"What I would say if I were asked to Testify at the 'Market Power and Structural Change in the
Software Industry' Hearings..."
by Jack William Bell
Good morning esteemed Senators. As I read to you from this prepared statement, the first thing I must
express is my utter amazement that you are listening to me in the first place.
I am not amazed because I am here, even though I am a nobody. I certainly am unimportant from where
you, the lawyers and the other witnesses at this hearing sit. I cannot deny it. I am one of the
faceless cogs of the Software Industry you are discussing. I am not a mover or a shaker. I am not
unique in any respect. I am just another geek who writes code for a living. Still, I am certain you
occasionally listen to nobodies like me.
Nor am I amazed because you are discussing this subject at all or because you are concerned about
where it is going. The Software Industry is absolutely one of the most important economic factors in
the United States of America today. Perhaps in the world. Your concern is understandable and
No. I am amazed because you are actually listening to the kind of person you truly need to hear from
in this particular matter. The kind of person who will be most affected by your decisions even if it
doesn't seem that way when comparing me to the captains of the industry...
There are many more like me than there are like them. The big companies employ a small fraction of
the working programmers in this world to write their operating systems and programming tools and
word processors and web browsers. The rest of us make our living writing the internal applications
that keep business and government running. Writing vertical market applications. Writing games.
Writing small programs that fill niches the big companies don't care about. We, who are by far
the majority, are wrongly denied a voice at hearings like these because individually we are
But you see, precisely because I am a nobody I am free to tell you the one thing you most need to
hear. I lose nothing if you choose to dislike my message or me. Yet I stand to gain everything if
you should decide that I am right. Sadly, I fear you will not.
Many of your other witnesses here also believe in what I am about to tell you; but their
responsibilities and their positions encumber them. They cannot express something that will damage
a case they have carefully prepared to strengthen the standing of the one company or group they
represent. And this thing you need to hear will not come comfortably to your ears.
No one but another working geek like myself would dare. Not the lobbyists. Not the lawyers. Not
your aides. None of these would try to sneak it into a position paper even if they actually
understood the problem.
You see the problem, and the thing you must hear, is this... Quite simply: You are possibly the least
qualified people on the face of the Earth to decide how the Software Industry must proceed. I say
this in all reverence to your positions, with a great deal of respect for your intelligence and with
the knowledge that you truly want to do the right thing for America and the world as a whole. But I
also believe it with all my heart.
There is a clear cut reason why I believe you unqualified; the Software Industry is unique and barely
understood by those who have spent a lifetime learning it. The economic forces that drive it unlike
any mankind has ever dealt with before. The Software Industry is too fresh and too new and has yet to
fall into any predictable pattern at all. And, although you and your advisors undoubtedly are among
the most qualified people in the world to deal with other industries, the knowledge that has served
you so well in the past will not serve you here. Instead it will lead you into beliefs and actions
that may hurt everyone. Actions that will almost certainly harm my peers and myself.
As an example I give you the focus of these hearings: Microsoft's so-called monopoly. Without doubt
Microsoft has reached its position in the software marketplace by using every trick at their
disposal. They are the most hardscrabble street fighters in the Software Industry. But they have to
be. One slip, one moment of resting on their laurels and they will be just another has-been. And
despite their plaintive cries to the contrary, the fondest hope of each of Microsoft's competitors is
to be just like them.
I know these things because I have worked as a contractor (not as an employee) at Microsoft and at
some of their competitors. I have seen how these companies operate. I have seen how the ones who
chose not to operate from a position of 'do what it takes to win' have lost their way and died. I
would be the first to say that the Software Industry is a perfect example of vicious, ruthless,
survival of the fittest capitalism.
What I also say is that this is a good thing...
There are those, even among my fellow geeks, who would argue against this. But those of us who work
in the trenches, who actually create the software that runs the world, know one thing if we know
nothing else -the most important thing we can have are Standards. Standard languages so the each
computer platform is not an island. Standard interfaces so that the different platforms can talk
to each other. Standard components and Application Programming Interfaces (also known as API's) to make our jobs easier. The thing is; standards alone are not enough. They must also be good standards. And there has never been an example of a good software standard that was promulgated from above and set in concrete. Not one.
In the complex and thriving ecology that we call the Software Industry, Microsoft has been the
single greatest predator. It has reached that position by eating the weak and the sick, while the
more nimble and swift have escaped it. The result has been a continual evolution that has benefited
nearly everyone. A culling that paradoxically grows the Software Marketplace as a whole. But the
real thing Microsoft has sought to control is not this Marketplace itself, or at least not directly,
but rather the Standards I have spoke of. Microsoft has long known something its competitors have
only learned in the last few years; he who controls the API's controls the most important resource
of all - programmer mindshare.
When I am asked to develop a new software program for a business, I use the tools that bring me the
most success. In my case these tools are, without exception, either Microsoft products or built
using Microsoft promulgated standards. I use these tools not because I love Microsoft but because I
need to do my work quickly and get it right the first time. These tools help me do this, imperfect
as they are. I do not develop for platforms other than Windows because by learning how to develop
for Windows I know I can develop software for more than eighty percent of the computers on the
planet. Microsoft has a large part of my mindshare and they have it for good reason. Those programmers who work outside these standards find themselves dealing with a much smaller pool of customers and, often, less powerful tools.
