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Location: Pasadena, California, United States
Interests: Deep thought, forcasting the end of the world, building urban rail.
Expertise: Explaining things, arguing.
Industry: Legal, Engineering
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|Also posted on the Batcave. Original version found there.|
In 1979, The Village People released a single called, ”Go West”. In 1992, English group The Pet Shop Boys did a cover version for an AIDS benefit concert in Manchester which later spawned a video.
There’s a lot going on here and I’m going to try and cover it all, so stick with me to the end and then email me your hatred.
Both The Village People (named after New York City’s Greenwich Village) and The Pet Shop Boys (named for the occupation of some friends of the band members) are composed of openly gay men. Many of their most popular songs are embraced by gays as the distinct product of homosexual culture. “Go West” was written as a reference to the migration of gays to San Francisco in the late seventies.
Ah, the seventies. For sex it was a “golden” time. For the first time in human history it was possible to live as free a sexual existence as one’s tastes permitted, free of social, legal and biological restraint. Women had legalized abortion and contraceptive pills. Pornography was easily available in any major city. While one could use a condom, sexually transmitted diseases could be treated with simple antibiotics. Recent developments in gay activism had opened the door to the gay pride movement. While public opinion of homosexuality was far from warm, gays clustered in specific neighborhoods, fostering a unique sub-culture. It was a “good” time for free sex.
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus has shady and unclear origins in the jungles of Africa. The first case of the Acquired ImmunoDeficiency Syndrome in the United States was a Haitian immigrant who unknowingly brought it into the country in 1959. But the virus had little opportunity to spread, as it can only jump from one person to another through human bodily fluids (such as blood or semen). In particular, one man, a gay Quebecois flight attendant named Gaëtan Dugas, went across North America for years, having sex with hundreds of men annually. Even after being told he was sick with “gay cancer” and could spread it to others, he was pathologically reckless, personally infecting an estimated 2,500 people before dying in 1984. Just how much he is personally responsible for the AIDS epidemic in the U.S. and Canada is open to debate. But what can be determined is this: Dugas made AIDS a gay disease. Without him, the virus would have remained predominantly in the homosexual population and spread at a much slower rate.
The result is that AIDS shaped gay culture more than any other single thing. In the eighties, gay men were dropping like flies. More so than the rejection by their families, more so than their flamboyance, AIDS made gays untouchable in a very literal sense. Before doctors narrowed down the specifics, it was a distrust of “otherness” made palpable by some mysterious illness. You can play politics all you like with what happened in the government and why the reaction took so long, but the truth is that HIV/AIDS is a nasty bugger (no pun intended). It attacks the immune system itself, the very mechanism of the body harnessed by a vaccine to create immunity. Only after nearly twenty years of medical research have there been any minor breakthroughs in treatment. Cures or vaccines are still in the distant future.
But on to the weird video.
The 1993 video made by the Pet Shop Boys was made when deaths from AIDS in the U.S. were at an all time high (they did not decline until 1996). Some pointed out how the men marching up the steps are those who died of AIDS. The lyrics were altered slightly, adding in the line about the air being free and taking a stand for the promised land. The video is chock full of soviet and communist iconography: red flags, red stars, strong workers marching in perfect step, the promise of a new utopian dawn marked by brotherhood and harmony. Yeah, the song was written gay, but with the choir chanting about being “together” and the visuals of communism’s new frontier being in “the west,” specifically America, I can’t help but say that this is no longer an exclusively gay song.
Like “YCMA,” “Go West” seems to have a life of it’s own. It’s an anthem of freedom existing in a non-specific place; a kind of “grass is always greener” thing going on. It can also be taken as a straight parody of Communist propaganda, the over the top promise of a brave new world of tomorrow, with voluntary and spontaneous unanimity, radically unrealistic projections of production and technological advance. And the dude waving the scepter around? Totally benevolent and absolute ruler over the people.
But I’m neither gay nor a communist. I in fact strongly oppose both.
