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12/10/2001
12:29 PM
Lou Bertin
Lou Bertin
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The Observer: Predicting The Past

Columnists are supposed to revisit last year's predictions at this time of year. Lou Bertin would rather skip the mortification.

At this time of year, fulfillment of the columnist's oath requires that we revisit predictions made a year earlier, a process that's always loaded with head-slapping at one's pompousness and smugness, depressingly few moments of wonder at predictions that actually came true, and embarrassment at having missed so many clear portents of things that were then aborning.

This year, none of that matters a whit--or at least it feels like it doesn't matter a whit. We'll save reflections about the attack that changed so many of our personal and professional lives for the back end of this piece.

Let's begin at the beginning. What all did I miss as I sat last year and sucked my own thumb (to use William Safire's favorite locution for the process that fuels these pieces)? Oh, nothing more than a global recession, the more-than-halving of Nasdaq values, the evisceration of the IT and airline industries in particular and of businesses in general, and two undeclared wars involving either the United States or a close ally.

Nice work there, Bertin.

What was on my mind last year? I looked it up. To my humiliation, I found that I was fascinated by the certain breakup of Microsoft and the machinations taking place at AOL Time Warner, the company that--I was certain--would emerge as the entity that would finally achieve the holy grail of synergistic content and content provision. As I said, a humiliating process.

What did I see this year, especially at the InformationWeek gatherings that provide me so much in the way of insight and satisfaction? Lots and lots of people running scared and becoming even more scared as the summer came and went. Heads were plainly on the line. As the year wore on, many folks whose insight I had come to value, as I bounce around the country meeting with InformationWeek readers, simply weren't there anymore. The factors leading to their professional demise were summed up neatly by a publishing-industry CIO who said, "We'd better start printing some money, because we're sure not making any." Ouch. So many of the people involved in the "head-count reductions" that defined this business year are smart, talented, and (at least in the case of so many of my erstwhile ex-teammates) absolutely great people. I'm sure you can say the same of the folks who once populated your professional lives.

As for my Microsoft prediction, I take some solace that the legal process ran true. A finding against Microsoft was handed down. As part of its penance, Microsoft proposes to use $1 billion to carve for itself a dominant position in the education market, one of the few segments where it doesn't dominate. The gesture, I'm sure, is well-motivated, but the fact that it's court-ordered settlement money makes the transparency of Microsoft's motivation manifest (if indeed transparency can be made manifest) and proves that there's a Gibraltarlike consistency to Microsoft's overriding corporate culture. Praise be that Microsoft's consistency was, is, and ever shall be such an easy target.

The AOL Time Warner musings are best left completely alone. My reach in offering them completely exceeded my grasp, and the same can be said for Steve Case and Gerry Levin. So be it.

Which brings us to the only story that mattered this year. There aren't sufficient words to even begin to assess the incalculable human cost of the attacks of September 11; I won't even try. The only comfort (if indeed that's the proper description) is that there's no time for hangovers, even for those most intimately affected. Life, comfortingly if excruciatingly painfully, goes on. We regenerate as best we can, at whatever pace we can. As a wise friend of mine likes to say, "Justice means we sometimes have to hurt people for good reason; revenge means hurting people just to make ourselves feel better." May our urges continue to hew to that delicate balance.

And what are we left with? Nothing less that the largest-ever bankruptcy filing in American history and 100,000 jobs lost in the airline industry alone and at least as many lost among technology providers--much less the multiple of that figure among technology users. The cherry on this sundae is that the most-awaited invention of the year turns out to be a $3,000 scooter with multiple gyroscopes.

What else is happening? Applications for admission to colleges in New York City and Washington, D.C., are at record high levels. The extraordinary amount of chaff that grew along with the dot-com cash crop is gone. Companies that redefined themselves through their strategic (or just plain lucky) use of technology are those least affected at best (and best positioned for regrowth at worst) as the economy begins its inevitable recovery.

After last year's dismal efforts, I'm reluctant to offer too much in the way of predictions, so I'll confine myself to one: The recovery will be upon us as swiftly, and in some ways as imperceptibly, as the recession. Count on that.

I close these musings with thanks to all of you who have taken the time to offer gentle and not-so-gentle observations, corrections, and elaborations on the pixels that fill this space. My thanks, too, to all of you who have invested your time with me at InformationWeek events.

Last, for all the pain this past year visited upon us, I become more and more convinced that the only approach that will pay off for us is to flip the page on the calendar eagerly later this month and approach the nearly clean slate of 2002 with optimism. Optimism shaded with sadness and immutable painful realities, but optimism nonetheless.

Play smart these next few weeks. I'll see you around the corner.

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