We had barely recovered from our six-month sentence in NDA hell over x2 when we once again found ourselves under NDA. This time the story was that U.S. Robotics would be merging with 3Com.
I seem to recall that we learned this in January or so after the x2 announcement, and the merger was consummated in June (so saith Wikipedia -- I had remembered April but had to look it up to be certain of the year).
So underneath the excitement of the x2 rollout lurked the uncertainty of the merger. There were some layoffs in the last quarter of 1996 and early 1997, and the mood was a bit schizophrenic. That only got worse after the merger news surfaced, but the x2 momentum carried the team, and the team spirit, through to the 1-year anniversary and the 1000 ISP party.
Oh, yes -- we had a party. Once the independent research confirmed that we did indeed have 1000 ISPs live, we threw a massive tent party on the lawn of the UState building and invited everyone. We printed up t-shirts and tapped more than a few kegs. There was music and food and a special Connect NOW message that I got to deliver on stage. It was probably the last time USR employees got to party like USR before the stodginess of 3Com started drawing the life out of it.
I believe it was December of 1997 when the holiday talent show featured the Product Management Singers -- Burk, Rick, Barb, Don and I -- performing my lyrical masterpiece, "Santa Clara's Comin' to Town." ("You better watch out, you better not doze; you may find your desk in Rolling Meadows -- Santa Clara's comin' to town....") We were still having fun while we were still in the heritage buildings.
We moved into that massive eyesore of a building at 3800 Golf Road in June of 1998 (I had to look that up too -- thank you Chicago Trib online archive). It was right around then that the best and brightest talent of USR started heavily bleeding out. A few of our really good engineers were already gone by then, along with a few treasured folks from other departments, but the worst of the talent hemorrhage started about mid-1998.
Something you need to understand about the "merger" of USR and 3Com is that it wasn't a merger. And that, in a nutshell, is why it was such a miserable failure. The USR folks were told it was a merger. The 3Com folks were told it was an acquisition. And this fundamental failure of communication drove everything that happened from the moment the deal closed.
3Com didn't understand how we worked at USR, and didn't particularly care. The new building came with 6-foot high cubicles that isolated us from each other but didn't block noise (the worst of cube life and the worst of office life all blended together). We were told not to put anything on top of our wall cabinets or outside our cube walls. The place was like a rat maze; it could take a considerable while to find anyone in the identical endless aisles. (On a business trip that summer, I learned that Santa Clara HQ was even worse.) It was relentlessly beige and enormous and lifeless -- except when we got our summer thunderstorms and discovered that those gigantic walls of windows leaked like sieves. Then it was exciting!
Because Santa Clara insisted on having its say in everything we did, our cycle times and customer responsiveness slowed down to 3Com's pace. We lost our best engineers, our best sales people, and our best product managers, and eventually we lost our edge in everything we did. When the V.90 56K standard was adopted in spring of 1998, the last nail was driven in the commoditization coffin of modems, and by then, we'd lost the people and the entrepreneurial spirit that would have generated the compelling follow-on product.
We tried our hand at videoconferencing systems, conference phones, ISDN, cable, and DSL, and did OK in those markets, but never anywhere close to what we had achieved in analog modems.
It was an amazing run, but it was over. I left 3Com in December of 1998.
Next up: a postscript