By Doc Searls
July 1994
In the industrial age, strong companies dominated their markets from ivory towers. But in the information age, ivory towers isolate their occupants from the market's conversation. Rather than vantages for the strong, they become prisons for the clueless.

It was interesting to watch the Pentium Bug event unfold in the Fall of '94. I happened to be hanging around the EETimes Forum on Compuserve when that big insect first hit the fan.

Now, the EET Forum is a serious place. I would guess most of the guys here use Intel-based computers, and many of them engineer things with "Intel Inside." Yet, when news of the bug was first posted, nobody seemed to take it too seriously. They joked about it a bit and took it in stride. After all, bugs in chips are nothing new. Still, all of them clearly were looking for Intel to jump in and talk about it.

But there was, from what I saw, complete radio silence from Intel... until Alex Wolfe, an EETimes reporter, wrote about it. Soon the major media picked up the story and all hell was loose.

To deal with this crisis, Andy Himself posted something on the forum that read like a papal encyclical on How Intel Works, and (as we all recall) on which populations deserved new Pentia and which did not.

When the forum participants attempted to engage Andy on the matter, he was gone. He was NOT part of the conversation.

So, when Andy and his company got shellacked in the press, little help came from what should have been its friends in the engineering community.

Meanwhile, over in the Travel Forum, another bad PR event was taking shape. This one involved United Airlines, which was experiencing a bumpy take-off with its new Shuttle By United service.

Like the EETimes Forum, the Travel Forum has serious participants that include high-mileage fliers, pilots, air traffic controllers, travel agents, and airline personnel from every level.

If you could hook a meter up to the forum and measure good will, the meter on Shuttle By United at take-off was way over on the negative side. Luggage was being lost (three times for one passenger). Passenger loading was chaotic. Customers were unhappy.

Then one United worker (one of those "owners" United's ads talk about) jumped in and simply started to help out. The response was remarkable. Examples, copied out of my archived threads:

Thus the meter moved all the way over to the positive side -- just because one company guy engaged himself in the conversation. One guy. Then one day our guy posted a notice that said "due to a conflict with with corporate communication policies at United Airlines of employees responding to issues of any nature without the explicit direction of the Communications Division, I will not be participating any longer. I hope this situation changes in the future. Until then, direct any concerns to the Consumer Affairs department at United's World Headquarters."

You can imagine what followed. United got flamed royally by all of this guy's new friends.

But... Unlike Intel, United stayed in the conversation. A United higher-up jumped in and announced United's willingness to learn this new form of market relations. Both guys both stayed in the conversation and started to work things out. The needle went back over to the positive side.

Intel and United both learned a few lessons here:

  1. Ivory towers are no longer viable structures.
  2. Isolation doesn't work. Involvement does.
  3. Markets are conversations.
  4. Monopoly is not longer functional. Polyopoly is.

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