Degrees of Freedom
By John Martellaro
Published April 12, 1998
I am going to explain why the wholesale movement to a single standard, Microsoft, in the business community will be a colossal disaster. It's not hard to understand once you think it out.
First, I need to very briefly explain a technical term. Stay with me; it will be brief.
The term "degrees of freedom", the theme of this essay, is a technical term that refers to a system's unique ways to move. For example, a six degree of freedom flight simulator allows motion in x, y, z coordinates and in pitch, roll, and yaw coordinates. Another way to think of a system's degrees of freedom is that it is roughly proportional to its ability to cope with stress. For example, a ferris wheel has only three degrees of freedom: x,z and pitch. Supply a force too strongly in the lateral (y) or roll direction, and the ferris wheel will first try to cope by translating that force into one its degrees of freedom - if it can find a coupling mechanism. If it cannot, then... it's a very bad ride.
Complex systems can have many constraints and few or many degrees of freedom. A good example of this is John Conway's computer simulation called "Life". Cells are placed on a grid in some initial pattern and some very simple rules determine how each cell will spawn a new cell in the next generation. By animating each successive generation, one can see the patterns grow and change. Wonderful patterns (gliders, puffers) can emerge. Change the constraints just a little by restricting the organism's resources, and you will see an entire generation die on the computer screen.
The same effect holds true in the business place. Corporations that cannot change to meet new challenges, for whatever reason, fade into history. For example, how many companies can you name that made typewriters managed the transition to word processing? (The answer is at the end of this essay.) The response to competition and other challenges is a complex issue in the business world because so many factors determine a company's ability to meet a challenge: Philosophy of the owners, financial strength, corporate culture, caliber of the employees, geographical positioning, and others. (Some of this is discussed in an excellent book by Peter M. Senge: The Fifth Discipline. )
For example, Apple Computer had a strong corporate allergic reaction to Unix for many years, A/UX notwithstanding. Most other computer companies have been more pragmatic, selling Unix products that satisfy their customers needs and not letting attitude get in the way of doing business. In the case of the companies that made typewriters, they thought they were in the business of making typing machines, not computing machines. IBM properly recognized that they were in the document preparation business, no matter what kind of machine was utilized. A single mind-searing inspiration like that can lead a company to salvation and prosperity, and a dull-witted compulsion can sabotage and paralyze an entire company. The interesting thing to notice is that these constraints were self-imposed and not due to pressure from the competition. (Recall the "engagement constraints" self-imposed by Washington during the Viet Nam war.)
When a philosophical orientation (or compulsion) by just a few key decision makers in a company ends up translating into corporate policy, degrees of freedom are removed. Perhaps the decision makers have a feeling that going along a certain path will save the company money and make its employees more productive. This is essentially a gamble because the system is so complex, and there is no way to accurately predict the outcome of such a decision. In fact, the only known way to assess the affect of such decisions is to examine history for similar situations.
There was a time when IBM ruled the mainframe market and computers were enormously expensive. When you thought about buying an IBM computer for the company, you were thinking about millions of dollars. Then along came Digital Equipment Corporation in the late 1970s and developed a series of relatively inexpensive computers, the PDP-X series of minicomputers. For the first time, departments instead of whole institutions, could think about having their own computer. Scientists who needed ready access and control of their computers jumped on the bandwagon and starting buying the PDP series of computers - which could be had for hundreds of thousands, not millions of dollars.
When DEC came out with the VAX series and the VMS operating system, they suddenly became the darling of the scientific and technical community. DEC made billions of dollars selling these small (refrigerator size) and friendly mini-computers, and their sole mission in life became to put the enemy, IBM, out of business. They almost did it. But what did them in was their popularity. Once DEC seized control of the minicomputer market, vanquishing Prime and Data General, users became frustrated with DECs business practices. Third party disk drives just didn't seem to work right all the time, even though they were half the price of DEC components. DEC wanted it all and made sure that competitors were always, somehow, disadvantaged. The popularity of VAXes led DEC to believe that they could control the entire industry. Hence, you had to use DECs communications. You had to use their disk drives. And you had to use their OS. It became a significant annoyance.
