Understanding Microsoft

Part 1. The Glass Maker

There is a classic old paradox from college Economics class that applies perfectly well to the software industry today. In this story, a baker owns a small store on the main street of a little town. One day a young punk, a vandal, passes by and heaves a huge brick right through the baker's display window, smashing it to bits. The vandal runs away and is never found.

However, the sound of glass breaking draws a crowd. The baker has come out of the store and is complaining to the town sheriff. "He broke my big glass window. That's going to cost me $200!! Who will pay for it? Can't you try to catch that little twerp and make him pay?"

The sheriff, a relaxed and slow-witted fellow, tries to find a way out. He doesn't like work; he just prefers to sit back in his chair and have his deputies pick up drunks. Meanwhile, some smart alec in the crowd pipes up: "Hey, Mr. Baker, don't worry. That young man has done a good deed! Now there's $200 more business for the glass maker down the street!"

As the crowd busts out in laughter, and the sheriff slowly ambles down the street. Then another voice chimes in, "You know, the fellow's got a point there. Why, Mr. Glass will be able to hire another helper now. This is really going to get the economy going!" Others in the crowd murmur their approval. A few brave souls even begin to call the vandal a hero, and they hope he sneaks back into town and throws a few more bricks so the economy will really get moving. Visions of progress and prosperity begin filling the little town, and over the next few weeks, windows all over town begin to be smashed. Soon the glassmaker hires all the small boys in town and begins teaching them the glassmaking trade.

Something like this line of reasoning has infected the business world lately, and it goes like this: "Who cares how much money is wasted on Windows, on buzzword solutions like Client-Server, on tech support, on constant hardware upgrades, on software licenses? It's good for the economy!" Yes, the media murmurs its approval, and people find themselves spending more and more of their time and resources on keeping the computers going instead of just getting their work done. The glass maker -- Microsoft -- does more and more business, just to keep the fixes coming, promising that the next round of window replacements will finally do the job. More and more talented people get absorbed into the glass-making business, leaving behind the bakery, the blacksmith, and other necessary jobs.

Where did the reasoning go wrong? It has to do with forgetting to ask one simple question: "What would the baker have done with that $200 if he had not been compelled to waste it on replacement glass?" Why, the baker would have reinvested it into something productive. The baker would have had an additional $200 worth of productive baking equipment, instead of just running in place and spending the $200 to maintain the status quo. This is the problem with information technology today: more and more money is thrown out just to keep "running in place," investing more money in the tail and less in the dog. Businesses have lost billions of dollars on computers that should have been spent on essential plant equipment, worker salaries, and employee benefits.

Microsoft products act just like a vandal, a glass breaker, throwing a monkey wrench into the productive forces of the economy. Then they offer to provide a "quick fix" to undo the damage they've done. Unwilling to admit their original error, the information managers agree to ante up for another round of replacement glass, not knowing that the seeds of its own destruction are built-in to each Microsoft product. As the cycle repeats itself, the glass maker gets rich and the rest of the town gets poor. All because Mr. Glass's son Billy was a dirty little vandal.

Most recent revision: December 4, 1997
Copyright © 1997, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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