Interview with a Tech Expert: Robert Cringely

Robert Cringely has been reporting on tech trends since the ‘80s, which means he’s seen the rise and fall of many trends, companies, and gadgets. His blog, Cringely.com, brings readers an insightful look into a variety of tech topics. Fancy yourself a techie? Then you won’t want to miss Robert’s responses to our enquiries about the tech world!

Your blog, Cringely.com, covers a wide variety of technology topics. What inspired you to start the site?

I started blogging in 1997 at the invitation of PBS, where I was one of the original bloggers on PBS.org. This was before blogging was even called that. I wrote for PBS until the end of 2008 when I moved to Cringely.com. It was my choice. For once I wasn’t fired.

You first started writing for InfoWorld, a weekly computer trade newspaper, back in 1987. How did this background influence your current interest in technology?

The better question is: how did my interest in technology affect my decision to write for InfoWorld? I’d been a professional journalist since the age of 14 with time off to work as an engineer of sorts with several Silicon Valley startups, including Apple. When I decided to go back to journalism, it was a simple matter deciding to cover technology, and InfoWorld was the closest publication to my home in Palo Alto.

Your book, “Accidental Empires” explores the interesting personalities of some popular Silicon Valley names (like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates) and the technologies they created. What was one of the most surprising things you learned during your research?

I learned a lot, but frankly most of what was in that book I experienced more than learned. But to single out one thing it must be the scene of Bill Gates holding-up the line at 7-11 while he searched for an ice cream coupon.

I got this story the day after it happened from the guy behind Bill who was a very credible engineer at Boeing with no axe to grind or agenda. It was just funny. Bill hated it of course and denied it. But here’s the interesting part: Bill felt the need to prove to me that it couldn’t have been him. “I don’t get a daily newspaper,” he said in 1995. “Coupons come in the newspaper and if I didn’t get a newspaper I couldn’t have been looking for a coupon.” This is nonsense, but what’s interesting to me was he felt the need to convince me. He’s the richest man in the world, why should he give a damn what I think?

You also recently published, “The Decline and Fall of IBM.” What do you think was the biggest factor that contributed to the company’s downfall? And what do you think it will take for them to rise again?

You are jumping the gun a bit here, Erin. IBM’s downfall hasn’t yet happened. Oh they are headed in the toilet, but let’s not write them off just yet. The problem with IBM and a lot of other American companies is that their priorities are all screwed-up because their incentives are designed incorrectly. Wall Street has somehow become convinced that the measure of a good company is earnings-per-share (EPS), not running a good business or achieving some more worthy goal. So, we incent EPS by tying to it executive compensation. You get what you incent, which is why we have companies like IBM that post great earnings yet are literally rotten inside. This is all about CEO Ginni Rometty’s paycheck and retirement package (and Sam Palmisano’s before her) and nothing else. It’s sad.  

Your work has appeared in tons of well-known publications, like “The New York Times,” “Newsweek,” and “Forbes.” What media sources do you rely on for the latest news in the tech field?

Original sources. I speak every day with techies all over the world. In fact there are sources I’ve heard from almost every day for 20+ years. We learn a lot from each other. This doesn’t work without a quid pro quo.

You have more than 9,000 (!) followers on Twitter. Have any of your readers ever given you tips about new tech products to try?

That many? No tips through Twitter, sorry. I don’t really use it except to announce each post. I don’t think I follow anyone. Stupid, eh? Well, I’m old.

The “Predictions” section of your site includes your guesses for various trends in the tech world. Have you been truly surprised by any trends over the last couple of years? And do you have any predictions for the future?

I’ve been surprised by too many trends, which is why over the years my predictions have only been about 65 percent correct (I keep track, and if I didn’t, my readers would for me). I’ll point out that 65 percent is better than anyone else who prints technology predictions.

But to get to your point about what’s surprised me, plenty of things. To name just one, I just never saw the iPod as a big thing, which is stupid in retrospect. On 9/11/2001, I was speaking to eighth graders at Pleasanton Middle School, the kids were distracted by the WTC attack, so teacher Fred Emerson told me how much he loved his new iPod and I just couldn’t see it. So I must admit publicly that Fred Emerson was right, and I was wrong about the iPod.

Do you have any tech companies that you think people should watch for?

Watch for and watch-out for. Watch for lots of startups, the names of which you wouldn’t know and you couldn’t invest in them in any case. Mobile is the big deal these days, but it needs infrastructure support and there’s lots happening there, too. Watch-out for bigger companies like IBM. I’m worried for Cisco. As enterprise markets change and prices drop, these high-margin companies are going to be under increasing pressure. Then, there are stalwarts like Yahoo that I wonder if they even have a clue.

Apple recently announced their new smartwatch that some predict will be a huge hit. What are 2 or 3 gadgets that you think will be ubiquitous in the next couple of years?

The most valuable IT real estate right now is on your wrist. We’ll see lots of action there. The Oculus Rift has set virtual reality ablaze after that market segment went to sleep 15 years ago, but its time has now come thanks – as always – to Moore’s Law.

We’ll see devices like that used for far more than just games. Once better security and the cloud are fully baked into our mobile gizmos I expect they’ll become pretty much disposable, which will change the way we see them (and lower our tolerance for high prices).

Thanks so much for your time! Any last minute words of wisdom for our CouponPal readers?

A consumer who is too informed doesn’t yet exist. Until that time, CouponPal rules!

Like this interview? Check out the rest of our Interview with an Expert series. Have a question for an expert or someone you want to see interviewed? Tweet your suggestions with #Experts to @CouponPal!

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