A number of recent events in technology seem to carry a set of useful lessons:
LESSON 1: BLOAT IS BIGGER BUT WILL ALWAYS BE OUTNUMBERED. Microsoft decides to abandon Vista and yield a “lightweight” (yeah, right) Windows 7 that’s runs in browsers and uses online resources. Sound familiar? Yep – Windows isn’t losing to Macintosh, it’s losing to Google. Not since Cornwallis tried to surrender to the French instead of Washington… But seriously, Mac (and Ubuntu, the Linux whose time has come, for that matter) are kicking Microsoft’s ass for the Operating System, Firefox (and Google’s Chrome, and Opera are jointly) kicking its ass for the web browser, and Google is single-handly kicking its ass for the Office suite (because Google never bought into Microsoft’s definition of a document). It’s a three way beat down of epic proportions, with the big beast being pulled down on all sides. If you try to own and dictate a function too entirely, someone will ask your clients what they really want, and feel free to build it for them.
LESSON 2: FAKING IT CAN’T LAST FOREVER. We just don’t need Microsoft for an OS, a browser, or an office suite. They never did build solid ones, secure ones, stable ones, or sensible ones. From the beginning, when they cannibalized IBM’s PC DOS and hammed it into MS DOS, we knew it was going to get ugly. Windows just never made it. 3.1 was a joke – most of us returned to the command line. 95 and 98 were more programs than an Operating System (Amiga made more sense) – Windows became little more than a gaming platform for some people, which is a prophetic insult that Microsoft never quite grasped. The OS was unsatisfying as much else – most people ran one program at a time (might as well be the DOS versions) and didn’t even attempt the multi-tasking capabilities. 2000 was decent, if you’d put up with a lot of broken promises. XP as a repackaged 2000 (cartoonish like Mac) and more intrusive (phoning home) showed they still weren’t thinking in Redmond – they tried to shove the same stuff down our throats that pissed us off when Netscape sold out (required online profile), giving Firefox the lead. Then Vista confirmed that no one important is listening anymore, except the remaining cronies in the hardware business who shlep out Bill’s latest like doctors owned by the Pharmaceudical industry. The only people who haven’t grown tired of it are the next generation of gamers who never look up from their monitors, and install what they’re told, and the new users who buy their stuff preinstalled and don’t know where it comes from.
Mohave was the ultimate end-game of repackaging – repackaging it all as pure marketing. It was the consummate expression of the Microsoft mind. And it ended up punking itself. You can’t actually sell bullshit, if it’s clearly labeled as bullshit, even if you call it misunderstood. In the end, Microsoft, unless they change culturally, is doomed. And no one is really showing up for Scrooge’s funeral. He gave us the finger one too many times.
LESSON 3: STOP AND SMELL THE MARKET SOMETIMES. At the same time, the Christian Science Monitor is pissing off newspapers everywhere by killing their daily, and switching it to online-only. Brilliant! Hailed by bloggers, everywhere – in other words, by those who get it – who get what media is and will be tomorrow. The industry is blathering on about how newspapers will never die, because there’s too much advertising money to be made. Sound like Microsoft? Yep – same top down nonsense. “If we tell people they should buy it, they’ll buy it.” Yeah, for a while. CSM realized the world has already changed.
LESSON 4: SAY NO TO THE POWERFUL AND WIN EVERYONE ELSE. Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are collaborating on a global code of conduct to resist governments’ broad requests (not specific requests) for information that generally violates privacy. Yahoo had previously sold out Chinese dissidents to their government. Microsoft is Microsoft. And Google, who gave the finger to the Chinese while Yahoo dropped trou, nonetheless agrees to filter search results in China (which isn’t the same thing, really, if you realize that the alternative is no search results at all). I don’t think these belong in bed together, but after Yahoo tried to sell itself to anyone and everyone, and Microsoft’s ongoing stream of Vista/Mohave/whatever fiascos… it seems like Google is leading the way in ethics too. “Dont be evil” is their company motto. The others are emboldened by the courage of a company that actually thought to say ‘no’.
LESSON 5: RISE TO THE GOOD AND DIVIDE (and change) THE WORLD. Skype sold out its Chinese users, by the way, allowing sessions to be logged by a Chinese corporation. Deeply disappointing. AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint Nextel, of the “won immunity because we got caught helping the Bush-Rove-Cheney-Rumsfeld administration spy on you” are not signed on. That would be a bit like Madonna doing a chastity tour, anyway. But the divide really underscores a key difference between companies that are bigger than government, because their ethics are big, and companies that will always be the tools and pawns of government, and therefore never transcend anything. Google matters, in a world-changing way. Sprint? That opportunity has been lost.
LESSON 6: BUY SOMETHING NO ONE ELSE THOUGHT TO BUY. Lastly, Google struck an agreement to satisfy authors financially so that crazy gazillions of books can be not only available, but especially preserved and memorialized online (Google has specialized in scanning countless out-of-print books and now has a model for all the rest of them, shortly to be emulated by major bookselling chains). Google’s also (from past news) looking at buying the old cell bands from Congress – massive wireless broadband channels. The future is Google. Google gets it.
Notice how all these things are vaguely or directly related. And when things are related, rules are present. Principles. Protocols. Meaning. The difference between some companies and others is simply that some seek meaning and others don’t.