Escape from Rumor Central

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As I write this, I'm flying home from SUPERCOMM 2000 in Atlanta. Like other communications shows in recent years, SUPERCOMM has benefited from the tremendous health of the industry. Booths were bigger, louder, and more far-flung than ever before. (I saw people zipping around on adult-sized versions of those little scooters you used to push around your neighborhood as kids.) The show reflects the market it serves; as the exhibit halls become more crowded, vendors must compete even harder to attract the attention of the potential customers wandering by.

In this environment, companies are looking for any edge they can get, which includes insight into the work of their competitors. "What have you seen that's hot?" everyone wants to know. Of course, the flip side of this question is of equal interest-who is having problems, which products are behind schedule or not delivering as advertised? Somewhere between insight and speculation resides rumor-and SUPERCOMM had plenty of rumors.

I hadn't even reached the show floor yet when I heard the first one. I mentioned to someone at a reception that I had an appointment to speak with the optical-networking people at Cisco, including someone from what used to be Monterey Networks. "Oh, I heard they were having trouble with that box," said the person.

"I think I heard they were planning on shutting it down."

Well, there was a lead on a potential story, and I resolved to question the Cisco Systems folks on it as soon as I saw them. So two days later, I was in the Wyndham Hotel, where Cisco had established its base of operations for the show, and I asked both Carl Russo and Joe Bass whether the ONS 15900 was on its last legs. Not at all, they said. The product has been shipped to customers for evaluation and the schedule was ticking along quite nicely, thank you very much. "We're very comfortable with where we are," said Russo.

Bass said that his core switch has attracted all kinds of rumors about its impending doom, judging by the calls he was regularly receiving from members of the press. For example, he has fielded calls along the lines of "I hear four of your five ASICs don't work" when in fact he has enjoyed "excellent first-time success on ASICs," to use his phrase. (And for those of you looking for additional "insight," five is not the right number of ASICs in the box, he said.)

So where do rumors such as these come from? In this instance, at least, it appears they arise from a confluence of big expectations and small amounts of information. Russo said that Cisco may have to shoulder some of the blame for the expectations; the company may have given the market the impression that when Monterey was purchased, the system was closer to completion than it really was. Russo stressed that the system's actual development path has matched Cisco's expectations, but the communication of those expectations to the market may not have been clear.

Communication is what we in the media-and our cousins in the analyst community-supposedly do for a living. And in tracking down information-or in speculating on its lack-press and analysts can unwittingly launch all kinds of rumors without committing a single word to print. "If they're delivering boxes to customers, why won't they say who those customers are?" asked one analyst to whom I recounted my conversation. The question illustrates the essential dilemma that faces companies looking to battle rumors in the marketplace. The more accurate information that is available to the market-whether it's disseminated via the press, analysts, or good old word of mouth-the less room rumor has to grow. But in a competitive market, information on suppliers and capabilities becomes increasingly proprietary. Carriers don't want their competitors knowing which systems they're thinking of using, just as system houses don't want their competitors to know which tunable-laser sources have caught their eye.

The current competitive landscape provides a perfect ecosystem for rumors to flourish. For users of communications technology, whether systems or components, the ability to filter false data from accurate information will become increasingly more important-and more difficult-as the economic stakes grow.

Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director and
Associate Publisher
stephenh@pennwell.com

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