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Microsoft once tragedy, twice farce

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Comment It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the mainstream press was barely acquainted with the genius and foresight of today's technology leaders.

Fifteen years ago Bill Gates appeared on the BBC's Wogan show - which the Beeb thought of as a nightly Johnny Carson, but which was really like watching Regis Philbin on cough syrup - to show off his WinPad PC. The wooden Gates made a joke about making his money disappear, with only a couple of clicks, using only a stylus. As Gates blinked, a nation which had never heard of Microsoft, and couldn't quite figure out why the guy in glasses wasn't singing or dancing, looked on in sympathetic embarrassment.

But Gates's prime time TV appearance underscored one point, popular in the public prints at the time, which was that a nerdish, upstart technology was changing the very foundations of the world as we know it. Microsoft was simply smarter, more agile, more cunning, and far more darkly mysterious than the fusty incumbents, like IBM, could ever realize. To stand in the way of Microsoft was to stand in the way of youth, innovation and progress itself.

Now, it may puzzle you as much as it puzzles us that this idea ever gained popular currency - let's save that discussion for another day. But it can't have escaped your notice that this mythical struggle has been reprised by the inkies several times - in the mid-1990s with Netscape - and today with the phoney war between Microsoft and Google.

If you're of the view that history repeats itself the second time round as farce, then the parallels are even more uncomfortable.

Today, Microsoft is a software monopoly that equally, is barely acquainted with its own methods of production. The last Microsoft engineer who worked on the original incarnations of Windows left an engineering capacity at the company a long, long time ago and, as a consequence, a company that once could turn on a sixpence and drop off an OS refresh that seriously screwed a competitor now takes seven years to eke out an update. Insulated by the comfortable monopoly position it enjoys, Microsoft today isn't even in control of Microsoft. But then again, why does it have to worry?

Now fast forward to 2006, where Google, if we're to believe the popular prints, is simply smarter, more agile, more cunning, and far more darkly mysterious than its incumbents can fathom.

Or, er, is it?

When Google unleashed PageRank™ on the world, it really created a monster.

Google was so proud of its algorithm that it liked to boast that it mirrored the "inherent democracy" of the internet, a phrase which coyly and insidiously, flatters us all. PageRank™ was a truer representation of life than we ever realized, Google said, if only we cared to look.

The trouble is, PageRank only worked within a small dataset of peer reviewed academic journals. To extrapolate this into a way of life, as Google's dreamy maths-obsessed boy wonders tried to do, was an essentially utopian gesture, which supposed that no one would try and game the system to their own nefarious ends. Only the inevitable happened, and as Google got more popular, and as the value of appearing in those top spots increased, Google gradually lost control of the algorithm which was once its muse. At the time, we remember, we gained very few plaudits for documenting this weary process - as Google was gradually gamed by desperate trinket salesmen, who built link farms to tout their wares - and by technology evangelists, who mistook overnight popularity for a validation of a lifetimes's achievement. All were to fall to earth eventually, as technology offers no short cuts or backdoors when the calculations are finally made.

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