And what the hell is a “homophobe”? “Fear of the same”? “Fear of homo(sexual)s”? I certainly have no fear of gays. (I’m not too keen on being butt-raped though.) But gays? I’ll take a pass. Yes, the Bible says to kill them, but that isn’t in the Ten Commandments. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of the rules in the Torah are civil regulations for the Ancient Nation of Israel formed when the Hebrews left Egypt and settled in Canaan. Rules telling the Israelites to kill gays, witches and adulterers only applied to the civil government that would exist. The enduring and eternal part of God’s Law, the part that Jesus talked about a lot, dealt with personal conduct, the Law set in the hearts of men by God to govern their every thought. So homosexuality is a sin? Big deal, so is every other form of sex other than a life-long, monogamous, heterosexual marriage between two people who love each other. And what’s the preoccupation with sex? The Bible is equally stern about mouthing off to your parents, lying, deceit, theft, greed, selfishness, jealousy, murder, idolatry, and breaking the holiness of the Sabbath.
The deal is I like the song, and I like the video. But that’s human art for you: beauty mixed up with the virtues of humanity-in-the-absence-of-God. And that’s what the two trees in the Book of Genesis are about: two ways of living. On the one hand is the Tree of Life, the way of living under God’s Law, with his spirit in you, contrasted with the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, life in God’s absence with all its “freedom,” glory and pain. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread all the days of your life . . . From dust you were made and from dust you shall return.” Thus were Adam and Eve sentenced for having rejected God and his authority: they and their descendants (meaning us) choosing right and wrong for ourselves, insisting that we will get it right, we just need a few more centuries.
Well, I can say this: sitting on the edge of Western Civilization, about as far west as you can go without falling in the ocean, where I can feel the sun in wintertime, where blue skies shine with open air, I see only war and death for humanity. Every day, I can see the best our species has to offer in this massive metropolis. All I have to do is read the news to find out about how bad it gets too. I pray that I only have to read about it, that I never have to live it. But world events are rapidly moving to a point where the Western world will be challenged in a way that will nearly destroy it. America will be steamrolled by events and Europe will unite in some sort of Neo-Fascist regime, climaxing in a disastrous war over the fate of the Holy Land.
Gay people? Their the least of my worries.
|Whenever I discuss transportation and traffic problems here in Southern California, I get a uniform response. The same line is found in the print media, on TV, the radio, and across the internet.|
"What do you expect? It's LA."
BIG FREAKING DEAL.
I "expect" there be no summary dismissal of ideas that do not focus on the internal combustion engine to solve the problems of moving humans from point A to point B in one of the world's biggest metropolital regions. Since when is it OK to accept defeat of a perfectly sound solution to an entrenched problem by invoking some sort of mystical prohibition on said solution? What I mean to say is
HOW DOES THIS BEING LOS ANGELES HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH NOT CONSTRUCTING NEW RAIL LINES?
I apologize if my shout-typing offends you, but I repeatedly get the impression that no one is listening.
Currently, the history of transportation in this area has three parts:
-- how great buliders boldly brought railroads into this metropolis, connecting it to the rest of the nation for the first time and giving it a unitary sense of identity
-- how the leadership and people foolishly tore out the bulk of the rail lines in the area and opted for a system centered on the private gasoline burning automobile
-- how the smog in this area was proven to come from the millions of private cars but a massive freeway system was still built and the last vestges of the mighty Pacific Electric Railway were torn down for the benefit of the petrol burning motorist.
I should append this list with one more part, about how the people clamor for a solution to the mindnumbing traffic that holds it hostage twice daily but the only action taken is to build more roads. And, may I ask, what is the goal of adding a single lane to a freeway ten-lanes across and packed to the gills? A lane of freeway only has the capacity to carry a thousand vehicles per hour. A train, which takes up only a twenty foot wide corridor, has the capacity for 10,000 to 30,000 depending on the method used. Another problem: expanding a freeway means knocking down homes or building dangerous multi-decked roadways that easily collapse in an earthquake. A train can dive below ground, be vaulted into the air on a narrow viaduct, or squeeze between buildings.
