Taking Cues From Bill Gates…All The Way To The Bank

Complaining about the deficiencies of the computer industry has become a national pastime in America. Because JOE Microsoft uses one [...]

December 1 1995 by Joe Queenan

Complaining about the deficiencies of the computer industry has become a national pastime in America. Because JOE Microsoft uses one operating standard and Apple uses another, it is difficult for machines made by different manufacturers to interface with one another. Software products such as Windows 95 take up so much space on a hard drive that users must either add more memory to their computers or junk them. And computer users are always complaining that new products are too difficult to install, and that when they call the manufacturer for assistance, the help lines are busy.

Ignored in all this mumbling and grumbling is one overarching truth: The computer industry, and Bill Gates in particular, have become fabulously successful despite the shortcomings of their products. Despite the absence of an operating system standard; despite the havoc wreaked by the Pentium chip; and despite the synergistic insanity of programmable keyboards, software upgrades that won’t run on earlier model computers, and DOS programs that quickly derail PCs if they are run inside a Windows environment, the computer industry continues to flourish.

The obvious conclusion I draw from this is that the computer-using public secretly enjoys all these annoyances. With this in mind, I would strongly encourage every other business in America to emulate the success of the computer industry by making its products unbelievably difficult to install, expensive to repair, and obsolete within 18 months of their introduction. Here are a few specific suggestions.

  • Television sets. If you bought a 286 personal computer in 1991 and now try to run a program designed for a 486 or a Pentium, your computer will freeze. Yet it’s possible to play a tape of “The Lion King” on a 10year-old VCR and watch the movie on a 15-year-old television set. What a waste! Henceforth, the industry should design self-obsolescing TV sets that will only run videotapes for around 18 months. This will force consumers to upgrade their TVs every two years or risk the derision of their neighbors: “What! You’re still watching ‘True Lies’ on an HD/386? You Luddite.”
  • Cars. If the automotive industry functioned like the computer industry, you couldn’t put the same set of radials on a Ford and a Chevy; a Lexus would require a different kind of gasoline than a Mercedes- Benz; and a Lincoln would have to run on a different highway than a Chrysler. Sure, it would be annoying for all 50 states to have to build a whole new set of highways for different operating standards chosen by various car manufacturers, but, hey-it worked for the computer industry.
  • Media. Now every book publisher and magazine company in the country uses the same standard for communication: the English language. How primitive. What the publishing industry needs is to adopt a plethora of incompatible operating systems, so it can sell a UNIX version of “War and Peace”; a Windows version of “War and Peace”; an Apple version of “War and Peace”; and, my personal favorite “War and Peace”: The OS/2 Environment.
  • Frankfurters. For more than a century, the hot dog industry has remained resolutely impervious to change. That’s because all hot dogs come in one basic size. Now, if hot dog manufacturers were as smart as Bill Gates, they would design different-sized hot dogs for different-sized mouths, and constantly render the existing brand of hot dog obsolete by introducing a new size of frankfurter roll that is too small, too large, or too unwieldy to accommodate the previous generation of hot dog. The industry also could set up help lines to assist consumers in figuring out how to get the hot dogs in their mouths, and make sure that the lines were manned by insolent geeks who kept the public waiting for at least two hours before picking up the phone.
  • Haberdashery. The clothing industry should introduce Belt Loops Upgrades in men’s trousers so that previous belts won’t interface with them. Men will willingly agree to upgrade their suits every 12 to 18 months since the alternative is their pants hanging down around their ankles. Other ideas: socks that will interface only with certain types of shoes, ties that will interface only with the right shirt collar, and handkerchiefs that will accommodate only certain types of noses. Tissue manufacturers can do the same.

“Don’t be caught with a Kleenex Version 5.1 on a Kleenex Version 6.0-type day,” an ad could proclaim. Sure, John Q. Public probably will bellyache a little, but it worked for the computer industry. And if it worked for the computer industry, it must be right.

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.