Thank You Judge Sporkin
Thursday, February 16, 1995 by Dave Winer.
I just read "Computer Makers Defend Vaporware," by Stephen Kreider Yoder, in today's Wall Street Journal. You can get the full text of the article, today only, thru CompServe, G QQUOTE at any ! prompt, enter MSFT, then /conews. You'll see the article in a list of today's news releases and reports on Microsoft.
The Journal piece is centered around the decision of Judge Stanley Sporkin to hold up the Justice Department's consent decree with Microsoft concerning its anti-competitive behavior.
The article quotes the computer industry, lecturing and talking-down to the judge, justifying the practice, saying it's inevitable, excusing it, shrugging their shoulders about it.
The Journal quoted people who are using the practice, please don't miss that. I suspect they hope it will just go back to business as usual, hoping the judge won't notice that it's not just Microsoft, and it's not just vaporware.
Reality: the software industry is a very closed little club where people trade fear for dollars. "Welcome to the software industry," I said to a friend yesterday, "where we eat our babies." The user's needs are secondary, if they are ever really considered in more than an abstract lip-service fashion.
The need to preserve their right to exist is primary. Control is the currency. Innovation seems to be irrelevent. Cynicism reigns. "You can't do that" is the message of the software industry to people with big ideas who don't work at big companies.
According to the judge, vaporware is: "the preannouncement of a product for the sole purpose of causing consumers not to purchase a competitor's product."
Sporkin is definitely on to something. But it goes much deeper. Vaporware is just a tactic. The strategy behind vaporware is FUD, an acronym for Fear Uncertainty and Doubt. The FUD strategy was perfected by IBM in the 60s and 70s, and has been adopted, by all kinds of technology companies, of all sizes. The larger the company, the more effective the strategy.
In my Bill Gates vs The Internet piece (10/18/94) I defined FUD as "the power to set the agenda, to keep anyone else from moving, to make everyone wait for you."
Who can't move? Who has to wait? Not just customers. Competitors!
Nothing is more galling than having technology that's ready to deploy, a leading edge that's ready to take a leap, to have everything just right, and then to have the platform vendor spoil it by telegraphing to paranoid journalists, analysts and investors "Wait wait wait, we have something much better coming soon!"
One strategic direction statement from the platform vendor can stop the flow of investment dollars to products that, for whatever reason, they don't want to be a factor in the market.
This is enormous power!
If we grant that power to the platform vendor, we as citizens, must have some protection against them using it for purposes that are against our interests.
It isn't just Microsoft.
James Burger, Apple Computer's director of government affairs is quoted saying: "If somebody is a monopolist or attempting to monopolize a market, and they intentionally prerelease information about software with the intent to eliminate or hurt (a rival), that's clearly predatory intent."
It's up to judges and lawyers to decide the legalities. But Burger invites the judge to look at Apple's business practices. I guess he's assuming that Apple can be excused from scrutiny if it has used FUD, but didn't do it intentionally. My opinion: FUD is insidious, even if you do it unintentionally.
To Judge Sporkin -- look for situations where a company's actions confused customers and potential investors and competitors, and made them wait. Motivations may not be clear. FUD doesn't have to profit the practioner in order for it to be damaging and reprehensible and unacceptable.
I think we all have an interest in the leading edge move forward. The software marketplace once was, and can be again, a place where ideas compete, and barriers can only be erected by real products that deliver real value. Today, in the software industry, we are very, very far from that ideal.
Exposure of this practice is going to make the software industry work better. Customers and small developers are ready to understand FUD. Users have power, but only if they believe that they deserve better than the world that Microsoft, Apple, et al, have designed for them.
Finally, thank you Judge Sporkin, for having the courage to bring the issue to the front.
PS: It would be very helpful if the Wall Street Journal uploaded the full text of each issue to a website so that citations would be more persistent, and easier to describe. URLs may look techy, but they work!
PPS: Check out the 2/20 issue of Business Week, the Technology & You column written by Stephen Wildstrom (it's on page 20). It contains more insight into the plug-and-play issue for PC users. It's fascinating stuff and follows the line of reasoning in my Positive Energy piece released yesterday.
PPPS: As always, if you aren't interested in this kind of stuff, send me email and I'll happily delete your name from the list. And it's OK to forward it or repost it anywhere you like. The list is expanding -- I'm always happy to add new names.