Google, Microsoft and Tall Poppies.

November 25, 2003 7:22 PM

This one is going to annoy pretty much all of my dotnetblogger readers. You may want to skip it for now. :)

Hiawatha Bray, As Google grows, critics emerge, The Boston Globe:

Do you hate Google yet? At first glance, the question seems absurd. What's to hate about an Internet site where you can go and find out about practically anything, free of charge?

Less than a decade ago, you could have said the same of Microsoft Corp. It was once viewed as an heroic American institution, an upstart software company founded by a Harvard dropout who became a billionaire by outsmarting IBM Corp., the world's biggest computer firm...

Robert Scoble, in a comment in his weblog

...partly cause of American culture itself. We all love to see the powerful fall. Look at why all the TV stations covered Michael Jackson this week. Or, why many people who don't live in NY cheer against the Yankees. Our mythology is full of David vs. Goliath.

In Australia, we call this the "Tall Poppy Syndrome". When the poppy grows too tall, we find great delight in lopping off its head. It's something deeply ingrained into the psyche that when you become successful, people will want to bring you down.

Defenders of Microsoft would like to have us believe that it is a victim of its success. That up to the early- to mid-90's, everybody loved it, but then the enormous success of Windows 95 made them a target, and the whole Netscape thing became a hook by which the jealous tried to bring the company down.

This is pure revisionism. The truth is far from the conspiracy theory. Microsoft has always been a pretty nasty piece of work, as far as companies go. The only thing that has changed in the last decade has been the public visibility of the company, brought forward by the rise of the Internet, and the final movement of the personal computer into the realm of a must-own appliance. What's changed has not been Microsoft's behaviour, but its ability to do harm.

Post hoc ergo proptor hoc is such a convenient fallacy to fall into. As Microsoft grew in power and visibility, the negativity it began to attract grew. It's easy to blame the latter directly on the former. The truth is that the criticism is justified. Microsoft have seen their power grow, but never developed the corporate ethics to prevent the abuse of that power. As James Gleick wrote in Making Microsoft Safe for Capitalism

Microsoft is hardly alone, of course; plenty of its competitors would play as rough, if they only could. Others in the industry suggest that Microsoft's small-company scrappiness has kept it from facing the issue of corporate ethics: behavior that people will forgive, or at least understand, in a start-up looks considerably less attractive when David grows into Goliath.

Read Gleick's article. It discusses an antitrust investigation into Microsoft that began in 1990, an investigation that ended with no findings of guilt, but a consent decree. Gleick again:

[Anne Bingaman, assistant attorney general in charge of the Antitrust Division] also said: "I hope consumers, within a short period of time, will have more choice of operating systems."

It has not happened. The practices Microsoft agreed to forgo had already served their purpose. Gates was right when he summed up the effect of the consent decree in one word: "Nothing."

Sound familiar? Microsoft have since weathered another Antitrust investigation. This time they had to contend with a damning and comprehensive factual judgement. As a result they were forced to agree to a consent decree that asked them to allow competition in markets they had already burned to the ground. Sure, we are now seeing a minor resurgance of alternative web browsers, but that has nothing to do with any consent decree, and everything to do with the fact Microsoft have simply stopped bothering to improve Internet Explorer in the areas that people care about.

And meanwhile, Microsoft are pushing their tendrils into the lucrative and incredibly scary area of Digital Rights Management: the market that will decide over the next decade how we will be able to watch movies and listen to music -- and who will be allowed to build and market the devices that will allow us to do so. Eventually, we may have another antitrust investigation into this new leverage of the Microsoft monopoly, but given the pace of justice, that market will be dead too by the time it's finished.

And all the talk from Scoble about how Microsoft employees all need to have a values statement now doesn't wash with me.

Bill Gates' original goal in forming Microsoft was famously to have (emphasis mine) "A computer on every desk and in every home, running Microsoft software". You'll not find the last three words of that sentence in any official Microsoft history (or at least I couldn't, and I searched hard). They've been carefully un-happened: the dream of a nascent monopolist truncated into a facade of altruism.

The words still hover over every Microsoft strategy. A friend who worked in an executive position for Microsoft in the early 90's has (between hinting at horror stories of strong-arming OEMs), shared tales of the Bill Gates Cult of Personality that permeated everything the company did. Every decision was coloured with the question "What Would Bill Do?" By looking at Microsoft's actions rather than its words, looking at where the company is going and what it's still doing to get there, Bill clearly still believes that what is best for us is what is best for him: everyone running his software.

Which, belatedly, brings us to Google.

Google are reaching a point now where they've become synonymous with web searching in the same way that Windows is synonymous with the Operating System for most computer users. They're also reaching a point where they are growing as a business, trying to become more professional, trying to offer services that lead away from their core competence.

Similarly, they are also discovering their ability to do harm. They are discovering that being in such a position makes them a lumbering elephant, and it's too easy for those big feet to step on the smaller animals. When they make a mistake (as they do sometimes with the AdSense terms of service, or the maintenance of their search index), the repercussions are so much greater than if they were just Joe's Web Shack. When they move into a new area of business, their new competitors feel much more threatened.

The difference, I hope, is one of corporate philosophy. Just as famous as Gates' vision for Microsoft is Sergey Brin's vision for Google: “Don't be evil.” We can hope that the problems Google are encountering right now are growing pains, are honest mistakes, and that fears of them being malicious are unfounded.

Of course, this optimism only extends so far. For some people they've already crossed the line. I'm still giving them the benefit of the doubt. They've done a few stupid things, and a few questionable things, but I'm still waiting on 'evil'.

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