Color commentary on positive sum games


By Doc Searls
July 10, 1997
Original version written for The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper

The only thing worse than a man you can't control is a man you can.

- Margo Kaufman

Nobody controls Bill Gates. In fact, nobody understands him. The guy is clearly the Mozart of modern business, yet nearly all we hear are clichés about his peerless wealth, his boundless focus, his merciless competitive spirit. Is that all there is?

Of course not. But while evidence for Gates' genius abounds, so do his Salieris. Today Ray Noorda, Jim Manzi, Philippe Kahn and other failed opponents are better sources of bad ink for Microsoft than of good products for the nameless companies that now employ them.

All of them, of course, want our legal daddies — the Department of Justice, the Trade Commission, the Pope, anybody — to shut (or at least slow) the man down. You can read their case in Overdrive : Bill Gates and the Race to Control Cyberspace, by James Wallace, or in its prequel, Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire. Wallace co-wrote Hard Drive with Jim Erickson in 1992, when both were reporters for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Ericson has moved on, but Wallace is still his paper's Main Man on the Gates Case.

Overdrive is a fun read. In the "gotcha" game modern journalism has become, Wallace is a big game hunter, going after the biggest beast in the jungle. In Hard Drive Wallace shot Gates for being a merciless competitor - and got him good, too. Judge Stanley Sporkin cited Hard Drive as his primary source when he rejected the 1994 consent decree between Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Justice.

In Overdrive Wallace chronicles this saga, along with other Microsoft legal problems; but his main story is the Internet Phenomenon, and Microsoft's role in it. Here Wallace shoots Gates for allowing Netscape to steal the Internet's thunder, but he does give his quarry credit for masterminding the most rapid and remarkable corporate redirection in modern history. It's a good story, but it you're looking for insights, you won't find them here.

Don't blame Wallace. Instead, blame his tools: the war and sports metaphors by which all markets are battlefields, all participants are combatants and all conflicts require winners and losers. Is there any room in the "race to control cyberspace" for customer service, developer support and other mundane functions required for success in even the most competitive businesses? When all you've got is a gun, everything looks like a target.

Whatever its sins, this much is clear: Microsoft is about making and serving markets; not just controlling them. It wouldn't enjoy anything near its current success if it didn't create deep and abiding developer and customer relations. Yet Wallace, along with just about everybody else, ignores those issues, and the Microsoft story remains woefully incomplete.

Case in point. At an industry event last summer I made a presentation that suggested Microsoft does not treat its users as "consumers," but rather as customers whose feedback the company craves. Later a Microsoft executive told me this was the first time he heard his company credited with the worst-kept secret in the industry. "If anything, we do customer service to a fault," he said. "There's hardly a feature in Word that some user didn't ask for."

Meanwhile, an Apple executive who witnessed the same presentation told me his company did its best to distance itself from the same intelligence. For years it scraped users off on dealers and other intermediaries, and only created a toll free customer support number as something of a PR move. There was no connection between customer support and the parts of the company that could fix problems at their source — or use the information to make better products. Finally, he said, a bunch of customer support people "stormed" the CEO's office and presented the guy with a list of items that needed fixing.

No wonder a friend of mine says, "The clue train stopped at Apple four times a day for years, but they never took delivery." The same can be said about Lotus, Borland, WordPerfect, Novell and other self-labeled Microsoft enemies.

Wallace is not blind to the failings of Microsoft's opponents, or to Microsoft's virtues; but he still insists that Microsoft wins by crushing the clueless, rather than by doing a better job of serving customers and making markets. He writes, "... driven by Bill Gates, whose burning desire to win and fear of failure compel him not only to beat his competitors, but to destroy them, Microsoft's dominance seems secure for a long time to come."

In the last few weeks I have read six other books on Gates and his industry, and looked carefully through a couple dozen more. I can find only one that gives a full account to what's really going on. That book is The Microsoft Way: The Real Story of How the Company Outsmarts Its Competition (Addison-Wesley, 1996), by historian Randall E. Stross.

"Essentially, we have two choices," Stross writes. "On the one hand, we can accept a characterization of Gates as the antichrist, Microsoft as the evil empire, its software as junk and the company's success as rooted in deceptions, outright lies, legal trickery, and brute-force marketing. On the other hand, we can take the company at its own word that it has benevolently ushered in the personal computer revolution and that its market success is the just reward for the service it has rendered to the public."

Wallace makes good copy with the first case, but Stross makes good history with the second. Stross' book is also more informative and no less a page-turner.

But my favorite book about the industry is still Accidental Empires : How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date, by Robert X. Cringely (Harperbusiness, 1996). The first edition came out six years ago and Cringeley updated it for re-release with last year's Revenge of the Nerds, which was easily the year's most entertaining public TV special. In the book Cringeley gives Gates full credit for his virtues, but still nails him for personality flaws, calling him "a megalomaniac," and a "bright but poorly socialized kid under, say, the age of 9."

A kid like, say, Mozart.

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