"But Zajac, this is LA. Do you really expect people to get out of their nice air conditioned cars and cram in to a small, standing room only train?"
Yes I do.
There exists a certain pecking order in the world of transporation. Faster and more convenient always wins over slower and more cumbersome. Normally, a car is simpler and faster than everything else, if the roads are traffic free. A bus is stuck in the same traffic that a car is in, only it must stop to let people on and off, dropping the average speed to a fourth that of a car (in other words, a bus is four times slower than a car, no matter what). Trains, in contrast, use a special right of way and operate on a fixed schedule. If you miss your bus, you may wait over 30 minutes for the next one as it crawls through traffic. Another train may pop up in as little as five minutes. In public transit, standing room only happens, but on a bus it lurches back and forth, bouncing with every bump, and the AC is always busted. A train glides along steel rails, the only noticable shifts are the acceleration and deceleration near a station, and the AC always is working.
"But Zajac, this is a decentralized metropolis. The population density is too low for a train in this or any other area."
Wrong again. The decentralized sprawl of Southern California was a byproduct of an earthquake-safety law and the monopoly on transportation granted to the car. Up until the late sixties, a 13-floor height limit was placed on any buildings in fear of an earthquake. When the sixties rolled around, the engineering of skyscrapers was safer so as to make the height limit non-sense. Any current limits are in the interest of preventing more traffic from clogging the roads. It is precisly because of the automobile that Southern California is so spread out. As areas became more developed, the land value rose, so people looked to places farther from the historic core to build upon. Becuase the car was so ubiquitous, the ease of access to these newly developed lands was the same if not better than the older sites. This is OK except that it pushes affordable middle-class housing further and further away from centers of employment. Housing may have decentralized, but employment has re-centralized in a pattern that contradicts the sprawl. New office buildings have risen not in the outer fringe (an area best utilized by industry and big-box retailers) but in the core. A small business will seek an area where it can operate closest to its customer/client base. A home buyer will seek out a safe, affordable neighborhood. These two areas usually do not overlap. A denser customer base will offset the higher property costs for a business while a more affordable home will offset the longer commute time. As an area fills up with people looking for housing, commute times will lengthen as the roads are jammed with more cars. Witness the Inland Empire: while many cities like Ontario have expanded their industrial sector the growth in housing has primarily been to people who work and continue to drive to Los Angeles or Orange Counties. There has even been an unexpected spike in people who commute into and out San Diego on a daily basis, traversing the empty hills and shoreline flanking Camp Pendleton.
"Sure, the freeways are jammed, but if people don't live or work close to freeways, they often have to drive quite a bit on local roads at either end before reaching their destination. Trains only go between stations."
Astute observation! A freeway is useless unless it connects to the local street grid. Take away the ability to drive the freeway as only part of the trip, and a freeway is useless. Likewise, a single train is superfluous. One may drive towards and away from one station, but unless the destination is close to a station, thhere is no point in even considering it as an option. That is why I do not advocate for a train in this area or on that corridor, but a complete and total network of trains. A Bus Riders Union worker once told me that a train was just like a bus, except that it was limited to the tracks it rides on while a bus can be re-routed wherever there is a city street (Francisca Porchas, you know you are!). This simplistic observation leaves out the basic differences that exist between a bus and a train. You wait for the bus, you wait a long time and ride for a long time and are uncomfortable when you're done. You wait for the train and it comes quickly, is fast in getting to your stop, and is comfortable to use. A bus can be re-routed, but is still locked in traffic. A train may be stuck in its tracks, but it can move and its riders can connect far more quickly to another train.
That's the big point. Buses, used to connect to other buses, are the ones locked up in traffic. Trains can be strung together much more efficiently. But only if the other train is built.
