The early positions on the Microsoft Corp. imbroglio have now been staked out, and as you would expect, the advocacy positions on both sides bear little resemblance to reality. Even so, it is surprising that so little has been said about the real point, namely that PCs are not the wave of the future. Gates acts as if he doesn't know this. Anyone who visits Microsoft headquarters and decides to look down at the appropriate moment will see a plaque imbedded in the concrete that reads: "Every time a product ships, it takes us one step closer to the vision. A computer on every desk and in every home." The uncertain grammar makes it likely that Gates wrote that himself. In one sense, it is obviously presumptuous for me or anyone else to tell someone who is worth more or less $50 billion how to run his business. Nonetheless, it is well-known that Gates almost missed the Internet revolution. He went up to his cabin to write his memoirs, convinced that his niche in history was secure, and when he returned to Seattle, found out that the world had changed, and Microsoft was in danger of losing its preeminence in the world of microcomputers. Of course he vigorously counterattacked and muscled Netscape out of the way, which is the source of his current headaches. But those are not the steps ordinarily taken by a man of vision. As far as I can tell, most people use their PCs for:
- Clerical tasks, such as word processing, spreadsheet analysis, electronic address books, etc.
- Surfing the Internet and the Web (not the same thing, of course).
- Playing solitaire.
In an ideal world, what would users like to obtain from the technological revolution?
- An efficient method of receiving and retrieving desired information.
- "Smart" applications that allow things to perform the tasks you want them to do, instead of what they want to do. This includes kitchen appliances, motor vehicles, video recording equipment, credit cards and other financial records, etc.
If Gates thinks the future of the world is in the realm of solitaire, he wins all the marbles. But if not, the world is no longer heading in his direction. The point is that the PC sitting on your desk is just a box and a screen. Its usefulness stems from the information that can be accessed and retrieved. Search engines are only in their infancy: It really doesn't help when the screen tells you there are 3,876,353 entries matching your search criteria. There must be a better system -- and there soon will be. Similarly, the transmission of financial quotes and related information is in its infancy. In this case, Bloomberg, Reuters, and the former Telerate (now part of Bridge Information Systems) have been delivering this information for several years -- but at an average cost of $1,500 per month per screen. Eventually, that information will be made available to anyone who wants it at a modest price. In the future, the great growth areas of the information revolution will occur in the delivery of specific types of information or control -- not the one-size-definitely-does-not-fit-all equipment. Most people will have a PC, and they will all need some operating system to get it going, but the big growth in that area is already drawing to a close. Major developments in the future will point in the direction of delivering the information users desire either with a much more sophisticated operating system, or through methods that do not involve a PC screen and box at all. Windows 98 indicates the degree to which Microsoft is already running out of steam. Mostly, it simply trades old errors (which have finally been fixed) for new ones that haven't yet been discovered. Outside of trying to lock Netscape out of the action, reviewers have been virtually unanimous in concluding there is very little new being offered. Recent commentary has shifted from whether the Justice Department should simply force Microsoft to redesign Windows 98, to the advantages of splitting up the entire company into "Baby Bills." Perhaps that will never happen; no one should count Bill Gates out this early in the game. Yet instead of fighting a furious rear-guard action, Microsoft ought to bow to the dictates of the government, fix the opening screen so it doesn't show the Internet Explorer icon, and get the Justice Department off its back. It could then use its not inconsiderable talent, energy, and money to develop the next phase of the information revolution.
Dr. Michael K. Evans is president of the Evans Group and professor of economics at the Kellogg School of Business, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.