Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, was quoted in the recent Wall Street Journal article, “Is Bing the Thing?” with this: “I think most of the world thinks it would be great to have more-dynamic competition in search.”
Oh, really, Steve? Would you like to hear what I think? Well, I’m gonna tell you anyway.
I think what most of the world wants is to find their stuff. I think most of the world doesn’t give a damn whether it’s google or bing or altavista that provides it to them. In fact, I don’t think that most of the world even wants there to be multiple choices in this space. They want to find the stuff they want, as quickly as possible, before they forget why they’re looking for it.
Competition has its place. I guess. But what if each state or county were free to choose whether its light bulbs screwed in clockwise or counter-clockwise? Or it its cars would drive on the left or the right side of the road? Or what if airplane manufacturers were free to decide whether their climb rate indicators measured in degrees or in feet per minute? Wouldn’t all this heightened competition keep the world on its toes?
Yeah, it probably would. But you would also hear no end of questions like, “Why doesn’t this light bulb go into the damned socket?” Or, “Why is that idiot driving on the wrong side of the road?” Or “Why did that plane smash into the side of that mountain?” All of these phenomena would fall under the broad category of “user error,” because they would shift such an incredible amount of responsibility onto the part of the consumers that it would take an expert in the technology being 100% focused 100% of the time to be able to survive in a world like that. The average person wouldn’t stand a chance.
As far as I’m concerned, that is exactly the world that we live in today, thanks to a phenomenon we’ve all bought into called Microsoft-think.
For as long as computers have been in existence, there have been people – scientists and “academics,” mostly – trying to get them to work together. They try to develop consensus, common standards, cooperative development environments, so stuff can get done. And then, without fail, along comes Microsoft, seeing that their ace in the hole is their enormous presence, and they develop something that is just different enough from the emerging standard that it creates a rift, from which Microsoft derives a profit. They release a product that is at odds with the organic “standard” that has been developing and, due to their phenomenal footprint, the world becomes more fractured rather than united.
Go onto YouTube and watch the Apple video from over a decade ago called “Knowledge Navigator.” Then compare that to YOUR experience of sitting in front of a computer today. In that video did they have to worry about computer viruses? Were there problems with printer drivers? Did the attachment go through on the email? Did the computer know which application to use to open that attachment? Did the text come out garbled because it was written in a different language? Nope. It all worked the way it was supposed to work. It even knew how to field phone calls from the neglected mother; no mean feat. In short, the technology helped the human to get something done.
Is that your experience when you sit down in front of a computer? It’s certainly not mine. I face a computer monitor almost all day. I use it for everything from keeping track of to-do items, to ordering supplies, to calculating commission checks, to creating marketing materials, to communicating with friends and business associates around the globe. And I can say from my vantage point of intense direct experience over several decades that none of it is easy, none of it is entirely foolproof or predictable, none of it is intuitive or natural. Every single thing that I do on the computer is its own vertical column of knowledge that requires me and my thought processes to adapt to it, rather than offering one iota of support for the way I think, or the way I process information.
So… Are we commuting from our homes to our jobs in emission-free vehicles that we can fly through the air in and then fold up into a briefcase when we get there? No. Are we conducting conference calls with 3-D realistic holographic images of the people we’re talking to? Are we able to contact people immediately regardless of where they are by simply saying “Call Andrea?” No. Instead, we’re stuck in traffic moving at 12 miles per hour choking on each other’s fumes, we’re looking at 640 by 480 images of people that freeze or break up while we’re trying to read their expressions, and we’re listening to 30 seconds of instructions on how to leave a message for someone on each one of the 10 or 20 messages we invariably have to leave for people every day.
Make no mistake: this situation is caused by Microsoft. Sure, there are other culprits. Lots of them. The United States’ foreign policy. The World Bank’s monetary policy. General Motors’ automobile “policy.” any entity that seeks to differentiate in order to derive profit is a player in this great game that ensures that the world will not realize its potential. This game that ensures that instead of cooperating in order to achieve something truly greater than the sum of its parts, we are forever stuck with competition that ensures us of no more than the 80% level of each individual entity clawing its way to the top.
In the end, it’s our own choice, but also our own fault. Do we really want more-dynamic competition in search? Or do we want to find our stuff? I know what I want, but I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle. I think it’s time that we started questioning the soundbites delivered to us by our business leaders and our economic advisors and our elected officials, and really asked the basic questions of whether this project or that product will help us to get done what we want to get done. If the answer is not intelligible, it probably means no.