Understanding Microsoft

Part 80. Wallet on a String

In a classic old comedy gag, a fellow would be walking down the street and suddenly see an obviously lost wallet lying on the ground. As he walked over to pick it up, it would suddenly move a few feet away from him. Now he had to walk another few steps and bend down once again. Before he could grab it, the wallet would suddenly move another few feet onward. Unseen by the hapless victim, a prankster around the corner of a building had a thin nylon string attached to the wallet, and he could make the poor guy do almost anything by leading him on just a few feet at a time. When properly timed, it was a hilarious joke played on sucker after sucker.

The idea that you can keep a person moving toward a goal by placing an object immediately in front of him or her has been used very effectively in the software industry, too. By changing the product just a little bit every few years, Microsoft has kept a steady stream of money flowing in. Instead of making a real break with the past and offering a truly innovative, ground-breaking product (such as IBM's OS/2 Warp), Microsoft has lived by the gospel of incrementalism, never daring to stray from their DOS-based GUI as the mainstay of their monopolistic position. By jerking the marketplace a few feet at a time, Microsoft is able to keep the average consumer focused on a seemingly elusive goal of stability and order.

In the real world, the consumer is looking for something that will work reliably and that does not become "obsolete" every few months. The problem with this situation is that it is the opposite of what Microsoft and their willing accomplices in the computer industry want. They have become addicted to the steady stream of money flowing in from ever-slower software and the constant treadmill of unnecessary hardware upgrades required by the buggy, low-performance products that Microsoft doles out. Just when a computer configuration has become somewhat stable, just when a business has gotten all of its computers to the same software version, just when a computer user has become comfortable and familiar with a particular interface, Microsoft will jerk the string and upset the carefully-ordered world that had momentarily come into being.

And just like the practical joker pulling the string in the old comedy routine, Microsoft keeps the money in their own pocket instead of the wallet, and laughs all the way to the bank.

Most recent revision: July 16,1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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