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Week of January 7, 2003

Yes, we live in a monolith of a world. We amoebae and plankton swim on the surface, and the sharks eat us all up when we get big enough. The Disney-like world of the mainframes of the history books seems far away. Once was a time when things were innocent, when Snow White (IBM) had her Seven Dwarfs. Can anyone recite the names of the dwarfs? There was Sperry, and there was - was it Burroughs?

And a certain Blumenthal from Detroit decided he'd like to be #2, and so he bought Sperry, and he renamed his company Unisys The Power of Two - and does anybody remember what happened to that company?

And the mainframes still dominate, but in this convoluted world of the Internet that we live in, in this pseudo-society of ours, the mainframes mean nothing. They are never seen. Instead it is the world of the PERSONAL COMPUTER, that obsequious kitchen appliance sitting there in all its ugly glory where we used to have the sugar bowl. And ever since the Home Computing Revolution and the inception of the World Wide Web, we have gathered devotedly in our Computers R Us stores and bought, bought, bought.

There is a war going on out there, and no one can have escaped its notice. It is a war of companies and of operating systems. It was foreshadowed by the Browser War which began a good ten years ago, at a time when few of us would have taken notice.

The Browser War fizzled out into nothing, and now in its stead we have the Company War and the Platform War - but it's all a monolith anyway.

How many makes of personal computers can you think of on the spur of the moment? You have Hewlett-Packard (HP); then you have Compaq (which is today owned by Hewlett-Packard)... Do you have Digital Equipment computers anymore? If so, they are owned by Compaq, which in turn is owned by Hewlett-Packard...

And then you have the Mail-Order King, Michael Dell, who went from a quality supplier with no middleman and very low prices to a not such great quality supplier still with no middleman but not so low prices, to a dubious quality supplier still with no middleman and very high prices... And you have the Moo-Cow, Gateway, that company that seems to want to die but never quite makes it...

And you have the Japanese threats, which aren't as threatening as their automotive counterparts: You have Sony and Toshiba and a few others.

And of course you have your local corner store builder and supplier. For PCs are hardware right off the shelf, are they not? And so anyone can make them, can't they?

And old Big Blue is still there - old Snow White, looking matronly but surprisingly vital for her years in the business, and she's still cranking out the pretty good stuff.

But they're all running Windows.

Every last one of them comes with Windows. Or Windows XP today, that monster of a product with its built-in activation locks and whatnot. Buy it, bring it home, but it won't work. Not unless you pay the piper the homage due.

There was a story recently about a Windows XP user who decided he'd had enough junk on his hard drive and who further decided that a clean wipe was the only solution. He wiped the disk, reinstalled XP, and then had to contact Microsoft again. What's the problem, asks Microsoft. I wiped my hard drive, says the victim. Why did you do that, asks Microsoft. None of your goddamned business, says the victim. OK, fine, says Microsoft, no product activation. So the poor guy had to cringe and cower and crawl for Microsoft. He had to explain why he wanted to wipe his hard drive. He did, and they reactivated for him, but it was humiliating - and, he contends, it was none of their business why he would want to wipe his hard drive.

We have our Linuxes. We hear so much about Linux that we forget there is another Unix out there that is worth at least as much merit and attention (the BSDs). Everything is Linux - that is to say, everything is the Linux kernel in one of its ninety-nine current incarnations. And the incarnations change with the weather. A few stay on top and alive - SuSE, RedHat - but most are where they were five years ago - nowhere. For all the talk, for all the media coverage, for all the praise that has been heaped on Linus, only one in fifty desktops run it. Pitiable.

And why should anyone stop and take notice? Why indeed? There is no money behind Linux. The stock markets of the world cannot invest in it, and most likely would not even if they could. There is no manpower backing, there is no financial backing, it cannot get anywhere because it remains a weekend project that can only continue to survive thanks to the web in its present form. No web and Linux dies. It's a fringe part of society, just like the Internet itself. 'Source Forge' ought to be called 'Source Fringe'.

Who out there amongst you likes the monopoly Microsoft has created? Is Microsoft the software equivalent of the internal combustion engine? For there are hundreds of makes of automobiles, and there are at least dozens of makes of personal computers, but there is only one platform - Windows. Is that right? Is that the heterogeneous computer world you all want to live in?

What happened to the BeBox? Eaten up by a mid-sized predator. Why? Didn't that predator have more to gain with the BeBox as an ally rather than a quick dinner? What happened to the Amiga? The Atari? Where have they all gone? For once upon a time Microsoft were not the only operating system vendor. Today they are.

There is but one company out there. A Lilliput of a company in comparison. With only a 5% share of the market. Their name is Apple. They have both hardware and software. They have their own operating system. It is based on Unix. The Linux geeks love it. It represents the final pieces of the puzzle, or so they say. They have 5% of the market.

Anyone not totally infatuated with Microsoft and Bill Gates and Melinda French and Steve 'Planet of the Apes' Ballmer and not totally in love with product activation and habitual system crashes should be out there fighting for our collective survival, wouldn't you think? It's senseless to back a 'product' like Linux when that product can't go anywhere, when your free download is not going to help anyone, and more importantly, is not going to hurt Microsoft?

Moving to Apple does. Moving to Apple takes money away from the Wintel vendors. It takes money away from Intel itself - and AMD and all the rest who live happily on the Wintel bandwagon. Moving to Apple means you can't use Windows even if you want to - unless you buy something from Connectix, which you most likely won't be interested in doing anyway. Moving to Apple means Apple gets a bigger market share.

It's a bit like establishing a beachhead. Right now there is room for only one outsider. That outsider gets 5% of the market. But that outsider might go up to 10% (and increase education back close to the old 40% mark). And if that 10% share can become a reality, then new outsiders can come in. A world with only one monster at 95% and an ant at 5% is not a better world than a totally monopoly driven world.

Free competition... Where is it? Cupertino is home to a competitor - the only one the personal computer and platform market has. The ONLY one. What would you do, given an entirely different market? Would you let the monopolist have his damned way? No! You'd buy from the underdog. We all love underdogs. We like to see them win. Until they grow into tall poppies that is. We always root for the underdog. Where is it now?

A marketplace is both the vendor and the consumer. Without the consumer there is no market whatsoever. That Microsoft might have a corner on supply is not its own doing. No, that takes a singularly beady-eyed, selfish, stupid, self-centred consumer - someone temporarily lacking the few cerebral gifts he was born with, who goes for the easy punch and forgets that his decisions today will come around like a boomerang of karma and hit him tomorrow. Microsoft have the product, but theirs is only one of many products. Give Microsoft money, and they will continue to devour. Download Linux and you stand neither on the one side or the other. Donate your money to the competition and you strengthen that competition.

We all want the monopolist toppled - or so we say. For the weasels of the world, this is rhetoric and no more. For those brave enough to say what they mean, it is not, and they can be heard to add: Either you are with us, or...

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