Understanding Microsoft

Part 79. The Half-Inch Nut

Why do people buy half-inch nuts? Because they have half-inch bolts to attach. It's really that simple.

On the other hand, imagine going to the hardware store and enduring the following runaround:

Customer: "I'd like to buy a half-inch nut, please."
Clerk: "I'm sorry, we don't sell half-inch nuts. They're obsolete. Instead, we sell only 0.538-inch nuts."
Customer: "But that doesn't do me any good. All my bolts are half-inch bolts."
Clerk: "Ohhh, so that's your problem! Of course, those are obsolete. Last month, the new Bolt98 was introduced. It's exactly 0.538 inches in diameter. We have a whole bin of them right over here."
Customer: "Wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me that all my bolts are obsolete, and I have to go out and buy all new bolts now??"
Clerk: "Why yes, of course, time marches on, you can't stop progress, technology keeps getting better, that sort of thing."
Customer: "But that's outrageous!!! All my bolts still work just fine, I just need a few nuts."
Clerk: "Well, sure, we've got plenty of 0.538-inch nuts here. Some of them might just barely fit on a few of your old-fashioned half-inch bolts. Buy a few extra just to be sure."

Now of course nobody has ever had that exact experience in a hardware store. But they may have had quite a similar conversation in a software store. How come hardware stores don't play that kind of game -- at least not very often? It's because hardware is by its physical nature limited in terms of flexibility, as well as non-zero duplication cost. You can't press 100 million bolts and nuts at zero cost, but the Internet can allow 100 million downloads of a new piece of software at essentially zero cost, once the server and digital pipeline costs are divided by a factor of 100 million. Software is made of electromagnetic charges, which are infinite in quantity and cost essentially zero dollars per byte.

So out of this seeming "horn of plenty," Microsoft has decided to introduce an artificial scarcity of products. Yes, by using the federally-enforced copyright laws, Microsoft can declare a particular incarnation of its software "obsolete" at will, making it illegal to duplicate or to sell. Then it can flood the market with one hundred million copies of its "new and improved" product, which is nothing more than a slight rearrangement of the electrons. The so-called "new technology" is usually no more of an innovation or improvement than a 0.538-inch nut is versus a standard half-inch nut. But the very flexible nature of software allows an unscrupulous villain like Microsoft to pull the rug out from underneath the entire software market any time they please.

Every two or three years, Microsoft will unilaterally declare a particular application, file format, protocol, or other software product "obsolete," solely for the purpose of generating another round of "churn" in the marketplace, accompanied by leveraged bundling of new products. This is like going to the hardware store and getting a free 0.538-inch "new technology" screwdriver with each 0.538-inch "new technology" bolt or nut. Not only is the market flooded with a mish-mash of mutually incompatible products, but the bundling effect forces the other toolmakers out of business -- all because Microsoft's monopoly position allows them to change the meaning of "half-inch" at will, almost as if they owned a copyright on the number "1/2".

Most recent revision: July 2, 1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

E-MAIL: os2headquarters@mindspring.com