Welcome to 'tool' confusion

From: Adam L. Beberg (beberg@mithral.com)
Date: Thu Apr 05 2001 - 10:28:10 PDT


This is about hailstorm, but it raises a better question, what EXACTLY that
genuine real world average users need doesn't come already included in their
$700 PC or can be downloaded free? Or for the Business user, win2k and the
full office package - $1000. It's got a browser, IM, a JVM (just so it meets
MS crash quotas), CD/DVD, the playnig/burning tools come with the hardware,
Email client is in there if you dont want to use hotmail or Yaboohoo.

I just went through my PC, and all I really have added to my PC is Free
$oftware, a compiler (MSVC on the PC, Codewarrior on my iMac), and of
course, Diablo II. The compilers dont fall into "average" user turf.

At work, the only addition is MSVC, and an Xwindows package (which there are
several better $free alternatives to, so i'm not gonna count that), the
thing is really just an overpriced xterminal anyway, most of my coworkers
(2 more days, woohoo!!) use BSD or linux.

Other then games, I really can't think of anything.

Again the question to FoRKies is: "what EXACTLY that genuine real world
average users need doesn't come already included in their $700 PC, or can be
downloaded free?"

- Adam L. "Duncan" Beberg

COMMENTARY--There used to be a rule in Hollywood for assessing the viability
of a film project: if you can't sum up a script in a single sentence, the
film will never work. I'm increasingly inclined to think that this rule
applies nicely to the software business. And if that's the case, Microsoft
should be worried. Project HailStorm (what a code-name!), the recently
announced extension to Microsoft's .Net strategy, may not take off as
swiftly as Bill Gates would like it. In fact, it may not take off at all, or
worse, it could have an adverse effect on the market.

Lets step back for a second: what does the PC and software market look like
from a distance? Yep, that's right: a market which has peaked. By now we
have figured out what we can do with these machines, and we have pretty
brilliant products to do so. Sure, we'll replace our machines once in a
while, and we might even buy the occasional update to our favorite software,
but there are no big needs there any more which aren't catered for by the
industry. And as time goes by, there is less and less need to buy costly
software packages, and to invest top dollars in updates to applications
which may not even bring anything we really need.

An old problem
Now, all this is not exactly new; the big software companies have been
worried about this for many years. They even reckoned they had found a
graceful way out of there, that's how the ASP model was born, whereby users
would buy software services from an online provider on a subscription basis.
It was all the rage, and by now it is another sector where uncertainty and
doubt are spreading like wildfire.

So lets step back a bit more. What is happening? Well, why don't we turn the
question around: what if nothing is happening? What if there is no easy next
step for technology? What if there is no need for going any further, at
least not in the immediate future? In the sixties, exploring outer space was
all the rage. There seemed to be such implacable logic to it: first we put a
man on the moon, then on Mars, etc. To infinity and beyond. Well, it didn't
really work out that way, did it?

The computer business looks a bit like the space program of the sixties.
There is (or rather, was) a lot of starry eyed enthusiasm about what
technology could provide. Unfortunately, we have now come to the end of one
growth phase--and we dont know yet how and when the next one will kick in.

What does that have to do with software? We are facing a technology
landscape which is based on simplistic paradigms. Software and hardware
companies tend to think that something which can be conceived can also be
made to work gracefully. Sometimes this is possible. Often it is not. A
technology which almost works is hardly better than one which does not work
at all. And even if it does work, there is no guarantee that the public will
actually use it.

Which brings us back to HailStorm. A solution that is not driven by user
need contributes to 'tool confusion'. There is a rule of thumb which usually
works with new technology: if it is stunningly better then what came before,
there is a decent chance that it might take off. Think CD vs. vinyl. If it
is just an incremental improvement, it might work, but it certainly won't
take the world by storm.

Or, put in a more simplistic way: If you have to ask why it's great, it

A necessary slowdown
The reality of the market is that we are heading towards a slower
development cycle. I'm not talking about a depressed stock market or
lower-than expected sales for computer manufacturers. The depression we are
witnessing is a natural phase of slowdown on a grand scale.

Most analysts only look at these phases from a financial viewpoint, but that
is a only part of the story. To understand what is going on, you need to
look at technology potential, usage potential, as well as market needs and
market desires. Technology providers, both on the hardware and software
side, look at the market in a linear way and don't often admit the cyclical
nature of things. However, to understand what is happening in the technology
sector is that we have entered one of the slowdown cycles necessary for a
market to regenerate itself. And all of Microsoft's marketing clout can not
change this.

Fostering confusion
Projects like Microsoft's HailStorm initiative are trying to counter this
natural trend, to force users into the next wave of technology. And by doing
so, they actually do the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. Since
the market is not ready for a user-driven consensus on the new technologies
at stake, large-scale attempts like the one Microsoft just announced are
actually contributing to fragment and confuse the market instead of unifying
it. HailStorm is still grounded in the unrealistic enthusiasm of the world
before the dot-com burnout: the conviction that as soon as there was
something NEW users would flock to it naturally. That users would be willing
to pay for something that they used to get for free. That in order to go on
making money, the software companies have to do something drastically

In fact, what is happening in the digital technology market today is quite
significant, it has become big enough to support (at least to a limited
extend) a huge variety of cutting-edge technologies and/or competing
standards. All these technologies are capable to get some limited market
share: insufficient to make them a widely accepted standard, but big enough
to contribute to the ambient confusion and to foster user fatigue and

Yes, in many ways, the computer market is more and more like showbusiness,
and Microsoft resembles a big Hollywood Studio trying to pitch its next
attempt at a blockbuster movie. And viewed under that angle, the company
still has a lot to learn.

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun Apr 29 2001 - 20:25:32 PDT