August 16, 1994
The most depressing phrase in English is "been there, done that." It's meant to sound urbane but really suggests that there are no surprises left in life. I have a suggestion for anyone who has "been there" and sees the world as familiar and grey. The suggestion is: Consider Brazil.
Of course I don't mean the conventional Brazil of soccer and the samba, but rather Brazil the emerging high-tech powerhouse. Last month I went to Sao Paolo to see Fenasoft, a technology extravaganza that, in terms of attendance, is now the biggest computer show on earth. In a four day period, more than 600,000 people -- two Woodstocks -- crammed into a huge, aluminum, hangar-like structure to try out new software, see new computers, and buy buy buy. Unlike the United States, Brazil has no discount computer malls, so the Fenasoft show, where companies do slash prices, has become a once a year opportunity to purchase in bulk. People stood five deep at counters, waving money to exchange for small boxes containing software and big boxes containing printers or screens. The Compaq corporation, based in Houston, said it sold machines at a rate of one per minute throughout the show.
The zeal to buy was impressive, but more surprising was what was for sale. Most of the computers themselves were from U.S. or Asian companies, and U.S. software giants like Microsoft and Lotus had big booths. But a purely Brazilian software industry -- with its own programmers, computer languages, advanced applications -- seemed to be everywhere. A misfortune for Brazil as a whole had actually helped its software industry. For years Brazil has suffered from astronomical inflation, with prices sometimes rising several per centage points a day. The circumstances demanded that banks be able transfer money and balance accounts instantly; otherwise, they'd lose a fortune on the float. American banks take a leisurely week to clear an out-of-state check; Brazilian banks can do it on the spot. The software to manage these transactions is mainly Brazilian, and it has stimulated a variety of network, financial, and other sophisticated systems that match the best in the world.
Brazil is even nurturing a kind of Silicon Valley -- the resort-like island city of Florianopolis, off the coast of southern Santa Catarina state. Just as in the original Silicon Valley, modern buildings in Florianopolis sit in the balmy sun, with surfing beaches a ten-minute drive away.
One day names like Fenasoft and Florianopolis may become routine in the high-tech industry and accentuate a jaded "been there/done that" view. But for now they suggest the surprise the world still holds.
Copyright © 1995, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.