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Room at the top?

Summer 2009


One of the pleasures of observing the world of computers from a slight distance, as I do, is the fun of watching assorted gigantic companies struggling to copy the tiny ones who come up with the bright ideas, whilst still trying to take sideswipes at each other.  It’s like the armies of two countries in different continents pummelling each other with long distance missiles, whilst all the time having to try and persuade their taxpayers from accepting tempting offers to emigrate to the small countries on their own borders.

Take Twitter, for example (  For a worldwide company it’s tiny, only about 50 staff, and all it has is a website that allows us all to post little notes about what we are doing to anyone who is interested.  It has become incredibly popular, for reasons that escape me, and the big boys have noticed and started getting twitchy.  You might think this is odd; Twitter generates no money at all, not a penny.  However, it is a successful distraction, and tempts many people away from the big boys.

That’s the point, of course, because Yahoo and their sort live or die by the number of eyes looking at them, and hence the amount they can charge for the advertising on their site.  Anything they can do to stop people from wandering, even for a moment, is worth trying.  As a result, Yahoo (for example) has launched a Twitter-like extra bit on their flagship email website, which seems to offer pretty much the same service, but avoids users having to leave Yahoo’s site to make use of it (

That’s the sort of change the big sites have to instigate all the time to stop some young upstarts from pinching their viewers.  If you run Yahoo or Microsoft, that’s bad enough; but then there is still the constant worry about what the other giants are up to.

For example, Google have just put the fear of God into Microsoft by announcing that they are working on a free universal Operating System.  This could be a big deal, if it’s true.

The Operating System is what makes the bits of metal and plastic that comprise your computer work at all.  I sometimes use the analogy of a car; the Operating System is the engine, without which the car is no use to anyone, and the software (like Word, or Internet Explorer) is the petrol – the stuff that makes the engine actually do something.  It’s a rather cumbersome analogy, but I expect you see what I mean.

Now, imagine that there were only two or three makes of engine in the world and, crucially, that the variations in their design were such that no single brand of petrol worked in all of them.  That is how it is with computers – there are three main types of computer “engine” (Microsoft, Apple Mac and Linux) but no software (the petrol) works in all three.

So, we users tend to go with the crowd; because 90% of software (petrol) works in Microsoft Windows “engines” and 90% of computers have Windows installed in them, that’s what we buy.

This gives Microsoft a huge advantage when it comes to selling us extras, not to mention a decent fee every time someone buys a computer with their stuff installed (yes, every time).

What has shaken Microsoft to the core is the thought that Google, who know more about making their stuff to be what people actually want than Microsoft ever did, is working on a rival to Windows, which they will give away, and which most software will be able to use.

If they manage it, Microsoft is doomed.  Why would computer manufacturers pay Microsoft for Windows, when the alternative is better and free?  Remember that distributing software is already virtually free; no heavy boxes to carry around, it all just flows down wires instantly.  World domination is easy.

For us observers, it’s all great fun.  Especially, as one canny American commentator suggested, if this is all a hoax – another brilliant masterstroke of Google marketing, a story planted just to frighten Microsoft.  I almost hope it is; it’s the sort of thing an Oldie Director of Marketing would do, and then sit back smiling.