The memorabilia of failure

I want the Slam Man punching bag. I definitely have dibs on that punching bag.

Unfortunately, I can’t actually fly out to Menlo Park, Calif., where the auctioning of Egghead.com’s office equipment and assorted memorabilia is taking place. And I feel, as all Canadian IT people must, like

I’m missing out. Why don’t we get a chance to bid on Egghead.com’s pinball machine, or the tombstone sign on its front lawn?

In the small town where I grew up, auctions were second in popularity only to yard sales, which continue to litter the landscape with old clothes and now-defunct juicemakers. Friends of mine would mention their plans to go “”yardsaling”” on the weekend (I refuse to use it as a verb) and perform that strange suburban ritual of milling through other people’s stuff. It’s usually pretty quiet. You see them shuffling around, gingerly picking up antiquated cameras and silverware, put them back down and move on.

In contrast, the auctions of failed Internet companies have replaced power lunching as the IT industry’s competitive sport. It started last October, when hundreds of bidders flocked to California’s Foster City for the bankruptcy proceedings of online grocery store Webvan. It sounded worse than the Friday night checkout line at A&P, as prices soared for computers, desks and a basketball hoop.

On the other hand, enterprises suffering under tight budget controls might do well to make the trek to some of these events, where there are genuinely good deals to be had. Last month, for example, Excite attracted shoppers at its Redwood City offices for the auction of Exite@Home goodies. This reportedly included 14 EMC Clariion Storage fibre channel arrays that had never been taken out of the box.

Who knows whether some of the assets up for grabs are truly objects of desire or simply a strange set of collectors’ items for those who want to capture the spirit of an entrepreneurial era. Certainly the mania surrounding some of these sales matches perfectly the overblown expectations, the impulse buying and the general insatiability which characterized the dot-com boom. But it is not limited to dot-com companies alone, nor is it restricted to the United States. I’m sure someone out there managed to scoop up a couple of the Creative Labs’ BlasterPCs belonging to bankrupt Empac from Markham, Ont. Hopefully some smart parents managed to put their bids on the Barbie and Hot Wheels computers left over from the detritus of collapsed hardware provider Patriot Computers of Toronto.

The memorabilia of failure might better be left off the auction block and instead stored in a time capsule, the better to remind us of the naiveté to which we once fell victim. Everyone would probably have their own list, but let me start you off: One foozeball table, half a dozen iMacs (the old kind, which will one day be called “”retro””), a pair of khakis, and maybe a couple of dog-eared business plans.

Ideally, we might all benefit if the offices of a Webvan, Egghead.com or Excite@Home were kept permanently under glass. Then, one day, after we’ve come out this downturn, we could take another walk around it as you might your old bedroom in your parent’s house — and smile at how we’ve outgrown it all.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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