Technology guru George Gilder is in search of redemption. So is Foveon, the Silicon Valley startup covered in his latest book. Gilder is trying to...
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Technology guru George Gilder is in search of redemption. So is Foveon, the Silicon Valley startup covered in his latest book.
Gilder is trying to restore his reputation after wildly excessive optimism during the telecom bubble, which wiped out many of the most devoted subscribers to his once-influential investment newsletter, the Gilder Technology Report.
Foveon has an innovative design for digital camera chips, but the 75-person Santa Clara, Calif., company is struggling to turn its new idea into a profitable business.
Gilder, 65, still commands at least a small audience, such as one at a recent reception at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., to celebrate publication of his book on Foveon, “The Silicon Eye.”
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His story and Foveon’s speak to the valley’s compulsive drive to take risks in pursuit of the next big idea.
Before the reception, Gilder admitted to disappointment with Foveon’s lack of customers but said his book is “more interesting because Foveon isn’t blowing the world away.”
He also readily conceded his bubble-era failings. At the same time, he pointed with pride to recent successful recommendations in his newsletter.
In the late 1990s, Gilder seemed golden as the companies touted in his newsletter racked up huge gains. He was briefly rated as one of the nation’s best stock pickers. Then came the crash of 2000, crushing Gilder favorites such as Globalstar and Global Crossing.
Wired magazine, which featured him in a favorable 1996 cover story, came back with a profile in July 2002 titled, “The Madness of King George.” Financial commentator Christopher Byron, writing in the New York Post last August said Gilder is “pumping out the bombast and malarkey as if the tech wreck had never happened.”
Before the crash, Gilder had 110,000 subscribers — each paying several hundred dollars a year — to a group of newsletters, run from a small office near his home in western Massachusetts. He’s down to a single newsletter with 5,000 subscribers.
But it’s a mistake to discount Gilder entirely. Beyond his recent solid stock picks, much of what he said during the 1990s about the future of telecommunications is coming true.
He became famous in 1981 with a book called “Wealth & Poverty,” a justification of supply-side economics that became a cornerstone for President Reagan’s idea of growing government revenue by cutting taxes.
He shifted his focus to technology, informally studying physics and electronics at the California Institute of Technology under legendary professor Carver Mead.
Mead and his students were trying to devise electronic circuits that functioned like neurons in the brain, ultimately leading to a kind of silicon retina that became the basis for Foveon.
Gilder’s 300-page book is choppy and doesn’t fully support its grand subtitle: “How a Silicon Valley Company Aims to Make All Current Computers, Cameras, and Cell Phones Obsolete.”
But it also would be a mistake to write off Foveon. The company’s innovative chip, introduced in September 2000, delivers more accurate colors in a smaller package with less power consumption than established imaging technologies called CCD and CMOS.
These advantages don’t stand out in conventional digital cameras but could be important in emerging applications, such as cellphone cameras and medicine.
So far, only Sigma, a small Japanese company, has sold a camera with the Foveon chip. The $1,000 Sigma SD9 and subsequent SD10 got good reviews but sold in quantities that would be a rounding error to giants such as Canon, Kodak, Nikon and Sony.
A second project with a low-end electronics company to make a $300 Foveon digital camera under the Polaroid brand name has become an embarrassment. Delayed for almost a year, the first of the Polaroid/Foveon cameras were recalled from stores in Great Britain because of bugs.
Mike Langberg is a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News.