[Dave Winer founded UserLand Software and in 1992, shipped Frontier, which he is in the process of releasing for free to the Internet (see TidBITS-279). Dave is also a columnist for HotWired, contributing essays like the one below. Check out Dave’s many and varied projects on the Web at:]
Bill & Microsoft — I missed the NBC TV documentary about Bill Gates on NBC last week, but I’m getting lots of email about it. The most interesting message came from Caryn Shalita <[email protected]>. She says, "It may be silly, but I like having products made by companies that don’t just fake a good vibe!"
Yeah! Caryn comes from Los Angeles; not Seattle or Silicon Valley. She’s an actress and webmaster and music nut.
And I have lots to say about this. Right on. I hear a lot of dissonant notes from Bill’s customers, which include some of his competitors. And Microsoft hasn’t been able to muster an acceptable response to any of the claims that have been rattling around the corridors in the groups-of-ten of DaveNet mailings.
I get a mixture of negative and positive vibes from Microsoft. For the second time I’ve had the accusatory finger pointed back at me. This time I was just the messenger, relaying a thoughtful flame, this time from a competitor – last time it was from a customer. I’ve seen Microsoft folks swarm all over a user and now a developer. It would be nice if they took us at face value. They could learn and grow. Be a better company. And deserve our support because their vibes could be seen as a positive thing, not a dangerous thing.
Yes, Microsoft is dangerous. But so is a lot of life. We may be outraged, but we have to be careful. They do have a right to exist. Bill is right, there were risks involved. I remember back when Windows 3.0 shipped, it wasn’t a slam-dunk. Should Microsoft be deprived of the harvest now? No way! It’s still not a slam-dunk. Read InfoWorld. Windows 95 is in trouble.
It’s Not Easy Being Bill — Dave Carlick <[email protected]> sends the Bill Gates Joke of the Week:
God calls Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton and Bill Gates into his office and says, "The world will end in 30 days. Go back and tell your people." So, Boris Yeltsin goes to the Russian people and says, "I have bad news and I have worse news. The bad news is that we were wrong, there is a God. The worse news is that the world will end in 30 days." Bill Clinton goes on TV and tells the American people, "I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is that the basic family values upon which we have based our lives on are right – there is a God. The bad news is that the world will end in 30 days." Bill Gates goes to his executive committee and says, "I have great news and I have fabulous news. The great news is that God thinks I’m important. The fabulous news is that we don’t have to ship Windows 95!"
It’s not easy being Bill. He’s the focal point of a lot of negative energy. I get a small taste of that every time one of my pieces appears in Wired or HotWired. Negative energy in my inbox, from people who are angry with their mothers or fathers or life in general, and decide to let me have it! It’s getting easier to push it back, and it makes me a better, stronger person to learn to let go of their pain. I’m not here to make these strangers happy.
Bill must get a mountain of negative energy. I glimpsed this back in an earlier round of email with Bill, a few months ago, when Word 6.0 for the Mac was The Big Problem. Bill said "I’m getting ten times more flames on this than anything else." Yes, Bill reads his email. And he’s affected by it. Good for him and good for Microsoft. It’s an amazing thing that he soaks up all that negative energy, processes it, and deals with it. It’s hard to make these things positive. Because sometimes people must think Bill is their mother, just as some people think I am! The numbers must be much higher for Bill.
But it goes the other way. Sometimes Microsoft people unleash their personal anger and direct it at the wrong place. I’ve seen it happen.
A Microsoft Story — At a party thrown by Microsoft at last year’s System Design Review (an annual assembly of the top developers from the leading software companies), I made the mistake of getting on the wrong bus.
I was supposed to be on the bus for other-company developers. Instead, by accident, I got on a bus for Microsoft employees. It was dark. I was quiet. I listened to the sounds of Microsoft internal people talking about the developers attending the conference.
Oh, the personal side of Microsoft – not a pretty sight! These people are not Bill Gates clones. Petty personal comments, disrespect, childish arrogance. It reminded me of the Apple of the 1980s, elitist and insulated. I felt ashamed to be at this conference. I thought it was a sign of respect from Microsoft to be included, and I’m sure it was – from the top of the company. They saw me as an important developer, even though there were no revenues at UserLand to support that belief. They believed in me, personally. And that was before DaveNet happened, my public presence was almost nil at the time. The respect came from the top of the company. From the troops I was just another hopeless bozo that was going to be crushed by the new Big Blue Machine of Redmond. I heard them saying that in the dark quiet of Microsoft’s corporate bus.
