Spinmeisters and monopolistic manipulators

Perhaps we scientific, engineering, and mathematical types were just a little bit naive to think that our fields would never be encroached upon by the decadence of the world around us.
I remember ten years ago observing the catastrophic failures of Windows 3.0 on PCs and thinking it would all be over in a few months. But it didn't happen that way. Professional spinmeisters and monopolistic manipulators had already rigged the game.

It is no surprise that a company such as Arthur Andersen, who decided a few years ago to recommend Microsoft products to its clients under the guise of "consulting," is deeply involved with questionable accounting practices. There is an Enron-Andersen-Microsoft "axis" out there, dedicated to offering people what they want.... even if it's not good for them. The tobacco companies offer people a product that feels good but slowly rots their innards, while the "axis" offers companies lucrative, feel-good "solutions" to their supposed "problems." Need a quick-fix to please the Wall Street analysts? Call Andersen. Need a quick-fix to your expensive information systems? Call Microsoft. Need price quick-fixing for some energy, or bandwidth, or pork bellies? Call Enron.

Who can believe *anything* these companies say?

It starts with a moral culture of religionists who say, "Anything goes. For a price, all is forgiven. Nobody really knows right and wrong, so nobody can hold you responsible." It continues with the educational equivalent of Happy Meals in school. "Nobody cares whether you get the wrong answer. The important thing is that you showed up for class and you had fun." College and pro sports teams, and even the Olympics, are not immune from the infection of No-Truth. As you watch the Olympic athletes compete this month, how many of them used banned training substances? Professional staffs? Biased qualification procedures under biased judges?

What we have observed in the past ten years in the computer industry is the pervasive Enronization of software. Everything can be converted to systems with low up-front costs, and the long-term costs can be hidden by slick accounting practices. This is much easier to rig than for companies to go out and buy a mainframe or two, with definite up-front costs but guaranteed reliability. There is no place on the accountant's balance sheet for reliability, which is a real number. But there are plenty of write-offs for "good will" and "brand recognition," which are nothing more than legal fictions based on some consultant's opinion about what other people's opinions are. It's all a bunch of hocus-pocus.

Yes, many of us in the world of technology thought we were immune. We thought that bean-counters actually counted beans, instead of inventing "assumed beans" or "theoretical beans" or "expected beans" out of thin air. It would have been easy for me to accept an Enron position last year, but something sounded fishy. Since I had just taken a new job, I decided to show a little loyalty to my new employer and not bail out as soon as a new opportunity appeared. It was a good decision, in more ways than one.

I have never seen a solid number for the Return On Investment (ROI) of a copy of Windows. I never heard the pro-Windows crowd complain about "slow" software when Windows came out, the way they razzed Java a few years ago for its supposed "slowness." I have never seen a realistic estimate of the value of unpaid overtime for those who must restore crashed Windows computers. These things are common sense, but it's nearly impossible to find influential people with the moral integrity to admit the truth: the numbers just don't add up.

I am not in the business of giving financial advice or stock tips, but I will say one thing: don't put all of your eggs in one basket. The people who are making the headlines are not going to tell you what they've done with the eggs. They won't even let you count the eggs.

If Microsoft did not have a monopoly, they would have done an Enron themselves by now. They seem to have escaped punishment for their crimes. If the DOJ-States settlement was so good for the consumer, where are the price reductions in Microsoft products? Where are the preloads of alternative operating systems in the retail stores? It's been several months since the settlement was made. Tell the truth -- where is the benefit to the consumer?

I'll tell you where the ROI is. My parents have used the same OS/2 PC for five years this month. They have never experienced one crash, not one freeze-up, not one glitch. They use it almost daily. In other words, my parents' home PC is more reliable than a multi-million-dollar Windows-based computer network in a major corporate IT department. Put that on your balance sheet and smoke it, Mr. Slick Accountant.

Tom Nadeau

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