Mad Dog 21/21: Shoes for Cheeses
January 12, 2009 Hesh Wiener
In 1967, a turbulent America gave birth to the Youth International Party and its pie assassin, Aron Kay. The following year, Yippies led the havoc at Chicago’s Democratic National Convention. They set a high (or low) watermark for protests of American policy that lasted 40 years. But in 2008, in Baghdad, a reporter named Muntazer al-Zaidi became the World’s Most Notorious Hurler of Insults when he lobbed a pair of shoes at President George W. Bush: soles of a new regime. How impolite! Still, the IT establishment might actually gain from some clever irreverence.
Aron Kay’s pie throwing was generally done with a smile. Its message was that his big cheese targets, which included Gordon Liddy, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and William F. Buckley, Jr., deserved to have some of the wind taken from their sails. The December 14 Bush shoe toss had a similar purpose, but its ingredients seemed to include a dollop of anger. The President’s Iraqi hosts were publicly indignant if privately amused, and they had al-Zaidi treated roughly by police and then jailed, where he still languished a month after the incident, presuming he is still alive.
But it’s an ill wind that blows no good, and in this case there was one unexpected beneficiary of the event: Baydan Shoes, of Istanbul, which claims to have made the size 10 model 271s used in the attack; the company says has received a lot of orders for the brogues. The company added that it was planning to hire an extra hundred workers so it could fill the orders while there was still so much interest in the product. As Ed Sullivan might say, “It’s a really big shoe. . . .”
If the information technology business has its Yippies, its cheerful dissidents, a good a place as any to look for digital pie throwers and footwear flingers, metaphorically speaking, might be the organizations started and still inspirationally guided by Richard Stallman and his GNU and Free Software Foundation. Stallman’s concepts like copyleft and the various open source software licenses formed the foundation for what has become what some see as the dominant philosophy behind software creation. Another heir to the Yippie inspiration is Linux Torvalds, who created and maintains the Linux kernel in the GNU/Linux operating system, which human beings just call Linux. The efforts of Stallman and Torvalds and the crowd of software developers that surround them have made Linux the world’s most popular software environment for Web infrastructure and supercomputing, and for many other purposes, too. Linux remains an inspiration for and rival of the BSD Unixes, rival open source operating systems that have big followings as well, but are not behind billions of dollars in IT sales.
IBM likes to say its mainframe systems manage the world’s data, and there’s some truth in that, but, Linux and FreeBSD and their derivatives (such as the modified Linux OS used by Google or the mix of Linux and FreeBSD platforms used by Yahoo) manage quite a bit of information. Microsoft Live, which includes another giant data collection, uses a lot of Windows servers but its search technology seems to be based on FreeBSD machines.
When it’s all accounted for, and when the migration of IBM mainframe uses to a mix of z/OS and z/Linux is figured in, it starts to look like Big Blue might be talking about the past, not necessarily the present and almost certainly not the future. The mainframe as the king of the database universe is probably history even if big iron is still the world’s powerhouse for bookkeeping. While the people who developed GNU/Linux and FreeBSD didn’t set out to toss a pie in IBM’s corporate face, they managed to do so anyway. What holds true for the mainframe holds equally true to the Power Systems i, but at much smaller companies and with much smaller systems that are, for their companies, the equivalent of a mainframe.
Another key anti-establishment and progressive force in computing is a corporation rather an individual or small team. It’s Sun Microsystems, and while most IT folk think of the company as a supplier of servers, storage, and software, it is also the source of two products that are changing the world: OpenOffice and MySQL. (Two products, but the way, that Sun bought but did not create.) These two items, when viewed as part of the computer industry’s political development instead of solely technological entities, are more like shoes than pies. OpenOffice has become an increasingly well-accepted alternative to Microsoft Office. So while Bill Gates might have been hit by a pie, his company’s lucrative productivity suite stands to get the boot from code that Sun sponsors. Similarly, MySQL competes with Microsoft’s SQL Server more than it does with IBM’s DB2 or Oracle‘s eponymous database, making for a two-shoe situation.
All the biggest companies in IT are getting socked by cloud computing, and in that regard Google, Yahoo! and Amazon are probably the three most powerful outfits whose offerings may embarrass the suppliers of in-house servers and applications software systems. Right now there is little danger online software will displace SAP on Unix, Linux, or Windows as the mainstay of major league corporate applications software, but it would be silly to ignore the potential, to say nothing of the ambitions, of the cloud companies.