This is a good thing! If the competitors to Microsoft had their way I would either need to
develop for a platform that only represented forty percent of all the computers or I would need
to develop for multiple platforms. Oh, I see the representative from Sun is itching to raise his
hand and butt in, but sorry Sir. Java isn't the answer right now and I don't have time to wait.
I need to do my work this week. Besides I don't want to see one monopoly replaced with another.
Give me the devil I know.
No, the current situation is a good thing. It is good because there is plenty of room for everyone.
And Microsoft knows it. If they relax for a minute along will come some young lion, hot to take
out the king. This keeps them struggling. 'Digging' as one geek pundit puts it. And it keeps the
young lions busy too. As an independent software developer all this activity is good for me and I
know it. Everyone is trying to make my life easier and to get my attention with his or her cool
new doo-dads. And sometimes those cool doo-dads really are cool and helpful and able to make my
Now, I do understand your concerns. To an outsider, and indeed to many insiders, it does look
like Microsoft has grown so big it threatens to take over all the Standards. To own all the
cookies. To get all the mindshare. But it just doesn't work that way. I have seen that place
from the inside and I can tell you they can't agree among themselves as to what the best standards
are. And, aside from a few acronyms and from Windows itself they haven't produced very many
successful standards all on their lonesome anyway. Microsoft has always been more of a 'follower'
than an innovator no matter what they might want you to believe. And, as such, they have succeeded
not by forcing people to use their Standards, but by embracing successful Standards created outside
the company. They have led the pack mostly by figuring out where everyone wants to go and then
getting in front.
I repeat; this is a good thing. Because of Microsoft bringing all the successful standards under
one umbrella my job gets easier. My customers are more satisfied. My life is better. And the best
part is the fact Microsoft cannot truly control these standards, they can only follow along with
what I and my fellow working geeks want. The minute they choose not to do so, well then here comes
one of those young lions who is willing to make us happy!
Despite appearances there is no monopoly. Microsoft does not really 'control the Software
Industry'. In all truth Microsoft is just surfing the wave along with the rest of us. Only thing
is; they are so big that they have convinced themselves and a lot of other folks that they are
actually making the wave. It just isn't so. All Microsoft is truly doing is to create a wake large
enough that we little guys can ride that wake in safety instead of surfing the hard way with the
Besides, doesn't monopoly imply that competition is totally locked out? That other companies
cannot even begin to compete? That the monopolist can do a bad job and still win because they
hold all the cards? In this industry things do not work that way. The Software Industry is too
driven by fads and new technologies and constant evolution for one company to ever dominate it
for long. Microsoft has only done as well as they have out of a combination of luck, hard work
and good management. And that will not last forever. Until then I believe that the industry needs
Microsoft to fill its role as a stabilizing influence on standards.
You see I don't fear Microsoft that much. Sure, I know that if I get in their way Microsoft will
eat my lunch. But I don't sweat it; I just look for niches they don't care about. I am a Remora
to their Shark. It is a game I know how to play. What I do worry about is, quite frankly, good
and upright representatives of the people like yourselves who see a problem and want to do something
about it. I worry about this because the only things you can do will damage my own prospects in
some manner. I fear that you will change the rules in such a way that the game itself will change...
After all, what are your choices? You could do major damage to Microsoft in some way; but I don't
see that as helpful to me or to my fellow working geeks. As I have said before; Microsoft has been
good for the one thing I really care about - Standards. If the Software Industry loses Microsoft in
their current role then it will either end in chaos or someone else will take their place. I prefer
things as they are.
Or, I suppose, you could establish a 'Software Standards' bureaucracy of some kind. The software
equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration. This would be a disaster of epic proportions! It
would put the standards that we working geeks rely on in the hands of politicians and lobbyists.
People who do not understand how and why we work but do understand money and power. This is the
one thing I fear the most. And historically it seems like the most likely option from your point
ASo, I beg you. Leave well enough alone for a while. Wait and see. If you want Microsoft's power
reduced a little then establish some hothouse's for the people who want to develop alternatives.
And, please ask your aides to search the web for 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar' and then read it
even if they must print it on paper first. Trust in capitalism and in the inborn orneriness of
geeks like me. Believe me, you can't even lead us to the water if it isn't water we want to drink.
I know you look at Microsoft and see a monopoly, but that is because you are used to a different
kind of economics, one that depends on raw materials and factories and shipping costs and inventory.
The Software Industry is wildly different, my fellow geeks and I are the sole fountainhead from
which the money flows. It is our brains which provide the motive power. We are both the creators
and the true consumers that control the Software Industry. The normal people who buy software,
those who seem to be the consumers, are actually buying our time and our time is precious. It only
becomes cheap when there is an economy of scale. And that only happens with standards. And good
standards only evolve in a sea of intense competition; they cannot be legislated from above.
If you get nothing else from this statement, I pray that you receive this final word with
understanding: The Software Industry is so different and so new that the old rules just do not
apply. And the new rules are not clear yet. But, despite all appearances, you may well be trying
to fix something that isn't broke.
Thank you for your time...
Copyright 1998 Jack William Bell
Last Changed 12/21/1998