Understanding Microsoft

Part 15. Claim Jumpers

There is a certain kind of businessman, a smarmy, smiley, sweet-smelling guy who dresses up as a fine, honest, prosperous citizen, but behind the scenes is nothing but a rotten scoundrel. The old West was filled with this sort of false "gentleman" who always seemed to have an edge, whether it was in a card game or in a gold strike. He always seemed to have the "luck" of hitting a rich load of ore on every one of his grubstakes. You'd think he knew in advance which ones were going to succeed!

Of course, nobody can foresee which claims will prove successful and which ones are just duds. The way this chap went about his business was to keep careful watch at the assayer's office, and he knew who it was that was bringing in a fine load of gold and who was a flop. Once a hard-working prospector had discovered a claim, had filed his legal paperwork, and begun bringing in the pay dirt, the scoundrel would send a couple of the "boys" over with a contract. "Sign on with us, and we'll make sure everything goes smoothly!" they would croon. Or maybe "You wouldn't want to have something happen to you on the way back to town, would you? Think of it as a little extra protection." Most of the time, prospectors realized that they would get nowhere standing alone against the combined legal forces and the implied firepower of the scoundrel's mob, so they signed up and split the profits. Or else they took their stand and went down fighting. In either case, the scoundrel cashed in without lifting a finger.

The worst part about this sordid little scenario was that the scoundrel soon got the undeserved reputation as a qualified mining expert! He would let other people do the hard work, he let them take the risks, he let them shell out for the grubstake, the tools, the manpower, the overhead, whatever it took to establish their little claim and begin to make some money at it. Then, when it was time to begin making some honest money for all that hard work, he would suddenly show up there for a piece of the action. This sort of crookedness made scoundrels into millionaires and broke the spirit of many an decent prospector.

In this modern era of electronic communication, particularly the Internet and personal computers, the real grubstakes are claims that are being worked in cyberspace instead of in Alaska or California. The prospectors invest time, money, and sweat developing a product, bringing it to market, advertising, and building up a small enterprise to keep the money coming in. They use their creativity, their ingenuity, and just plain hard work to develop a market where none existed before. Then a scoundrel from Redmond, Washington, sends over a few of the "boys" with an offer that can't be refused.

You know the result. The scoundrel is a little company called Microsoft, which gets the reputation as an innovator after jumping the cyberspace claims of companies like Apple, Netscape, and STAC Electronics. The real work -- hard work, with lots of risks -- is done by these little guys, the *real* innovators. The excuses used by the claim jumpers for this conduct are very numerous: "We wanted to make this technology available to everyone." "We thought of it first." "We felt sorry for this little company and wanted to make sure they succeeded." So after a few years, when the little guy has somehow disappeared from the scene, then history is rewritten and claim jumper Microsoft is falsely remembered as the good guy who "discovered" or "invented" something great.

Just like the old-time claim jumper, who was just being "helpful" to make sure that everybody got their gold to market, by hook or by crook.

Most recent revision: December 28, 1997
Copyright © 1997, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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