December 11, 2009

Good guys, bad guys

Remember when IBM were the bad guys?

Not so much that they were evil per se, but there was a time when IBM was the 800 lb. gorilla, throwing their weight around and making everyone negotiate with them or imitate them or, if they were particularly saucy, set themselves up as an underdog against them. IBM is International Business Machines, man! Who the hell is Apple?

Anyway, that state of affairs ended quite some time ago; it turns out that opening up your architecture for everyone to imitate, commodifying it, is fantastic at achieving the goal of getting everyone to adopt your architecture and less good for a bottom line based on producing high-quality instances of that architecture. Especially once the architecture has matured to a point where other than increased speed, the main effect of an upgrade is relatively minor tweaking that non-power-users won't much notice; it's hard to whip up a buying frenzy for minor tweaks. And so, after some time, the hardware battles ended, and IBM "won" but sort of receded into the background. These days I mostly know IBM for sponsoring programming contests, recruiting superb programmers, and developing large-scale "business solutions", which I sort of make fun of but honestly, it's a legitimate need and they seem to be doing a good job at it. So they're good guys now.

I'm beginning to wonder if 2009 Microsoft is in a transition similar to 1989 IBM. Certainly they're a dominant force that a lot of people are wary of, and supporters of Mac and Linux cheer for their respective underdogs; Microsoft has been hit with multiple lawsuits over the years about their monopolistic practices, some of which stuck and have caused them to change their ways.* Their Windows platform is matured in a way very dangerous to their Windows-centric business model: a vast number of their users would, if not absolutely forced to change, happily remain with Windows XP for decades. They certainly won't upgrade for the sake of upgrading if the "upgrade" isn't good, as we saw in the Vista debacle. I kind of hope they got Windows 7 right, because it may be the last major ("everybody switch") upgrade that they are able to pull off. The face of big bad Microsoft, Bill Gates, is fast becoming better known as a world-class philanthropist that tends to focus on education and global health.

And it's clear that Microsoft will not be the dominant force in the next era, as we graduate from OS/systems software to application platforms and the so-called "cloud".** Bing, which you may not have even heard of, is their search engine, but it'll never get the market share that other MS products have in the past. Zune, their similarly-obscure MP3 player, is hardly a bust but will likewise not be taking over the world. Even in the OS world, Apple has finally turned the corner and re-recruited two of their traditional markets from the 80s and early 90s, education and graphic design; and Linux variants such as Ubuntu have finally become viable options for people who aren't system administrators. Both are chipping away at Microsoft's market share, slowly but surely, and general developers are having to think seriously about making sure their stuff works for non-Windows users (if only by making it a web app).

Meanwhile, the new fronts in the computer wars are pointing to two likely candidates for the next "bad guy": Google and Apple.

Google has their famous mantra, "don't be evil", which may yet protect them, but boy howdy are they expanding into an entity you should be worried about. I do use Google for search, and after more than ten years, they're still great at that. I have in the past used Google maps, and will probably still do so from time to time, but their interface has gotten clunky and slow and I'm shopping for something better. But I haven't got a gmail account, I don't use Google docs, and I don't log in or accept cookies from Google so that they can track and coordinate what I'm searching for. GMail is particularly insidious because they can bounce email as "spam" with impunity, and if you or your ISP complain to them, their main suggestion is to just get a GMail account and use that instead. This has, of course, made me even more reluctant to get a GMail account, but maybe that's me. Just in the last few days, their CEO is on record as saying that if you wanted privacy for something, you shouldn't be doing it—and that should raise the hackles of just about anyone.

