Robert X Cringely is a sex symbol, airplane enthusiast and intrepid adventurer. He’s the host of the hit PBS-TV series "Electric Money," and author of Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date, and the popular column I, Cringely. I spoke with Cringely about the Web 2.0 "Pillsbury Bake-off," the ruthlessness of Microsoft, user-generated video ("the CB radio of our decade") and his own unemployability.
Davidson: Which software company would you hate to compete against? What makes you single them out?
Cringely: Microsoft of course. They have the deepest of pockets, unlimited ambition, and they are willing to lose money for years and years just to make sure that you don’t make any money, either. And they are mean, REALLY mean.
Davidson: Why do you think Microsoft is mean? Are you implying some kind of malicious intent rather than just ruthlessness?
Cringely: Maybe "mean" is the wrong word to use for Microsoft. "Ruthless" is good. The company is built in the image of Bill Gates and Bill is a guy who gets caught-up in the game of business and doesn’t typically see its personal cost. To use what might seem to be an obscure example, just look at all the various partnerships and industry consortia that Microsoft has announced through the years that never produced a product or even a usable specification. There have been literally dozens of these operations that are intended solely to freeze the competition until Microsoft can figure what the heck it actually wants to do. To Microsoft its a PR exercise that helps them compete but to customers it is just a damned lie. That’s ruthless. There are plenty of other examples I can give but you get the point. I represent the concerns of users, not vendors, and Microsoft doesn’t really care about users.
Davidson: Do you think they’re meaner than, say, Google or Apple?
Cringely: In comparison Google and Apple are, well, different. Apple cares very much about users as a group, but very little about users as individuals. If you disagree with Steve Jobs you are just plain wrong, but as a class users deserve cool stuff (as opposed to Microsoft’s view that users are simply a burden). Google can’t get past the algorithm. To Google there are no users, just electrons with intent. Google would rather users not exist, but unlike Microsoft I don’t believe Google actually resents users, at least not yet.
Davidson: Who do you reckon will dominate in five years’ time: Google, Microsoft or somebody else (possibly unknown now)?
Cringely: Five years from now Microsoft will still be a cash machine but Google will be the big bully and by that time they’ll probably be in competition with Apple, too.
Davidson: What companies or technologies do you think are full of hot air and why?
Cringely: Web 2.0 is cruising for a bruising not because it isn’t clever or even a whole new market segment, but because too few companies realize that Web 2.0 is more like the Pillsbury Bake-Off than it is a business. This requires some explaining because I know it will piss off some folks, but the problem with Web 2.0 BUSINESSES is that they are usually built on a recipe for mixing together technologies from other companies. That’s fine, but then how do you protect your recipe? You can do it through market share, but that just means you have to be the first or second serious player in your category, which is why we have MySpace, Facebook, and….. almost nobody. Yet every VC in Silicon Valley will hear this week a pitch for some startup that calls itself "better than Facebook." Sheesh.
Davidson: What is the most over-hyped bit of tech at the moment?
Cringely: User-generated video is the CB radio of our decade and, like the CB craze of the 1970s, this one will decline. I’m not at all saying there is no value to user-generated video, but it won’t replace television.
Davidson: Are we in a tech bubble?
Cringely: No. Tech companies today have to make a profit and the IPO market stinks. There have been some lucrative buy-outs and a couple big IPOs, but this is nothing like what we saw in the late 1990s. Not even close. If you are making a profit, it isn’t a bubble.
Davidson: What is the single biggest mistake (or mistakes) that software companies consistently make?
Cringely: They assume that having the best technology is good enough. Yes, technology is important, but not as important as good marketing, proper product positioning, and simply making sure that more money comes in than goes out. Silly stuff like that.
Davidson: Who do you consider the best leader of a software company you have seen and why?
Cringely: It varies from era to era and no leader is perfect, but my favorite software company for pure execution is Intuit, which consistently invents new businesses that attract huge competitors yet the company still maintains dominant market share.
Davidson: If you could have worked for any company in the last 20 years which would it be and why?
Cringely: I am unemployable, having been fired by every company I have ever worked for. I am not making this up. But if I were employable, I suppose I would want to be at some software company that would have made me rich while not making me bored. In the 1990s I would have wanted to work for Netscape, which made a lot of people rich when AOL overpaid for the company. In this decade I suppose I would have picked YouTube simply because it grew so fast and sold out for a good price in a heady rush. Nothing like zero to $1.6 billion in 15 months. I’m not sure we’ll see that again.
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