I realized then that Microsoft is just another company. They hire from the general talent pool created by the American education system and get young people who mistakenly believe that they have extra insight into the world just because they work at a successful company. You can see Bill fighting against this, reminding his troops over and over that the competition has to be taken seriously, to be respected, to be feared. They require energy, intelligence, and creativity to be dispensed with. You can’t just roll over them with mediocrity. But it must be a losing battle, even for a man of Gates’s intensity and intelligence. Microsoft, with 17,000 people, is less and less Gates, and more and more average. It has to be that way.
I believe Bill’s epitaph will be a slightly above-average company, as long as he is willing to be this intense. If he ever lets go, and lets Microsoft run itself, it will revert to the norm – an American company with all its weaknesses and self-serving agendas.
Why Companies? — All this leads me to the real question – why does Caryn expect great software to come from companies? What evidence is there that companies are the ideal organizational structure for creative, timely, and interesting software products? Is any other creative business structured this way? Can you imagine the Indigo Girls singing in three-piece suits? Making their bosses happy? And their boss’s boss? And on and on. Add enough CYA and you drown inspiration and good vibes in corporate agendas, petty egos, and ass-kissing. I’m not questioning the premise of Microsoft specifically; just the mistaken idea that software is vastly different from other forms of creativity. It isn’t.
It’s always frustrated to me to have my products evaluated based on the size of the company they come from. I’ve never met a company that could host my software without interfering. I’ve tried to compromise with the corporate model. But to hit the mark, I have to zig and zag, try out new ideas, learn and tweak, and go back and do it again. Most corporations have real problems with that approach. The Board of Directors wants detailed plans, head trips that predict exactly how a song will turn out. They want to see the numbers. I gave them the numbers they wanted, but they were lies. Eventually I had to divorce myself from the corporate scene. You can’t build software out of lies.
I’ve even seen software CEOs ask analysts to tell them what kinds of products they should make! What exactly is their contribution? Why be a software CEO if you don’t trust your own intuition to tell you what kinds of products to make? Most analysts don’t use the stuff. Same with CEOs.
Of course, Hollywood is no panacea. They have fat, sweaty, mindless executives posturing and pretending they understand what’s going on. Remember the Dogs Watching TV. But at least in L.A. they celebrate the individual – a movie makes a personal statement, not a corporate one. I’ve seen movies with fat, sweaty, mindless executives playing supporting roles to screenplay writers and actors who hate them. Who backed those movies? Cute!
Corporations may appear to be devoid of emotions. Actually they are emotional breweries, but they are in denial. "Dave, you’re being emotional again," I’ve heard it over and over. So what! My software comes from the heart. But the software industry wants to deny that. They want a sterile lab environment that spits out products that get four stars from PC Week Labs. Untouched by human hands. Good luck! That’s Bill’s game. You can’t win by zigging when he zigs. You have to zag to beat Gates. He must know that. When will you guys figure it out?
I see this unrealistic trust in the corporate system everywhere I go. John Doerr trusts Macromedia, but forgets Marc Canter, the genius who made Director happen. The world buys into Doerr’s deals because they think Marc is still there. He isn’t. No doubt Macromedia has smarts, but the blood of the company’s creativity flows through Marc’s veins, not Bud Colligan’s.
We Need Help — It’s time for minds to bend. Let people with talent and passion experiment with new ideas. Bet on people with track records, like the entertainment industry does, and accept the probability that you can’t pick the next Forrest Gump or Pulp Fiction. Sheryl Crow appeared to be washed up, so did Bonnie Raitt. Look who’s on top of the heap now!
We miss many dynamics in the software business. The venture capitalists are greedy, as I’ve said before. They trust people they can own. If you have an opinion, they don’t want to deal with you. But that’s not how you make money. Freedom of expression is the raw material from which great software is built. You can’t control that freedom or you lose it. You get what you pay for. Control the people and you get predictable, boring, bloated, late software.
Great passionate ideas make money. Lucky great passionate ideas make lots of money. To the money people, some advice: relax, spread it around, and hope you get lucky!
We need help here in Silicon Valley. We’re stuck playing the same old songs over and over. Head trips everywhere. Creative people need to be set free and given the resources they need, so products can be great and timely. Money is not the most precious thing. Passion and talent are. I don’t care if the money comes from Steven Spielberg or Bill Gates or John Doerr. We’ll know when the dam is ready to burst, a studio in Silicon Valley that really celebrated the individual creator would be a huge win.