Decades ago, Banana Republic was a mail order outfitter with a very cool catalog. It had lots of khaki; hats suitable for jungles and deserts; battered leather pouches, web belts and multi-pocketed vests for carrying the bits and pieces of paraphernalia you’d be likely to need when visiting snake or scorpion-infested territory; and the paraphernalia itself.
Somewhere along the way that formula stopped working, and Banana Republic turned itself into Just Another Clothing Store. It’s been successful, so from the perspective of fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, it Did The Right Thing. But from the perspective of What’s The Point? Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?
There comes a time in the history of most companies when the old model stops working. Too often, the choices seem to be either vanishing from the landscape or, like Banana Republic, becoming a generic, personality-free enterprise.
When personal computers first burst onto the corporate scene, all of the players … and that includes Microsoft, but also Apple, Digital Research, Software Arts, Micro Pro, Novell, and Don Estridge’s PC division at IBM … were, at heart, revolutionaries.
They supported, not corporate America, but subversives inside corporate America — end-user-department innovators who needed to automate workgroup processes, model alternative business scenarios, or to otherwise solve small-scale challenges quickly, without going through the swimming-through-molasses procedures required by the corporation to get IT support.
The result was an outpouring of creativity that dramatically changed how businesses operate. For those readers too young to have lived through the transition, here’s just one of the changes, to serve as a proxy for all the rest: Before the PC, every manager had a personal secretary. Post-PC, many managers wouldn’t even know how to keep a secretary busy.
While Microsoft took a bare-knuckled approach to competitors, it kept sight of who its customer was — the individual corporate cost-center manager and end-user, not IT. That its operating system didn’t lend itself to central control, and its design was indifferent to security was not accidental. Corporate IT cares about control and security. End-users care about getting things done quickly, without bureaucratic overhead.
And then, somewhere along the way, the world changed and corporate IT became the customer. Microsoft adapted and thrived, but in much the way Banana Republic adapted and thrived — by forgetting what it was.
In microcosm: End-users wanted .bat files, interpreted BASIC and a macro “language” that wasn’t much more than a glorified keystroke automator. Corporate IT wanted standardization, restriction of administrative rights, and enough limitations on what end-users could do to assure the security of corporate information assets.
That was the end of .bat files and interpreted BASIC, while macro languages gave way to Visual Basic for Applications — a language learnable only by those who understand the philosophy of designing and coding software objects.
This is what is sad about some forms of success: Whether the subject is the personal computer industry, the Internet, Linux, or the Olympic games, it seems to drain the charm out of just about any business that achieves it.
And, there are times success results in abandoning a small but still-very-real market. The PC is, we’re told so often it has become tiresome, a business computer and not really a “personal” one. Which leaves open the question of who is going to serve the customers who used to look to Microsoft and the other small systems companies.
It won’t be Apple. Apple makes cool technology; not end-user-programmable technology. It probably won’t be the open source movement either. Those adept enough with technology to create open source solutions aren’t, for the most part, interested in creating tools simple and prosaic enough for average end-users.
The best candidate right now is (of course) Google. Its provides applications with novel capabilities, and because it delivers them via the browser, IT will have a hard time keeping them out of the enterprise.
In the meantime, Bill Gates has left the game, to devote his attention to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Foundation is genuinely admirable, both in its goals and its execution (and has redeemed Mrs. Gates from having been the force behind Microsoft Bob).
Except … is anyone else concerned about what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation might turn into once Mr. and Mrs. Gates are gone? It’s an organization with a budget rivaling that of some governments, with no public governance or oversight.
I’m not entirely sure that in the long run this will prove to be an entirely good idea.