Just Grow Some Fur

Paul Graham has declared Microsoft dead. Before Slashdot linked to his declaration, I had no idea who Graham was, but having read his thoughts, he seems like a pretty smart guy to me. Of course he hasn’t actually declared Microsoft dead. He has only claimed that they’re irrelevant to the ongoing evolution of the computer industry, and I’m mostly persuaded by his arguments. But his provocative title also points to a claim that I’d like to make: Microsoft has already made, or failed to make, the decisions that will ultimately prove primarily responsible for their demise, whatever form that ends up taking.

I don’t think Microsoft’s demise will be bankruptcy, with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer begging for food in downtown Seattle. Instead, at some point, the accounting value of their assets (particularly their more than $25 billion in cash reserves, roughly 10% of the company’s total value) will exceed the expected return on those assets–that is, the break-up value of the company will exceed its operating value. At that point, Microsoft will be bought and broken up, and those assets (especially the cash) will be put to more productive uses. So though bankruptcy may seem like an impossibly distant eventuality, this version of their demise could materialize in the foreseeable future. There are only two sources of revenue between the present and that future: sales of Windows and sales of Office. The return on investment in Microsoft’s other product lines isn’t anything special, and in some cases (like the XBox and perhaps the Zune) is significantly negative. With all that cash and all those underperforming assets, Microsoft isn’t really that far from an ideal leveraged buyout candidate. They may be as close as Google and others making operating systems and local office software irrelevant.

As Paul Graham explains, Microsoft has gotten into this position by failing to respond adequately to the evolution of the market around them. And this isn’t simply because Microsoft is stupid. Though they’re not as good at developing software as the average observer might naively assume, they’re nowhere near as bad at strategic management as the average commenter on Slashdot equally naively assumes. The simple truth is that the sort of evolution required of Microsoft is essentially impossible for a company–especially a large, successful company–to make. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere in another context, and my reasoning was met with some skepticism, but I stick to my conclusion: In a rapidly evolving market, large, successful companies are severely handicapped by their success (even more than they are by their size and the inertia that implies). And Graham recognizes that fact in his suggestions as to how Microsoft might respond to their current predicament:

So if they wanted to be a contender again, this is how they could do it:

  1. Buy all the good “Web 2.0” startups. They could get substantially all of them for less than they’d have to pay for Facebook.

  2. Put them all in a building in Silicon Valley, surrounded by lead shielding to protect them from any contact with Redmond.

That second point is the important one, and it’s why Microsoft wouldn’t take this advice even if they heard it. As Graham says:

I feel safe suggesting this, because they’d never do it. Microsoft’s biggest weakness is that they still don’t realize how much they suck. They still think they can write software in house. Maybe they can, by the standards of the desktop world. But that world ended a few years ago.

Or put another way, the misperceptions from which those acquired companies would need to be protected are precisely the misperceptions that will prevent Microsoft from trying that approach at all. But this isn’t meant to be a condemnation of Microsoft. Though I do think that they have significantly hampered the development of the industry that they’ve been at the center of for the last couple of decades or more and that consumers will benefit in direct proportion to the degree to which Microsoft’s power and influence diminishes, I don’t think the dynamic of their decline will be unique to them in any way, and it certainly won’t be a just comeuppance for their apparent misdeeds. It seems to be the fate that will eventually befall all successful companies in rapidly evolving markets. And given that, I wonder if there’s anything that successful companies can do to avoid that fate. Even if a company is lucky enough to recognize that it has reached the pinnacle of success in its current business, is there anything they can do to prevent the decline that would normally follow a significant change in their market?

Man, I Remember When You Used to Be Cool

I saw this summary of an article on Slashdot this morning:

In the simplest terms: too many IT workplaces have become Dilbertized — micromanaged, bureaucratic and stifled creatively. It’s become an environment where busy work is praised and morale is low. How is it possible to bring IT’s appeal back? ‘IT professionals that have worked in the field for a long time often speak about a shift in their work where they have gone from tossing ideas back and forth to make for better technology solutions to fighting fires all day. “There’s less emphasis on creativity, and more on maintenance. Tweak this, work on this … In being reactive not proactive, everything is a crisis. Something has to be done right now, putting out fire after fire, going a long way to making IT a less pleasant environment,” said Skaistis. Beyond making for a[n] unpleasant work environment for the techies already in-house, this firefighting serves as a warning to potential recruits: you will not like this job.’

