How Web 2.0 concentrates power, and makes Microsoft stronger
One IT Manager, bemoaning his lot to me, recently compared the rise of Web 2.0 enthusiasts to the problem the Police has with Freemasons. The blog and wiki evangelists within are not as secretive, of course, but they’re equally cult-like: speaking their own language, and using the populist rhetoric of “empowerment” for relentless self-advancement.
He couldn’t care less that employees were “wasting” time on Facebook – that was a “problem” for their line managers to deal with, and not an IT issue. (Why should IT be blamed if staff played with Rubik’s Cubes all day?) He had always encouraged people to try new software, so long as it remained within the firewall. The real problem, he thought, was that the Web 2.0 cult is loyal to what’s perceived to be good for the greater “Hive Mind”, not the organisation.
This resulted in staff with conflicting agendas.
For example companies were being urged to “share” IP that would prove valuable (even life saving) to them in the future. (There’s a new book Wikinomics, that preaches this, with little discrimination). Or projects were being rushed through with little cost/benefit analysis – or consideration of the consequences – because they fulfilled the evangelists’ buzzwords.
The cult-within-the-organisation is a fascinating subject – one that we’ll be reading about aplenty in the management columns, and eventually on sociology courses for years to come. A more detailed examination of this cult/religion is beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll highlight two very relevant characteristics.
This group of people looks cultish for several reasons. (I first observed the cult-like properties of the web utopians several years ago, reporting on what was the forerunner to the Web 2.0 conference.)
It’s a consensus culture that brooks no disagreement – except from the top-down, ironically enough – and reacts to criticism as if being personally attacked.
They also speak their own language: a strangulated and weirdly dehumanized collection of buzzwords: “nodes”, “community”, and “conversation”, for example, have had the life flogged out of them. But most of all, the blog and wiki evangelists give the impression that they have arrived, fully formed, with no recollection of history or economics prior to 2003.
For the Emergent People, everything is new again!
As we know, if we ignore history, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. If we disregard basic economics, we’re at the mercy of people who pay just a little bit more attention. This came to mind reading the latest submission from the legal departments of the ten US States to the ongoing antitrust regulation process against Microsoft.
Just as Web 2.0 has been a gift to Rupert Murdoch, it’s also a PR gift for Microsoft. Now Microsoft is turning this mood music to its competitive advantage.
Microsoft, you’ll recall, agreed to a gentle program of regulatory oversight in the US five years ago. Now that program is up for renewal, Microsoft says it doesn’t need to any more oversight. Why not? Because of the software as a service revolution!
The war of words has been ongoing for some time. Marco Iansiti from Harvard Business School has been making the 2.0-case for Microsoft. Two experts, John Kwoka and Ronald Alepin, have been deployed to rebut it on behalf of the Ten States.
On November 6, both parties filed an update.
Microsoft filed a supplemental written by Iansiti: you can download it here [PDF 660kb, 12pp]. It’s a must-read.
“The Internet as an alternative platform is ubiquitous,” he claims. Microsoft also adds that the pace of innovation since 2002 has risen – and Web 2.0 is proof.
(Yes, all those lame excuses for websites that are mercilessly lampooned by Uncov, are actually bleeding edge innovation. Fancy that! )
But if Microsoft prevails, then even the small fissures opened up by the “Seattlement” may soon close the door on new opportunities, the States Fear.
“The ‘Internet Platform’ … does not even exist, much less constitute for the foreseeable future a practical or viable alternative to the desktop platform,” responds Alepin, in a filing made the same day.[PDF, 223kb, 32pp]
(Props to IDG’s Greg Keizer -the only reporter to follow the arguments).
Such worries aren’t shared by the Web 2.0 cultists however – they either don’t have any worry cells in their heads, or their worry cells are fully preoccupied with persecution fantasies about the dying record industry, or telecoms companies.
These evangelists think that Microsoft is dead, dying – or at the very least, irrelevant. This utopian optimism has affected others, too. CNET blogger Matt Asay voiced similar thoughts in a recent Open Season podcast here. Listening to Matt, Microsoft belonged to a distant era, such was the magical power today of “open source”. He didn’t really care how it was regulated.
( This is an odd position to take. One of the small concessions Redmond was forced to make was to agree to document and license its protocols. It’s a tiny crack in the monolith, and it has permitted a small number of MS-compatible open source companies to spring up. Zimbra, for example, was acquired by Yahoo! for an improbable $350m. Zimbra’s is a rock-solid open source email service, but its inflated valuation is because it also offers a very limited Exchange-compatible client. )
Nor does the happy-go-lucky Digg crowd, many of whom weren’t born when the first FTC investigation began in 1991.
Who are you kidding?
Not to labour the point, here are some inconvenient facts.
OS innovation has never been slower: Windows and Mac users have never had to wait longer between OS releases. They’ve never been unhappier, either: many users of the latest incarnations of these operating systems – Vista and Leopard – feel like abused guinea pigs. And Microsoft and Apple? Never wealthier, thank you very much.
So this is what the 2.0 revolution looks like: a concentration of power with the people who had it already.