but fortunately other vendors would eventually beat Apple anyway so it didn’t matter. Stephen Elop of Nokia talked about how Microsoft’s operating system would suddenly make Nokia a smart phone powerhouse. And finally, the conference fittingly closed with AT&T CEO Ralph De La Vega answering every angry volley from Walt and Kara about its loathsome network with justifications for why if we only give them the T-Mobile acquisition, all will be fixed. Is anyone buying any of this? 

It wasn’t the problem of the conference’s appeal. As a competitor, I’d love if that were the case. But realistically who in big tech would have been more riveting? You can’t have Steve Jobs every year. Meanwhile, there were plenty of people in the audience I would have rather heard from, including senior executives of surging companies like Facebook, One King’s Lane, and Yelp.

Is it any wonder there was such a frenzy around LinkedIn’s IPO? At least it’s a new script. It’s like when you used to be bored in class and a bird flew in the window and everyone went nuts. A bird probably wouldn’t be that exciting if you were outside playing frisbee.

It didn’t used to be that way. Big technology companies used to do interesting things and if not, many had cowboy personalities to make boring businesses interesting. But who wants to be head of a Nokia or a Microsoft or a Cisco or a Yahoo now? All of these companies have powerful entrenched user bases that aren’t going anywhere, and they’ll all make that justification anytime an analyst complains about their growth. Great. But their businesses are irrevocably declining if not in actual users, in terms of market influence and ability to recruit anyone talented. They can’t do wildly innovative things because stabs at innovation have failed so many times. They are in a total duck-and-cover mode. Who wants to be in duck-and-cover when a world of lucrative startups are exploding into the public markets?

In the last boom era, the publicly traded technology companies were also surging. Cisco’s John Chambers was nicknamed the Pied Piper of Wall Street. Today he is fighting for his job, along with Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer. In fact, their biggest selling point may be that so few great leaders want their jobs, and there’s no natural successors in the wings. Those people have all left for other opportunities. (There goes another one with always-the-bridesmaid-never-the-bride Ann Livermore’s departure from HP.) Then there’s Yahoo: The company so siloed and dysfunctional it’s made Terry Semel, Jerry Yang, and Carol Bartz– three respected leaders with totally different skill sets– each look incompetent. These companies have all essentially become Novell.

Out of the entire tech universe, three legacy companies have stayed as relevant as any startup: Apple, Amazon and Netflix. All three are testaments to visionary founders with a strong will who aren’t afraid to utterly disrupt their companies and cannibalize their own businesses.

The only other legacy tech public company I’d put near that camp is Oracle. And the reason that Larry Ellison outmaneuvered his entire industry? By predicting what is happening now: That the IT revolution was over. That tech was no longer a differentiator for his customers. It was merely table stakes to being in business, like having desks, power and phone lines. He argued the answer for growth was a sheer land-grab of already installed customers who would pay ongoing maintenance and upgrade fees until seemingly the end of time.

Back then everyone said Ellison was wrong. Top business schools wrote new case studies on why tech still mattered, software-as-a-service startups argued they could still unseat Oracle in big deals, and truckloads of experts said that hostile takeovers in the software world would never work because the integrations would be too messy and those companies’ real assets– programmers– would all leave. But Ellison was right. (Although I’d argue at some point a new generation of software will unseat Oracle and its acquired parts. It’ll just take a lot more than the first wave of software as a service companies had to offer.)

In previous decades of Silicon Valley companies were building a new industry, so almost all tech companies had growth potential. Now there’s a stark line between mature technology and technology that is still growing in aggregate. They are simply different industries. Arguing this is still one industry; that all of the companies who make technology are investing in change is like saying any company with a Web site is an Internet company.

As this discrepancy widens between 1990s era tech and today, I was reminded of an interview Thiel did several years ago with CNBC where he was asked what large cap tech names he was bullish on. He answered that other than Google there were no large cap tech names, because companies like Intel and Microsoft are inherently anti-technology companies. Their success, he said, is rooted in the status quo. The best of all possible worlds for them would be the global technology user base never adopting anything new. CNBC’s anchors looked confused at this concept. Microsoft isn’t a tech company? Not too long ago, Microsoft was *the* tech company. 

But Thiel was right. Too many of the companies that built out the IT revolution and Silicon Valley are “technology” companies in name only now. They aren’t disrupting anything, they are doing the opposite. They are desperately clinging to the status quo. They still have massive amounts of cash, massive installed user bases that won’t be switching loyalties anytime soon and those are really the only two reasons they still matter. To fuse Thiel and Ellison’s arguments: They are banks whose job is to print money paid by people who are slow to change their digital habits. Even our parent company AOL is funding its radical turn-around largely off of people who don’t know they no longer have to pay us every month for a subscription to the World Wide Web. (I’ll at least give Tim Armstrong credit for being interesting on stage.)

But it’s even more true now that huge, lucrative opportunities have sucked anyone remotely talented out of those companies. At least people were wary of working at a startup back then. Now it seems risky not to be at a startup. LinkedIn and Facebook alone have proved social media wasn’t a fad. These companies, along with Twitter, Zynga, Groupon and others, are legitimately the most interesting stories in the American business world today, as they play central roles in global political uprisings and represent some of the most anticipated stock market debuts of the last decade.

We can point out Groupon’s shortcomings and risks every day: The stock will still be in high-demand when it debuts. Because the reality is there are only a handful of companies actually inventing new technology and businesses among the biggest public traded tech names today.

The sooner we realize this is no longer one industry, the sooner we can stop the silly bubble comparisons to 1999 and get a handle on why these issues will keep popping. We all want something that’s actually growing and disrupting and inspiring. Silicon Valley and the start up world has gotten to enjoy a lot of it over the last ten years, and Wall Street is sick of just watching.