History Doesn’t Repeat – But It Does Rhyme

March 18, 2005


Today is the closing day of the first annual Microsoft Technology Summit. And it has been a great week. While I have always kept my eyes open, it is nice to have them opened wider. When I arrived at the campus earlier this week, I kept thinking about the quote to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” While I would not characterize Microsoft as an enemy, there are people I know that would make such bold assertions. As for me, I am here today writing about a nineteenth century quote applied to a twenty-first century situation.

Mark Twain once wrote that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. And I am hearing the rhyme to IBM’s history of thirty (or was it forty?) years ago. As a company, IBM aggressively attacked the plug-compatible manufacturers (e.g., Amdahl). IBM raised barriers to competition wherever it thought it could. Their tactics were draconian and possibly illegal. And it took legal intervention for this to change. In the end, IBM found itself being labeled as an anti-competitive monopolist. And IBM was forced to “open” its mainframe playground to numerous competitiors.

The process of “opening up” was complex, lengthy and expensive. But today, IBM is more generally seen as a gracious participant in the “community” process. They are no longer seen as the angry, 800-lb gorilla that it once was. Microsoft is at the same point. They are an adjudged “poor sport” in the community of technologists.

And this assessment is both fair and unfair. There are hard-headed and ham-handed people at Microsoft just like there are the same kinds of people in the “community” (e.g., ESR v. RMS). But the community must act consistently in order to maintain historical credibility. Iif the community can modify its position towards IBM, then it must be open to modifying its position on Microsoft. Of course, it took IBM decades to repair its reputation in the industry. And for some aging technologists, IBM will always be a criminal suspect. I am sure the same will be true for Microsoft.

So for Microsoft to repair (or initially establish) its reputation, it must take steps that will not be appreciated as genuine. It must invest and expect venom as the reward. But if Microsoft can weather the initial response, then both Microsoft and the community can move forward to a more “engaged response.” I can’t wait for this rhyme to be completely recognizable.

Who knows? Maybe I can abuse this analogy further and relate it to a modern musical mashup!




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