NEW YORK - To understand why New York City's Silicon Alley matters, ask yourself whether New York matters. Then consider New Yorkers Paul Cimino, Janet Stites and Michael Wheeler. They're part of the information-technology future, but they wouldn't dream of doing their work in Silicon Valley.
No doubt, the world will continue to place high value on the digital toolmakers, the software and hardware engineers who have made Silicon Valley so powerful. But the boosters of places like Silicon Alley - home to scores of technology startups and new-media experiments by established companies - see the digital economy evolving their way: toward "content," to use the inelegant word encompassing information of all sorts.
Long before Silicon Valley earned its nickname, New York lured and fueled talent and ambition. The smart, hungry people who made this city a mecca for finance and media, among other things, are peering beyond technology's toolmaking age. They're using the tools to create the next generation of the powerhouse industries their predecessors built - industries derived fundamentally from information, from content in the broadest sense of the word.
"Silicon Alley" may be a play on Silicon Valley, but the ill-defined district in lower Manhattan more strongly resembles - and in some sense competes with - San Francisco's south-of-Market Multimedia Gulch. I don't think either needs to worry much about the other; both have innate strengths.
The idea of not being in New York was almost laughable to Cimino, Stites, Wheeler and others I spoke with here. In each case, their reasons made perfect sense, and stemmed from the one thing technology has been unable to replace, at least so far: the multiplier effect of actual face-to-face interaction as opposed to digital networking.
"This is the only place where you can get heavy-duty programmers working with East Village artists," said Cimino, chief executive at Snickelways Interactive, a small electronic-commerce company on Varick Street, in the heart of Silicon Alley.
"New York is more or less the global business center," he observed. "As far as business solutions go, this is where some of the better solutions will be hatched."
Snickelways, named from a medieval word for a village's shop-lined pathways, is one of the hatcheries. Once deep into interactive television, which essentially imploded several years ago, the company retooled itself for Internet marketing. It also focused carefully.
For Snickelways, content is about pure information: using the Internet to expand a company's reach - preferably a company in an old industry - by more efficiently connecting sellers with buyers. Its best-known customer is Fruit of the Loom, for which Snickelways built a Web-based system the manufacturer has, in turn, given to its wholesalers. Retailers use standard Web browsers to order items from the wholesalers. Retailers can order from any manufacturer whose goods are stocked by wholesalers, but Fruit of the Loom gets prime placement in the computer system and a shot at every order.
"We see stodgy old markets becoming as sophisticated as the stock markets," Cimino said. "The future is customer-centric."
I might well have discovered Snickelways through an Internet search or other means. But I learned about it the old-fashioned way, when Janet Stites pointed out in a conversation that Silicon Alley is about much more than splashy new media.
Stites also brokers information, but in a distinctly low-tech manner. Oh, sure, she relies on her Macintosh for some tasks, and her company has a low-key Web site. But her fundamental product is pure information: her own.
She's the publisher of AlleyCat News, an expensive monthly newsletter about Silicon Alley, aimed at investors who are looking for ideas. She and a partner, Anna Wheatley, launched the publication and a parent company, AlleyCat Information Sciences, late last year.
From her perch, Silicon Alley looks anything but monolithic.
In one camp, she said, are entrepreneurs who scratch together small companies by spending savings, maxing out credit cards or borrowing from family and friends. Her own venture certainly qualifies.
The old-line media companies, meanwhile, are investing heavily into the digital future. "Every ad agency has a new media or Internet department, and so does every book and magazine publisher," she said.
So, of course, do the broadcasters. And at one such venture, geographically just north of Silicon Alley's theoretical boundaries, the corporate pockets could scarcely be deeper.
Michael Wheeler is president of MSNBC Desktop Video, an operation aiming to be the C-SPAN - and more - of business and economic news. At its root, Wheeler explained in his office high above Rockefeller Plaza in midtown Manhattan, is "the audiovisual conversion to digital."
You can take any document or audio soundtrack or video tape and turn it into the zeroes and ones that make up digital content. Once you do that, you can make it available to anyone with a personal computer.
When it comes to content, MSNBC Desktop Video has plenty. It's repackaging an enormous amount of business-related information, from such corporate cousins as NBC News, the CNBC financial cable channel, the MSNBC news channel and the NBC local affiliates.
The Business Video service, available on the World Wide Web, offers live audio and video of major speeches by executives and government officials; audio and video archives; text transcripts; and links to related coverage on the MSNBC Web site and related Web sites. Live broadcast coverage is also available on two dedicated channels via satellite and on some cable systems: MSNBC Professional and MSNBC Private Financial network.
Who will pay for this? How about business people who want to hear exactly what Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said this morning, not how some wire service reporter interpreted the remarks?
The broadcasters learned the hard way when they dismissed the cable operators as a puny threat. As the Internet comes into its own, Wheeler said, "we don't want to make that mistake again."