Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Sic transit gloria Microsoft

Suns set on empires in the end, Egyptian, Assyrian, Roman, Byzantine, British, the roll-call of yesterday’s elites still echoes down the years. And, much to their chagrin, giants have blind-spots where upstarts can sneak by them. Coca Cola begat Pepsi Cola. Xerox begat GUIs. NCR begat IBM. And IBM, at the height of its hubris, dismissing the power of the ‘bunch’ – Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data and Honeywell, giants in their own rights whose total gross revenues Big Blue’s net profit regularly exceeded – begat Microsoft. And, as far as I can see, the answer to Richard’s question ‘Is there really an Authority anywhere in the world that can keep Microsoft in check?’ is that, right now, for countless and well-rehearsed reasons, there probably isn’t. But help is at hand.

Relationships rule. They sustain us all – empire, giant or ordinary man in the street. Trust is at the heart of relationships and Microsoft – except in the sense in which the US has anti-trust laws – isn’t very good at trust. (Scimitar's shadow-side model explains why this is so.) Nor is Microsoft particularly good at relationships, even relationships with empires - with the exception always of the CIA, The Pentagon and the Bush administration of course. (The EU, for instance is due to decide this week whether or not to suspend the sanctions it imposed on the giant for ‘abuse of its dominant position’ in refusing to sell a version of Windows without MediaPlayer. Hardly a clash of Titans, a cynic might fear.)

Shakespeare put his finger on the problem (when didn’t he?) in Measure for Measure when he has Isabella say, ‘O, it is excellent to have giant’s strength but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant’. Worms turn at the margin of power asymmetry and trust becomes self-regulatory. Savvy organizations have been Microsoft averse for a good many years. Likewise savvy emerging economies, still living with painful memories of colonialism and slavery. In the end, trust, the great regulator, will be the authority Richard is looking for.

Byzantium, Constantine the Great’s peerless empire, began in the year 330 of the common era and lasted until the 29th of May 1453. As for Bill Gates's empire, the world won’t have to wait as long until sic transit gloria Microsoft.