I didn’t actually follow the link to the article, because it’s Slashdot and that’s not done over there, but also because the summary nicely captures a few things I’ve been particularly aware of lately. There are some underlying assumptions here: that I.T. work is meant to be creative; that the best measure of the proper functioning of an I.T. department is staff morale; and that it’s the responsibility of or in the interest of corporations to make one particular corporate function, generally a type of infrastructure, more appealing. Where do these ideas come from?

First, it’s true that effective I.T. work often requires creativity, but it also requires (like pretty much any other profession) flexibility, responsiveness, discipline, and wisdom. If you’re not being creative, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing a sub-optimal job. It may just mean that the problem at hand doesn’t require creativity. Also, just because you want to be creative doesn’t mean you’re actually capable of it. Personally, I’ve seen far more I.T. problems caused by inappropriate creativity than by lack of creativity. If your primary requirement in choosing a profession is that it allow you to express your creativity, then have the courage to be an artist and struggle for the luxury. Don’t take the significant remuneration and relative comfort of an I.T. job and then complain that your muse is being stifled.

Second, though management has evolved in many ways over the last few decades from a single-minded focus on productivity, the correct understanding of that evolution is that managers came to understand that staff morale is a significant contributor to productivity–that is, that staff morale is a means to the end of productivity. So, yes, as a manager and as a human being, it’s important to promote staff morale as far as possible, but if that’s done at the expense of productivity, morale will later suffer with the layoffs that decreased productivity inevitably brings. And low staff morale isn’t always the result of a management failure. It can also be the result of crestfallen I.T. workers being bummed out at the discovery that in exchange for the large paycheck they receive and the relative cushiness in which they work, their employer is actually not likely to be cool about unmet expectations or to be especially interested in their potential talents once they’ve failed to realize them.

Finally, very few companies, particularly outside of the I.T. industry itself, are going to be motivated to conduct a marketing campaign on behalf of I.T. as a profession. At the overwhelming majority of companies that employ I.T. professionals, they are employed as infrastructure, like accountants, lawyers, and managers. I’ve yet to hear any pleas that corporations seek to make those professions more appealing. All of them are challenging, and the number of people who can do them adequately is limited. As a result, people who do them tend to be well-paid and well-treated relative to less challenging professions. I’m not convinced that anything more is necessary on behalf of I.T. as a profession. And from personal experience again, it seems to me that the people who were drawn to I.T. work by the halo of cool surrounding it as a result of the initial Internet boom weren’t really very good at it. The challenge for corporations is not to attract more people to I.T. work with misleading tales of foosball tables and stock options, but to better evaluate and train those who are already doing I.T. work.

Jesus, when did I get this old? But the truth is that I am getting too old for this shit. The summary quoted above answers its own questions, just not with the answers that the submitter wanted to hear. It posits some past golden age of unbridled creativity in the I.T. industry, and wonders why now, after everybody was able to do pretty much whatever they wanted, “[t]here’s less emphasis on creativity, and more on maintenance,” why long-time I.T. professionals are seeing “a shift in their work where they have gone from tossing ideas back and forth to make for better technology solutions to fighting fires all day.” If that’s true, aren’t the reasons kind of obvious? While everyone was hanging out in the I.T. industry’s version of Eden, emphasizing their creativity by tossing ideas back and forth to make for better technology solutions, they were doing sloppy, unsustainable, unmaintainable work, and now they have to clean up the mess they made. The answer to the problem, if there even is a problem, isn’t to go back in search of some Edenic mirage–it’s to develop a grown up notion of what it means to be an I.T. professional, or to be any kind of professional really.

