Linux For Suits

For the July 2001 Linux Journal

Whose hand is that in your pocket?

Sometimes too much just isn't enough. — Dean Landsman

Back when Steve Jobs was still at NeXT, he was interviewed by Robert X. Cringeley for a PBS special called "Triumph of the Nerds" — a televised version of Cringeley's brilliant book Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Made their Millions, Battled Foreign Competition and Still Couldn't Get a Date. The best moment in the show came when Cringeley asked Jobs what he thought about Microsoft.

Jobs leaned back, put on his best ironic smile and said, "They have no taste."

There, in four perfect one-syllable words, Jobs not only nailed Microsoft, but himself as well. True: while Microsoft has no taste, Jobs has nothing but.

Tastelessness has hurt Microsoft about as much as it has McDonalds . That much is obvious. Less obvious is what gets camouflaged by taste-free product names and dull-as-dirt descriptions of every new "enabling service." Take ".NET" for example. It was announced a year ago, and still nobody can say what it is. When it came out, serious geeks like Joel Spolsky called it camouflage. "Read the white paper closely," he wrote, "and you'll see that for all the hoopla, .NET is just a thin cloud of FUD. There's no there there. Try as you might to grasp onto something, the entire white paper does not say anything. The harder you grasp, the more it slips right through your fingers."

But Hailstorm was different. While the .NET announcement was anesthesia, Hailstorm was a wake-up call — at least for the geeks. The feature that really set them off was an innocent-sounding something called Passport. Here's Joel again:

Let's pause to visit two well-camouflaged reasons why Microsoft's products seem so easily to achieve ubiquity.

First is where the company comes from. Since the beginning (in 1975) Microsoft has been about personal computing. They care about users first and everything else after that. The "Micro" in their name isn't coincidental.

Second, they pay very close attention to what users say they want. I would bet that what one user says to one tech support person has a far better chance of influencing software engineering at Microsoft than at any other software company. In fact, one high-up guy at Microsoft once told me that some of the company's software is full of features "exactly one person asked for."

Like every other gigantic industrial company that makes products for millions of individuals, Microsoft runs into problems when it begins to consider those indivuduals as something less than customers. That something is the name that shows up in the midst of Passport's URL: That's right, you're a consumer. You're what Jerry Michalski calls a "gullet": a creature that hangs around under the far end of the supply chain's conveyor belt, where you live only to "gulp down products and crap out cash."

Pathetic creatures, consumers. Here's the Hailstorm white paper, Building the User-centric Experience, on the awfulness poor consumers must suffer with the PalmOS:

And what would that awful environment be? Try a market. But who wants to live in a real market? Too messy. Too noisy. Too thick with too many vendors, and too many customers figuring things out, asking annoying questions. Too much like a real world. What the consumer wants is coccon-like habitat like the one they get with TV: a supply system of one-way channels wired up like the vast battery -charger in "The Matrix."

From the matrix end, Hailstorm is a set of "services." From the battery's end, it's the Passport:

Of course this all comes at a price:

In other words, Microsoft will turn the commercial side of the Internet into a big on-line service -- not one on the cable TV model, where you pay for a spigot at the end of the pipe, but rather an a la carte model, where you, the battery, pays for everything. Much different than the current credit-card system, which takes a cut out of the sell side of the final transaction.

Remember when Microsoft tried to buy Intuit? The banking and credit card industries went bonkers and lobbied successfully against the deal. Hailstorm cuts the credit card guys out almost entirely. Are they aware of what Microsoft is proposing here? I've heard nothing about it, so the camouflage seems to be working.

But not with developers. Microsoft can't do this alone. Here's what's in it for the small fry:

So there we have it: a blueprint for Internet-based commerce, built by a Microsoft-enabled software industry, intermediated over Microsoft infrastructure.

I want to pause here to note that I'm not just bashing Microsoft here. I'm bashing what we've always called "consumerism," but which we would more accurately call producerism — the belief that Production can tell Consumption what it wants. A couple months ago in this space I gave Dell and Gateway some grief for doing the same thing with the cattle-chute choices it forced on visitors to their Web sites.

With Hailstorm, Microsoft extends the cattle chute system to one by which every gullet can plug directly into the end of every value chain. Given the ubiquity of Windows, that's exactly what will happen. Or that's the idea.

The problem here isn't that Hailstorm cuts out competitors, or intermediaries, or anybody else. It's that it cuts out markets. It bypasses the bazaar. It embraces and extends what producerism has succeeded in doing ever since John Wanamaker invented the price tag in the late 1800s.

The challenge for the rest of us is to do with markets what we did with the Net in the first place: create ubiquitous conditions that make matrix-building impossible. That requires something many of us are not accustomed to doing: thinking about commerce. Specifically, thinking about markets as places, as environments, rather than as targets for stuff shoved down through the industrial distribution matrix.

For cultural reasons alone, this won't be easy. In Homesteading the Noosphere, Eric S. Raymond said that, among the "varieties of hacker ideology" there is a certain "hostility to commercial software and/or the companies perceived to dominate the commercial software market." But hackers also built the Net, which was such an obviously promising environment for business that investors spent something like a trillion dollars funding fantasies about it, putting the technology sector on a cocaine binge from which it will take years to recover.

Obviously, most of these investors didn't know what the hackers were really up to. Here's ESR, in early '99, way before the bubble burst: "We hackers were actively aiming to create new kinds of conversations outside of traditional institutions. This wasn't an accidental byproduct of doing neat techie stuff; it was an explicit goal for many of us as far back as the 1970s. We intended this revolution.”

With Linux we built a bazaar for developers. Now it's time to build one for everybody else. Let's create an interstructure for commerce which, like the Net, nobody owns, everybody can use, and anybody can improve.

Real markets are public places. You can't privatize what only works because it's public. But if we don't build something that works for everybody, the matrix-builders are going to keep trying to do what they;'ve always done. And it won't be pretty.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.