Room at the top

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Nov-Dec 2010

There’s a new vacancy in the computer world. It’s a bit difficult to know quite when the post became free but there are already two candidates. The post in question? Most hated IT corporation.

There have been two distinguished incumbents for this coveted role in the past.

The first was IBM. Back in the 1960s and 70s IBM completely dominated the computer and software market in most parts of the world. Computer managers used to say “nobody ever got fired for choosing IBM”.  There were alternatives: Ken Olsen, the co-founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), famously opined in 1977 that there was “…no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home” but nevertheless DEC was among the first to challenge the idea that computers had to be big and expensive.

There were some good sides to IBM’s dominance. Before the IBM PC, released in 1981, the microcomputer market was horribly fragmented between incompatible machines and operating systems. By establishing a standard, IBM enabled the personal computer market to take off. But it also created its nemesis in the process. The IBM PC ran MS-DOS, an operating system designed by a small company called Microsoft. All IBM PC software had to be compatible with MS-DOS. By January 1993, Microsoft had overtaken IBM as the world’s biggest technology company.

Like IBM before it, Microsoft came to dominate. It used its power ruthlessly to crush newcomers like Netscape and became the company technical people loved to hate because of the way it seemed to stifle innovation.

For years the only apparent challenge came from Apple. Like DEC before it, Apple designed elegant computers and software that outperformed the dominant standard. Apple saw itself as the liberator, memorably with its 1984 ‘Big Brother’ TV ad (

In May of this year, riding high on sales of iPhones and the launch of the iPad, Apple overtook Microsoft as the biggest technical company on the stock market. Apple is no longer the plucky challenger. Its iron grip on the market for software to run on the iPhone and iPad looks just like the behaviour of IBM and Microsoft in the past.

But it may not be Apple that takes over from Microsoft as the company we love to hate. Google is ready to challenge them both. Google started as an outsider too but now dominates the search market so much in most parts of the world that no one can challenge it. Its collaboration until recently with Chinese censors made its celebrated ‘do no evil’ motto sound empty and cynical.

So, the jury’s out on who will take Microsoft’s crown, but empires come and go, and someone inevitably will.