EDA's media problem or why I have come to dislike startups

23 June 2007

About a week ago, people working for electronic design automation (EDA) companies got a nasty surprise. EETimes had decided to lay off the leading journalist writing about EDA. Over 17 years, Richard Goering developed a formidable reputation in the sector to the point where if he didn't write about something in EDA it probably didn't happen. It was part of a larger programme of layoffs at publisher CMP Technology that also led to the departure of editor-in-chief Brian Fuller.

Across its IT and electronics publications, CMP is losing about 200 people. However, EETimes took some heavy hits. The EDA people, in particular, did not respond well to the cuts, understanding that the journalist who put the subject of EDA on the front page many times would be gone by the end of June.

"Are regurgitated press releases the future of EDA 'news' now?" asked engineering consultant John Cooley at his Deepchip site, which has become the best water cooler for chip designers currently online. At that site, Gloria Nichols of Launch Marketing, a PR, wrote: "I am trying to figure out how we are going communicate EDA's 'value' to the outside world when our independent, credible sources are shrinking."

However, Vitalcom's Lou Covey, another PR, pointed out an uncomfortable truth: the publisher did not see EDA coverage as a generator of ad sales. In a conversation with one of the managers at CMP, he was told: "Lou, we can no longer support industry segments that fail to produce a discernible revenue stream."

In many respects, EDA was lucky to have a full-time person covering it on any paper given its size relative to the semiconductor and electronics equipment markets. It is less than 2 per cent of the size of the chip business and a vanishingly small percentage of the trillion dollar-plus electronics business. However, there are good reasons for covering EDA even if covering it does not bring in ads directly. And they continue to be good reasons.

EDA can serve as an indicator for things happening in the wider chip business and it provides a good source of information on where the chip and system businesses are headed. You can't design any of these things by hand: you need complex, often obscure tools to get them done. Want to know what people are up to? Have a look at what they are buying.

That's the good side of EDA. But it's not all gravy. You have the vendors themselves to contend with - and a good many of them are helping to make themselves irrelevant to the journalists who do want to cover the sector. In turn, that will see more magazines distance themselves from this corner of the electronics business. The malaise is one that afflicts many vendors in the electronics market, but the EDA guys have the most to lose.

The guys running marketing for a good many of these companies have decided that promotion is all about messages. To make sure the journalist writes about the message and not what they have actually done, they try to keep back as much information as possible. It reaches ridiculous levels at times, especially among the early-stage startups.

Ahead of the Design and Test Automation in Europe (DATE) conference, one startup had lined up some press interviews. The PR doing the company didn't contact me - she never does - but I tend to treat these things as a blessing these days. It's all more time for the conference itself. It seems I was lucky. A journalist who did do one of the meetings complained at DATE that the marketing veep doing the death-by-Powerpoint presentation would not actually describe how the tool did what it was supposed to do. The technique used by the tool is pretty fundamental to understanding what the tool is actually meant to achieve. The company's reticence with the journalist was curious because, only minutes before, I had seen someone from the same company on a panel giving chapter and verse on the technique used. That's not a passion "to create and execute integrated marketing and communication strategies for high-tech companies". That's a passion for dicking people around.

The core problem was a pattern that is now common to early-stage startups: they all do the same dance of the seven veils. It's become a PR formula. First, the company is in "stealth mode", which means you don't publicise what you are up to. Actually, what this often means is that people turn up to give presentations at conferences through this period. When you as a journalist try to write a feature that refers to some of this information and you try to check some things, your calls don't get returned. It cuts both ways: I don't tend to be that receptive to companies that do this during the next phase.

And that next phase is the company launch. This is where the company leaves stealth mode and talks about what it is doing. Well, almost. This meeting is largely about "messages" - all sizzle, no steak. Again, there is a formula: some slides banging on about time to market, rising complexity and design costs; a reference to Ron Collett's annual study (probably three years out of date) on how many chips are duds first time round; a description of some specific design problem; how Company X has a solution; and that's about it.

That's because you have to wait for the actual product launch for any details of what the company actually thinks it has done. That is assuming you don't get a "technology announcement" in the meantime or, even worse, a series of so-called announcements that don't actually convey any useful information. For these, they generally roll out the marketing veep who can look you in the eye and say "I don't know" when you ask a technical question (but can rattle off an answer to an engineer who asks more or less the same thing - again something I have seen demonstrated on a panel at a conference).

That's a whole lot of time and effort for what is, at heart, nothing more than a product launch by a company hardly anybody has heard of and with zero track record. It's difficult to see this situation enduring when few people have the time to sit through even one of these Powerpoint-driven meetings. It wouldn't be so bad if half these companies took part in interviews for features we happen to be writing on related subjects. But they are working so hard to ram a product presentation down our throats, they don't want to get involved in something that might mention a competitor.

The message push is not isolated to startups. Some (but by no means all) of the big guns have started to adopt the "message is everything" approach. Take Cadence's "design with..." push. Or the company's attempt to rebrand ESL as "enterprise system level" rather than "embedded system level" design. You have to dig deep to find the structural changes in the bit that actually matters to engineers: what happened to the tool. The saving grace is that, if you keep banging away at them, you will eventually get to the detail you need to write something vaguely useful.

However, it is time that is often better spent chasing up other leads. It's a bit wearing to have someone insist on sticking to the presentation when you've asked to do it as an interview and get to the end where the first question is: "Yes, but what have you actually done?"

It is not just that the trade press that is drawing back from EDA; many of the EDA companies are effectively drawing back from the trade press by turning interviews into a set of canned talking points. Just in case you wanted to know: I saw exactly one early-stage startup at DAC.

1 Comment

Whether I'm right or wrong, at least the discussion I've been hoping for for three years is actually happening. One of the great frustrations in the PR camp is the inability to get our clients to believe us when we tell them that what they are saying is not what the press wants to hear. And at the end of the day, we all have to do what we get paid for. It doesn't help that journalists who feel this way continue to allow the companies to present the same tired information without calling them on it. Maybe now, however, things will start to change.