Apple seems like a pretty unlikely candidate for Next Big Bad Guy, given that they've been underdogs in both of the last two rounds (first against IBM in the 70s and 80s, then against Microsoft in the 90s and 00s). The game-changer has been the fact that they were among the first to achieve success in the MP3 player market (with the iPod), the first to achieve real success in the per-track digital music market (with iTunes Music Store, which they successfully linked to the iPod), and the first to link cell-phones and PDAs with a (multi-)touch-based interface that everyone is now imitating (the iPhone, which they successfully linked to the iPod and iTMS). There's now much more of a my-way-or-the-highway attitude about them now that never was there before. And they're doing all the things that Microsoft did back in the 90s that we hated: muscling other companies out of their markets with anti-competitive practices, and taking good services provided by third-party addons and bundling with the OS an implementation that is buggy and crappy but that nevertheless drives the good implementations out of business (I'm still bitter about Spaces). Their handling of the App Store is already notorious in the developer community for how fickle and unreasonable they are in approving iPhone apps, how abusive they are of their third-party developers, and how much more they seem to care about control than quality.

It's not going to be easy to divest ourselves of either one. There are other music players, but the iPod's still a great design, and of course anyone that's bought much from the iTMS will have a bit of work in converting all their DRMed AAC files into something that other players can read. For the desktop machines, I've happily switched to Ubuntu at work, and as my iMac is still running Tiger (MacOS X 10.4, soon to be end-of-lifed) I'm contemplating Ubuntu-fying that as well; my future hardware purchases will almost certainly not be from Apple. Google is even harder, of course, although less hard for me than most (because, as I said, all I really use is search and mapping). For mapping, I may revert to Mapquest or Yahoo Maps, which were my servers of choice until Google Maps became draggable. For searching itself, I may try Microsoft's Bing despite completely making fun of it as recently as a couple months ago, but I've recently been put on to a lovely little number called DuckDuckGo that seems to have pretty good coverage and has some very nice UI upgrades over Google's search. The main thing there will be to retrain the muscle memory that puts me in the location bar typing "google whatever" and hitting Return before I've even actually thought about anything other than "Search".

Maybe I'm wrong. I'd like that; Google and Apple have been my heroes for a long time now, and it's too much fun calling Microsoft the Evil Empire to give that up easily. I think that age might be passing, but I'd be pleased to be wrong, at least about Google and Apple. Stay good, Google! Stay good, Apple!

*Sometimes the companies with the best practices in an area are those who have been burned in the past by having the worst practices. Nike, for instance, was one of the first big companies to be boycotted for running sweatshops in Asia, back before anyone knew or cared about "fair trade"; these days they're sometimes held up as a model for how big companies can outsource clothing manufacture in a basically responsible way.

**I really, really hate the term "cloud". I can't even say why. Bleah.

"Everyone at Knox is responsible for holding up the illusion that this campus is a microcosm of the real world. Obviously, nobody is going to care how or why feminists were denied a house in ten years, but if we don't fake it for a while, we'll never learn how to stand up for ourselves in the real world." --Deana Rutherford

Posted by blahedo at 6:37am on 11 Dec 2009
One of the main things that Microsoft has done that is evil and still going on is use their monopoly to put inferior products into a market dominant position and then don't even bother to make them approach the capabilities of what they replaced.

With Office 2007, they did at least make a bold step of redoing the user interface, and abandoned the process of randomly making menu items in the standard menu not show up seemingly at random and made the standard menu options largely a thing of the past. I see this as progress, because between 1996 and now, that and the implementation of pivot tables is about all the newer MS Office had over Word Perfect and Quattro Pro. Even now, Excel seems incapable of producing readable graphs if your data has the slightest complexity, and the ability to customize graphs without using scripting is extremely limited. Quattro Pro did this with ease.

If you recall, IBM, although they let people make IBM compatible PCs, they used microchannel architecture which was incompatible with other manufacturers PCs, so their PCs were incompatible with many nifty things available for other computers. That was their downfall as much as anything else. Other PCs could do more because they could take advantage of nifty third party stuff.

For years, the saying went, nobody gets fired for going with IBM. Then Microsoft replaced them in that saying. Now, Google does seem much more likely to be the replacement in that phrase than Apple: much of their products are business focused and they personify the mythical central computer I heard about as early as 1977 that knows all about everyone. On the other hand, Apple does seem much more experienced at deliberate evil e.g. drm at iTunes.

Maybe we will get some market diversity at long last in that they will both be 800lb gorillas. Posted by lee at 2:37pm on 11 Dec 2009
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