The Guardian

The Guardian May 10, 2000


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

More important than oil?

For four months now my eldest son has been preparing a detailed 
catalogue of films available from Heritage Films. As the catalogue grew in 
his computer, he carefully copied all of the information onto a "zipdisc" 
as a safeguard against his computer crashing and losing it all. (For you 
non-computer types, a zipdisc is a storage disc that can hold a lot 
of electronic data).

Last week, as he was backing up his latest additions onto his zipdisc, the 
system crashed. I mean really crashed. He lost an entire directory 
of Lotus Wordpro files, four months' work on the catalogue.

Worse, because he was in the act of backing up when it happened, he lost 
the entire contents of his backup zipdisc as well. There was no way he 
could retrieve that data. It was a cruel blow.

I would not have bothered you with it, except that it was but another 
example of the inadequacies of the crash-prone Windows system that has made 
Bill Gates obscenely rich. Which brings me to the theme of this week's 
Culture & Life.

An article published on May 1 in the pro-US-business internet newsletter 
STRATFOR.COM Weekly Global Intelligence Update bewails the prospect 
of a break-up of Microsoft under US anti-trust legislation.

Headed "The Geopolitics of Microsoft", the article argues that breaking up 
Microsoft will be "a setback for the United States abroad".

Microsoft, they claim, "demonstrates the virtue of the unplanned economy" 
over the "massive, inefficient, government-linked companies" that 
apparently litter Europe and Asia.

Nevertheless, it seems there is a problem: "The problem of the US model is 
that it creates highly efficient, but small and competitive entities that 
cannot speak with the same coherent voice as a Siemens or Ericson.

"Microsoft is a rare exception. When it talks, everyone listens. That gives 
the US a weight that it lacks because of its idiosyncratic, if amazingly 
efficient, business model."

That clear? Countries  their governments, their people  have no voice 
(not one that matters, anyway). Only very big companies have a "coherent 
voice", and when a giant company talks "everyone listens".

The power of corporate wealth is equated with the national interest 
(particularly the US national interest). "Microsoft's triumph in the 
marketplace materially impacted American global power.

The universal penetration of the Windows-Iintel platform has created 
tremendous opportunities for American cultural imperialism.

"There are simply no non-American alternatives to Windows. Obviously, this 
means a further penetration of the English language, spreading ever deeper 
into the technical classes.

"It is not possible to fully master the complexities of programming for 
Windows without, to some degree, mastering English. But it is more than 
simply a matter of English.

"As the PC becomes the global standard and economies become increasingly 
dependent on it, the economies of nations around the world increasingly key 
on what the US computing industry in general  and what Microsoft in 
particular  is doing. This increases American power.

"Indeed, as Microsoft becomes the file transfer pivot, the ability of 
Russians and Chinese to exchange files means that they must turn to a third 
party, the United States, for the technology to do so.

"Whatever programming they might be doing, their dependence on a stable, 
compatible operating system and applications for file transfer creates a 
system of dependency that the United States has not fully exploited but 
which might well be exploitable.

"Microsoft has given the United States a strategic asset that can be 
leveraged in a wide variety of areas, from military to economic.

Controlling the universal operating system should not be underestimated in 
importance. It may prove more important than oil."

Bill Gates, saviour of the Free World. No wonder they are irked that his 
competitors got an anti-trust ruling against him.

The irony is that Microsoft's operating systems, Windows in particular,  
as the article acknowledges  is "a system that crashes with an appalling 
frequency".

The article rightly comments that "DOS and Windows [are] not the optimal 
operating systems" and Microsoft Office "may not be the optimal office 
suite", being "no better and in some ways worse than competitors like Word 
Perfect or Lotus".

But Microsoft, by virtue of being a near monopoly, was able to "use its 
position as the primary supplier of operating systems" to push its Office 
suite onto computer suppliers.

But that, the article implies, is surely excusable in return for Gates' 
contribution to "the magnification of American power".

Microsoft "has helped spread American culture ... and given the country 
unparalleled dominance in computing around the world".

Cuba does not use Microsoft. They use Linux, an operating system that is 
actually incompatible with Microsoft.

Linux is universally acknowledged as being a completely stable platform: it 
never crashes. On the other hand, it has a reputation as "not being 
very user friendly" and being "difficult to instal and run".

Linux is part of the group of independent computer software manufacturers 
who are trying to combat Microsoft's monopoly. Much of their software is 
available for free or for a lot less than Microsoft's.

The Cubans use Linux for their websites and for their internet-style 
nation-wide medical referral system that links all doctors on the island 
with the latest reference material, etc.

Linux is available in Australia  or off the Web  if you want to check 
it out.

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