Monday, December 4, 2000

Week of 12/04/2000

- by David Matthews 2

Oh yes.. the Internet! Where progress moves at the speed of light! Where the latest, greatest, most advanced ideas are always in beta testing, and by the time your product hits the store, it’s already outdated.

Remember all of that hype? Oh, you’ll still hear it… mostly from the evangelists.

But where has all of that progress gone?

Anyone see the "Millenium Edition" of Microsoft Windows? Whatever happened to all of the new and wonderful changes that were promised? Microsoft said that Windows 2000 was supposed to be the all-in-one personal and network system, combining everything from both Windows and Windows NT. Instead, Windows 2000 became simply the latest version of Windows NT, while the home version became this "Windows ME". So much for the all-in-one idea. Windows 2000 was nothing more than a glorified bug-fix of the previous version of Windows NT.

Speaking of which, whatever also happened to all of the changes to the GUI that were supposed to have happened? You know.. the kind of graphical changes that separated Windows 3.11 from Windows 95? The only changes I see with Windows ME has been the change in name.

Perhaps that explains the lackluster reception Microsoft got when they unveiled ME. When Windows 95 came out, the boys in Redmond couldn’t keep up with the orders. Jay Leno of the Tonight Show hosted the ceremony, and "Start Me Up" from the Rolling Stones was on everyone’s minds. Even Windows 98 had people waiting in line at the stores. But Windows ME? Well, there was Bill Nye, the Science Guy, no commercials, and no throngs of geeks waiting in line.

In fact, Windows ME became nothing more that a glorified bug-fix of Windows 98, which in turn was nothing more than a glorified bug-fix of Windows 95. Oh, sure, they added one or two new goodies, but most of the features in Windows ME can be downloaded for free at Microsoft’s website.

Okay so Microsoft let us down. But the world doesn’t revolve around Redmond, does it? Certainly Silicon Valley is chock full of ideas, right? After all, this is the world of Cyberspace! The place that turned Moore’s Law into a speed bump! Change is the only constant here!

If only that were true.

Apple’s world, for instance, is stumbling over their great creation.. the "Cube". A powerful system, to be honest, with a very stylish case. But the Cube isn’t selling to the Mac loyalists. They’re sticking with the iMac and the iBook, with their striking plastic colors and their button-less mice. Not to mention the Cube has very little room to expand.. but then again, neither does the iMac.

People WANT faster connections to the Internet, but they’re not getting them. DSL and cable modems are not as widely available as people are led to believe; and the complaints over delays and poor customer service will make many people want to keep their 56K connection.

The Dot-Com businesses, once thought of as the unstoppable force, were hit hard.,,… just about any business ending in ".com" have been losing money faster than Congress come budget time. Even the most powerful online force - sex - couldn’t help go through with their plans to go on the stock market. That idea was shelved faster than the thought of Nicholas Cage playing Superman.

Local communities once saw the dot-com business as the wave of the future. Now there’s a backlash against such businesses opening up. In some cases, they’re being zoned out like they were strip clubs.

And now even some of those high-paced, high-priced cyberspace talent are considering talking about.. UNIONS! The bane of the old Industrial Revolution has finally reached the new economy!

Let’s get brutally honest here.. The tech world and cyberspace have finally encountered entropy. The universal force of decay and stagnation. It’s in a slump.. perhaps for the first time ever.

Part of the reasons behind this slump involve some very real hindrances in the real world. The very hindrances that people thought just could not affect it.

The biggest one is the government of the United States of America. Microsoft may be an 800-pound gorilla, but Uncle Sam is a far heavier monkey that has firmly grafted itself on all of our backs. From trying to dictate what sort of content is "appropriate" to trying to eavesdrop on every e-mail and every chatroom conversation, the US Government has been doing everything in their power to become George Orwell’s infamous all-seeing, all-knowing "Big Brother."

The US Government has been doing everything in its power to open all cyberspace doors and windows for its agents to peer into. Everything from wanting computer makers to install special chips that would allow the government to remotely hack into anyone’s computer, to declaring encryption technology to being akin to chemical and nuclear weapons. They’ve wanted to have any excuse, any rationality, to be able to hack into anyone’s computer at any time without a warrant. Is it any wonder, then, why businesses are hesitant to report on being hacked to the same government that feels it should be able to do the same with impunity?

And their policies on privacy have been more hypocritical than a meeting of Baptist ministers at Madame Kitty’s legal brothel in Nevada. Tracking where people come and go online is "bad" right? So that explains why several sites operated by the US government still do that! And then these people think they can dictate what privacy standards should be?

