Empire does not rhyme with Internet

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
26 June, 2018
Editorial: 213
Fecha de publicación original: 2 mayo, 2000

Money talks

As a friend of mine often says, we can’t complain because we are very lucky to be living in a very exciting era full of changes and transformations which, unlike other times, are directly affecting us all, either actively or passively. We have seen an empire which seemed eternal dissolving before our very eyes; we have seen a virtual planet emerging from the intangible foundations of the digital, and then, now, just like that, we are on the edge of witnessing how Microsoft, the all-powerful corporation which best captures the spirit of the era, is going to be served up to us in little pieces like a cookie. There are quite a lot of us who think that the Internet had a lot to do with the first two events. What is surprising though, at least at first sight, is that it has also led to the break up of a company which, for quite some time now, has played the self-appointed role of “Big Sister” on the Net. So, what happened? Where did Gates go wrong in his apparently unstoppable race to become the omnipotent god of the Information Society?

The truth is that this question is best answered the other way round. For, since the Internet appeared on his company’s horizon, Gates has not got it right once. Yes, I know this sounds very categorical and that Microsoft has given us many wonderful products, accompanied by brilliant marketing strategy and superb R+D policies. This is the least one could expect. In fact, if this were not the case, why on earth would we be talking about Microsoft now and giving them more free advertising, once again? The real problem is not, as Gates says, the all-hallowed “consumer interest” or the undeniable world-wide importance of his company. The real problem is, in fact, one of the greatest ironies of this turn of the century: Gates, the man who has distributed computers all over the planet, has not understood the Net and this has made him commit enormous mistakes. It is as though he himself handed Judge Thomas Jackson the knife to slice up his cake.

To begin with, Bill looked down on the Internet just when it was starting to become popular. These were times when Microsoft moved from one side to the other looking for its place. The company just didn’t see that this “thing” was going to be so important. When it started to become apparent that the Net was playing a fundamental role in the new economy, the new society, Gates then announced, with great pomp and ceremony, that the Internet would be his new priority. Coming from him this was a declaration of intent to dominate cyberspace. So far we have undergone five attempts of Gates’ company to take control of the Net, from Microsoft Networks as an alternative network, to manoeuvres designed to get White House support for his efforts, as well as various other strategies.

Amongst these were attempts to make the digital metropolises “his” in a fierce fight with AOL, Slate’s creation as the “definitive” media on the Net, and other projects also presented to us as the only ones possible. The road was soon strewn with corpses of all kinds. In accordance with this logic, the integration of the navigator Explorer into the operating system seemed a logical step forward, just one more marketing strategy to get rid of competitors. He had already done this with other programmes, why not with this one? This must be the question Gates and his friends are still asking themselves today. Why are they attacking us like this when we have done so much for them?

But the answer, in the words of the song, was blowing in the wind. It is possible that Gates, the product of a peculiar kind of corporate culture, a hybrid of industrial and digital technologies for the construction of highly hierarchical, vertical and controlled computer networks, did not understand the true dimensions of Net culture with its architecture of open, decentralised, transversal informational networks. For a start, he did not understand the changes his “customers” were –and are– undergoing or, rather, the ambivalence of this term itself as the Information Society progresses. He did not fully understand the fact that users are no longer isolated potential buyers but networked groups sometimes more powerful than the corporations themselves when they have particular objectives, with all that that entails in market terms.

And, of course, he did not know how to adapt to the growing transparency of the market. The opacity of his business negotiations began to make him gigantic enemies of people who had previously been no more than circus dwarves. Over the last four years, decisions made by the company quite clearly eroded his credibility, his allies and, above all, the company’s position within the Net. All very surprising when one considers that we are talking about the most powerful corporation on the planet. Anyone with a healthy conspiratorial attitude might think that they must have amazing Think Tanks, teams of people capable of deciphering the future in the crystal ball of the present. But no. Once more, reality has proved to be more stubborn and pedestrian. By not finding out what was happening, Gates didn’t even discover that e-mail was no longer a privately owned, corporate communications institution, and that this could even be used as proof in a court of law when it hit the Internet. His bewilderment at these kinds of “stumbling blocks” is proof of how confused he has been over the last few years.

We could apply a saying popular in the 50s to this “golden boy”, namely that when 200 million Russians were happily marching forward to build a communist state, along came Stalin. When Gates was happily controlling the world computer market, then along came the Internet. It is ironical, but it is also a lesson to be learnt by many corporations who seem immovable and eternal now and who continue to decide for their users as they have always done. The Net won’t let them get away with it any more. To treat users as clients within a horizontal framework will make them pay very dearly and lose out to more dynamic competition based on shared intelligence. Such has been the case with Linux, for example.

Does Microsoft have to be divided up? I don’t think that Judge Jackson reads this column, so I will add my grain of sand to the mountains of irresponsible comments made by other more prestigious names that nobody has taken any notice of either. I think the judges and US government would be committing a grave error if they segregate Gates’ company into two or three parts as they are apparently considering doing. In my opinion they should divide it into at least 100 parts. This way they would create a group of companies highly specialised in different fields of computing, telecommunications, programming and networks. Competition between them would open the market up still further, they would be forced to let us say much more about their products, their research would be more in touch with users, they would be able to satisfy consumer needs quicker and better and they could also spread their vast knowledge and experience around a much more extensive, rich and diverse social and informational tissue. In a word, they would get closer to the real world, the virtual one that is, instead of nurturing that megalomaniacal image the Seattle strategists cultivate (if they exist at all).

However, I don’t think the administration nor the judges have that much common sense. If they decide on partition they will go for less, two or three parts perhaps, or, what would be even worse, none. In that case, it will only be a question of time before Bill’s empire is down on its knees. Because, by then, the dwarves will have grown in number and in the power of their interconnections, and they won’t let him off lightly a second time. So, as we said at the beginning – very interesting times we live in.

Translation: Bridget King