The Wandering Web Site

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve changed hosts for this Web site. In fact, I ended up changing hosts a couple more times than I had planned. I had been with PowWeb for a few years and was very happy with them in all but one respect. This Weblog, despite its dormancy, gets nearly 5,000 Spam comments a month. With moderation and the requirement that people sign in to comment, none of those comments actually appear publicly, but deleting them from the moderation queue is tedious. The Akismet plug-in helps a great deal, but I was still left with a handful of Spam comments to moderate every few days. It was the Bad Behavior plug-in that fixed the problem completely. It focuses not on human comments, but on automated processes posting trackback and comment Spam, and it seems to prevent it without exception.

In June or July of last year, PowWeb changed their Web hosting platform (to Microsoft products I believe, but I’m not sure), and not only did the Bad Behavior plug-in no longer work, but it prevented all access to the Weblog, even for administrative purposes. PowWeb’s technical support people had to go into the Weblog’s database themselves to de-activate the plug-in. As they told me at the time, “the Bad Behavior plugin cannot be made to work on our platform as it conflicts with HTTP request[s] for your site on our architecture and [is] causing the error ‘Precondition Failed’. Unfortunately, the Bad Behavior plugin has to be disabled.” I lived with the situation for more than six months, but the Sisyphean effort of regularly deleting comment Spam from a Weblog that I was rarely even posting on finally got to me, and I decided to switch hosts to one with a platform that would support the Bad Behavior plug-in

At Chris‘s suggestion, I tried his Web host. At first, they seemed great. They even had an automated system that called me while I was registering on the Web to verify my contact information. I changed the domain name servers to point at my new address, and thought everything was almost settled. But then I had a problem with the database for the Weblog, and tried to contact their technical support people. After about three days of exploring different methods of contacting them (during which I discovered language on their Web site threatening to charge customers if the issue they contacted support with wasn’t an emergency), it dawned on me that there were no people. So I moved back to PowWeb.

I spoke to Chris again, and he did some research on the WebHosting Talk forums. He suggested HostPC, and I switched to them yesterday. So far, I’ve been very happy. I got 1 GB of disk space and 10 GB of monthly data transfer for a year for $25. Technically, everything seems to be in order, and they answered the one question I had (which was really just impatience on my part) almost immediately. So my Web site has been moved, the Bad Behavior plug-in is re-activated, and there’s no Spam in my comment moderation queue.

Game, Set,…

Amazon did manage to beat Apple into the movie download business by less than a week, but today, Apple managed to beat Amazon in almost every other way. Apple already had more television shows available than Amazon announced, and its client, iTunes, was already far nicer than Amazon’s. Amazon offered higher quality video files and added movies. Apple has “responded” (though it being a response is more an accident of timing) by matching Amazon’s video quality, adding movies (though not nearly as many as Amazon, this being the sole advantage that Amazon still enjoys), and releasing significant improvements to iTunes. Furthermore, Apple’s service is available to users of both Macs and Windows computers, and unlike Amazon’s, their video files play on the ubiquitous iPod.

If those clear advantages aren’t sufficient to sway most consumers (and thus content producers) to Apple’s platform, then a device uncharacteristically previewed by Apple at today’s event likely will. The iTV is a device that will connect your television to your wireless network (assuming you have one), allowing you to play all of the media, audio and video, on your computers through your home entertainment system. I’ve been doing that with my music since the release of Apple’s AirPort Express, and I’ve been really happy with the results. With the promise of the ability to do that with video, Apple has solved the last problem that consumers have faced with video downloads: most people don’t want to watch video on their computer. So while Amazon offers the ability to watch its videos (maybe) on portable devices no one owns and whatever you can connect to a Windows computer, Apple offers (or soon will offer) the ability to watch its videos on iPods and the television on which you already watch video.

There’s nothing comparable in the Windows Media world, and there won’t be for quite some time. At this point, the only way to compete with Apple as a distributor is to sell video without DRM. Whoever can do that will get free use of all of the infrastructure that Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and others are building, without any unnecessary hardware or other dependencies. Sadly, I don’t think any content provider will be that imaginative.

Pushing the Broken Car of Windows Media

There’s an episode of Married… With Children in which Al Bundy ends up pushing a succession of cars home from work because they keep breaking down. At one point, his son points out that it would make more sense for him to simply walk to and from work, but his daughter protests, “That’s too far for Daddy to go without a car.”