Every time an opinion piece or an editorial is run in the press, a rhetorical statement is made concewrning the mission and purpose of the MTA or public transportation in general. One I see again and again is that, "It exists to provide transit to the poor." No it doesn't! The Los Angeles County Metroploitan Transportation Authority exists to provide transportation to the People of Los Angeles County, all ten million of us, not mearly the 500,000 who ride the bus, and certainly not the 3000 dues paying members of the Bus Riders Union. You could pack the streets and freeways will buses but the speed of a commute will not rise above 12 miles an hour. Criss-cross the metropolis with trains--not just a skeliton system like today--and the average speed will soar above and beyond that of the car commuter.
|At 5:15pm (EDT) on Tuesday, August 22, 2006, Walter Zajac died at age 92, at his son's home in Poughkeepsie after a long struggle against cancer. He is survived by two sons, Myron and Oleh, and six grandchildren, Adrian, Renata, Damien, Alexander, Stephanie, and Gregory. His first great-grand-daughter was born in October. He lived a long life, stretching back from his birth on Decemeber 1, 1913, in the small villiage of Zborov in the then Austrian provence of Galicia. He married his wife in August of 1939, a month before World War Two burst forth in Europe. During Soviet and later Nazi occupation of the area, he was a prominent man, known as a leader of the community and as a peacemaker, doing his best to prevent the war from taking a further toll on his friends and neighbors. In 1944, he led a large portion of his extended family westwards to the American and British armies. After living in refugee camps for years, he and his relatives relocated to the Unted States, settleing in New York. His life in America was that of a working man, providing for his family and sending his sons to college. He lost his beatiful wife Anna of 46 years to cancer, and was laid to rest next to her after a separation of 21 years. Funeral services were held on the following Saturday in Upstate New York.|
This is the story of the week after he died.
I was just leaving work when my father called me. It was just after 9pm. My dad had wanted my brother and sister and I to be at home together when he told us. He knew I wouldn't get home until about nine, so he waited. He gauged fairly good: I would have been home in only a few minutes. He told me that his last words were, "I'm finished." To the very end he was a Christian, quoting Jesus with his dying words. My dad and his brother Myron were there when it happened, next to their father as he died. My grandfather had been sick for years. I myself had last seen him at my cousin's wedding in July of 2005. But that last year had been hard on him. His age alone prepared us for his death: not many live to be 92. The long sickness of cancer, slowly erasing his body was what did it; he had no more fight left in him. My father had been going to New York to see him with increasing freqency over the last few years. In July he went there and spent time with him and helped him, then came home to California. But something made him go back after only a couple weeks. So it was that my father was there next to his own father the day he died. By the time I was contacted, and my siblings minutes later, he had already been taken to the funeral home in preparation for the burial. My dad got us a flight for Thursday morning. I had 36 hours to prepare.
When I got to my car, I just sat for a few minutes before driving the few miles home. My grandfather's condition was nothing new. He just seemed to get worse every day. Whenever we got more news about him it was negative. Much of the family was looking forward to the birth of Adrian and Roxy's daughter some time in October or November. I had floated the idea that we all get together for Thanksgiving. This completely changed it all.
The three of us awoke the next morning and began going about getting our stuff ready to go. My girldfriend Allyson came over to help me out, as did our mom that evening. roundabouts 4:30pm, I was folding cloathes (Ally was helping) and I just broke down. I started crying, then sobbing, loudly. I don't know how long I went on, but I curled up into a ball on my bed as Ally held me, trying to comfort the pain and sorrow I was going through. I eventually calmed down, but it was hard to get anything done. I stayed up nearly all night, despite the fact that I had to drive us to the airport in the morning. I got a couple hours of sleep, got up, had some breakfast, packed up the car and drove off. It was tragicomic the way we got lost going round and round the airport, freaking out that we would miss our flight, not being able to find our may about (I hate John Wayne Airport). We did find the right parking, finally, and get through security, only to learn that the flight was delayed about three hours. I made some calls, tried to read the newspaper, and waited. I was too wound up to nap.