Then there are the legal hassles the government is giving to companies like Microsoft and Intel. Our federal government wants to break up Microsoft for being just too darn successful, and acting like.. well, like the government wants to be. Mind you, this action is being applauded - and even encouraged, if not supported - by some of Redmond’s most vocal critics. People who would much rather have government do their bidding than take a risk and try to come up with a product that could successfully compete against Microsoft.

Let’s put it this way, when Microsoft was at its most creative, they did not have any lobbying group in Washington. Now - thanks to the Clinton Regime - they have a lobbying group, and their creativity is lacking. It’s pretty hard to be creative and come up with a product that will be successful when you’re in constant fear that your success will mean lawsuits.

And speaking of lawsuits, it’s not just Uncle Sam that is stepping in to derail the Cyberspace Express. The motion picture and recording companies are also unleashing their lawyers at some of the most popular peer-to-peer programs out there. Napster and Scour are right now being reamed by every lawyer that couldn’t get their butts down to Florida to steal the vote for Al Gore. They’re eager to mount Napster’s logo right next to the Digital Audio Tape system they successfully killed in the 1980’s.

Maybe there is a valid point to be made by the lawyers about copyright concerns. This commentator has certainly talked about those cyberspace pirates who pillage the hard work and effort of others just for a quick profit. Those kind of parasites do exist, they are not the make-believe creations of copyright attorneys. However, it must be said that this legal gang-bang by the trial lawyers has played a role in stifling innovation and creativity.

Real-world technical problems have also plagued the tech world. Our quest for bandwidth is faster than the ability for the telephone companies to run new lines for it. DSL is also limited by the fact that you’re essentially dealing with three companies: the company that’s billing you, the company that’s providing the actual connection, and your phone company. And this is a three-way dance that essentially nobody wants to have happen but you. Cable modems aren’t any easier, although you’re only having to deal with two entities, not three. The hassles, though, are still the same.

The only other alternative is a satellite modem, but until recently it was next to impossible. 400K-baud is wonderful, but it was a download-only connection. You still needed to connect to an ISP in order to upload anything, and that was still at 56K. Hughes Communication, the company that owns DirecTV, did announce that two-way connections are forthcoming, but one will have to be patient... not to mention pray for clear skies every time they want to go online.

But there is yet another factor involved.. one that people just did not expect. And that is that the corporate mentality has taken over.

The magic behind the tech world and of cyberspace was that it was cutting edge. It was started by people who didn’t want to live that old 9-5 corporate world. Yahoo, for instance, used to be run by some guys in a basement. These people would work long hours, but it would be THEIR hours.

As those companies grew, they became the very things that they did not want to be - a corporation. Or they got bought out by one. Netscape and ICQ got bought out by America Online. Little mom-and-pop Internet Service Providers were being bought out and absorbed by larger providers.

Then there’s the talent glut. Once upon a time, as recent as five years ago, those young upstart creators and designers could write their own ticket, and many of them did. Stock options, perks, everything possible for them to work hard and reap the profits for that work. We now have a horde of new twenty-something millionaires. Granted, many of them are just millionaires on paper, but those that were more than that were able to cash in and live life the way they’ve always wanted to at a much younger age than expected.

But not every talented designer or programmer were able to cash in. Many more are still working long hours but are not making the kind of money they dreamt of having. The gold had certainly been mined out of this rush, and now the only people making money yet again are the corporations. That’s why some people are daring to mention the word "union".

My father once said, and I still believe this to be very true, that any company that gets a union DESERVES it. Unions exist because of bad management, and to have the tech world suddenly inherit a union would be a devastating blow to the new economy. Unions are not the solution to bad management.. they only confirm that such bad management exists. The real solution is competition.

The tech market is saturated in more ways than one. Silicon Valley has become the home to so many budding creators and developers that the infrastructure has become wealth-heavy. Like boats heavily weighted down with gold, the land around Silicon Valley has become so inflated that the people who don’t work in those jobs.. the men and women who work in restaurants, who deliver the mail, even those who man the police and fire departments, now have to move away from the area and commute an hour or two just to work their jobs. Other communities with a growing tech workforce face similar problems with their infrastructure. That’s why there is a growing backlash against the tech world. They are the victims of their own success.

But in truth, the tech world is simply feeling the heat of the rest of the economy. It’s in a slump because the rest of the economy has been on a downturn for the past year or so. Politicians don’t want to talk about it, and certainly the media hasn’t said the dreaded R-word (recession) until just recently, but it’s been there, lurking. This commentator has certainly warned people of its coming, but much like the grasshopper, they too fiddled straight through the summer.

Well, the summer of success is over, it’s time to prepare for winter. And cyberspace - so dependant on the tech world for its very existence - should prepare accordingly.

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