Telefonica is Spain’s telephone company. Formerly a state-owned monopoly, Telefonica is now a free market monopoly, and controls every Spaniard’s access to the Internet with its infamous Infovia and Infovia Plus services. Infovia, Spain’s first attempt at a national Internet exchange, was slow but often reliable. That is, you could normally log on through an ISP to Infovia without authentication errors and, generally, access to the rest of the world appeared to function normally.
Over the past few months, however, Infovia was replaced by Infovia Plus, and Infovia Plus is a nightmare. Authentication errors are rampant and even when users are authenticated, Infovia Plus sometimes does not provide access to websites outside of Spain. Mail servers also seem unpredictable. The local providers (ISPs), who are forced to link through Infovia Plus, are taking the brunt of the consumer dissatisfaction, but it’s the monopoly that’s the killer. There simply are no other choices.
To further exacerbate the situation, Telefonica recently raised the price of local telephone calls, and so every time a user calls and is not authenticated, he is charged for a local call at the increased rate. Yes, Telefonica is an in-your-face, screw-the-consumer, squeeze-them-till-they’re-dry monopoly. Most people who use the service recognize the symptoms—incompetence flavored with irrepressible arrogance.
Abort, Retry, Fail
Microsoft has been accused of exhibiting similar traits in the world of operating systems and applications software. The present court case has already shed considerable light on these issues as has the frustration experienced by literally millions of users trying to deal with Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows 95, Windows 3.1, and MS-DOS along with the slew of accompanying indecipherable error messages.
One of the pivotal issues in the court case appears to be the relevance of Microsoft’s browser (Internet Explorer) to the operating system. The government claims Microsoft incorporates the browser simply as a means to bash the opposition, while the company claims it serves as an integral part of the operating system.
I’ve been working with Windows NT for some years now, and my personal observation is that Internet Explorer has no obvious relationship to the operating system. Microsoft’s attempt to wed the two is clumsy, intrusive, irritating, and unnecessary. The new version of Explorer can compete quite well with Netscape on a level playing field and twisting it around the OS was a bad decision. I suspect our Redmond friends originally thought Netscape would disappear once Explorer was provided free of charge and when that didn’t happen, the OS/Explorer cuckold was conceived.
I’m more concerned about Microsoft’s steady stream of OS releases that appear to be in beta or late beta form. The millions of users who are practically forced to upgrade are used as virtual beta testers, while the company issues fix after fix. Meanwhile, we all lose in terms of productivity, frustration, and innovation.
General Protection Fault
To gain an insight into how a monopoly works, one just has to look at Microsoft applications software. From my perspective, Microsoft Word is the most important piece of applications software ever developed on a personal computer. It’s laden with powerful features, solid as a rock, and has a useable and sometimes Mac-like interface. Microsoft continues to develop Word because there are other competitive word processors on the market and because word processing is the key to selling an office suite.
Excel, on the other hand, appears to be a victim of its own success, as does PowerPoint. Microsoft redefined what we meant by spreadsheets when the company combined Microsoft Chart with Multiplan to form Excel. Excel continued to evolve as long as the spreadsheet market remained competitive. As the Office suite became dominant, however, Excel development slowed considerably. Similarly, when Aldus Persuasion and Symantec’s More were prematurely terminated, PowerPoint development appeared to stop.
The ideal scenario is that competition demands the attention of the successful company. A more cynical view is that destroying competition allows a monopoly to turn its attention elsewhere.
A Passion for Processing
My frustration with Telefonica here in Spain (‘A Passion for Living’) has served a purpose. I’ve gained some insight into how the function of personal computers has dramatically changed over the years. Just a few years ago, my major goal in working with a computer was to express myself in words or graphics. Now, my first inclination is to connect to the net and check my mail or browse my favorite websites. Though the net is almost by definition interactive, it’s easy to become a passive surfer, picking up information gems; it’s another matter to organize or process them.
Apple’s iMac marketing campaign has emphasized the compactness, ease of use, communications capability, colorful cases, and affordability of these incredible machines. It might also be worthwhile to show AppleWorks (formerly ClarisWorks) as the ultimate information processing application. With integrated word processing, draw, paint, and spreadsheet modules, AppleWorks provides the power to process information from the net. Apple should remind everyone that this dynamite application comes free with every iMac!
I recently had two personal encounters that lead me to believe that Apple made a serious marketing error in not offering an Apple external floppy drive as an iMac option. First, an educational professional noted he read an article in the paper that indicated the iMac was easy to use but was flawed because it lacked an external floppy drive. I explained that technically, the usefulness of a built-in floppy drive was questionable since most software is now delivered on CD and most users have access to network or Internet storage facilities. He listened attentively, but I’m sure that in his mind, the iMac was somehow tarnished.
I also was engaged in a conversation with a couple of computer professionals. These people knew better, but laughingly seized on the lack of a floppy drive as a means to dismiss the iMac from serious consideration. Though again I mentioned iMation’s external drive, the argument had already been lost.
Though Apple has been the major innovator over the years, the company needs to recognize that the iMac market is different than the computer enthusiast or business markets. Many iMac purchasers or potential purchasers are simply not interested enough in details to research the specifications of a machine and are therefore greatly influenced by ‘soundbites’ in the press about the good points or bad points of a computer.
As soon as an issue grabs their attention, it is difficult to dislodge their first impression. Thus, the failure to offer an Apple floppy drive (no matter how justified by the evolution of technology) provides Apple’s detractors with the leverage to dissuade large numbers of Apple’s potential customers.
One solution is to contract with iMation to produce an ‘Apple’ external drive bearing the Apple logo and appearing on Apple specification sheets as an Apple option. Apple could then proudly market the iMac and the new G3’s as computer systems that don’t require you to purchase the optional floppy drive. This could transform a marketing weakness into a marketing strength.
Ideally though, I’d like to see the internal CD drive replaced with an expansion bay that could handle a CD drive, a DVD drive, or a floppy. That would silence the critics for good!