I thought of that when Amazon launched its bizarrely named Unbox service last week. The opening night reviews suggest that this particular play won’t have a very long run, primarily because it’s built on a Windows Media platform. That means that the videos can only be played on a television if that television is connected to a computer running Windows XP (something that all but the most desperate consumers are unlikely to attempt), and that the videos can only be played on certain portable devices, none of which are the iPod.

So why did Amazon choose to build this service on Windows Media? The simple answer is DRM. Amazon and its suppliers are unwilling to make the videos available without the ability to restrict the consumers’ ability to copy and transfer them, which means that the videos can only be played on devices that implement the DRM scheme that Amazon uses (which are currently limited to certain computers running Windows XP and certain portable devices that support Windows Media, and do not include DVD players or iPods). Unfortunately for Amazon and their suppliers, the Windows Media DRM seems to have been cracked, even before Unbox was launched. Amazon is left pushing around all of the dead weight of the Windows Media platform without getting the one benefit it promises.

I’m Certainly Happy…

Tim and Cassius

Births in my family are infrequent. My brother and I were born nearly forty years ago, and we have three cousins who were born fifteen or so years ago. That’s it for descendants of either set of grandparents. And in my wife’s family, there was a cousin born about fifteen years ago. Where most families have traditions, routines, and expectations around things like births and marriages, my family does not, and whenever these events arise (however rarely) I don’t know quite what to do. I have some vague notion from watching television and movies, but my family has never really looked like those on television or in the movies.

We have plenty of friends who’ve had children, so we know what it’s like–the joy, the upheaval, the wonder and mundanity of it all–but we’ve always been just observers. Now I have this vague sense that I should be more involved in this. At first, it kind of felt like I was. I actually heard Cassius cry over the phone less than twenty minutes after he was born, and I started seeing pictures the next morning. Technology has changed some things, but it doesn’t erase three thousand miles. Until I can get out there (and it’s likely to be a month before they’ll be ready for visitors, of which I may not be the first), I suspect I’ll have a vague sense that I should be doing or feeling something that I can’t quite generate out of pictures. People keep asking me what it feels like to be an uncle, and I don’t know how to answer them. I felt like an uncle to my cousins when they were born, and I don’t feel that way now. Maybe I feel more like a grandfather.

I am very happy for my brother, though. Him I know, and his happiness is abundantly palpable to me over the phone. His life is clearly changed, and I hope it stays that way for him.

The Zipper Chronicles

There have been several among us who’ve parlayed their Weblogs into books. Now my brother-in-law is kind of doing the opposite. He wrote a book and has turned it into a Weblog (though he may yet turn it back into a book). And unlike most of the people venturing into the world of self-publication in this age of lowered expectations, he writes beautifully. So rather than reading another not-quite-plausible account of the emergence of the actress who will play Tom Cruise’s daughter, stop by the Zipper Chronicles and say, “Hello.”

Oh, and definitely download the new Kleptones album. It rawks!

Après le Déluge

In response to the deluge of spam comments that I’m receiving on this Weblog, I’m reluctantly going to require people to register to post comments here. Because of WordPress‘s moderation, no spam comments actually appeared on the site, but the constant flood of spam comments to be moderated and the e-mails notifying me of them have become overwhelming.

I’m sorry this is necessary, but anyone who wants to can register, which you’ll only have to do once. Let me know if this presents any problems, and again, I’m sorry it’s necessary.

Further Progress

In my ongoing quest to figure out how to let the Salon Weblog server know that former Salon Weblogs no longer using Radio UserLand (which, it turns out, was developed by just the sort of lunatic you’d expect) have been updated, I’ve been able to confirm what Christian mentioned in a comment. It is indeed possible to ping the Salon Weblog server directly from within WordPress and Movable Type when posting an entry (and if posting this entry is noted, that means I’ve gotten it to work). And though TypePad doesn’t support this directly, there does seem to be a workaround.

Assuming that this does in fact work for me in WordPress, I’ll e-mail those I know who are using TypePad with details for their process. For those of you using other Weblog software, I’ll continue to work on a Java application that can be used to manually notify the Salon server of updates.