January 1, 2002

Business Community

Dave Winer contributes a thoughtful, intriguing essay on strategies for rebuilding a software industry blighted by predatory monopolies, insane patents, and exploitation. Winer argues that software innovators sometimes need competition -- that giving away technology or sharing standards can help build software ecologies where customers use your software and your competitor's software.

I've been reading oral histories of Chinese entrepreneurs in Singapore -- immigrants who started as stevedores, saved to buy a coffee stand, and wound up running a global manufacturing enterprise. Many of these ventures were funded by their bosses, who provided capital for key employees to leave and start new businesses, sometimes direct competitors. The end result was a complex pattern of trust and mutual reliance that made it possible for the business community to support itself in bad times and to move quickly in good times.

The university where I'm working this month began, in part, at a mahjong club one night when one of these immigrants opined that it would be a Good Idea if there were a Chinese university and not merely an English one. "Everyone contributed, some more, some less."

Another lesson from these entrepreneurs: good business relations are built on knowledge, skill, competence, and hard work. This isn't just for managers, or even for employees, but also applies to a firm's vendors and its customers. A good business requires good customers; a business that serves lazy, ignorant customers won't thrive. In software, we made a blunder in spreading the canard that everything should (or can) be easy, friendly, idiot-proof. Software should be as simple as possible -- and no simpler. It's time we expected people to learn how to use their computers.