December 1998

Management guru Tom Peters never wrote a book called "In Search of Mediocrity." He didn't have to. It's all around us.

The average consumer product today is a cheap, watered-down substitute for somebody else's great idea. The consumer marketplace of the early twenty-first century is not built on product excellence, but rather on several other factors that ignore excellence. In fact, the current marketplace dictates that excellence must often be sacrificed in favor of survival. Let us examine why this is so, and how it impacts the software business.

In the past, a small-business environment meant that each person was responsible for his or her own work. They had an individual relationship with each customer, and the survival of the company required making the best product for the money. You satisfied the needs of your relatively small customer base by providing the level of excellence that they desired. The key to the greatness of this arrangement was the relative smallness of the interface between maker and buyer of any product. This was the environment of the classical economic "invisible hand" that theoretically moved all transactions toward the ideal. This meant that people would gradually get more and more value for their dollar, because the competitive efforts of many small businesses would inexorably lead to many small enterprises satisfying the needs of their constituent customers. Those enterprises that could not or would not produce great products would be winnowed out, because they would necessarily gravitate toward the low end of any marketplace, and eventually the poorest would fall by the wayside.

Enter the global, multinational corporation. And everything changes.

Now, the buyer-seller relationship changes from essentially "one-to-one" to become "many-to-one." Each corporation must target its key product to the lowest-common-denominator of its target market, meaning that it must spend time and money on large-scale marketing instead of building personal relationships. It must exclude those features that only the more seasoned customers would appreciate, in order not to baffle the inexperienced buyers. Costs of production must be cut in order to finance the organizational overhead and corporate perks. The corporation must therefore necessarily compete on a high-volume/low-price basis, which squeezes out its high-margin small-business competitor who necessarily focuses on product excellence.

This process usually takes twenty, fifty, or one hundred years to mature in the general marketplace. In the software business, however, Microsoft has chosen to build and leverage an illegal monopoly to rush this process toward its eventual conclusion of mass-market mediocrity. Since nobody else was willing to invest such gargantuan resources in time and manpower to turn the software business into the equivalent of a McDonald's-only town, the time scale of this process has been compressed into perhaps ten years or so.

There was a window of opportunity when the consumer might have had the option of choosing excellence. Instead of having only Microsoft products in the consumer space, there was a period of time during which OS/2 Warp was publicly trumpeted as a high-class alternative. While IBM is indeed a major corporation, its OS/2 development has the superior quality of a craftsman's shop, because the typical IBM customer is willing to pay for serious, reliable products. When brought into the consumer world, OS/2 was suddenly a Steakhouse product in a McDonald's marketplace. If not for Microsoft's use of its monopoly leverage in the illegal act of monopoly maintenance, consumers today could choose between Windows and OS/2, the same way that hungry people can choose to eat at McDonald's or at the Steakhouse. But that shining moment of opportunity was shouted down by the PC magazines, derided by the computer press, and missed by most software developers. It is as if the consumer was offered a chance to halt the downward slide of product quality, but was told "No, don't touch that. Just go to McDonald's like everyone else."

Of course, IBM was in this case a poor substitute for the typical small-business competitor juxtaposed against the big-money mass-marketer Microsoft. IBM has never been a consumer-oriented company and will likely never be so. The one time IBM "got it right," it was falsely condemned as being wrong by the short-sighted computer press. The general trend toward mass-market mediocrity was not halted, and the consumer was denied a superior product. A kind of Gresham's Law of Software took over -- "Bad software drives out good." Mediocrity became the accepted norm in the PC marketplace.

Thus the flight of IBM to the high-end server market as the logical customer base for OS/2 continues. I believe the only way to see a signficant movement back toward quality software -- particularly OS/2 -- in the consumer marketplace may require a signficant chastisement of Microsoft, either by the Open Source Software (OSS) movement, or else by the federal courts. The chieftains of IBM are tired of fighting the downward slide of consumer software history. To try to restore a small-business product-excellence atmosphere to the software marketplace, we may need to take the bull by the horns and join forces with the OSS movement or at least mimic its ways.

There is a sign behind the counter at every Baskin-Robbins ice cream store, and it goes something like this: "Every product can be dumbed down by some man and sold for a few dollars less, and those who shop on the basis of price only are this man's lawful victims." The exception, of course, is if this man uses monopoly leverage to make everyone his victim. The OSS movement, the courts, and improving our own ability to develop and market OS/2-based solutions (including Java): these are the three key elements in our quest to change the course of history and restore excellence to the consumer software marketplace.

Most recent revision: December 1, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.