Journalist and author Mike Malone, who grew up in Silicon Valley and has written about the companies and the people here since 1979, came to the Computer Museum in Mountain View recently to promote his latest book, The Intel Trinity: How Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore, and Andy Grove Built the World’s Most Important Company.His conversation with NBC Bay Area anchor Scott Budman on the Computer Museum stage in front of a packed house quickly veered beyond the book’s subject matter and became an opinionated romp through Silicon Valley’s past and into its future. Some highlights:
On the people who represented the eras of Silicon Valley:
“There are a series of key figures in the Valley’s history. Terman sets the ground. Packard is the first world historic figure and the leader of the Valley through the 60s. Then Noyce. Then Jobs,” Malone said. Right now, however, there is no obvious leader. “When Queen Elizabeth came to the Valley, it was assumed that Packard would meet her,” he said. “When the Japanese semiconductor industry attacked, the only person who could speak for the U.S. industry was Bob Noyce. Now, when Obama flies in, who stands up and says they represent Silicon Valley? No one.”
But that vacuum may soon be filled. “I think Elon Musk is the next major figure of the Valley,” Malone said.
“There’s a nostalgia,” NBC’s Budman interjected,“for a smooth CEO, a good-looking CEO.”“An adult CEO,” Malone quipped, someone who will “take off the hoodie and put on a shirt.”
On Intel’s management:
Malone described Noyce, Moore, and Grove as a “Holy Trinity. You’ve got Noyce, the father of Silicon Valley; Moore, with the law, as the Holy Spirit; and [Grove] the difficult but ultimately successful son.”
On Steve Jobs’ connection to Bob Noyce:
“Apple is patterned on Hewlett-Packard, but Jobs is patterned on Noyce. Noyce’s death shattered Steve Jobs,” Malone said. “It grew him up. Jobs grew up twice—Noyce’s death, and his own illness—those [events] created the Steve Jobs of legend.
On Gordon Moore’s big mistake:
Malone thinks Gordon Moore made a big mistake in 1965, when he wrote the paper that described what came to be known as Moore’s Law. “He wanted to write about the performance of memory chips, and he had maybe six of them. He drew a graph, and [the slope was so steep] it went off the page. So he did it again with log paper, and it formed a shallow, comfortable line.” That’s the graph he used. “We got used to that nice line,” Malone said. But it was misleading, because it made the rate of technology change seem fast, but not too fast to assimilate. He explained that replotting that line as a regular graph, not a logarithmic one, from 0 to 10 billion transistors, you discover that in 2005 the curve takes a dramatic vertical turn. And then, Malone said, you can see “that everything we’ve been through—from transistor radio through the Internet and smart phones, is all in the foothills, and the leaps every two years now are staggering. Everything we’ve gone through now is just a prelude to what’s about to hit us.”
On the shifting center of Silicon Valley, geographically and technically:
Malone, a resident of Silicon Valley since childhood, said the capital of Silicon Valley, the center of the action, keeps changing. It started in Palo Alto, he explained, with companies like Hewlett-Packard and Varian. It then slowly crept south, to Mountain View and Santa Clara and Sunnyvale (where many of the semiconductor companies are located). Then, he said, with the boom in Internet-related startups, it hopped north to San Francisco. “The capital of Silicon Valley has been San Francisco since 1998 he said.”
But change is coming. “The valley is getting ready to make another move of its capital,” he said. “This is ground zero: the triangle of Sunnyvale, Mountain View, and Cupertino. And it will be for next 10 years. Facebook is down here. Google is here. I was in downtown Sunnyvale and there is a million-square-foot office building under construction—for Linked In. And the Apple donut is coming.”
One reason, he said, is that San Francisco is becoming inhospitable to tech companies, with the current backlash against tech workers. And those tech workers are growing up, and looking for a more child-friendly place to have families.
But probably a bigger reason, he explained, is the technical shift, from software back to hardware. “ They code stuff up there, we build stuff down here,” he said. “If you look at Tesla, wearables, health care, mobile medical, it’s all hardware.”
On the future of Apple under Tim Cook:
Malone said that he predicted that Tim Cook was going to be a great CEO, at least for a while, because he knew “how to handle Steve, if you controlled him, he created magic, if you unleashed him, he destroyed the morale and created chaos.” Cook’s management talent would make Apple more profitable than ever for a few years, but Cook is not the person who, Malone said, “when you came with a new idea, would say that isn’t crazy enough. [Under Jobs,] Apple was pro-risk, not risk adverse—you got punished for not taking enough risk.”
Without that risk-pusher at the top, Malone said, “I think the age of Apple as the most exciting company has gone by.”
On Facebook’s strategy:
Malone thinks Facebook’s push to make money off of its users is “a very dangerous game.” If they make a mistake, people will walk away from the site, he said, because there isn’t enough to hold them there. But, that said, Malone says “Zuckerberg’s strategy has been brilliant, because he knows the vulnerability. So he goes out and buys Instagram. Then Instagram is no longer the flavor of the day, so he buys What’sApp. Zuckerberg is jumping from rock to rock in this roaring river of the technical revolution. [And he can do that because] every company around here is like Scrooge McDuck, they have vaults filled with gold coins.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.