Let me get this out of the way first. I have nothing but admiration for Google and everything they have done including being the first company to put Microsoft on their heels in 20 years. I deeply hope that Google continues to succeed as a company and am desperately rooting for Chrome (the browser) to unseat Internet Explorer as the most used browser on the net. I just don’t want to see Google extend their dominance of the Internet realms back down to the desktop on the back of their upcoming Chrome OS.
My feelings on this aren’t about being a MS fan-boy, or platform snob. In fact, I could care less if some upstart OS catches Microsoft napping and steals their market share on the desktop. That said, I’m not an Microsoft hater either, I have no interest in Microsoft giving up the ghost unless something clearly superior as determined by customer preferences replaces it. Note that I said customer preference and not an esoteric sense of technical superiority unless it directly contributes to productivity or aesthetic appeal.
A Tale of Two Monopolies
Economists, the DOJ, Larry Ellison, and knights of the platform wars can argue all day long about whether Microsoft and Google are monopolies or just NEAR monopolies. However, few would argue that these companies aren’t dominating their respective corners of modern computing.
This is the basis for my fear of Google getting too much traction on the desktop. In a nutshell, having two monopolies is better having one super monopoly. Occasional encroachments into each other’s space, for example Chrome OS or MS Bing, aren’t likely to make large inroads, but offer just enough of a threat of competition to subdue the urge towards any laurel-resting and provide competitive incentive to continue innovating.
Sure Google started out with good intentions and even a corporate mantra “Do no evil“, but even MS started out as a bunch of quirky upstartswho would unseat the unpopular giant monopoly of the day (IBM). Inevitably companies grow to a size where they have to hire marketing departments and become bureaucratic to keep the shareholders happy with continual growth. Face it, we all know that power corrupts and that’s why we have anti-trust laws. Google is already showing signs of slippage against their lofty ideals in their acquiescence to the greatest anathema known to the Internet, censorship.
The Ideal Number of Monopolies
Maybe I’ve won some of you over with this argument, maybe not. At least a few of you are undoubtedly of the opinion that I’m not going far enough. “There should be NO monopolies! Peace, Love, Dove, and OSS all the way, man!”
This is where I get off the VW bus. As controversial as it may be, I believe there should be exactly three dominant near-monopoly players associated with computing as follows.
- Desktop/Server OS
- Web Browser / Internet Search
- Desktop Applications
Some level of dominance by a few players in an industry short of a full-on monopoly (Old School AT&T) is good because of the coalescence effect on technology. More specifically, it lets hardware and software developers stop futzing around with low-level issues like platform compliance with 20 different operating systems and frees up hands to work on more innovative pursuits that frankly are more interesting to work on and provide more incremental value to end-users.
Those you who remember writing software with preference menus in their applications to let the user specify which of the dozen or so popular graphics cards their particular 80286 PC had installed know exactly what I am talking about. Those who are too young, it was very similar to the pains we now suffer for cross-browser compatibility except with 5 different vendors who had the hardware equivalent of IE 6.
Windows, with its hardware abstraction and dominant market share, we suffer the lock-in effect, but should also appreciate how much drudgery it has eliminated for both the user and the programmer.
Technology monolpolies also serve to prevent the market from getting too diluted and consequently waste the collective efforts of programmers on duplicating existing work. For example if the OS market were widely distributed over 20-30 incompatible platforms, you’d have a lot of work going into writing platform specific word processors instead of improving them on the relatively few OS archetypes that enjoy non-trivial market share.
The Bigger Picture
In the end, I’m not so much talking solely about corporate monopolies/dominance, but dominance of particular technology standards. I’ll leave you with two final hypotheticals to ponder.
Quandary 2: Before the Apple released the I-phone, and despite standards like WML, would the vibrant market of mobile device content and applications have ever gained significant momentum?
Discuss amongst yourselves….