LJ Archive

Whose Hand Is That in Your Pocket?

Doc Searls

Issue #87, July 2001

Sometimes too much just isn't enough. --Dean Landsman

Back when Steve Jobs was still at NeXT, he was interviewed by Robert X. Cringely for a PBS special called “Triumph of the Nerds”, a televised version of Cringely's brilliant book Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can't Get a Date. The best moment in the show came when Cringely asked Jobs what he thought about Microsoft.

Jobs leaned back, put on his best ironic smile and said, “They have no taste.” There, in four perfect one-syllable words, Jobs not only nailed Microsoft, but himself as well. True: while Microsoft has no taste, Jobs has nothing but.

Tastelessness has hurt Microsoft about as much as it has McDonalds. That much is obvious. Less obvious is what gets camouflaged by taste-free product names and dull-as-dirt descriptions of every new “enabling service”. Take .NET for example. It was announced a year ago, and still nobody can say what it is. When it came out, serious geeks like Joel Spolsky called it camouflage. “Read the white paper closely”, he wrote, “and you'll see that for all the hoopla, .NET is just a thin cloud of FUD. There's no there there. Try as you might to grasp onto something, the entire white paper does not say anything. The harder you grasp, the more it slips right through your fingers.”

HailStorm was different. While the .NET announcement was anesthesia, HailStorm was a wake-up call—at least for the geeks. The feature that really set them off was an innocent-sounding something called Passport. Here's Joel again:

Am I the only one who is terrified about Microsoft Passport? It seems to me like a fairly blatant attempt to build the world's largest, richest consumer database, and then make fabulous profits mining it. It's a terrifying threat to everyone's personal privacy and it will make today's “cookies” seem positively tame by comparison. The scariest thing is that Microsoft is advertising Passport as if it were a benefit to consumers, and people seem to be falling for it!

Let's pause to visit two well-camouflaged reasons why Microsoft's products seem to achieve ubiquity so easily.

First is where the company comes from. Since the beginning (in 1975), Microsoft has been about personal computing. They care about users first and everything else after that. The “Micro” in their name isn't accidental.

Second, they pay very close attention to what users say they want. I would bet that what one user says to one tech support person has a far better chance of influencing software engineering at Microsoft than at any other software company. In fact, one high-up guy at Microsoft once told me that some of the company's software is full of features that “exactly one person asked for”.

Like every other gigantic industrial company that makes products for millions of individuals, Microsoft runs into problems when it begins to consider those individuals as something less than customers. That something is the name that shows up in the midst of Passport's URL: www.passport.com/Consumer/default.asp. That's right, you're a consumer. You're what Jerry Michalski calls a “gullet”: a creature that hangs around under the far end of the supply chain's conveyor belt, where you live only to “gulp down products and crap out cash”.

Pathetic creatures, consumers. Here's the HailStorm white paper, “Building the User-centric Experience” on the awfulness poor consumers must suffer with the PalmOS:

If you want to enter a friend's new phone number into your PC, you use a keyboard and a piece of software like Microsoft Outlook to do it using a particular sequence of keystrokes and mouse clicks. But to enter that same information into your Palm Pilot, you need to learn a completely new interface—right down to relearning how to draw the letters of the alphabet! This environment, in which users are forced to adapt to technology instead of technology adapting to users, creates significant restrictions on how effective any application or web site can be....

And what would that awful environment be? Try a market. But who wants to live in a real market? Too messy. Too noisy. Too thick with too many vendors, and too many customers figuring things out, asking annoying questions. Too much like a real world. What the consumer wants is cocoon-like habitat like the one they get with TV: a supply system of one-way channels wired up like the vast battery-charger in The Matrix.

From the matrix end, HailStorm is a set of “services”. From the battery's end, it's the Passport:

A HailStorm-enabled device or application will, with your consent, connect to the appropriate HailStorm services automatically. Because the myriad of applications and devices in your life will be connected to a common set of information that you control, you'll be able to securely share information between those different technologies, as well as with other people and services....

