The Shrinking Subject

Microsoft is a conversational black hole. Drop the subject into the middle of a room and it sucks everybody into a useless place from which no light can escape. --Don Norman

Monthly columns about volatile industries are always risky, because you write them a month or two before they come out. This means every topic is a gamble that the world two months hence won't be much different than right now. This time, I'm betting on a real long shot: that when you read this, Microsoft will still be one company—and will eventually prevail against the government's antitrust case. I'm also betting on a much more sure shot: that the trial's outcome won't matter much to the world we're building on open-source infrastructure.

Microsoft is a risky subject in any case, but it's especially risky when you have anything nice to say about them and your audience is a bunch of Linux folks. It's like going to Miami to talk up Fidel. So I'll try to be as rational and brief as I can, at least about the nice stuff.

I'll start by positing a thesis: that Microsoft's success has many good reasons and one bad one. All the good reasons reduce to orthodox marketing, which is not about “delivering messages” and “capturing eyeballs”, but rather about finding what customers want and giving it to them, even if it's talking paper clips. The bad reason is behavioral. Microsoft is often brutal, to its partners as well as its enemies.

The first reason explains the success of Microsoft's two cornerstone product families, Windows and Office. Both are what you get when a large, aggressive desktop software company does what orthodox marketing demands (in the words of Theodore Levitt): “satisfy the customer, no matter what.” For decades, Microsoft took that advice to a whole new level, while its opponents ignored it.

In 1996, when I spoke at a small retreat of computer industry types, my topic was “Markets are Conversations” (which later became the first thesis of The Cluetrain Manifesto). In that talk, I said Microsoft succeeded by being the only leading PC software company that made sure customer feedback informed—and even drove—engineering. Afterwards, one of Microsoft's top people took me aside and said, “That's the first time I've heard us credited with Marketing 101.” In fact, he said, “we do it to a fault.” That's why “Excel is full of stuff that exactly one customer asked for.”

Later, an Apple executive told me, “we hate our users. That's why we try to scrape them off on resellers.” Then he told me the story of a frustrated tech support group that chartered an airplane from Austin to San Jose, drove to Cupertino and presented the CEO with a long list of product faults that users complained about and engineering never fixed.

Bear in mind that both Microsoft's and Apple's true customers are intermediaries (resellers and OEMs), not users. That means listening to those users is highly optional. Microsoft deserves credit for at least being curious, whether or not their tech support sucked. (I should add that I never got poor tech support out of either Microsoft or Apple.)

Later, when I consulted a Seattle company that had a close working relationship with Microsoft, they agreed that Microsoft did a good job of closing the loop between tech support and engineering. But they added this: “Since so many tech support calls come from dumb users, you get dumb features.” Exhibit A: the talking paper clip. This also squares with Steve Jobs' four-word indictment of Microsoft: “they have no taste.” (Which says as much about Steve as it does about Bill.)

So how could a company that listens so closely to users fail to understand the antitrust rules by which increasingly dominant companies are supposed to compete?

Because Microsoft isn't just a competitive company. It's a combative one. There's a huge difference. Competitive companies conceive of business in terms of sports. Their conceptual metaphors are “business is sports” and “markets are playing fields”. Combative companies conceive of business in less-civilized terms. Their conceptual metaphors are “business is war” and “markets are battlefields”.

By these metaphors, “competitiveness” and “combativeness” mean very different things, even though both use nearly identical vocabularies. Both will “attack”, “defend”, “flank”, “command”, “dominate”, “control”, “retrench” and so on. But the concepts are very different. That difference is both subtle and absolute:

  • In sports, fairness is all. In war, all is fair.

  • Sports is full of rules. War has no rules. (Ask the people of Sarajevo and Hiroshima.)

  • Playing fields are always level. Battlefields are rarely level.

  • Sports is civilized. War is barbaric.

  • Sports end with victory or defeat—but both sides live to play again. Wars end with triumph and dominion or death or surrender.

Business is not regulated by rules of war. The “competitiveness” about which business law speaks does not comprehend the right of one company to “cut off the air supply” of another—unless, of course, it's “fair”. Microsoft tried mightily in The Trial to convince Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson that the computer and Internet worlds were battlefields, and that every competitor's very existence was under constant threat. Microsoft failed because Judge Jackson and the entire regulatory system conceive of business as sports, not war. There was no way Jackson could buy Microsoft's argument. There are rules for competition, especially between monopolies and less-advantaged companies. Microsoft broke them. And Judge Jackson's response was to break Microsoft. Literally.