Somewhere around 1991, three things happened simultaneously. Cold War research budgets dried up, PCs became powerful enough to supplant the mini-computer, and IT managers were sick and tired of being dictated to by DEC. The cry of "Open Systems" spread throughout the land. The rise of TCP/IP, the original Arpanet, and open and flexible Unix boxes started to gain enormous popularity. The Unix community essentially said, "Here are your options. Mix and match to suit yourself. And it's free." By 1993 DEC was on the ropes, losing billions of dollars per year. Yet, within the company, there were thousands of employees and managers who believed in VMS with a religious fervor and would not let the company move to Unix - a lethal constraint. (DEC did eventually move to Unix, but it was too late.) Sun, IBM, and Hewlett Packard (who bought out Apollo to get into the game) beat DEC to the punch. And so, after years of lingering glory with the Alpha chip, Digital Equipment Corporation is fading into history.
Right now, in 1998, large corporations and universities are backing themselves into a similar corner by electing to embrace a single standard, the PC and Windows systems. The euphoria with which they do this bears a remarkable resemblance to the historical embrace of DEC. Since we cannot predict the future when blind to the past, we can look at our experience with DEC to evaluate this decision. Given this hindsight, we can, in fact, make some predictions.
# Competing software products just don't seem to work right with the Microsoft OSes.
# Once the market is controlled and dominated, prices and license fees will rise.
# Creativity and imagination in MS products, which were almost non-existent before, go to zero.
# IT managers will become tired of being dictated to by Microsoft.
# When Microsoft was in healthy competition, advances in the products were seen as natural industry progress. Once MS is the sole supplier, ever increasing complexity and price will be looked upon with much more skepticism. Corporate America will slow down and standardize. (How many more versions of MS Office will it take for the code and feature set to stabilize?) Many will suggest: "Perfect is the enemy of good enough."
# Degrees of freedom will be eliminated. Superior products, which might supply a company with a competitive edge, will be outlawed because they don't fit in with the "Corporate Standard." Breakthroughs will be overlooked, and face saving will be popular.
# Computers will become boring. Network computers, where used, will turn users into lusers (low-end-users.) Those who manage to keep their configurable PCs will have their software suites dictated by the IT staff. In many cases, administrative privileges will be reserved only for the IT staff. (Many large companies are doing this.) Using a technically bland and unimaginative version of MS Office 97 around the turn of the Century will be about as exciting as buying a Coke from a vending machine. Quite possibly, the only computer magazine still on the newsstands will be called "MS Systems Management", published by, of course, Microsoft Press.
A company is essentially an organism. It needs resources to operate and needs flexibility to fight off attackers, that is, the competition. When a company restricts its degrees of freedom, it takes away options for dealing with competitors. Moreover, the process of taking away those degrees of freedom, for philosophical or unproven financial reasons, tends to demoralize the employees. Demoralized and frustrated employees don't really put their hearts into their jobs. So loss of flexibility means loss of morale. Remember, it takes lots of different kinds of people to run a company: men and women, extroverts and introverts, rule makers and rule breakers, tool users and tool makers, people who come to closure and people who keep their options open, people who put the company first and people who put their family first. The strength of a company lies in the ability of those diverse employees to enthusiastically dream, experiment, create, make mistakes, and learn new technologies. In fact, modern, high technology companies need to be learning organizations, a major point in Peter Senge's book. So, if an employee needs a Macintosh or Linux computer or BeOS system or Sun Ultra because it has a tool that leverages his or her powers or helps in learning something new, then that company is sounder and stronger for it. Companies that set PC "standards" for the sake of convenience to their IT staff and blind devotion to the MS propaganda machine will drive away their brightest and most creative people, demoralize the rest, and eventually pay a price in business warfare.
About the year 2001, companies that settled on an exclusive Wintel standard will find themselves at an extreme competitive disadvantage compared to companies that embrace multiple systems. These more flexible companies will be like the mammals in the age of the dinosaur: fast, agile, adaptable. Companies that supply their staff with the best possible tools, recognizing the diversity of their people and skills, and driven by young and energetic second generation computer professionals will start to out maneuver the companies that are mode-locked into mediocrity with Microsoft. Faced with this new competition, many companies will break away and embrace newer computing technologies, just as they broke away from DEC. Some of the largest and inflexible companies, however, will be unable to admit their mistakes, unable to change, and unable to extricate themselves from the Microsoft commitment. Like the typewriter companies or the starving cells in the Conway game of Life, options restricted, they will struggle to avoid extinction.
And what will these dying companies point to as the cause of their misfortune? Watch and learn.
Your comments are welcomed at: email@example.com
* Remington Rand, Smith Corona, Royal, and Underwood are all out of business. History. Only IBM survived.
Copyright 1998 - Medullas
Publishing Company & John Martellaro
All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
Mirrored with permission at the Lockheed Martin Macintosh Guild Web Site.