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|Seven months ago I mentioned that there were a few clouds
on Microsofts horizon. Now we are looking at what appears to be a
thunderstorm, but (so far) is only a minor turbulence. The press worldwide (including
television, book publishers, etcetera) and especially in my country has been, for many
years, dedicated to total, almost religious praise of Microsoft; to the point of
describing Bill Gates as the technical genius behind the development of information
technology, that of course he is not, and even as the inventor and leader of the internet
when he and his company were years late in understanding the importance of the net
and have been desperately trying to catch up. Now that the problems are beginning to
surface, media seem quite confused in understanding and reporting the facts and
overlooking the real issues.
As far as I can see, there are two basic problems. The first is that one company controls 90 percent of the software installed on PCs (I dont understand how anyone can claim that its not a monopoly) and until a short while ago nobody had taken any serious action about it. The second its that the same company is trying to gain control of the internet, by using the only strong tool it has: leveraging its domination of software. With consequences that go far beyond the choice of a browser.
If we are all paying too much for software (and hardware needed to handle cumbersome fatware), thats a problem. If a company is guilty of unfair trading, that should be investigated. But thats only a small part of the story.
The quality of the software we are using is bad, and getting worse. Ive discussed it several times in this newsletter and its being noticed by more an more people, also outside the computer industry, though the "share of voice" of the critics is still very small compared to the perennial glorification of any technical innovation, no matter how useless or inefficient.
Most "intellectuals" and opinion makers dont understand these problems, but there s an interesting exception. Umberto Eco is one of the few Italian writers that are known worldwide; he is also one of the few that really understand how PCs work and from his writings its clear that he has practical knowledge of the internet. I always find his comments on this subject interesting and to-the-point. In the April 23 issue of LEspresso he commented that technical development has its limitations, and they are caused by an excess, not a lack, of technology. He explained:
Thats what many experienced users think and do, but its not reported as often as it should; though the idea is creeping around, and I find comments here and there in various places, including trade magazines that are not concerned specifically with information technology.
There was an interesting description of the technical reasons behind this problem in an article by Tom Halfhill in the April issue of Byte. He explained why personal computers crash much more often than major computer systems. We are working with poor technologies, messy software, and hardware that is often inadequate to handle the unnecessarily complex demands of cumbersome and conflicting programs.
And there is also the complex problem of copyright, that needs some serious revising in all fields... and takes a particularly grim look when someone in a position of monopoly, that can dictate what we buy and at what price, threatens (and actually carries out) police action treating anyone that doesnt have full license documentation like the worst of criminals. Not many people around the world understand that the infamous "crackdown" in Italy in 1994 was not prompted by the Italian government chasing after terrorists or "intruders" in computer systems, but by software houses chasing for programs installed without a full license; and, in spite of the protests, more of the same is still going on.
Can we blame all of this on Microsoft? I dont think so. No matter how dominant its position, no single company can be responsible for the malfunctioning of an entire industry. But its presence is so overwhelming that we cant help getting angry when one of its products messes up our work, at the worst possible time. Of course Murphys Law is universal, but it applies a bit too often to the software that we are forced to use. Would we have better software and fewer problems in an open, competitive market? We shant really know until we have a chance to test it; but its worth trying. At least we would pay less; and we could experiment and compare. We would also have that right to "punish" anyone selling us bad goods (by switching to one of its competitors) that we have with anything we buy in a supermarket but not with computer software.
Most of the debate on the Microsoft-Netscape affair seems to miss the crucial issues. Whats at stake is not just a conflict between two companies (if there were only two browsers that would be better than one, but we still wouldnt have a free and competitive market). If we were forced to use Netscape we wouldnt do much better that we do now by being forced to use Microsoft software. Why are we not free to choose? Because the market is so warped that we cant even decide which word processor we prefer, because software is not compatible and if we dont use what others are using we have problems transferring content. We are even forced to buy upgrades we dont need just to keep up with the fact that other people are doing so. Would we be prepared to buy cars that work with only one brand of oil or gasoline? Or to be forced to buy a new (and expensive) model because our old car (that is in perfectly good condition and fits our needs better than the new one) is denied access to the road?
For years this has been accepted, and even labeled "progress". I hope this is not just a coincidence... when there is an attempt to monopolize the net someone finally wakes up?
