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.