Understanding Microsoft

Part 37. The New Luddites

Fear of change is a form of paranoia that has taken on many forms. From apocalyptic cults and doomsday nuclear-war scenarios, to the drunken binges and dopehead escapisms of the man on the street, all the way to the boardrooms of powerful corporations, fear of what the future may bring has become a powerful force in the everyday decisionmaking process. Some people have even formed organized protest movements against technological change, hoping to delay and control the flow of "progress" to suit their own definitions of what kind of change is acceptable and what is to be disallowed. The most well-known anti-technology group is the Luddites.

The term Luddite comes from the pseudonym "King Ludd" used by a group of 19th-century American citizens who destroyed local factories because of the changes these workplaces caused in the cultural fabric of society. By damaging the machines, the Luddites hoped to make factories too risky and expensive to operate, so that the industrialists who built them would give up and move to greener pastures. Their movement failed to stem the tide of technological encroachment on the workplace, because the industrialists were able to call for assistance from the federal authorities to prevent the sabotage of their equipment from continuing. Luddite ringleaders were severely punished and the movement dissolved.

Today a more subtle and cowardly form of Luddism exists, a form of technological fearmongering and product sabotage that originates right in the minds of the self-proclaimed innovators. Some companies actually willfully sabotage and hamstring their own products, so that competitors cannot produce successful companion products. Nobody is better at playing in-house Luddite than Microsoft.

First and foremost is the practice of announcing products that will either never exist, or else will exist far enough in the future that competitors could actually build market share in the meantime. The "vaporware" announcements show that Microsoft fears technologies that other companies have or may yet develop, and destroys them by sabotaging expectations and customer awareness. No physical or programming alterations are necessary, because the sabotage occurs in the minds of the listeners. Next, Microsoft employs the practice of sabotaging revenue streams of its competitors, using product giveaways and targeting key customers of its rivals. Every company has a few "cash cow" customers or demographic groups that it counts on for a steady supply of capital, and Microsoft is very adept at discovering them by examining shareholder and stock market reports. The sabotage occurs in the marketplace, not in any product or equipment.

But for those few cases where the competitor's product is far superior, or its revenue base is beyond capture, or its reputation is beyond question, Microsoft is able to employ the software equivalent of Luddite breakage. Since Digital Research's DR-DOS worked with Windows, Microsoft added software codes into Windows 3.1 to break the compatibility. Since IBM's OS/2 was capable of running Win32s 1.25 programs, Microsoft found a way to prevent version 1.3 programs from working in OS/2. Now Microsoft is playing the same games with special Internet browser codes and Java extensions, attempting to ensure that other companies' products won't work with Microsoft products.

The beauty of this plan is that Microsoft never changes anyone else's products; they simply break their own software. Unlike those old-time factory owners, it's awfully hard for competitors to get federal help to prevent Microsoft from damaging their own property!! Microsoft's fear of change is just so much Luddism, sabotaging any technology that causes changes that they themselves cannot control. This is why the American public was denied the features of MS-DOS 6.0 for two years: rival DR-DOS already had the same features, and implemented more reliably, but could not overcome the stigma caused by Microsoft's self-imposed incompatibility. The public has also been denied a truly powerful, reliable operating system on their home computers, because Microsoft stopped at nothing to prevent IBM's success with OS/2, even if that meant that the public would have to endure an unnecessary delay of ten years in obtaining a similar product from Microsoft. The new Luddites fight against any progress that they cannot manipulate, delay any breakthrough until it can be copied, and lower any expectations necessary to ensure that they can manage change by preventing it.

Most recent revision: February 24, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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