We hear some rather strange statements. "If we allowed computer manufacturers and dealers to to pre-install Netscape that would be like Coca-Cola selling Pepsi" says Bill Gates. "No, said a judge, whats going on is as though all refrigerators were made in such a way as to allow people to store only Coca-Cola". In fact, its even worse. Its as if all restaurants, bars and cafeterias were forced to offer one drink, made not to fit the taste of people but the whims of the manufacturer; and people had to go hunting in dark and cluttered cellars to find a cup of coffee, a beer, a glass of wine or a sip of water. And if foods were cooked and seasoned in such a way as to give a stomach ache to anyone daring to taste any other drink than the prescribed liquid. This is not what would happen if we were forced to use Windows 98 incorporating Microsoft Explorer. This is the situation in which we are, and have been for years.
Which are the next steps? Its seems pretty obvious. Microsoft has already invested in many net-related areas, including services, content and censorship tools such as "filters". Already many sites are being persuaded to be set up so as to be "best viewed with Explorer". If the grip tightens, we are heading for a world in which one company and its allies control everything online, from travel to insurance, from entertainment to information. It simply cant be healthy of anyone (government, administration or corporation) to have so much power.
Some people say that if Windows 98 isnt launched as it is many software houses and programmers will suffer, because their programs are written to fit that model. I don believe that. It would be quite easy, if anyone realy wanted, to provide open systems to fit their software. And even if they had to suffer a bit... people coming out of prison may have some problems re-adjusting to freedom. But that isnt a good reason to keep them in jail forever, especially as they never committed any crime, but they are victims of a restricted market.
Ive read also that some computer dealers are worried because they might lose some "novelty" sales. I think thats sheer nonsense. There must be better reasons for buying a new computer than chasing for the latest (often useless) innovation. The sooner we get out of a "drugged" market and dealers learn to sell what people really need, the better chance there will be for a healthy and expanding market.
But all of these are details. The issues at stake are much bigger, and go far beyond the behavior of any one company. I think the NetAction people are right when they say that the antitrust decisions are "too mild". So far they have only scratched the surface. The issue is not being "against" Microsoft (that could survive quite well in an open and competitive market). The issue is preventing anyone from gaining total control. I hope this is only the beginning of a much more radical change. Bill Gates may be the most visible and arrogant of the people trying to dominate our lives and thoughts, but he is certainly not the only one.
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|Lets look, for a change, at the picture as seen not by someone who is trying to
promote the use of the net for commercial purposes, but from people that have the opposite
objective; or at least want to make sure that the potential growth of e-business
isnt a threat for the business they have.
As I said two months ago, some salesmen for net "advertising" are making very strange statements (such as "the net will make print and television advertising useless"). Of course hardly anyone takes them seriously, but there are enough such ideas around to put the owners of traditional media on the defensive.
In this context, there is an analysis carried out by Publitalia a very large organization that sells all of the advertising on the networks owned by Mediaset, by far the largest commercial television group in Italy. I am grateful to Carlo Momigliano and Tiziana Morandi of Publitalia that kindly gave me the results of their study.
They point out that, as the population is getting older, there should be an increase in the number of people watching traditional ("general") television; but because of "new media" the overall number will remain unchanged at least until year 2000.
Quite reasonably, they expect television in Italy in the next two or three years to remain mostly broadcast, with limited development of satellite and cable. This is their projection to year 2000:
The future is unpredictable... but I think this projection is well based. There is a demand for more specialized media, especially in the more active segments of the population, but its quite unlikely that in the next couple of years there will be an attractive enough offering of content to bring about a major shift in viewing habits.
This study accepts an assumption, made by Databank Consulting and other sources, that by year 2000 penetration of the internet in Italy will have reached a "European level". Of course, from what we have seen so far, that seems very unlikely; but as this study is seeking to prove that the impact of the internet on other media will be small, a large estimate of internet penetration can only reinforce their point of view.
The "exaggerated" assumption is that by year 2000 there will be 4 million internet "users" in Italy, with this breakdown by age (which should be the same as the European average):
The idea that over half of the adult population (that will be the number of people over 45 by year 2000) will be predominantly excluded from the net and form all new media is somewhat depressing; but that, unfortunately, is quite likely to be true unless something serious is done to bring the "information have-nots" out of isolation.
The most peculiar part of this study is an analysis of media "consumption". Based on a study by Andersen Consulting, the basic assumption is that in year 2000 "as an average people in Europe will spend ten minutes a day navigating on the internet"
This would be the average time budget:
We could make some rather curious considerations on how people spend their time... but lets stick with the internet. If we look into this a little more carefully, we find that "ten minutes a day" is not a short time. Thats an average, and the assumption here is that ten percent of the population in Europe will have has internet access from home in year 2000. For those people that do use the net the average would be 100 minutes... an hour and 40 minutes a day, thats a lot (and above any other estimate I have seen so far).
