Time Changes Everything
Thursday, May 7, 1998 by Dave Winer.
I spent much of yesterday emailing with Microsoft people.
Now I'd like to explain my point of view to people at Microsoft, and do it openly, assuming that the questions and arguments were coming to me in good faith, and that my responses will be seen in the same way.
One common thread -- Microsoft isn't about money. If it were, Bill Gates would have retired a long time ago. No one needs $50 billion or even $100 million to achieve complete personal financial independence.
The money is needed for some other purpose, or it might be irrelevant. Microsoft has many shareholders. Many of them are employees. Some of them retire when they get rich, and others stay on. For those who stay on, it's not likely that money is the motivator.
So what actually motivates Microsoft?
One correspondent says it's the vision of a computer on every desk and a computer in every home. Stated another way, the goal is to improve the lives of everyone through computing.
I think this is naive. If we judged all Microsoft actions against this vision, we'd find a fair number of things that Microsoft does that aren't furthering the cause of putting a computer on every desk and in every home.
A revealing example. What if some day a developer shipped a killer product that could dramatically further the cause of a computer on every desk and in every home, but it wasn't from Microsoft, and (humor me), it required Microsoft to disappear in order for the vision to be achieved? Would Microsoft's board of directors vote to shut the company down so the vision could be accomplished?
No company can operate with that as its mission. It makes for good press releases, it may even help internal Microsoft managers make decisions about their products, but can't be the reason Microsoft exists.
Of course I'm not the judge of this, so if Gates or a Microsoft exec or director wants to set me straight, go for it.
Absent any other credible statement of purpose, I think Microsoft is just a ouija board, a self-perpetuating organization that must grow twenty percent per year profitably, or collapse on itself.
In other words Microsoft is a corporation.
The corporate system forces a relentless pace of growth. It can't stop on its own, Gates as the CEO of the company either has to feed its self-perpetuation need, or get out of the way for someone else to do it.
That's the structure imposed on Microsoft, as a public company. If anyone or anything deserves our criticism, it's the corporate economic system.
But Microsoft people want to know why I care what motivates Microsoft. Read on...
The Microsoft of 1998 is not comparable to the Microsoft of 1988.
Over and over I hear Microsoft people not connecting with this.
The rules that applied in the late 80s don't apply in the late 90s because Microsoft has a near-monopoly position in the operating system and application businesses, and it uses those positions to further cement the strength of each of them. Over time the lock-in increases.
The lock-in process has nothing to do with the quality of product or the economic cost to users and computer vendors. It's a philosophic challenge our country has dealt with before, and in the past we decided that it's not in our interest to allow this kind of lock-in to happen.
It's become clear that Microsoft will never regulate its own power without outside intervention. Without regulation, Microsoft has power that's unsupportable. As the government case has trickled out, it's become clear that Microsoft uses this power in shocking ways. And step by step Microsoft is retreating, dismantling the system, but, I think missing that nothing short of a restructuring, agreeing to very different but reasonable rules, is the only way it will avoid a retreat to the unthinkable place, a collapse of its system.
I don't believe Microsoft's innovation argument. Systems could easily be set up that deliver lower cost choices to consumers. Product quality could be improved. Many of the best developers will never work for Microsoft. There are many users who prefer not to use Microsoft products. Microsoft represents only one way to make software. There are others, and those ways aren't getting a chance because Microsoft has distribution lock-in. They have the power to keep other ideas from gaining distribution, and they use that power. I believe if there were no lock-in the pace of innovation would increase, and the cost to consumers would decrease, and the quality of the software would go up. This is my opinion, I can't prove it, but neither can Microsoft disprove it.
A decision has to be made, if not now, soon. If the courts decide that Microsoft must be allowed to continue without government intervention, I'm sure they'll keep growing, and eventually, at some point, the question will be revisited and someday, I'm sure of it, their growth will be stopped by act of government.
The only choice is for Microsoft to back down, develop a philosophy that goes beyond self-perpetuation. Or they can punt, Microsoft can become several corporations, each of which is behaves as any corporation would, with self-perpetuation as their main goal, without the advantage of controlling the distribution system.
So there is the background. That's why, in all seriousness, I keep asking what Microsoft is about, why Bill Gates keeps going for more. If there was a philosophy that went beyond self-perpetuation, at least we could evaluate their claim that it's best to leave them alone. But all we get is silence and uncoordinated outdated naivete and staged press events. I don't actually believe that they think we're stupid, rather I think they haven't thought it through, they haven't updated their own view of the world to incorporate the power that they now have that they didn't used to have.
Recently I asked a Microsoft product manager to give me a single adjective to describe the company. The word he came up with was "scrappy". There's the disconnect, so clear you can't miss it. Scrappy worked for the old Microsoft but the new Microsoft dominates. Disconnect. You can't be both dominant and scrappy. It doesn't work.
I don't know why I believe in the creativity of Bill Gates. Some people say it's foolish to. But I think I've seen it and I think he's missing something important. He won. You can't win any more than he's already won. The game is over. Now the question is what does the playing field look like in the aftermath. Does he want to loop back around, and run a smaller part of Microsoft? Will he accept some rules about what Microsoft can and can't do to link their disparate businesses? Will he jump in front of the train, far enough, and self-impose some rules? If he were as driven by creativity as he is driven to dominate, he could see this as a challenge of a lifetime. Or he could continue down the road he's been going down, and retreat, step by step, flailing in the wind of public opinion.
That's basically what I've been saying in DaveNet, since early 1996 when the dimension of Microsoft's attack on the Internet became clear. Diversity was the loser, and don't miss this, it also required huge incompetence of their challengers. But the result is the same either way. Microsoft is back in power, only they're much bigger and more dominant this time around. All of Microsoft's denials, public opinion polls, outdated internal thinking, staged rallies, can't refute this. They don't deserve the public trust to be anything other than an attack machine, because that's what they are, and they've offered nothing believable to refute this view.
Microsoft as an attack machine was acceptable when they weren't dominant. Now that they control the software on almost all personal computers, and have the high ground to enter any market they choose to, everyone outside of Microsoft has an interest in understanding what their motivation is, and if the motivation is unacceptable, to impose limits on them.
So there's the next challenge for Microsoft and Bill Gates. The world changed, largely due to their actions. Now, in this new world, please define Microsoft and say what Bill Gates wants.