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Silicon Valley guru embraces change

Wednesday, April 05, 2000

By Ken Zapinski, Associate Editor/Business

Innovation, according to Silicon Valley master marketer Regis McKenna, isn't about bits, bytes and bandwidth. It's about how those technological changes transform the way we live.

And to prove his point to an audience of fellow Duquesne University alumni yesterday, he reached back into his childhood in Brookline.

On the neighborhood's main drag, there sat the Brookline Bank, a huge edifice with a massive vault that by its nature said "safety." And that bank -- or one very much like it in neighborhoods across the country -- is where people stored their money so they knew it would be there for the future.

No longer.

Thanks to the public acceptance of automatic teller machines, "any street corner can become a bank." As can a convenience store, or an airport concourse. We don't go anywhere without counting on being able to get cash.

"That is how it changes our behavior," McKenna said.

And for the past generation, the Duquesne philosophy grad has been helping to persuade the world to open its arms and embrace the latest technological marvel.

He helped introduce the world to the world's first microprocessor from Intel Corp. and the first personal computer from Apple. Since heading to California after his graduation in 1963, McKenna and his firm have worked with one-time start-ups such as Microsoft and America Online, 3Com and Genentech.

McKenna, 60, has an "understanding of the soul of this technology and how we should react to it," Duquesne President John E. Murray Jr. told the school's annual Downtown Alumni Luncheon crowd.

"He has been called one of the 100 people without whom the Silicon Valley would not have occurred. And rightfully so," Murray said. The San Jose Mercury News named McKenna a member of its "Millennium 100" of most significant residents of thevalley.

McKenna has kept a hand in his old hometown as well. He's on the advisory board of the Downtown software company Storm LLC. And as a partner in the venture capital firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, he's an investor in FreeMarkets Inc.

Yesterday, he offered an optimistic view of the future and a little advice on how to deal with it.

"What businesses have to do, what everybody has to do ... is prepare themselves for the eventuality of anything. That sounds crazy. But that in fact is what we've been doing."

Again he reached back into the past, recalling his father. "He was born in 1898. Think of the changes he saw -- telephone networks, television, airplanes, space flight, computers, genetic engineering, the Internet.

And he brushed away concerns about a digital divide, a gulf between the affluent who can afford technology and the poor who can't. Technology becomes increasingly cheaper until it becomes ubiquitous.

McKenna used the example of microprocessors. In 1970, the ability to crunch one million instructions per second -- a standard measure of computing power -- cost $1 million. By 1980, the cost had dropped to $100,000. Today, that power costs about $1.50.

And as people seek guidance in how to cope with the future, he suggested they turn back to the 19th century and Charles Darwin. The naturalist said that the species that survive won't be the most intelligent or the strongest, but the ones most responsive to change.

"Today," McKenna said, "We need imagination more than anything else in our lives."

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