The behavior of net users is not analyzed separately in this study; its reasonable to assume that they spend less time watching television. But in any case people in the most active stages of their lives are not the most "heavy users" of TV, so its reasonable to expect that in the "average" the impact of new media will not cause a relevant reduction of audience.
There is a definite potential, especially in this part of the population, for a gradual switch from "generic" to more segmented media, including "specialized" television if and when someone will be able to provide relevant and attractive content.
Of course no forecast can be taken literally, as we dont know when and how new options will be offered. But this projection is on a relatively short period and its reasonable to assume that the availability of more selective media will not evolve fast enough in Europe, and especially in our country, to have a major impact in the next two or three years. In any case it seems unlikely that the net, in the predictable future, will become a replacement for existing media. Its a tool for highly personalized use, that can be tailored to the interests and attitudes of different people. Its biggest value is providing service and content that traditional media can not offer, even when they will become less "generic" and more selective.
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|Emma Marcegaglia heads the "young entrepreneurs" sector of Confindustria
(Italys huge and powerful association of industrial companies). In an interview
published by Repubblica on April 16 she had some interesting comments on new
technologies. Here are some of her observations.
Facts, so far, dont seem to support these views on any extended scale. But its good to know that there is awareness. I just hope the innovators dont fall into the trap of thinking that the opportunities are only in the net or new technologies. There are big opportunities (especially in export markets) for enterprises of all kinds to grow and expand with the net and other new tools. And there should be employment opportunities not only for specialists in information technology, but also for people with other types of experience and education, that can help to provide content, develop services, manage communication and relationships.
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|On May 21, 1998 the largest "pager" system in the United States broke down
because one satellite wasnt working. It was reported that 45 million people were out
of reach. Its hard to believe that such a vital system was based on only one
vulnerable node, with no backup.
Anyone that has ever been at sea with a sailboat understands the importance of backup: the need for a duplicate, and a manual alternative, to replace anything that can break down and anything that runs on electricity or any other power supply. If an electric bilge pump doesnt work, theres one that can be operated by hand; and if even the hand pump breaks, theres a bucket. Uncomfortable, but better than sinking before a leak can be repaired.
Not only big systems need backup. This problem concerns all of us: large organizations or individuals. We know that any minor technical failure can cause big problems; but we tend to forget, and rely on technology more than we should. As a I write these lines, Im uncomfortably aware of the fact that I havent backed up anything for a couple of weeks, and if one computer broke down a lot of my work would be lost. Of course well organized companies arent as careless as I am and have excellent, frequent, automatic backup for everything... or do they? Unbelievable mistakes are made every day (by human bureaucracy as well as electronic systems) because there arent good enough backup solutions for possible errors or breakdowns.
This isnt just a matter of duplicating machines, software and information. It implies the much more complex need to have human resources that know how to make up for the failures of technology and organization.
A few days ago I made a silly mistake and a 25-page document, that had cost me weeks of work, was deleted; one day before the deadline. Was I clumsy and incompetent? Yes. But Ive seen things like that happen to people with much greater technical expertise. In any case... I met the deadline. Because I had backup for all of the research material, and the substance was in my mind; I didnt have to re-think, I only needed to re-write. But... had that been a group job, with other people unavailable... we would have been in serious trouble.
The problem becomes even more important when we are dealing with relationships. We all have daily experience of how difficult it is to deal with automatic response systems (or with bureaucratic organizations in which people are just cogs and dont understand how the system works) and how great a relief it is to deal with a person that can solve in s few minutes what a repetitive system turns into days or weeks of frustration.
Its extremely dangerous to hand anything over to technologies (or bureaucracy) with no human backup. Of course its expensive to have competent people and to make sure that knowledge is shared and understood. But the improvement of quality and efficiency can make the investment worthwhile. For instance, I-net is an internet service provider that has prices well above the market average. Their technical quality is very good; more importantly, their customer support is excellent. Available at the oddest times, helpful, friendly, willing to answer with courtesy the silliest questions and to help customers on the oddest issues. They dont always win new customers against low-price competitors, but their customer retention is the best in the market they hardly ever lose a client.
There are many other examples, also in fields quite remote from information technology. People are prepared to pay for good service; and really good service cant be provided unless its handled by good people. As John Naisbitt used to say, the more there is high tech, the more we need high touch.