Understanding Microsoft

Part 44. Air Traffic Control

When President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers in 1981, he exposed an insidious trend in our technological age: there are quite a few vital jobs that can only be done by a handful of people with special skills and attributes and training. The entire system of global air travel depends on perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 people whose skill, courage, and level-headedness make them effective in the high-tension atmosphere of an airport tower or an Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC).

It's not a matter of having a shortage of people with the *aptitude* for ATC work, but rather the lack of people with the *attitude* required. Almost anyone could memorize the jargon and the routine of directing flights, but how many people could go to work every day knowing that during each twenty-minute wave they'll be holding the safety of thousands of lives directly under the thumb of the Push-to-Talk (PTT) button of their microphone? Precision under fire is difficult enough in a regular work environment, but the constant cycles of airplanes moving to and fro on a glowing green tube can have unexpected effects -- anything from mesmerizing, to numbing, to the stark realization that maybe you just don't have it today.

Like the labor pool of the pro athletes or the ATC personnel, the software industry has at its disposal only a limited number of truly great programmers. More and more can be trained and groomed for this work, of course, but that takes time. Any company that could gain control of this critical talent pool could leverage its labor monopoly to build an industry centered on its own standards. This is exactly what Microsoft has used as the foundation of its prosperity.

By offering huge stock incentives, Microsoft built its own in-house talent. By building an OS monopoly on proprietary programming interfaces, it built a group of dependent software vendors (sadistically called "ISV's" to imply some imagined degree of Independence). By manipulating the trade press, a herd mentality was created based on ignorance of the superior alternatives from rival companies, or based on a fear of their presumed disappearance. The purpose of all of these machinations was to gain and keep control of the market for programmers of desktop PC software.

But before Microsoft could leverage this labor monopoly to the larger labor pool of enterprise programming, a new form of computer language has appeared on the horizon -- Java. This situation would be roughly equivalent to an Air Traffic Controller's union suddenly faced with a flood of easier, more automated ATC equipment that took a lot of the risk out of the job. The group's leverage at the bargaining table suddenly evaporates, and members of the ATC union begin wondering why they are still messing around with the "old" machines. A carefully crafted monopoly on a critical pool of labor suddenly becomes nothing more than a social club. This is Microsoft's worst nightmare, that its monopoly on desktop programming talent might be headed for the runway on a one-way ticket out.

Most recent revision: March 25, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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