Friday, April 11, 2008

TiVo minus 50

OK, I’m a sucker for technology history — and even more so, for contrarian views, beyond the crowds. Thus, I was pleased to see Mike Cassidy’s column this morning in the Merc on Ampex, the company that invented video taping:

It was a bold, proud Silicon Valley company with star power and stunning technology.

OK, so it was stunning 60 years ago. But Ampex, which pioneered audio and video tape recording, is still with us. And so is the towering Ampex sign honoring the company's history. You've seen it just off Highway 101 in Redwood City.

Last week, Ampex filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Its head count is down to 101 from a long-ago peak of 12,000. Its shares are trading at about 40 cents. …

Ampex belongs in the Silicon Valley pantheon. It was the valley's first hip company - swinging with the likes of Bing Crosby and Les Paul. (Check Wikipedia, junior.) It's won an Oscar, 12 Emmys and a Grammy. Sure, technical stuff, but not bad bling.

Larry Ellison and Nolan Bushnell, of Atari fame, are Ampex alums. The company gave us Ray Dolby. Yes, the Dolby Sound Dolby. Ampex developed video recording (yes! reruns!) and slow motion. It was TiVo before TiVo.
Fortunately, Ampex’s role on the communications and electronics industry has not gone entirely unnoticed:
Henry Lowood, curator of the Stanford University Libraries' Silicon Valley Archives, is down with the Ampex appreciation crowd. It's an occupational hazard given that Lowood oversees hundreds of thousands of artifacts in the library's Ampex collection - everything from washing-machine-size videotape recorders to scraps of paper from the days Ellison was on the payroll.
It wasn’t just a technological pioneer, but a cultural one as well:
[B]ack in the 1940s, Ampex had the Bingster. Crosby realized this tape-recording thing had possibilities - not the least being that he could record his live New York radio show and replay it three hours later for the West Coast.

Ampex, Lowood says, was a culture company as much as a technology company. A culture/technology hybrid like Google, Pixar, Yahoo, Apple and others are today.

The company was out in front in other ways, too, says John Leslie, an Ampex booster from Portola Valley. Leslie worked with Ampex from the 1940s to the 1960s and eventually became company vice president. Ampex was a start-up before there were start-ups.

Its early engineers knew they were onto something and they were determined to push it to the limit.
Alas, its market cap has fallen to $1.5 million because it's losing (at last count) $4 millon/year. But even if it doesn’t make it, it seems Ampex’ place in history is assured.

Photo: Stanford University Libraries via the San Jose Mercury-News

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