New, Hip and ...Geeky The new year promises to ring in more tech jargon for mainstream culture

Vanessa Hua, Chronicle Staff Writer

Bluetooth -- pop! B2C -- fizzle. M-commerce -- pop! Pure plays -- fizzle.

As evanescent and heady as champagne, business buzzwords can be sparkling. However, like bubbly, some terms intoxicate, others fall flat, and still more bring on hangovers on second thought.

Buzzwords serve as a window onto the most pressing and most fascinating issues of the day.

In 2001, those concerned yet hopeful about the economic downturn may talk about "soft landings" rather than use the dreaded term "recession." Those worried about the power crisis will speak of "brownouts" and "energy alerts." And discoveries in biotechnology could turn everyday conversation on to "genomics," the study of genes, and "nanotechnology," which is out to build machines of submicroscopic size.

Biz-speak once relegated to specialized techie circles is breaking out. With growing public interest in the high-tech industry, technical lingo is quickly becoming a lingua franca.

"Consumers are close to technology, use these things every day. They've heard about Java, even if their work isn't at all related to computers," said Sergey Brin, co-founder of the search engine Google, musing on the popularity of tech argot.

Tech buzzwords lend those who use them -- from the venture capitalist to the online novice -- a veneer of expertise.

"Before 1996 and the Web, technology words were the equivalent of technical terms in car racing and chemistry, for people who were acknowledged computer geeks," said Geoff Nunberg, a linguist and principal scientist at Xerox Parc.

Words such as digerati, e-mail and chat room have made their way into mainstream culture, rating entries in the latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Still, much of today's tech buzz won't last. Hello, vulture capitalists (investors who prey on flailing companies), adios venture capitalists. See ya, IPO (initial public offerings), welcome back, M&A; (mergers and acquisitions). Out with the old and in with the new -- that's what it's all about today.

"With regard to fashions in words, there's not much difference between managers and eighth-graders, except eighth-graders are more imaginative," Nunberg said with a chuckle. "Once everyone uses it, it's not cool."

Last year, the tech industry generated what seemed to be an entire new language of business terms, disseminated to the public through the media.

So frantic was the buzz that it

led to anti and parody jargon sites such as Buzzkiller ( and BuzzWhacker (

The proliferation of the jargon is driven by the need to hype experimental technology and business models.

"All the firms are trying to explain what they are to people who don't have much time," said Andy Getsey, chief executive officer of Atomic PR, a public relations firm in the South of Market area of San Francisco. "It's dense meaning packed into a short amount of space. It has to be memorable and catchy, an instant reference point."

Coining a phrase can help some stand out among their competitors.

"I invented the following e-Business buzz word that I am VERY proud of: e- Volution," a Boston public relations professional wrote in an e-mail.

"Editors and writers always quote me in my press releases when I use this term. PLEASE quote me and cite my work if you use the above.

I worked very hard to come up with these."

Alas, stating concepts concisely can cloud meaning and lead to such phrases as "end-to-end solutions," "value-added" and "monetizing."

Overhyped phrases in 2000 that fell along with the Nasdaq include three- letter acronym business models B2B (business to business) and B2C (business to consumer) and "pure plays" (companies that do business only on the Internet).

Nowadays, businesses that integrate the Internet into their sales and profits, or "bricks and clicks," are among the survivors.

Some tech firms even excised "dot-com" from their name, scarlet letters after the demise of sites such as fashionista and pet supply e-tailer Likewise, the prefixes e- (electronic) and i- (information) are getting stale, and m- (mobile) is leading the way. M-commerce -- anytime, anywhere transactions -- is this week's cutting edge.

"That e- and i-stuff, it's too easy and not too creative," said Hal Varian, dean of the school of information management at the University of California at Berkeley and co-author of "Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy." "It's passe," he said.

Other terms, such as "broadband" (high-speed Internet access), "WAP" (wireless application protocol, a technology standard that delivers the Internet to mobile devices) and "convergence" (the intersection of technologies, such as voice and data networks) became more faddish than their development warranted.

What is it that makes a buzzword buzz? A catchword catch? A jargon jarg? What will be some of the coffee talk this year?

We took an informal poll of consultants, business leaders and even a Silicon Valley psychic. Here's what they came up with as likely to catch on in 2001:

-- Peer to peer, p to p, or P2P, a concept first popularized by Napster, are networks of individual computers connected by the Internet used to find and share digital data.

"The next 12 months will see the rise of peer to peer," said futurist Paul Saffo, head of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park. "It is to two- client servers what the client server was to the mainframe: It will displace client servers."

But Google's Brin disagreed. "I expect peer to peer go away, though there may be some peer-to-peer golf," he joked.

-- "Wireless" will have lasting currency into this year, along with some of its specific technologies and applications.

"What I feel most drawn to in the coming year is wireless," said Barbara Courtney, a Peninsula business soothsayer who works off intuition. "There will be capability of the speaker phone. More portability, wireless, and eventually the laptop could be replaced by a unit that involves wireless communication."

-- Bluetooth, a wireless technology that eliminates the use of cables between electronic devices (say, between a mobile phone and a computer) and replaces them with connections via low-frequency radio signals, will also emerge, industry watchers say.

"Certain technologies, like Bluetooth, bridge that gap, the holes in the wireless world," said Robin Vasan, general partner at the Mayfield Fund, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park.

-- Another likely winner is i-mode, the enormously popular service in Japan offering wireless Web browsing and e-mail from mobile phones. Japan's biggest mobile phone company, NTT DoCoMo, paid $9.8 billion at the end of November for a 16 percent stake in AT&T; Wireless Group to start i-mode service in the U.S. market, where wireless applications have so far not caught on.

"NTT has global ambitions, and the U.S. is a key market because of the high- income, tech-savvy consumer base," said Elizabeth Harr Bricksin, vice president of international operations at the Strategis Group, a Washington, D. C., telecommunications consulting firm. "Though low in content value, i-mode is high in the number of people it can reach, and it's easily downloadable."

-- Also up are "intelligent buffers," digital recorders that offer enhanced delivery and allow instant replay and rewind of live television, music and other entertainment.

"I see that extending itself into the audio area," said Jim Griffin, chief executive officer of Cherry Lane Digital in Los Angeles. "For example, a mobile device for audio in the car, that can grab singles while you're out. That will be interesting and exciting."

The buzzwords that make it this year will probably have to do with the intersection of technology and daily life.

"Before, the techno-speak was about technology artifacts," said Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer of Sun Microsystems, the network computing giant in Palo Alto. "Now, it won't be about the network itself, but about the things that deal with the person's interaction with the network."

E-mail Vanessa Hua at [email protected].


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