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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shorn of Bravado, Tech Titans Gather

DAVOS, Switzerland -- When the Swiss police blocked off this Alpine village against a band of anti-globalization protesters Saturday, one of the globe-trotting capitalists stuck outside was Sir Howard Stringer, the chief executive of the Sony Corp. of America.

As he trudged up a snow-dusted hill, looking for an alternative route into the World Economic Forum, Stringer mused that the demonstrations seemed almost beside the point at this year's gathering of chief executives, prime ministers and those who carry their cellphones.

The global economy, he said, remains on the ropes, while the preparations for war in Iraq have transformed the conference, once a showcase for the high-technology ambitions of companies like Sony and Microsoft, into a forum for criticism of the United States and its foreign policy.

"How do you separate the protesters outside from the hostility inside?" said Stringer, who is a repeat visitor to the conference. "For the first time, the demonstrations seem peculiarly redundant."

The reversal of fortune seems especially notable for the leaders of U.S. technology, Internet and media companies. Fresh-faced moguls like Michael Dell of Dell Computer and Stephen Case, recently of AOL Time Warner, used to hold court here, swapping views on panels with world leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Now, most maintain lower visibility, steering clear of high-flown discussions about technology and mankind to meet with customers, prospective customers and the occasional reporter, to whom they convey the by-now familiar message that the economic climate is still frigid.

When they do venture out, they are sometimes taken aback by the themes that dominate the conference. Scott McNealy, the chairman and chief executive of Sun Microsystems, found himself on a panel about how to secure the world's information infrastructure from attack.

"I suppose you could ask, 'What good is it to have web browser access when your building falls down?'" said McNealy, who would rather discuss the wonders of Java software than the evils of terrorism.

Like its peers, Sun has suffered through the downturn, reporting heavy losses and laying off employees. McNealy said he was encouraged that the company reported a 6 percent increase in sales and smaller-than-expected losses in the most recent quarter.

But he declined to predict when things might recover, saying, "People are only guessing as to what's going to happen."

William Joy, the software designer with whom McNealy founded Sun in 1982, was more blunt. "What if the reality is that people have already bought most of the stuff they want to own?" he said.

Famous in Silicon Valley for his unconventional views, Joy does not stick to a corporate script. But those executives who do expressed little optimism about the health of the economy.

"It's not deteriorating, but it's not recovering either," said Carleton Fiorina, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.

Fiorina, whose company supplies the wireless pocket personal computers handed out to the conference participants, said she thought the technology industry would never regain the momentum it had in the 1990s, when its annual growth rate was four to five times that of the broad economy.

In good times, Fiorina said, it might grow at twice the rate of the economy. She added that Hewlett-Packard, which is still digesting its acquisition of Compaq Computer, could grow 7 percent to 9 percent per year.

"Technology is more woven into society," she said. "It is becoming a more mature and stable industry."

John Chambers, the chief executive of Cisco Systems, said his clients had shown no signs of resuming their technology purchases. Like Sun, Cisco has been devastated by the sharp cutbacks in corporate spending on computer networks, routers and other equipment.

"The risk-reward factors are more conservative than I've ever seen in my business career, which is a nice way of saying that CEOs are being very cautious in their spending this year," Chambers said at a panel discussion. He predicted that gains in productivity brought about by technology would propel the United States back to robust growth within five years. For now, though, "it's a 'show-me' economy," he said.

Technology heavyweights have not lost all their cachet. People still avidly track Bill Gates, Microsoft's co-founder, who is a regular here. But these days, Gates emphasizes his philanthropy over his company. Those looking for an update on the software industry did not get it from his panel, which was devoted to "Science for the Global Good."

Founders of Internet start-ups were scarce. A few turned up for a panel called "The Dot-Com Boom: How Did We Get It So Wrong?" Composed mainly of the companies that survived the bust, it seemed less a post-mortem than a group therapy session.

"Was it really a bust?" asked Shelby Bonnie, chairman of CNET Networks, an e-commerce service. "A lot more people are using the Internet than before the boom. We changed the way people behave."

Kevin Ryan, the chief executive of DoubleClick, an online advertising business, said companies like his were still growing, although at a much slower rate than in the boom days. Ryan said his colleagues had to accept that the spotlight had swung away from their industry.