To a combative company like Microsoft, a breakup is a death penalty and utterly unacceptable. But Judge Jackson doesn't have the final power to execute Microsoft, which belongs to the appeals court or the Supreme Court. He does, however, have the power to save Microsoft, if he makes enough mistakes.

It is significant that throughout this whole ordeal, Microsoft has refused to settle, or even to admit the obvious fact that they play hardball. This was especially obvious during one of the trial's most ludicrous moments: when Robert Muglia, a Microsoft executive, insisted that when Bill Gates wrote that he was “hard-core about NOT supporting” a hunk of Java technology, the words meant something other than what they said. Jackson bought none of it, and finally yelled “No!” and “Stop!” at the witness. “By asking the judge to swallow such absurdities as Muglia's testimony,” wrote Joe Nocera in Fortune, “Microsoft instead gave Jackson an excuse to swallow nothing.”

This looked like Muhammad Ali's rope-a-dope strategy to me. Stay on the defensive, dodge constantly, and look for the other guy to make mistakes. The prosecution had more than the burden of proof here; they had the burden of their own rules. If they broke enough of them, Microsoft reckoned, the final ruling would go to the defendant. Indeed, Microsoft attorneys have said for some time that they expected to win on appeal.

But this isn't just a story about Microsoft. It's also about Netscape. The judgment against Microsoft was based mostly on that company's behavior toward Netscape, whose air supply Microsoft allegedly wished to cut off. Nobody, however, including Microsoft, gives due credit to Netscape for choking itself. Or to the press, for covering “The Browser War” as anything but a sports event.

True, Microsoft really was out to hurt Netscape. I remember Jim Clark, onstage at the first Netscape conference in 1996, responding to a question about “polarizing” remarks made by Netscape people about Microsoft. “They're out to kill us!” Clark yelled back. “That has a polarizing effect!” Quite true.

But Netscape was a worthy opponent, blessed with enormous advantages. It made the first popular browser, which quickly achieved nearly unanimous usage. Browsing was understood on Netscape's terms. The whole company took sides with the Net, which offered enormous strategic advantages in an increasingly Net-based business world. And Netscape used some of those advantages very cleverly.

Unfortunately, they got caught up in the war story.

By the time Microsoft noticed that the Net mattered, the press had already cast the company in the Evil Empire role it had done much to earn, thanks to its merciless (or, in Gates' own words, “hard core”) marketing.

Here's how it looked to me in early '96, when I wrote about it for a web 'zine:

I learn from the papers that the desktop world has fallen under the iron grip of the most wealthy and powerful warlord in the galaxy. With boundless greed for money and control, Bill Gates of Microsoft now seeks to extend his evil empire across all of cyberspace.

The galaxy's only hope is a small but popular rebel force called Netscape. Led by a young pilot (Marc Andreessen as Luke Skywalker), a noble elder (Jim Clark as Obi-wan Kanobe) and a cocky veteran (Jim Barksdale as Han Solo), Netscape's mission is joined by the crafty and resourceful Java People from Sun.

Heavy with portent, the headlines tromp across the pages (cue the Death Star music—dum dum dum, dum da dum, dum da dummm)...

  • “MICROSOFT TAKES WAR TO THE NET: Software giant plots defensive course based on openness”

  • “MICROSOFT UNVEILS INTERNET STRATEGY: Stage set for battle with Netscape”

  • “MICROSOFT, SUN FACE OFF IN INTERNET RING”

  • “MICROSOFT STORMS THE WEB”

The mind's eye conjures a vision of The Emperor, deep in the half-built Death Star of Microsoft's new Internet Strategy, looking across space at the Rebel fleet, his face twisted with contempt. “Your puny forces cannot win against this fully operational battle station!” he growls.

But the rebels are confident. “In a fight between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain,” Marc Andreessen says. “What Microsoft just did was move into our terrain.”

And Microsoft knows its strengths. December 7th, The Wall Street Journal writes, Bill Gates “issued a thinly veiled warning to Netscape and other upstarts that included a reference to the Pearl Harbor attack on the same date in 1941.”

Exciting stuff. But is there really a war going on? Should there be?

