Leaving the Land of the Giants

Next, Microsoft.

Today in the mail came our copies of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, both Condé Nast publications. Both looked different and confusing. Instead of the usual cover art, there were collections of squares and rectangles that called to mind the tablet app Flipboard, which organizes "social" content in the form of picture-tiles one can flip through like one would a magazine. I have Flipboard, but its lack of an outline-like organizing structure, such as a directory or a table of contents, annoys me. I thought, This can't be real. This has to be an ad for something. Then I saw the small print: "A sample of the new New Yorker experience on the Windows 8 desktop." Oy vay. Microsoft and Condé Nast hit into a triple-play on that one, because it made me hate the OS while dreading at the same time having an "experience" like what it showed.

So far, I've met only one Windows user who likes Windows 8, and that's just for some deeply buried technical stuff. Everybody else either doesn't like it or hates it outright. The UI, reportedly nice on phones and tablets, is strange on anything with a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. The learning curve is more like a wall, and—well, nobody asked for all this new stuff. As for the new Surface tablet, it looks like the second coming (and going) of the Tablet PC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Tablet_PC). One version of the OS doesn't even run Microsoft's Office apps. Some game developers called the new OS and its Apple-like "store" for silo-ing apps a "catastrophe" (http://www.neowin.net/news/valve-co-founder-windows-8-is-a-catastrophe) and a "disaster" (http://www.neowin.net/news/blizzards-rob-pardo-windows-8-is-not-awesome-for-the-company).

On the mobile front, Microsoft teamed up with Nokia to bet the former mobile-phone giant's farm on Windows-based phones, which promptly tanked in the marketplace. Now farmland for both companies is shrinking like a puddle on a hot day.

In fact, Microsoft has some legacy advantages. It always has been far more open and supportive toward developers than Apple. Unlike Facebook and Google, its users are actually paying customers. And it has always been, at its heart, a personal computing company. That too should give it a kind of advantage over Facebook, Google, Twitter and everybody betting on "social" (read: advertising), "the cloud" and "big data"—all of which are corporate/enterprise plays.

Over the years, I've known and worked with a lot of good people inside Microsoft, all of whom have labored to open the company's technology, make it play better with others in the marketplace, and put some truly innovative technologies to work. The company's decision to default Do Not Track in the "on" position with the latest rev of Internet Explorer was astute, correct and perhaps even brave. It's the kind of thing that a clued-in company would do. I've also seen some excellent Microsoft research on user feelings and preferences in respect to lost on-line privacy. That should energize Microsoft around some fresh opportunities, but the company seems to lack adrenal glands. Opportunities are lost every day the company fails to win hearts and minds by standing behind users—its customers—in the fight against abuses of privacy.

Instead, Microsoft continues to fight Google straight-up with an Online Services Division that has lost $billions over recent years.

Next, Amazon.

Amazon is strongest among The Economist's four giant squid, or thrones. It succeeds, Jeff Bezos says, "by starting with the customer and moving backwards". By 2009, Amazon already controlled more than a third of all e-commerce (http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2345381,00.asp). Since then, I've heard numbers as high as 50%. Whatever the number, you can see the result by looking inside any UPS or Fedex delivery truck and eyeballing all the boxes labeled Amazon or Zappos (Amazon's shoe store).

While Apple, Google and Facebook all clearly have good engineers and solid technical infrastructure, Amazon tops them all by connecting its innards directly both to individuals and to techies among business customers. It is a rare example of a geek-driven company that also understands and loves to do business with everybody it can.

Amazon's only shortcoming is one it shares with the rest of retailing, as well as with its big-squid competitors: it runs a big data silo where customer data goes in, but not back out to individuals. For example, I would like to have a cooperative data-sharing relationship with Amazon, in which I tell it everything I own (or feel like telling it I own), so it doesn't bother trying to sell me what I already have but didn't buy from Amazon. I would like my personal API to be one it could program against, just as I (or my fourth party) can program using its APIs. This requires a respect on Amazon's part for the fact that my life is bigger than the corner that deals with it—and that I can do more with my own data than it can. Also that that this will be a Good Thing for both of us.

But there isn't any sign that this will happen, mostly because we don't yet have our own APIs, and managing our own data isn't something many of us do yet, least of all so we can deal in one consistent way with many suppliers. Mostly, we just fill up hard drives and hope whatever we have "in the cloud" is sort of safe and not going to bite us some way in the future.

Which brings us to the rest of the world.

The revolution we're in is a personal one, not a corporate one. It is a revolution in which personal empowerment has turned out to be good for enterprises because it was good for individuals. This fact has been manifest ever since PCs appeared on Earth around the turn of the 1980s.

To MIS directors in 1983, "personal computing" was oxymoronic. Computing was a corporate thing called data processing. It was big and expensive and specialized and centralized. But those same MIS directors had to start dealing with personal computing because individuals in their organizations and out in the marketplace were getting more done with their own word processing, spreadsheets and accounting software than companies could get done with their old big-iron data processing systems.

Likewise, IT directors in 1997 had to start dealing with personal communications (e-mail, instant messaging, personal publishing), because people in their organizations and out in the marketplace had tools of their own that stripped the gears of what the companies could do with their big old legacy systems.

IT directors in 2009 had to start dealing with iThings and Androids because that's what employees and users brought to work, and customers brought to stores, along with zillions of apps that far exceeded in what could be done with company-issued BlackBerries.

Today's "big data" bluster—all that stuff about how marketing can now know more about the customer than she knows about herself—is mainframe talk. Individuals know more about themselves than systems of any kind can guess at, no matter how much data those systems gather. Given the means to control our own lives, with their own personal platforms (not just ones on their devices, but on their own pile of data), we will be able to do far more with that data than can any other entity. We also can do it cooperatively with other entities, provided neither of us is busy trying to lock in or control the other.

In the next several years, personal data and personal operating systems for managing relationships using that data will be as revolutionary as PCs were in 1983, the Internet was in 1996 and mobile was in 2009. We can keep watching giants battle all they want. But the action that matters most won't be theirs. It will be ours.

Fist graphic via Shutterstock.com.


Doc Searls is the Editor in Chief of Linux Journal


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A good read

DLJ-1942's picture

One can only wish the author will be proved right in his conclusion, but I am afraid the future will be much darker. At least where I live, being hooked up to 'the net' is already practically mandatory. We may very soon become literal serfs under constant and total surveillance and control. There is probably no escape possible - not even through legislation.

Advertising? What advertising?

ChrisJ's picture

I didn't know there was advertising on Facebook or Google; I use AdBlock.

Brilliant --and highly hopeful-- analysis!

Joseph Horgan's picture

The pattern of the struggle was set at the birth of computing: Will we use the power of computing to replace the human experience --Artificial Intelligence-- or to personalize and *augment* the human experience? AI is the corporate squid model. Augmentation is the personal model.