Bill The Brazen
Wednesday, November 18, 1998 by Dave Winer.
More rock and roll..
First, Tod Nielsen, Microsoft's General Manager for Developer Relations, in response to yesterday's piece:
Then, hidden in an Associated Press report, a bombshell.
The exclusive deal that Microsoft has with AOL ends on January 1.
Then a conclusion that can help put the Microsoft trials in perspective.
What's on trial are the practices of the software industry.
This clicked for me when I read an InfoWorld report on the testimony of an IBM exec explaining how Microsoft stood in the way of the success of IBM's OS/2 operating system.
Perhaps I'm cursed by too-long a memory, but I remember a time when IBM was the 10-ton gorilla, blindly pushing their own solutions over everyone else's.
So Microsoft inherited this role, for whatever reason, now they're the blind 10-ton gorilla. And IBM is arguing the case we all could have made against *them* prior to the early 90s.
Microsoft's argument, the software industry is very competitive, makes sense compared against the experience of IBM. Microsoft's weakness today was IBM's weakness in the 80s. It's their size and their belief that all-in-one is a sustainable long-term strategy in the software industry. Microsoft's claim that technology moves too fast to support that strategy is accurate.
IBM is still a larger company than Microsoft, by a lot. In other words the message isn't in the numbers. The status of gorillahood has more to do with being the default choice than having the biggest bottom line.
But, as I've repeated many times in DaveNet, eventually such hegemonies break, new technology becomes possible, the default choice (today Microsoft) tries to own it, and they get left behind.
Bill Gates, a student of this stuff, is caught playing a game he can't take any further than he already has. The government and his competitors are volunteering to be the scapegoats for his downfall, but the seeds are planted, it's going to happen anyway.
Is it fair to Gates and Microsoft? Maybe not. It's unfair to change the rules after there is a clear winner. But that's not the point. The game must go on. We all have to deal with a limited understanding of why things happen and why each of us is cast in the role we are cast in. We all have to deal with our inability to control the world.
Some of us rise higher before we hit the limit. Gates and Microsoft are the latest to hit the ceiling. They have no choice but to ungroup and divest, and it'll be good for them, because it will bring them more in line with the way the tide is flowing, and has been flowing, for the last few years.
The seeds of the downfall of the gorilla strategy is that we all grow older, and new people come along, and they have no vested interest in the rules of our world, and they break the rules, to their advantage.
I first learned about this when I was a teenager in New York City. A friend, we called him Crazy John, liked to build radio transmitters. One day he showed us a machine that would broadcast over WABC-AM, the number one radio station in NY for teens. His transmitter would replace the station over much of the borough of Queens and be in motion, in a car, so the triangulation machines owned by the FCC couldn't find him.
I said "But John this is illegal. You need a license to do that." He said "I wasn't even born when they gave out the licenses." What an interesting way to view things. I remembered this idea for many many years.
I remember how we took advantage of our elders in the early 80s when PCs took over from mainframes and minicomputers. The old folks were blind to what we were doing. We took over from them, leaving companies like IBM and DEC caught in a little strategic puddle that used to appear to be the whole ocean.
Today's 20-year-old was born in 1978. When he or she was three years old, the IBM PC shipped. The Mac shipped at age six. And Windows 3.0 shipped at age 12. They have a different attitude about computers. The Fear part of FUD doesn't work as well on them, because PCs are just as ordinary for them as TVs were for people of my generation when we were growing up.
Technology rewrites the rules every generation. It may not be possible now to sustain a gorilla even for a few years. The first warning sign is largeness. When a single entity becomes so large that it believes it controls technology, or acts as if it does, or tries to, it should do a self-imposed breakup. To wait for the government to intervene is to have waited too long.
Microsoft is so big today that they make a lot of decisions to pacify the gorilla, not responding to needs of the market. I think the creative people at Microsoft are just as limited by the gorilla as anyone outside of Microsoft.
Gates and I are of the same generation, I'm just a few months older than he is. Many of the reporters are of our generation. So are the leaders of most of the other major technology companies. It's strange, but I think we all have a stake in his continuing to play the gorilla role. I think we lie to ourselves when we think otherwise.
But the young folks can and probably will do to us what we did to our old folks when we were young. It happens every twenty years or so, whether we're ready for it or not.
Read this interview with Bill Gates, one year ago, before all the court cases started.
He was so brazen, so unafraid of being open with his point of view. So few people in the software business are this open in their thinking. But Bill Gates, in 1997, had nothing to fear, no reason not to tell us what was on his mind and how he views the world.
If you read nothing else, read the CNET interview. It's far more revealing and more relevant than the Halloween memos, which only revealed the thinking of a few Microsoft programmers, not the CEO and founder and leader of the company.
Maybe I'm swept up in the times, maybe he will be the one to make the shift into the next stage of gorillahood, maybe I'm missing something. But people are people, Microsoft sure has some smart ones, but they have so many people, it all kind of averages out.
I think we're almost at an inflection point, when the slope of the curve changes directions again. Maybe this time there will be no gorilla (I hope so) and maybe this time the old folks don't have to stand in the way of the young. That would truly be an accomplishment, a sign that things are getting better, that the leading edge of technology can be a place where change and creativity are embraced, not held back.