It's the way he sells 'em Profile: Sean Maloney

Intel's sales supremo says UK plc will live or die by how well it uses the internet to improve its efficiency.

There's a heavy buzz in the crowd and up on stage Sean Maloney looks like a Comedy Store rising star: number two haircut, deadpan delivery, South London lad dreaming of his own show on Channel 4.

But it's Earls Court 2, not Earls Court 1, where Bruce Springsteen played last week. Earls Court 2 is strictly a trade show. Beside Maloney on stage are two computers and two giant screens reproducing the images on the computers.

There's something odd about the music, too. It sounds like Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild", but the speakers are pumping out "Born to Be Wired" and the lyrics are all about computers. Messages flash on the screens: "Somewhere out there is a bullet with your company's name on it." This is not a comedy act, but the Intel keynote speech at the Internet World UK '99 Exhibition.

As senior vice-president of sales for Intel, the Silicon Valley giant making Pentium III microprocessors, Maloney is indeed a star to the 500 techies, geeks, and internet freaks gathered alongside industry people in the auditorium. But his stardom stems not from commentary on politics or his mother-in-law. He understands where the internet revolution is going.

"Five years is not long," he says. "Only five years ago Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party. OJ Simpson was becoming famous for something besides being an American football player. Five years ago there was virtually no content on the internet."

Now, Maloney says, the internet has entered the European as well as American consciousness. Over the next three years, he predicts: "There's going to be a massive amount of content coming on to the internet from Europe."

Handled in the right way, he continues, the next three years could be the time when Europe takes its revenge on the US. To achieve this revenge, he advises, the Continent must study the origins of the internet revolution in America and learn from the mistakes made there.

Content is swamping American internet users, Maloney says. A challenge for Europeans is to find better ways to organise internet content.

"The net is like the silent movies today," he says. When audio is built in, it will offer users auditory cues like jingles on television and the radio. "With audio, television advertisements are more and more going to be designed to push people on to the web." The jingle will be the link.

The net's infrastructure needs to be beefed up to handle, among other things, sudden spikes in usage. The UK has Ann Summers selling naughty lingerie through the post. The US has Victoria's Secret. "Three weeks ago Victoria's Secret published its new lingerie catalogue on the web," Maloney says. "Huge spike. Five minutes after midnight this New Year, everyone in the world is going to click on to find out if the Y2K bug has wiped out his life savings. Think of the spike that will cause. Work needs to be done to handle all this."

Maloney also sees opportunities as the net becomes ubiquitous. "We used to think of a PC in every home," he says. "Now we think of the internet in every room, in the car, office, on the mobile phone."

Maloney dons chef's apron and hat. The stage revolves and a kitchen appears. Maloney prepares to make some elaborate Bloody Marys using a computer screen and the net to get the recipe. He communicates with the computer by voice to keep both hands free. But the background noise coming from the exhibition outside the auditorium confuses the computer. The demonstration bogs down.

"It goes to show the industry has a way to go," he says.

Sitting in the Intel booth after his speech, Maloney drops his Comedy Store stage persona only to offer a glimpse of someone even more beguiling. Maloney could lay claim to being Silicon Valley's working-class hero - certainly, its British working-class hero.

Born in 1957, he grew up in Lewisham, south London. "I am a failure of the British educational system," he says. "By the time I reached my late teens and realised I had made a mistake in not studying, it was too late."

Computers saved him. Maloney became a software programer and went to work at Barclays, writing programs for the bank's phone company clients. He became fascinated with the miniaturisation that took hold of the industry in the late 1970s. "I remember looking at an early microprocessor and being incredulous that it could perform half a million instructions per second," he says.

In 1982 along came Intel, a microprocessor manufacturing start-up from California, and handed him a job.

"They offered me these weird things called share options," Maloney says. "I thought they were a bourgeois trick to rob me of my rightful salary."

Maloney rose through Intel's ranks in Europe and in 1992 moved to Santa Clara, California, to be technical assistant to the chairman, Andrew Grove, a Hungarian emigre founder of the company who coined one of the watchwords of late 20th century corporate America: "Only the paranoid survive."

Between 1995 and 1998, Maloney spent three years in Asia as Intel's head of sales for the region. His appearance at Earls Court was not exactly a homecoming - he comes home frequently. But it offered him a chance to reflect on the difference between the UK when he moved away seven years ago and now. "It's far more classless. People are more wired into what's happening. There's less of a national inferiority complex. People are more relaxed in a cosmopolitan way," he says.

He predicts the net will accelerate the process of democratisation and force a new business model on hidebound company cultures. British companies have no choice but to confront the web, he says. "The internet economy is global in structure. If you don't have a web strategy, your competitors will, and take your business."

Asian businesses have "intuitively grasped they had to be global," he says. "The net makes competitors of companies in which people work for one-tenth of the salaries here."

To win the race between national economies Maloney offers this advice to UK plc: "Get there first. Do the unthinkable. It may be tough. But it will be tougher for your competitors to follow."

Maloney notes that most of the news about the net has focused on business- to- consumer innovations such as Amazon.com. The real action, he says, is in business-to-business e-commerce. "The net ruthlessly exposes inefficiencies. Businesses are not competing product against product now. They are competing supply chain against supply chain." The winners will be those who use the net to cut costs.

Maloney links the strong performance of BP recently to its embrace of the net to speed the petroleum exploration and production process. He praises the growing links between Britain's twenty- and thirty-something net entrepreneurs and the venture capital community.

"Now Britain must embrace failure," he says. "Only by overcoming the fear of failure will Britain really be a winner."

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