The flight to Chicago was uneventful and dull. We had brought some food with us and eaten it on the plane, but I was still hungry, so I bought a nice, big sandwich. Because of the delay getting out of California, our layover was brief, we just went from one gate to the other. (I was actually quite pissed about this: the flight was actually on the same plane in the same seats, but we still had to get off and let it move to the other side of the airport.) I took the window seat so I could see the lights at night as we flew over America. We landed at LaGuardia and were picked up by our cousin Renata, who drove us to Poughkeepsie. As were sped northwards into the night, she told us, "The next few days are going to be really crappy, guys." She too, had lost the same grandfather as us.
|Empires are strange creatures. Watching the ruins of the Communist Empire is an interesting exercise. It roughly falls into three parts: the former Soviet, the Mainland Chinese, and the assorted rouge states and violent warfare left behind by the export of socialist revolution. At one point Moscow dominated the bulk of Asia, half of Europe and major portions of Africa and Latin America. The reasons for its collapse are to many to get into right now, but the first crack came When Nixon went to China, when Beijing stopped listening to the Soviets and began acting independently. Within fifteen years, the Soviet Union was in its death throws and China was becoming an economic power house with a capitalist economy.|
As a Ukrainian I pay special interest to the fate of Moscow. I have no love for that city or its rulers. When I heard that the constituent republics were ending Muscovite control, I rejoiced. The last decade has been illuminating for me. In ten years, Moscow has gone from international bankruptcy to a rich oil-exporting nation. Its internal politics have been a return to the Czarism of before 1914: orthodoxy, nationality, autocracy. The Czars re-labled their conquered peoples as types of "Russians", harkening back to before the Mongolian Invasion of 1241. Today Moscow sees its former subjects growing in defiant to their former imperial masters. Moscow has seen fit to encourage separatism in these lands. Divided foes are easier to manipulate. The other message sent out is clear: "You are all small and divided and will only increase in this, join us to be great once more and share in our majesty." I look at political trends in the former Soviet Union and see similar paterns. Former communists continue to point at any sort of chaos or hardship as being caused by breaking away from Moscow. In truth the chaos and hardship is the direct result of being so solidly tied to Moscow for so long. The lands of the empire were stripped for any resource it provided, be it natural, industrial, military, or human. Even the modern wealth of Moscow is from elsewere: the petrolium wealth comes from the outlying lands that could not escape the death grip of Moscow in 1991. Meanwhile as Moscow's property values rank amoung the highest in the world, the territory it controls is being depopulated by emigration and negative birth rates. Ukraine and Kazakstan, the largest nations to come out of the Soviet sphere, may succede in building independent nations free of Muscovite influence, but other, smaller states may not fare as well. The long term prospects of Moscow are unclear. Its goal to reasert dominance may be obvious, but its ability to do so in the coming years is hazy.
China presents another side of the equation. As the first to break away from Moscow, Beijing has profited handsomely. China remembers its history; it remembers how the West humiliated it in the 19th Century. The basic doctrine followed since 1949 has been to assert "One China" centered in Beijing, and that, "Once China, always China," irregardless of the wishes of the local populations. China isn't so much Communist as it is Chinese: ever since the Qin Dynasty created the unified Chinese state, China has seen an endless line of absolute rule from the center, right down to our very day. Pearl Bucks novels about the difficulty of rural Chinese life could have been written yesterday or five thousand years ago. Dynasties may come and go, but life remains difficult, miserable and full of hardship. Mao Zedong was popular precisely because he promised to change things. His lasting legacy is that the mass murder he wraught was no different from the crimes of those whoo came before. The movie "Hero" vividly portrays China so many millenia ago and how "sha na," "our land," was unifed thanks to the "Nameless Hero." But as Jet Li's character says at the very end, it was unified through war and bloodshed. Rival power centers were brutally crushed and other cultures wiped out. When the students were slaughtered in 1989, Tianenmen Square was the latest in this ancient tradition of brutality in the name of stability.
The miscellanious nations left behind by Communism deserve some mmention here. They are the countries that once subsisted on foreign aid from Moscow (or the United States) to influence them ideologically. In Africa, after so much exploitation from European colonial masters, the dark continent was reduced to a chess game of tribes at war. Aside from vast amounts of guns, the continent remains dirt poor, its resources still only extracted to benefit foreigners. The legacy of communism was finance of "revolutionaries" by Moscow and "counter-revolutionaries" by the United States. Both groups have played out their influence and become nothing more than waring factions in areas that still suffer from coloial legacies. Nations that remained stable and held on to communism have only recieded into the depths of Anti-American Stalinism.
