By Donella Meadows
–November 27, 1997–
I’d laugh at the Bill Gates jokes circulating around the Internet, but as one of the last embattled Macintosh users, I find Mr. Gates and his empire increasingly unfunny.
The jokes take the form of fake press releases announcing Microsoft’s latest acquisition — of the U.S. Government, for example. “Microsoft representatives held a briefing at the Oval Office with U.S. President Bill Clinton, and assured members of the press that changes to U.S. Government policy will be ‘minimal.’ The United States will be managed as a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft Corp. An initial public offering is planned for July 4 of next year, and the Federal Government is expected to be profitable by 1999, according to Microsoft president Steve Ballmer.
“President Bill Clinton stated that he had ‘willingly and enthusiastically’ accepted a position as vice president of USA Operations with Microsoft, reporting directly to CEO Bill Gates.
“Gates said that the US House and Senate would ‘of course’ be abolished. ‘Microsoft isn’t a democracy,’ Gates said, ‘yet look how well we’re doing.’ When asked if the rumored acquisition of Canada was proceeding, Gates would only say that Microsoft doesn’t comment on unannounced products.”
Another joke announces the Microsoft purchase of the Roman Catholic Church — “the first time a computer software company has acquired a major world religion.”
“Pope John Paul II will become senior vice-president of the combined company’s new Religious Software division,” it says, “while Microsoft senior vice-presidents Michael Maples and Steven Ballmer will be invested in the College of Cardinals.”
The release quotes Gates’s plans to make the sacraments available on-line. “You can get Communion, confess your sins, receive absolution even reduce your time in Purgatory all without leaving your home.”
“The Microsoft move could spark a wave of mergers and acquisitions, according to Herb Peters, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Baptist Conference, as other churches scramble to strengthen their position in the increasingly competitive religious market.”
All this would be chuckle material, if I hadn’t just ordered a piece of software, only to be told that it is available only for Windows.
I had been dreading this day.
For those of you who are uninvolved in the computer wars, there’s a problem here that goes way beyond Bill Gates. It’s a flaw in the magical market that is supposed to be so efficient at selecting the best products and serving consumer needs.
From its beginning Macintosh has had the best product. I’m one of millions who started with IBM and the operating system called DOS, the original source of Bill Gates’s fortune. Then I tried a Macintosh and never went back. It was easier, faster, more intuitive, more fun. So Gates copied it. He pasted onto DOS a program called Windows, which is, from the point of view of Apple fans, an over-complicated, memory-hogging, pathetic imitation of a Mac. Every time I fool with Windows, I wonder how people can live with it. If the market worked the way they say it does, there would be no contest, no Windows.
Windows is taking over the world, not because it’s better, just because it’s bigger. It started with IBM marketing muscle. Computer users, especially in the business world, adopted it simply because everyone else did. More software was written for DOS, because the market was bigger. Mac users regretfully switched over, needing to be compatible with co-workers. The more they did that, the more others had to do it.
The market is full of inferior products that dominate simply because they’re first or biggest. The most famous is the typewriter keyboard called QWERTY (for the top-row letters). More efficient keyboards have been invented. But once people learned to type on QWERTY, no manufacturer dared make anything else. QWERTY was even carried from typewriters to computers.
The demise of the Betamax video system, pushed out by VHS, is another example. So is the persistence in America of the weird British measurement system. And the tasteless Red Delicious apple. (Tasteless, but It Is Always There in the supermarket.) The principle here is perfectly illustrated by my sheep Pansy, twice as fat as any sheep in my flock and getting fatter, just because she occupies more space at the feeding trough.
A non-joke item circulating the Internet is a letter from Bob Herbold, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Microsoft, chiding Ralph Nader for his activism against the company’s monopolistic tactics. It says in part, “I hope you will take the time to seriously study the market dynamics that shape the computer industry. As a consumer advocate, you should want to support a market defined by strong competition that results in continually improving product quality and declining prices.”
By that logic Pansy is a continually improving sheep, just because she throws her weight around. And any product that dominates the market is, by definition, the best.
If you have ever struggled with Microsoft’s horrible Word 6, you will never believe that fairy tale again. The market can be won by sheer power as well as by quality. It does not necessarily meet people’s needs. From apples to Apple, it’s not meeting mine.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1997