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On The Flip Side
by Michael Munger




The Computer Industry Is So Predictable
April 11th, 2000

If there is one shocking but widely accepted phenomenon in the world of computing, it is its predictability. The industry lacks the ability to produce anything original. In addition, when companies have the occasion to make decisions when other people’s interests are on the line... they go for the dumb move as if they had no other option.

Not counting the understandable routine of hardware upgrades, I wonder if the players involved realize just how predictable they are.

Look at all those beige towers and all those almost identical software titles. Creative and innovative developers are few and far between. Some like to pretend that they always revolutionized the world with their ideas. We know better.

As a rule, developers limit themselves to copying what others invent. This leaves us with an industry where everybody does what everybody else does, Apple and a few others represent a tiny minority of entities that dare to go forward and break barriers. This little oasis of proficiency faces a fact: competition has nothing to offer but weak imitation.

Need examples? There are the iMac copycats, like eMachines and Future Power. If we talk about a serious lack of creativity in software, then we can mention Microsoft.

Yes, it takes a lot of energy and money to come up with innovative products. On the other hand, why do I think that these people should pursue edifying goals? It should feel rewarding to know that you actually invented something, rather than just copying what somebody else released before you. Is that too much to ask?

It is just sad that so many people refuse to make a second effort - sometimes just a brainstorming effort - to create rather than emulate. The whole industry would benefit from more inventiveness, and it wouldn't be at the expense of profits. Innovation could bring huge profits to Future Power with a well-designed PC. Instead they get an injunction for an ugly iMac rip off.

That said, the industry’s predictability affects another type of behavior. When a company finds itself in a dilemma affecting another entity's interests, it always makes the move that can harm, or at least bother, the above-mentioned entity.

To illustrate my point, I will talk about Microware. We reported that they would appeal the court’s decision about the "OS 9 vs. Mac OS 9" trademark infringement case.

Here is a quick background: Microware sells an operating system for embedded applications of all types. The name of the product is OS 9. Of course, when Apple upgraded Mac OS 8.6 to a new version, the number went up and made it Mac OS 9. Of course, we know that Mac OS 9 has nothing to do with Microware’s OS 9 but that the Mac OS would be available in version 9 one day.

Microware filed a lawsuit and the Iowa court ruled in favor of Apple. It is easy to understand that you do not go to a retail store to buy an operating system when developing appliances, for example.

This is my point about people making dumb decisions when they hold people's interests in their hands. Why do they sue Apple when anybody with a functional mind will notice the difference between a desktop operating system and an OS that people could never buy in a store?

Hey, just because the two products share a couple of letters and a digit, it is possible to sue. Just because it is possible to sue, let’s sue! I imagine those guys during the board of directors’ meeting. Imagine one of them in a tirade against Apple:

"We have to sue them, we HAVE to sue them! It doesn’t matter if we can’t win or get any settlement money from them, let’s just sue!"

They just had to do it. No matter how wrong it is. Thus the board approved and told the lawyers to "go get 'em." It is possible to think that Microware smelled the opportunity to give visibility to its OS 9.

Is that the only method they had to promote it? Why do I feel that they could initiate their own marketing campaign, targeting their potential buyers, to show that OS 9 is the best operating system on the market for embedded applications? No, they had to rush into the easy path of a lawsuit.

This way, they waste Apple’s time and the population's resources with their use of a justice system paid for with taxes. Should we remind them that tax spending should target issues that are more important?

This is not just about Apple; I use it because it is an example that we understand easily. It is about a principle. A principle I hate passionately. The one that tells you that you should use other people to achieve something.

I hate this aspect of contemporary justice. It's a giant hole that allow criminals to run free and virtually unpunished while the Microwares of this world can sue other companies uselessly just because of a few letters in a product name.

Sometimes I wonder if I am alone to wish that the computer industry would get the point. How hard is it to innovate and to act responsibly? How hard is it to avoid stomping on other people’s feet without a good reason?

I guess it is too much to ask.

Your comments are welcomed.

Michael Munger is a French Canadian living in Montreal. He discovered the Mac in 1994 while studying journalism, the profession he loves and practices. He also studied history and communications. In addition to his work at The Mac Observer, he authors the iBasics tutorial column at Low End Mac, and cofounded MacSoldiers in 1998.

You can find more about him at his personal Web site.

You are welcome to send me your comments or you can post them below.

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