Microsoft released last week its new Zune media player in a bid to challenge the dominance of the Apple iPod. (Disclosure: I own and use an Apple computer, use the iTunes software, but do not own an iPod. My sister on the other hand does own an iPod Nano. Furthermore, I have taken advantage of the new Intel-chipset in my Macintosh and have loaded Windows XP. I also own a Playstation 2.) The new Zune is pricematched with the iPod as far as storage capacity is concerned, is slightly larger, and has a larger screen, but with the same number of pixels as a fifth generation iPod. The Zune Marketplace will sell content exclusively for the Zune player at 79 cents each; iTunes songs cost 99 cents a piece. The Zune also carries a Wi-Fi transceiver (specially built to connect with other Zune users) and an FM receiver, as well as connectivity for the Xbox 360 (via USB port). Compared this way, the Zune may be considered a superior product.
Dogma (Special Edition)
By Betty Aberlin, Ben Affleck, Nancy Bach, Lesley Braden, George Carlin, Bud Cort, Matt Damon, Dan Etheridge, Linda Fiorentino, Walter Flanagan, Janeane Garofalo, Barret Hackney, Bryan Johnson, Jason Lee, Derek Milosavljevic, Marie Elena O'Brien, Brian O'Halloran, Jared Pfennigwerth, Kitao Sakurai
But come on, you just know that with Microsoft there's more to this than meets the eye.
The Zune player is actually a modified Toshiba Gigabeat, manufactured by Toshiba. The software does not have full compatability with either Windows XP or the upcoming Windows Vista; you have to download a patch. Music and video files obtained from only the Zune Marketplace or from a CD ripped through Marketplace on your computer will function; zero support for files legally purchased from iTunes. This means you will have to rebuild from scratch your entire music library in order to use it on the Zune. The Wi-Fi can only be used to conect to other Zune users, not to your own computer, not to the Zune Marketplace through a Wi-Fi hotspot. Music and videos obtained from other users can only be listened to three times each, up to three days, after which you must buy the file from Zune Marketplace. And no, you may not just keep sharing the same files; once a file is shared, it can neither be shared with that user again nor be traded on to another third user. Likewise, files purchased for another Zune cannot be traded, the Zune software will not play the file. And perhaps most irritating of all no podcasts are available; free podcasts must be individually transfered, one at a time, no automatic updates.
But enough about th Zune. Microsoft's challenge to the iPod will go over less than successfully. In fact, I predict it to be a total failure. Oh, sure, some people will buy it, but the product has no compellong reason behind it. Indeed, the connectivity and social-networking features are mearly lame attempts to make up for the Soviet style DRM.
From the start, Microsoft has found success because people just HAD to buy their products, not from any claim to be innovative or "better". Be it willingly or grudgingly, the Mrcosoft coustomer is confronted with what they believe to be the only logical choice: a Microsoft product. In 1981, the IBM Personal Computer was the only small computer that cracked the psycological barrier to the corporate office market (while the Apple II had made some inroads, the market was still dominated by the large mainframe computers). IBM, rushing the product to market, chose the small six year-old Seattle firm "MicroSoft" to assist with finding suitable software for such a simple device. MicroSoft Disk Operating System--or MS-DOS--was the software shipped with millions of these computers. While DOS was wildly popular, it was only when Compaq released its first IBM-compatable clone in 1983 that Microsoft understood the potential of its operating system as a major product. The IBM PC was the market standard largely by accident (IBM executives hated the open-ended nature of the device that later lead to IBM being forced out of the micro-computer market). But while IBM was sidelined by other manufacturers, all the clones were built to use only MS-DOS. Bling-bling.
The success of the PC gave Microsoft a monopoly, a potentially unending source of money that would go on and on and on, forever.
