If you ever read any prehistory or archaeology text books you will have been struck by the disrespectful treatment routinely meted out to indigenous peoples. Any evidence of progress unearthed in explorations of their sites - cunningly fashioned flint, finely tooled bronze work - is invariably attributed to outsiders. Indigenous tribes seem to be regarded as incorrigible dimwits, incapable of bettering themselves. Somewhere beyond their limited horizons, restless innovators are preparing to sweep their pitiful efforts away. It makes you wonder what archaeologists of the future will make of our own efforts. If the type site of late-twentieth century UK culture includes business premises of any size, they will almost certainly assume that we were overwhelmed by successive waves of Americans in 1990+/- 10. To an extent they will be right. A PC produced by a UK company last held the lion's share of the market in 1983, when for a time the ACT Sirius held its own against IBM's PC. If software survives long enough to show up in the archaeological record the story will be much the same. Let's discount for the moment the possibility that we are incorrigible dimwits. Let's consider instead the realities of the market. The local market was simply too small to support companies large enough to compete internationally. Attempts to set up a pan-European computer manufacturer had failed in the 70s, and there was no single European market to address in any case. So we were colonised and introduced to progress under the Pax Americana. Does it matter? PC technology has advanced, price competition has been keen and approaches to wringing business advantage out of IT have been able to develop on the basis of a (broadly speaking) standard product. Standardisation has been the key. First it was the IBM PC standard - and specifically the ROM Bios - and subsequently we have had the Microsoft standard. Systems engineers know, more or less, where they stand in an environment of such orthodoxy. It makes the fitting together of the bits and pieces so much easier. To that extent, Microsoft's domination of the systems software market has been a valuable feature of the past 10 years. Unfortunately it also dominates other market sectors, and that is what makes people begin to feel uneasy. And all the time, in the background, the suspicion lurks that another standard may have been better. Such speculation is pointless except that it points to a weakness in the US Department of Justice case against Microsoft. The logic of its argument suggests that major suppliers should be prevented from imposing de facto standards through the commercial success of their products. If it succeeds, where will the standards to put in their place come from? International standards committees? Competitors, whose primary goal is to achieve de facto standard status for their products? If you have an ideological commitment to market forces you can have few grounds for complaint when the market produces a result that displeases you. And people have bought Microsoft products, often in the absence of any compulsion to do so. Where, as in the majority of cases, the Microsoft software came with the system, they have usually rejected the option of buying an alternative. This returns us to the incorrigible dimwits theme. Not only have we bought Microsoft products, we have also bought, or developed for ourselves, all manner of software that, at the turn of the millennium, could catapult us back to the dark ages, if some of the predictions are accurate.
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