No, but both Microsoft and Netscape operated on exactly that metaphor. And at first, Netscape used it brilliantly.

One extremely clever move was buying, opening and ubiquitizing LDAP, the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol. In an interview for Linux Journal in 1996, Craig Burton said,

Microsoft built its entire services strategy on what it thought was a titanium vise. One side was an object-oriented file system called OSS which collapsed the directory into the file system. This was Cairo (now Windows 2000). The other side was a distributed application development framework called OLE (now ActiveX), which they owned lock, stock and barrel. They would squeeze those together and the Netscapes of the world would squoosh like jello. But the Internet blew the jaws of that vise apart. When Microsoft tightened the jaws of that vice, they bent wide open. The world has shifted, and Microsoft is not going to dominate it.

LDAP was a strategic move that helped shift the world.

For a year or two, Netscape looked like it could do no wrong. It was a Miata being chased down a mountain road by a tractor trailer. As long as it moved fast and looked ahead, there was no problem with the truck behind. But at some point, Netscape got fixated on the rear-view mirror. That's where they were looking when they drove off the cliff.

Why did they do that?

  1. They forgot where they came from: the hacker community that had for years been developing the Net as a free and open place—one hospitable to business, but not constrained by anybody's business agenda. The browser was born free, like Apache, Sendmail and other developments that framed the Net's infrastructure. The decision to charge for the browser—especially while still offering it for free—put Netscape in a terminal business from the start.

  2. They got caught up in transient market's fashions, which were all about leveraging pre-Web business models into an environment that wouldn't support them. Mostly, they changed the browser from a tool of Demand (browsing) to an instrument of Supply. They added channels during the “push” craze. They portalized their web site. They turned the location bar into a search term window for a separate domain directory, to be populated by the identities of companies that paid to be put there (a major insult to the user's intentions). Worst of all, they bloated the browser from a compact, single-purpose tool to an immense contraption that eventually included authoring software, a newsgroup reader, a conferencing system and an e-mail client—all of which were done better by stand-alone applications.

  3. They became arrogant and presumptuous about their advantages. At one point, Marc Andreessen said an OS was “just a device driver”.

  4. Their engineering went to hell. By the time Netscape was sold (at top dollar) to AOL, the dirty secret was that its browser code was a big kluge and had been for a long time. Jamie Zawinski (one of the company's first and best-known engineers) put it bluntly: “Netscape was shipping garbage, and shipping it late.” Not exactly competitive.

  5. They lost touch with their first and best market: those customers who had actually paid for that damn browser.

It was painful to watch. Netscape was family for me (a close relative was highly placed in the company). I was such a partisan that I paid for that lousy browser the whole time they charged for it, and I never got useful tech support. One time, a tech support person told me the browser “didn't matter” because the big money was all in server software.

Making browsers free (in cost, if not in code) was a brilliant and insightful move by Microsoft that was utterly lost on Netscape, which was unwilling to play smart chess by making a reciprocal sacrifice. It was a suicidal mistake. The company we loved and rooted for is now history.

Its ghost may still have revenge on Microsoft. It was Netscape, more than any other company, that pushed the antitrust case against Microsoft, and then served as the exemplary victim of Microsoft's rapacious behavior. If the Feds bust up Microsoft, Netscape deserves more credit than any other company.

But let's have some perspective here. What happened between Microsoft and Netscape may make interesting stories, whether told in terms of sports or war. But the story that matters can't be told in those terms. It needs a better metaphor.

My favorite, of course, is conversation. As a topic of conversation, Microsoft has been shrinking for the last five years, regardless of what happened to Netscape or what revenge the Feds carry out. There are too many other, more interesting subjects to talk about.

Craig Burton, Brian Behlendorf and Tim O'Reilly all prefer the environmental metaphor. That's what I've learned from conversations with each of them. The wide-open world each of them envisions is a habitat where development tools, methods and strategies matter more than the companies that employ them.

Programmers like metaphors about buildings. They “architect”, “design” and “build” with “tools”. And it is individual programmers, more than any corporate supplier, who are designing, architecting and building this new world, using free software tools, Linux building materials and open-source building methods.

If Microsoft can help, whether as one company or as two, that's great. If they can't, it's probably because they're too busy looking for enemies. And giving us less and less to talk about.

Doc Searls (doc@ssc.com) is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal

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