Guttag, a 63-year-old native New Yorker, has spent the last three decades at MIT, and he admits that he worries about this region’s tech future. “Boston has a lesson to learn from the computer business,” he says, invoking the ghost of Digital Equipment Corp., the once-leading computer maker that was overtaken by smaller, more agile rivals. With Digital and Wang Laboratories, he says, “we went from dominant to also-ran to nonexistent.” And he sees a similar threat from Bloomberg country. After all, New York isn’t trying simply to copy Boston’s model; it needs to improve on it for a shot at catching Silicon Valley.
“New York can’t be ignored,” he says. While that city is full of up-and-comers itching to make their mark in venture capital, he says, many in Boston’s community have reached the middle or late stages of their careers and are “not as driven as they once were.” Boston’s venture capital gang sounds a bit like the Brahmins of Boston’s past, agents of the establishment interested in maintaining their place rather than agents of disruption looking to remake the landscape.
One other troubling echo of Boston’s past: a lack of diversity. In this case, we’re not talking about the anti-outsider homogeneity of the Puritans, but rather the homogeneity of Boston’s tech sector. Boston has gone all in on biotech and other life sciences. Guttag and Huttenlocher both say the city could come to regret this over-reliance, just as New York has come to question its all-in bet on finance.
Although Boston still holds a slight advantage in some important tech areas, it’s all beginning to feel like one of those excruciating baseball seasons where Sox fans high-five each other from April through July, only to see the Yankees overtake them in August.
Back in New York, Huttenlocher had stressed to me that the tech relationship with Boston doesn’t necessarily have to go the way of the baseball rivalry. “What we’re doing in New York could help Boston in high tech,” he says, “by creating a critical mass in this corridor to compete with the Bay Area.”
Just imagine it: Boston and New York working together to defeat a common enemy.
What are the chances? Well, Oprah did eventually ease herself into Letterman’s guest chair. Still, some forces are bigger than celebrity egos. Boston and New York teaming up? I wouldn’t wager a rundlet of sugar on it.