The HailStorm architecture is designed for consistency across services and seamless extensibility. It provides common identity, messaging, naming, navigation, security, role mapping, data modeling, metering, and error handling across all HailStorm services. HailStorm looks and feels like a dynamic, partitioned, schematized XML store. It is accessed via XML message interfaces (XMIs), where service interfaces are exposed as standard SOAP messages, arguments and return values are XML, and all services support HTTP Post as message transfer protocol.

Of course this all comes at a price:

Microsoft will operate the HailStorm services as a business. The HailStorm services will have real operational costs, and rather than risk compromising the user-centric model by having someone such as advertisers pay for these services, the people receiving the value—the end users—will be the primary source of revenue to Microsoft. HailStorm will help move the Internet to end-user subscriptions, where users pay for value received.

In other words, Microsoft will turn the commercial side of the Internet into a big on-line service. But not one on the cable TV model, where you pay for a spigot at the end of the pipe. Oh, no, you want an á la carte model, where you, the battery, pays for everything. This is much more fair and efficient than the current credit-card system, which takes a cut out of the sell side of the final transaction.

Remember when Microsoft tried to buy Intuit? The banking and credit card industries went bonkers and lobbied successfully against the deal. HailStorm cuts them out almost entirely, but I suspect they have no idea what's really going on here. The camouflage is working.

But not with developers. Microsoft can't do this alone. So here's what's in it for the small fry:

Microsoft will also derive some revenue from developers to help cover the costs of the services and products they need....

Service operators will also have a certificate-based license relationship with Microsoft....That certificate will make it possible to filter abusers out of the system. Obtaining a certificate and the ongoing right to use HailStorm services will have a cost associated with it.

So there we have it: a blueprint for internet-based commerce, built by a Microsoft-enabled software industry, intermediated over Microsoft infrastructure, built by Microsoft and its allied developers.

I want to pause here to note that I'm not just bashing Microsoft here. I'm bashing what we've always called “consumerism” but which we would more accurately call producerism—the belief that Production can tell Consumption what it wants. A couple months ago in this space I gave Dell and Gateway some grief for doing the same thing with the cattle-chute choices it forced on visitors to their web sites.

With Hailstorm, Microsoft extends the cattle chute system to one by which every gullet can plug directly into the end of every value chain. Given the ubiquity of Windows, that's exactly what will happen. Or that's the idea.

The problem here isn't that Hailstorm cuts out competitors, or intermediaries, or anybody else. It's that it cuts out markets. It bypasses the bazaar. It embraces and extends what producerism has succeeded in doing ever since John Wanamaker invented the price tag in the late 1800s.

The challenge for the rest of us is to do with markets what we did with the Net in the first place: create ubiquitous conditions that make matrix-building impossible. That requires something many of us are not accustomed to doing: thinking about commerce. Specifically, thinking about markets as places, as environments, rather than as targets for stuff shoved down through the industrial distribution matrix.

For cultural reasons alone, this won't be easy. In Homesteading the Noosphere, Eric S. Raymond said that, among the “varieties of hacker ideology” there is a certain “hostility to commercial software and/or the companies perceived to dominate the commercial software market.” But hackers also built the Net, which was such an obviously promising environment for business that investors spent something like a trillion dollars funding fantasies about it, putting the technology sector on a cocaine binge from which it will take years to recover.

Obviously, most of the investors didn't know what the hackers were really up to. Here's Eric S. Raymond, in early '99, way before the bubble burst: “We hackers were actively aiming to create new kinds of conversations outside of traditional institutions. This wasn't an accidental byproduct of doing neat techie stuff; it was an explicit goal for many of us as far back as the 1970s. We intended this revolution.”

With Linux we built a bazaar for developers. Now it's time to build one for everybody else. Let's create an interstructure for commerce which, like the Net, nobody owns, everybody can use, and anybody can improve.

Real markets are public places. You can't privatize what only works because it's public. But if we don't have something that works for everybody, somebody's going to build it for themselves. And it won't be pretty.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal and coauthor of The Cluetrain Manifesto.

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