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Sat 06 Mar 2004

Computer Wars

Category : Commentary/ComputerWars.txt

"Apple's iPod has put it in pole position in the MP3 downloads race, but with the entry of aggressive new competition, the running order may be about to change", says Victor Keegan of the Guardian, in an article called "The Great Downloads Wars".

"... Apple has been here before - it dominated the computer market decades ago but later blew it - and the question is whether history will repeat itself in an eerily similar manner."

That history and the theory behind Apple's collapse was discussed in the book "Computer Wars", by Charles Morris and the ever boastful, ever grating, Mac-hating Charles Ferguson ("thank God for the arrogance of Mac users"). In it, you will find the authors advancing the notion that the battles in technology will be over "architectures" - the standards that define computer networks - and, of course, in their book, Microsoft has won the wars, now and for ever more.

You know - the Sony and BetaMax analogy.

But, coming from the trenches, observing how the war was really fought and, more importantly, understanding why, I've had little patience for that piece of revisionist history. History was always written by the victors. What has been written could be true, but was it the only valid account, or, more importantly, was it the account that most closely matches the evidence? That, I think, is something that remains to be seen.

It's been said that Microsoft has won because the users have chosen. But the people who've chosen were often only the IT departments. The users, themselves, often fought bitterly to hang on to their Macs, right to the end. And you can find an abundance of anecdotal evidence to support this statement.

Now, why would IT departments choose Microsoft over Apple's solution? Robert X Cringely, for one, has made an attempt to answer it. (" First, a trick question: Why aren't Apple Macintosh computers more popular in large mainstream organizations?")

When the Mac first came out, when the pockets of Mac users in organizations started producing minutes of meetings in neatly organised, laser-printed documents, the keepers of the corporate IT resources were often asked why theirs were still produced using ugly dot matrix printers.

The implication underlying such subtle signals from management, like the raised eyebrows and the quick double-take when they compared the reports handed back during meetings (picture the beaming Mac user) was that, maybe, the IT guys were starting to get out of touch and maybe we could get some help from those Mac users. What we saw ensuing was a power struggle, pure and simple. They're things that happen everyday in organisations. But it was still a fight - between people who held a vision in the glint of their eyes of what their organisation could be, if you could just exploit the potential in the technology, and those who saw technology as merely a form of control, and not incidentally, the source of their own privileges in the organisation.

The latter had to find a solution that looked like they gave the users what they wanted, i.e. something that, to management's un-trained eyes, looked and worked like the Mac, and yet kept the strings of control firmly in their hands. But it couldn't really be the Mac, because the Mac was all about liberation, and joy and verve. Of course, in the waning days of their champion, IBM, there was, waiting in the wings, Microsoft, who stepped in and obliged. Microsoft's genius was, and continues to be, in recognising the true needs of IT departments, which may or may not be (and more often was not) aligned with the needs of their organisations.

So, in a situation when there are no IT departments to control individual purchases, would people choose Microsoft over Apple? (They are both intent on "locking you in".) I've often believed that the "systems architecture" model espoused by Ferguson and Morris was flawed. It was true in general but wrong in the particular. People want tools that work. And, since tools are often an intricate melding of hardware and software, people want tools that have been seemlessly and carefully integrated. In the PC world, it's not clear whose responsibility it is to provide that superior computing experience - certainly not Dell, not Microsoft. Mac users are like craftsmen who love their tools and they're glad to pay Apple for continuing to make them.

So without an IT department to act as controller of purchases, I believe people would vote with their dollars for the company that best provides that superior experience. And that un-analysable feeling of being cool and being hip.

I bet the guys who feel good listening to their iPods have their eyes glaze over when you talk about "architectures and standards". Sure, it's a theoretical argument that you could get abundantly more choices with Windows Media Format. But will all those stuff, with their layer upon layer of "architecture", just work. In over twenty years, with our IBM PCs and Windows-based PCs as evidence, we can be sure, as night follows day, that they won't.

Posted at 7:32AM UTC | permalink


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