History keeps repeating itself …

29Mar10

In the 1980’s (you remember the 1980’s … invention of steam power, extinction of the dinosaurs?), a number of computer hardware makers took trench warfare into new realms, using “standards” for bits of the UNIX operating system to support their competition over senselessly divergent other bits. They actually had conflicting “standards.” They even had a slogan, “waging standards,” for what they were doing to each other. Generally speaking, they managed to kill each other off, which is often what happens when you choose the metaphors of warfare to describe your business.

A key tactic in the waging of standards was this:

  1. Someone achieves momentary supremacy in some niche of the market.
  2. Two to ten competitors get together and write a “standard” whose text is, basically, “different from those guys.”
  3. The two-to-ten mount a massive advertising blitz to convince customers that a standard whatever-we’re-fighting-about is inestimably better than whatever “those guys” have, even if that one is actually better than the standard one. “Standard is better than better.”
  4. The market shifts fractional points, catastrophe (i.e., “those guys” succeeding) is averted, business is lost by all players, and all is right with the world.

The problem with this system … well, there are lots of them, but the main one is that it’s all about destroying business rather than generating it. Oh, sure, the business you destroy is someone else’s, but anyone can play the game, so everyone, sooner or later, gets to be “them.”

We grew out of that. Or, it expired in exhaustion. Or, it combusted of its own follies. I forget which; I may have blinked. Now, at any rate, we have Linux, which solves the “whose UNIX is it, anyway” conundrum by neatly allowing it to be everyone’s.

Except that “hope springs eternal in the human breast,” as Alexander Pope pointed out, and since we can’t compete on destroying UNIX any more, we really need to find something else. Let’s see now, what could it be?

Oh, I know! Social Networking! Or, as ReadWriteWeb calls it, Cracking Facebook’s Dominance. All the pieces are there: a momentary leader, a gang of also-rans, a standard mysteriously composed of “everything the also-rans have in common” without any of that messy “how the leader does the same thing.” What’s not to love?

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