Microsoft is already hedging its bets, and IBM is talking about software as a service even as it sells its traditional mix of systems, software, and services. Hewlett-Packard, which might even be a bit larger than IBM, depending on how this year plays out, is a whole lap behind. It is still trying to integrate EDS and it has no presence in the big league world of Internet companies. It might not be able to afford the acquisition of a giant Web enterprise like eBay, but it has to be thinking about that kind of venture. HP, like every other company inside or outside the IT universe, has absolutely no idea what lies around the next bend.
For a while, HP looked like it was going to toss a pie at IBM by helping Platform Solutions get into the IBM-compatible mainframe business, but as IBM cranked up its legal attack on PSI HP got cold feet. Microsoft hung in a bit longer, but when IBM settled its battle with PSI by buying the little company and paying off its investors Microsoft’s equity in PSI was tendered as part of the deal. That leaves only one viable IBM-compatible system, the Hercules mainframe emulator. Big Blue won’t license its proprietary software for use on a Herc box. Roger Bowler, who developed Hercules, is hardly a pie-thrower but he doesn’t have to be. Hercules users using IBM software without a legal license, are an underground in computing that is unlikely to go away and it’s also unlikely that IBM would try to chase down Hercules miscreants, probably because some of them are IBM’s own employees. On the AS/400 front, HP has partnered with Infinite Software to peddle its Infinite iSeries emulation environment on its Unix iron.
But if you think only the old line players like IBM are big targets for the metaphorical pie throwers, think again. Apple is a young company, a great innovator, and a firm that has reinvented itself time and again. Its iPhone has tremendous visibility and it has made Apple one of the largest mobile phone vendors in the world, an amazing achievement considering the company has basically only one product compared to the dozens from competitors like Nokia. But Apple’s relatively recent arrival and stunning prominence is tied to a business that has two features of interest to a corporate pie thrower, in this case Google.
Apple has thus far maintained control over its phone platform and, working with licensed carriers like AT&T in the United States, it has considerable ability to shape the content that shows up on its phones. In addition, the iPhone has attracted a cadre of applications developers, who can sell through an Apple shop and get a cut of the revenue their software brings in. Google has flung its Android phone platform at Apple and by doing so it apparently believes it can do better in the mobile phone advertising business. There isn’t much of a mobile phone advertising business right now, but Google clearly believes there will be one and that Apple rather than Microsoft, Palm, or Blackberry is the competitor to hit with that first big pie. It’s not yet clear whether Google will continue to go it alone. It may well be in talks with other companies in mobile telephony, seeking a way to grow faster than it could on its own. Whatever Google is up to, Apple is not asleep. It just changed its rules to allow songs downloaded to its iPhone or iPod to be copied, a move that looks like a pre-emptive pie toss at Google, Microsoft, and the Korean phone makers that are trying to chase the mobile phone buyers that are drawn to the impressive iPhone product.
For pie assassins and even more so for shoe throwers, speed is everything. The most astonishing aspect of the Baghdad event was not that a reporter at a press conference got to fling a show at the President, but that he got to fling two before the cops wrestled him to the floor. The shoe manufacturer Baydan was nearly as quick, getting its web updated almost immediately to promote a product it had renamed the Bye Bye Bush shoe.
A million years ago, well, a million computer years ago, during the 1980s, some of IBM’s glass house customers used to get great deals from IBM by making sure they had an Amdahl coffee mug around when the IBM sales rep came to visit. That sort of mischief was in line with the pie tossing frivolity of the iconoclastic and subversive political protestors who were their contemporaries.
And don’t for a minute think that IBM isn’t capable of more or less the same thing. We’re confident the company is already studying ways to play a big role in any IT initiatives the next U.S. government will cook up. The trick, for IBM, will be to find a way to get some big contracts and still do the work done offshore where its labor is cheaper (but nowhere near as cheap as the people IBM’s Asian employees hire for their own personal care and comfort), if it can find a way to do that sort of thing without tripping over its own shoelaces.
Well, maybe we should all get into that Yippie spirit, if we can update it to better reflect the contemporary point of view. How about this? Stop the war (unless it will get us out of this depression)! Okay. Maybe not.