Monopolies and Empires

2004-06-17

In a recent interview in Ars Technica, longtime Netscape/Mozilla developer Scott Collins said:

There's only one thing powerful in this world enough to topple Microsoft, if toppling Microsoft is your goal, and that is Microsoft. People and empires, they fall under their own weight, because they're the only ones heavy enough to take them down. I think we are seeing the beginnings of that, a tremendous backlash in the marketplace towards software companies that are taxing their users, hugely in the cases of these giants like PeopleSoft and Oracle, but even those that tax the middle class like Microsoft does.

There's more (read it), but even this snippet interests me tremendously because I see parallels to Carroll Quigley's analysis of the evolution of civilizations. Quigley observes that throughout history, the emergence of an empire has presaged not a golden age but the inevitable if not imminent decline and collapse of the civilization in question. Empire is a sign not of strength but of weakness, since it exposes the internal contradictions inherent in a certain civilization.

The desktop/laptop PC market is an effective monopoly, or certainly a monoculture. Aside from Apple freaks and Linux geeks, it's all Windows, all the time. ESR adduces good reasons for this in The Magic Cauldron:

It is also worth noting that the manufacturing delusion encourages price structures that are pathologically out of line with the actual breakdown of development costs. If (as is generally accepted) over 75% of a typical software project's life-cycle costs will be in maintenance and debugging and extensions, then the common price policy of charging a high fixed purchase price and relatively low or zero support fees is bound to lead to results that serve all parties poorly. Consumers lose because, even though software is a service industry, the incentives in the factory model all cut against a vendor's offering competent service.... The other side of this coin is that most vendors buying this factory model will also fail in the longer run.... In the long run, therefore, the only way to escape is to have no competitors -- that is, to have an effective monopoly on one's market. In the end, there can be only one.... And, indeed, we have repeatedly seen this support-starvation failure mode kill off even strong second-place competitors in a market niche.... The perverse incentives set up by the factory model lead to a winner-take-all market dynamic in which even the winner's customers end up losing.

Joel Spolsky's latest article speculates that Microsoft has lost the API wars, and that developers are now building for the web rather than for Windows. I wouldn't count Microsoft out yet, certainly not on the desktop. As Quigley observed, empires don't just collapse: they are invaded by a younger, more dynamic civilization that is still in the expansion phase. In the computing field, that means the coming convergence of phones, PDAs, music players, cameras, reading machines, and other special-purpose devices. At this point, I think the Microsoft monoculture will be broken only by the rise of a new computing "civilization" that is not based on the metaphor of the desktop (or, just possibily, through the utter commoditization of the desktop experience, which in part will involve moving almost all applications to the web or to the emerging real-time Internet). But I'm not holding my breath.


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal