Sound of Silicon Valley is the unmistakeable hush of money


Palo Alto is a sort of a theme park – it feels a bit like being in The Prisoner, it is so perfect and hyper-real. It is the heart of Silicon Valley.

There is an excellent guide to Silicon Valley in general and to Palo Alto in particular, written by a man called Steve Blank. So you know exactly where to go if you want to stand outside the garage at 367 Addison Avenue, where Bill Hewlett and David Packard started to develop their first product, an audio oscillator, in 1938. The garage was designated “the birthplace of Silicon Valley” in 1989, and it and all the woodwork of the pretty house, which was divided into two apartments back in Bill and David’s day, are painted dark green. The Hewlett-Packard company bought the house in 2000.

Judgment questioned

That morning – last Tuesday, November 27th – Hewlett-Packard was featured in the Wall Street Journal, and not in a good way. The story was about the company’s disastrous purchase of Autonomy, a British software company for which, according to the Wall Street Journal, HP paid more than $11 billion in October 2011. Now HP is claiming Autonomy inflated its financial results. The judgment of HP chief executive Meg Whitman is being called into question. But here on the corner of Waverley and Addison HP’s past is tranquil and heroic.

Steve Jobs’s house is about a 20-minute walk away from the Hewlett-Packard house. As you walk down Waverley Street, past Kellogg, past Churchill, past Coleridge and Lowell and Tennyson, which all cross it at pretty regular intervals, the hedges do tend to get higher, just like in a fairy tale. And the squirrels, which are everywhere, are almost black. But on the whole the houses, in this part of Palo Alto at least, have no big barriers around them; the very opposite of a gated community.

Here the cars roll into the driveways through open gates and kids swing into the front doors of their houses on their chopper bikes. The kids are wearing helmets on the bikes, mind you. The roads are wide and scattered with autumn leaves. The gardens are well tended – a lot of box – and the gardeners are dark-skinned.

Jobs’s house is on a corner, with two sides of it totally exposed to the road. This is where Jobs died. There is a barely visible low fence, more like a demarcating wire, running around it. It looks like a house in a fairy tale. It’s faux-Elizabethan, with tall chimneys and an undulating roof of small black tiles. It looks like it should be standing in the Cotswolds on a hot day. Its woodwork is black and the upstairs windows are open. At one of them a tanned child of perhaps 10 or 12 is sitting, looking out.

It is only afterwards, on the internet, that the house appears to have gates. Maybe they’d been left open that day for the drivers of the two pick-up trucks and the two people carriers parked out front.

Zurich’s much younger sister

On the main street of the Palo Alto wonderland, which is called University Avenue, Stanford University never being, in any sense, all that far away, quite a lot of effort has gone into creating a lighthearted atmosphere. There are restaurants called Pizza My Heart and the Crepe Vine. In the Apple Store all the assistants wear deep red T-shirts. The Stanford Theatre cinema is advertising its Deanna Durbin festival. But still there’s the unmistakeable hush of money everywhere, as if Palo Alto was Zurich’s much younger, hippy sister.

Every day hundreds, perhaps thousands of men and women travel the 40 or 50 miles from San Francisco to work in Silicon Valley. “Although actually Silicon Valley starts here,” said my guide. At that point we were sitting in the Creamery cafe opposite the Caltrain station in San Francisco. Earlier that morning we had passed the workers gathering for the coaches that Google and other companies have hired to bring their employees from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, Google being up the road from Palo Alto in Mountain View. But my friend is working for a small start-up, so we were getting the train.

At the Creamery we were the only customers not using electronic devices. My friend ordered us two double soya lattes, to which the girl behind the counter responded: “All our lattes are double.” The two double soya lattes and a croissant cost $4.50.

The Creamery is one of the places where the venture capitalists coming in to the city meet the young start-up people who are still based in San Francisco.

There was one black man present in the cafe as we spoke.

The trains are high and doubledeckered. There’s a single line of seating above your head on either side of each carriage, on a sort of mezzanine level. You can bring your bicycle on the train. There were two Italian men in good suits, with their interpreter, looking around them like strangers. The three of them disembarked at Palo Alto.

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