Maximising Profits, Minimising Innovation

by on April 28, 2007

When our grandchildren look back on the late and early 20th century – the dawn age of computing and the information revolution, they will see a company called Microsoft writ large across it. Just how large is difficult to grasp until you compare the profits that Microsoft makes from their nearly unchallenged monopoly.

Now compare these profits to the amount of innovation displayed by Microsoft in the marketplace. Who is this a problem for? I think it’s a problem for all of us because when I use technologies not produced by Microsoft I think of what might have been. What might computing and the information revolution be like today if we had had a competitive market in operating systems and software?

We will never know – but it’s interesting to wonder. Not least because Microsoft are now moving into areas like publishing.


Microsoft’s move into search and now the publishing industry is certainly interesting. Those familiar with hegemonic stability theory and notions of rise and fall of empire will wonder whether Microsoft’s monopoly years are ending – so soon after they have begun. I’m beside myself with grief …

I suspect we’d have a situation akin to that of the home computer market in the early 1980. A myriad of systems that wouldn’t talk to each other or run each others software.

That is of course a possibility. But I wonder how long that situation would have remained? The computer market in the early 1980′s was tiny, so the incentive to keep proprietary systems alive was strong. Even then, the trend towards open standards was beginning though (with ASCII, RTF and the standardisation of hardware formats).

I don’t think a Stalinist uniformity is a reason to thank Microsoft though.

There are two options – the situation would have remained utterly divided, with perhaps 20+ operating systems (and probably a load of different flavours of each, as per Linux) competing for your attention, or another company would’ve “done a Microsoft”. Do you really think that if Apple had opened up its hardware to allow anyone to build Mac clones, their corporate behaviour would’ve been any different from Microsoft’s?

Yes, they’d’ve been able to communicate at some level (I wrote a university project on a BBC Micro, transferring files to an Amdahl mainframe for compilation via a 300 baud modem in 1985 so it was possible) but software would now be vastly more expensive (either write for all platforms and factor in the costs of porting the code or write for one or two platforms and have hugely reduced sale) and less powerful (all that time spent porting code for (for example) Photoshop 1.0 to 20+ completely different operating systems means less time to develop version 2.0).

I’d probably still be using something along the lines of Ventura Publisher 1.0 to type letters.

No. I think Microsoft’s monopoly fossilised the notion of what an operating system is and should do, and perpetuated the idea that applications have to be written for them. That model has obviously served them – but not us – rather well as we await the arrival of Office 2007 in all it’s pointless glory. Ventura Publisher 1.0? The gap between IE6 and IE7 was five years! Oh, and remind me what Vista does that Windows 98 doesn’t.

Apple is an irrelevance in all this since they have been simply “the anti-Microsoft” in the market, but Microsoft’s dominance in their industry has locked Apple into a very narrow ability to innovate. It’s not their fault, so they have to go into phones instead.

But the function of an operating system is pretty well defined. It’s the framework that allows applcations to utilise the hardware. Yes, once you take the bundled applications out, Windows XP doesn’t do a lot *more* than Windows 98 (I’ve not played with Vista so I can’t comment on that), but it does better (from a user’s point of view). It still uses the filing cabinet / folder paradigm originally designed by Xerox and popularised by Apple, but a) it works, b) users are comfortable with it, and c) I don’t see anyone developing anything radically different (in operation, not philosophy).

Additionally, for paid for desktop apps (so excluding browsers and media players – there’s a whole separate discussion), other than office suites, I don’t see Microsoft utterly dominating the marketplace in any sector.

Yes, Microsoft makes obscene profits. Yes, there are companies more innovative (but does the non-geek user want innovative, or does (s)he want a tool that works? Again – a whole different argument) but to finger Microsoft as the only villain in this piece is way wide of the mark. I’ll still posit that Microsoft’s levelling of the playing field by providing a consistant platform for development has allowed and encouraged more innovation than it’s stifled by (arguably) not innovating enough in the development of that platform.

I still can’t see why the same argument (about Microsoft’s “level playing field”) can’t be used to argue *against* their monopoly as much as for it. I admit it’s rather philosophical to say that they had fossilised the notion of an OS, but it seems rather strange to suppose that the only way in which computer software could ever have existed is in the current OS/application model.

Similarly, the fact that you don’t see anyone doing anything radically different could be as much because of the distorting effect of an OS with 95% market penetration as it is to do with whether anyone can think of an alternative. This is the fundamental problem with monopolies – any analysis of the competition (if there is any) is doomed to a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

Be that as it may, I completely disagree with you when you say that people are satisfied and that things work for them. If that were the case then I would not be observing hours of user testing which shows the opposite. I would also not be attending conferences where Microsoft are regularly criticised for their lack of interest in design and usability. I would also not be reading about things that are clearly not going to produce highly usable systems. I work with people (younger and older than me) who are regularly baffled by Microsoft Office. I am blaming not Microsoft for this, but their monopoly. The existence of that monopoly makes it impossible for us to imagine what might have been, and indeed encourages us to think that any alternative would be bad.

On the useability thing, I’m not saying that Windows per se is easy and intuitive, but the filing cabinet / folder / file paradigm is easily understood.

The reason we’re not seeing anything better *could* be down to the monopoly, but given the number of extremely clever people working on Linux and other Open Source / Free initiatives, and the fact that they’ve failed to come up with any radical alternative (again, in operation, rather than philosophy), I rather doubt it.

Maybe we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one – at least until I make it to the a TPDi meetup. ;-)

Hmmm, and what about Adobe/Macromedia, now called simply Adobe – the new conglomerate? Where’s the competition in graphic design for that company?… :-)

I do not know what’ve happened if Micosoft wasn’t here… But they brought standards in OS into the world, and this is a good thing. Would be nice, though, if Apple (or someone else) would be a tiny bit stronger… so we can experience more challenge in this field, and maybe competitive prices:)

I assume Microsoft intends Expression Designer (as part of their new WPF Expression suite) to compete with Adobe in the graphic design market. But we’ll see. There’s also The Gimp (Windows, Mac and Linux) against Photoshop.

Well, Expression Designer will have a looong road to go before it will be able to compete with existing solutions – such as Dreamweaver (HTML/CSS coding) & Fireworks (web graphics), for example:)

About GIMP… I can’t comment on it, I tried GIMP very long time ago, wasn’t pleased with the interface… I also tried Photoshop, wasn’t pleased with the interface as well, and then…

…I went the Macromedia Fireworks way:) …ever since, when I need to create graphics for some of my projects, I open Fireworks (which is a nice powerful graphics program, with very user-friendly interface) and forget about any other options:)

But now Macromedia Fireworks is Adobe Fireworks. Same can be said about Dreamweaver, Flash… and really, I do not see any serioud competition in this area… :)

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