My flight from Chicago O’Hare to San Francisco International had just started accelerating down the runway when the pilot slammed on the brakes in a sudden jolt. The pilots’ voice came in over the intercom, “there has been a major earthquake in San Francisco, all airports have been closed”. The passengers started looking frantically at each other, hoping for some news, when one passenger said in a loud voice, ‘San Francisco is burning’.
He had been watching the ‘Battle of the Bay’–the baseball world series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s on his portable TV when the 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck the San Francisco Bay Area.
I was on the way to my first Silicon Valley job as Vice President of Sales, with Mountain View, CA based Proxim,*. They were one of the first companies to develop a new radio technology that would later be known as Wi-Fi.
The new Wi-Fi technology was made possible because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had just passed regulations opening up certain frequencies for unlicensed use of Radio Frequency systems. Until this point, every wireless installation had to be approved through a lengthy application process, so it was only practical for selected corporate applications.
Proxim had been in business for about five years, developing radio systems for manufacturers of warehouse inventory systems. Like many companies, they had drifted from their core competencies and started building elaborate custom systems for military manufacturing projects. As a result, they didn’t have a sustainable, or predictable business model, so the investors had given up and the money was running out.
. . . we were tasked with identifying new markets and finding large partners that would fund the development of our prototype into a final product . . .
The key enabling technologies for Wi-Fi had not been developed yet. So we were tasked with identifying new markets and finding large partners that would fund the development of our prototype into a final product for those new markets.
Dell had been founded five years earlier in Michael Dell's college dorm. The giant Cisco Systems had been founded four years earlier by a married couple with roots in Stanford University. The first Internet Service Providers (ISP's) were formed that same year in 1989, with broader commercial internet including the World Wide Web still years away. Apple was in turmoil after ousting Steve Jobs in 1985 (he didn't return until 12 years later - with the operating system that would become OSX).
This was the beginning of the Internet age. The next 10-20 years would completely change the world. I went on to work with start-ups that were later bought by giants like British Telecom, Motorola, and others.
* I had been living on the east coast and this was one of my monthly trips to the company before moving there in January 1990.