THE WARPED PERSPECTIVE
is no substitute for mediocrity.
It sounds rather ugly to say that, but it is quite true. There is nothing like mediocrity
in products to cause anger and frustration. There is nothing like mediocrity in
service to cause chaos and lost business. Not even intentional deception has the
same effect; after all, obvious crookedness leaves open the possibility of corrective
legal action through police or court powers. But who ever got arrested for being
Mediocrity is all around us today. Mediocre students are admitted to formerly "great"
schools. Then their mediocre work is given a high grade by their mediocre professors.
(Actually, the mediocre professors are busy doing mediocre research. So they let
mediocre teaching assistants substitute for the "real" teachers.) Excellence
has been defined downward so that almost anyone can claim to have it. Last year
Harvard University gave out over 50% of their year 2000 end-of-term grades as "A",
according to several newspaper reports. Yet science scores for high-school seniors
dropped several points over the past five years, according to the NAEP proficiency
tests. The bar has been lowered, and students are performing down to expectations.
What about the products that these mediocre graduates are producing? Are they great
products, or mediocre ones?
In the last few years, several Nobel Prizes in the field of economics have been
handed out to professors who have written long essays and complicated analyses on
the topic of "differential information." This is the idea that in some
economic transactions, the seller often knows a lot more about the product than
the buyer. (There could even be a few cases where the buyer knows a lot more than
the seller, but this is very rare.) Nowhere is the buyer/seller knowledge ratio
more extreme than in a computerized or high-tech product like software. This means
that standard economic assumptions about "open markets" and "price
equilibrium" and "competition" don't carry much weight in the software
In the "old days" when most products were based on the laws of nature
instead of the man-made structures of software code, the difference in knowledge
between buyer and seller was generally small. A purchaser of grain or beef generally
knew what to look for and usually knew the person who was doing the selling. Even
today, a competent automobile buyer can use Internet research or a diligent examination
of print journals to find out a great amount of information about the desired brand
and model of car or truck to be purchased. (If you really do your homework, you
might even know more than that recently hired salesperson over there....)
But pity the poor buyer of software products. Not only does he or she usually have
little or no experience as a professional coder, but somebody keeps "moving
their cheese," so to speak. Somebody (a certain monopolist comes to mind....)
keeps changing the ground rules every few years, constantly ensuring that their
sales staff knows far more about what their products really do, than even the most
well-informed buyer among the general public. No matter how much a typical person
tries to find out from reading journals or chatting on the Web, the real innards
of the product remain out of reach.
Products are now designed to have the outward appearance of excellence, but inside
they are chaotic pieces of junk. (Small wonder the Windoze source code is "secret"
-- it's obviously an embarassing kludge.) So how is anybody going to know if a product
is mediocre or not, when they have no consistent standard by which to measure quality?
If the market is monopolized, how will they have enough information about alternatives
to compare the relative quality of these products?
To top it off, it can even be considered illegal to find out such details!
Yes, the decision to apply copyright rules (which ought to be limited to for-profit
selling instead of restricting the customer examining of machine codes) in the software
business means that it may be a federal crime to look "under the hood"
of a piece of proprietary software to see whether it's any good or not. So unlike
the buyer of a used car, a corporate or individual software purchaser typically
cannot bring along a software "shade tree mechanic" to check the product's
internals and verify the salesperson's claims.
It is a shame that those high-flying Nobel economists didn't get a chance to testify
in court as to the effects of proprietary, closed-source software in a monopolized
market such as the mediocre PC operating system market. They would have been able
to explain why the monopolizer of such a captive market is not likely to be dislodged
when it is illegal to even check the product to see whether the hype is based on
reality or not.
For the software buyer who wants to be sure about what they're getting for their
dollar, that leaves only three choices: Code it yourself, use open-source products,
or find a non-monopoly product that you can trust. Since few people have the time
and the talent to code for themselves, open-source products look more appealing.
But these products still involve a significant investment in resources by an enduser
to understand what's "under the hood." Ideally, all software should be
open-source, just as music is, and just as literature is. I can look at each word
of the Bible or Shakespeare or War and Peace and decide for myself whether
it is great literature or not. Being able to read the contents of a product is not
necessarily tantamount to giving it away.
But until everything becomes open-source, the next best thing is to find a software
vendor who depends on quality to survive, instead of leaning on its monopoly to
enforce the secretive, cloaked world of closed-source codes. If you're going to
buy a closed-source product, make sure it's from someone with integrity.
I wonder what those economists would have written about the vast difference in product
knowledge between a software coder and the typical federal judge.... Yes, as the
recent court results are beginning to show, mediocrity is a pervasive feature even
in the justice system. Microsoft will continue to "play possum" and pretend
to be humbled by the court decisions. But the champagne corks are popping all over
Redmond as the monopolists continue to celebrate their victories against consumers,
and against the excellence that would have resulted if the PC software business
was an open market instead of a captive market. Anyone who thought that mediocrity
could be abolished through the legal system should now consider themselves re-educated.
Most recent revision: November 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.