Memphis Backyard Farmer


Of Microsoft and Monsanto
March 11, 2011, 7:15 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

I’m a geek by trade. I went to school to be a programmer, but have spent the vast majority of my professional life connecting computers and users through various types of networks. I couldn’t possibly describe myself as an “old timer” (I did come along after punch-cards, thank you very much), but I’ve been around a while. Long enough to see the rise and fall of Microsoft.

In the mid-90’s, Microsoft ruled the PC landscape. IBM made good, over priced personal computers and “big iron”, Compaq was emerging as the leader in PC sales and Dell was fast becoming a formidable rival, rising up out of Michael Dell’s dorm room to lead the way in Internet retail. Microsoft’s Windows operating system ran on them all. And Apples were for pies.

Microsoft reached a place of dominance that allowed it to dictate what kind of software people could run, what kind of hardware should be built, and what software engineers should be developing. Microsoft became famous for bullying hardware manufacturers into dropping competitive software products from new PCs. Because of their deep pockets, they also had a reputation of dumping software on the open market for free in order to drive competitors out of business. It seemed Microsoft had won. No serious competitors were left standing. In many tech circles, Microsoft was the Evil Empire.

Then came the Internet and Open Source Software (OSS) like Linux. A new paradigm for consuming information appeared and it’s popularity took the deeply entrenched Microsoft off guard. It seemed at each step Microsoft failed to anticipate what users (or the market) were looking for and cracks began to appear in the foundation of the Mighty Microsoft.

Enter “The Halloween Documents“, a series of internal memos that admitted – internally – the threat to Microsoft’s monopoly and possible strategies to combat these new technologies. These strategies included what has been described as the “embrace, extend, and extinguish” strategy, along with a campaign of misinformation to create fear in the eyes of consumers and discredit OSS.

As the cracks deepened, out of nowhere came Apple computer. The hobby computer, the niche darling of the arts community, suddenly became popular. Apple’s attention to design, functionality, and quality began to grab the notice of the general public and “hip” became mainstream. People who normally wouldn’t have thought twice about Macs began snatching up Macbooks, iMacs, and iPods. They went from being a $7 billion company in 2001 to a $311 billion company today. At the same time, Microsoft’s value plummeted. Without a concentrated effort, without a strategy or campaign, and with a lot of fun, Apple took over the computing world.

Microsoft, however, seems to have seen the light. Over the past few years, Microsoft has become a contributor to the open source community, releasing some promising projects of their own. Windows 7, their newest operating system, is a solid OS. They have one of the most open blogging cultures of any major company. Many developers and product managers have great blogs detailing the ins and outs of products at Microsoft. Many were wondering how the Empire would handle hacks to its recent Xbox Kinect release. When word of Kinect hacks hit the airwaves immediately following its release, Microsoft’s initial reaction was exactly what you’d expect: “Microsoft will continue to make advances in these types of safeguards and work closely with law enforcement and product safety groups to keep Kinect tamper-resistant.” But then they released a software development kit (SDK) to allow users to “tamper” with the device. Old habits die hard, but they do die.

But what does all this have to do with the new evil empire, Monsanto?

Instead of ruling the computer-technology sector, Monsanto rules the food-technology sector, with arguably a tighter fist than Microsoft ever dreamed of. When faced with criticism they have employed the same FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) that Microsoft was famous for: bankrupting farmers through lawsuits, strong-arming national governments, and scaring the world into adopting GMOs to feed the 9 billion people expected by 2050. (Never mind studies that show that natural farming methods can more than handle the burden).

As evil as Monsanto (and other GMO food manufacturers) may be, Microsoft’s recent history shows the power the consumer has to bring down a giant. Organic farming is the Apple of the food industry. We thought we had it good, with all that cheap food, not knowing what we were missing. But now that people have experienced a better alternative, the buzz will grow, and indeed, is growing. But we must continue the pressure. As we’ve seen lately with the approval of GMO beets and alfalfa, government regulation is not the answer. As consumers we must put our food dollars elsewhere. Buy local. Buy organic. Eat seasonal food. Grow your own. Invite your neighbors over for dinner and serve them real food. Let them know what they’re missing. Have fun.

Like Microsoft, once their customers turn up missing, GMO seed companies will make the change or die.

Right now, either of those seems pretty good to me.

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