Understanding Microsoft

Part 82. Vulcanization

In the manufacture of automobile tires, there is a chemical process called *vulcanization* that is provides some very important benefits. Vulcanization is the use of sulfur compounds during the heating of the raw rubber and petrochemicals to induce a series of linkages between the long chains of molecules that make up the tire. This cross-linkage adds to the strength and resiliency of the tire. It was not until vulcanization was used that rubber tires became a reliable substitute for the old wooden wheels that once were the mainstay of American transportation (such as the covered wagons of the horse-and-buggy days).

However, this process has a very interesting side effect: it renders the rubber non-recyclable. Yes, once the cross-linkages have been created during the heating process that is used to shape and mold the rounded tires, you cannot melt the rubber from used tires and reshape it once again. Tires will smoke and burn, but they refuse to melt under any reasonable processing conditions. This is why huge dumps full of literally millions of old, worn-out auto tires cover the landscape. In one such Ohio dumping ground, for example, a fire among the old tires lasted for almost four days before it could be quenched. The tires become very attractive but only for a single go-round.

This type of chemical engineering results in what is known as a "non-reversible process." Another example is the boiled egg: once an egg has been heated to a certain temperature, it ceases to be in a liquid state and solidifies. Upon cooling down to room temperature, the egg does not resume a liquid state but instead remains solidified. A number of other such processes exist, but for our purposes it is instructive to note a similar effect in the world of computers. Once "addicted" to the use of Microsoft products, people find it difficult to "go back" to the "old ways" of doing things, even if the so-called old ways were more reliable, more efficient, and less expensive. It is as if once the network cable is laid, the psychological cost of removing it is too great. The cross-linkages between the computers develop a sense of permanence that is not easily broken, since they have usurped the role once held by personal communications skills. Once lost, these skills are not easily replaced.

Furthermore, the establishment of an installed base of a particular software product tends to generate its own linkages as well, particularly by the use of proprietary file formats for storage and sharing of data. Once having been locked into Microsoft products by means of the OEM preload agreements and other incentives, it becomes very unlikely that a "liquefaction" or an increased degree of freedom can once again return to the computer marketplace. The vulcanization of the PC software marketplace thus makes any effective punishment of Microsoft -- particularly by restoration of free-market conditions -- a very difficult task to accomplish.

Most recent revision: July 21,1999
Copyright © 1999, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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