Unless people stopped buying Microsoft.
The dirty secret of DOS is that you only needed to use it because everyone else you interact with used it. Is was only a matter of time before some other operating system came about that was cheaper, better, and less buggy. Say you work in an office. A big part of your job is simply typing reports, reading reports, and editing reports other people wrote. Text files are not system specific, they are based on an old set of standards called ASCii (American Standard Code Two). Word processors mearly take these text files, and automatically format them for your printer to look how you want (yes children, that's how it works; in the old days you got a big manual with your printer explaining how to uses these "print-codes" without a word processor). A word processor can be written to run on any operating system you lie and still understand the same files. All it takes is one curious person in an office to realize that you could buy a non-Microsoft operating system and still be able to read, print, and share all your important files. The only barrier is the cost and hassle of purchasing and installing a new suite of software. And if your computer keeps crashing, you may just do it.
So Microsoft entered a deal with the computer manufacturers that it continues to this day: preloaded software. Manufacturers got to put a Microsoft compliant logo on their machines, thus ensuring that the public would continue to associate the new machines with their old ones. Retailers were able to convince the public to buy a new, less problem-plaugued machine. Microsoft got to keep selling copies of its software. In 1990, IBM was left in the dust and Windows had hit the shelves, mostly already inside your computer when purchased. Soon, new PCs were popping up not just with Windows but Word, Excel, and the entire Office suite preloaded.
In 1995, the Netscape Corporation released its hypertext program, Netscape Navigator, allowing people to access the Internet via the World Wide Web. It fueled an explosion in internet content and sparked the great Internet boom of 1995-2001. When Microsoft first saw the Web, they saw a threat: more and more computer users would be on the internet every day, every minute, all using a non-Microsoft piece of software to get things done. Microsoft took aim, but this time just decided to give it away: Internet Explorer would be free. The avalanch of free software buried Netscape (it was eventually absorbed by AOL) and even promted an anti-trust investigation by the US Government for abuse of monopoly power. The once popular Navigator was only reborn when the source code was publicly released as Mozilla, also free for anyone to download.
Here the tale of Microsoft's great crushing victories ends (I'll get to the Xbox soon enough). The next Attack was against AOL and was less than successful. The Microsoft Network, or MSN, failed to catch on, despite the way it was preloaded with Windows. You still had to pay extra to se MSN. Becoming an Internet Service Provider pitted Microsoft not just against AOL, but the telecom companies too. Despite its success, AOL was loosing market share because more and more people were choosing to connect to the internet directly, usually through dial-up, modems. AOL compeated by offering exclusive content to its members, something Microsoft found difficult. The MSN business model was locked into a market that did not need Microsoft: it was to big to emulate. Because MSN had to be bought separately no matter what, it had to compeate product-a-product, without any of the advantages Windows offered. And the competition sidelined MSN as an ISP.
Portals like Yahoo also posed a threat: you go through them, not Microsoft. So MSN was expanded to become a portal, not just an ISP. But again the advantages offered by preloading were useless. Removing Windows or migrating to a new suite of software ment hours of tedium wasted on a long and complex process that no one really understood. A website can easily be left by a minimum of typing in the address bar. Google likewise cashed in on this and compeated head-to-head as a superior free service with a minimum of non-invasive ads.
Remember kids: Microsoft's strategy to stay on top is not based on having the best products and services available, but by making it so difficult to not use Microsoft that it is easier to put up with it. That is what has scarred people away from the Machintosh. Every step of the way, the Mac has been a betterr product save for two key areas: price and compatibility. The Mac is better designed and engineered, thus it costs more to produce, so less peple have them and less software is written for them. Only people believing that owning a Macintosh will prevent its user from getting any work done due to compatability issues keeps a great many from buying even the cheap ones. But as a recent convert to the cult of Mac, I can tell you that these problems have been overcome. The Intel-chipset allows me to run Windows natively if I want, unlocking all the old software I still have. Besides, Microsoft Office runs quite nicely on the Mac, and the internet is not platform specific (OK, not true, but only a small handfull of sites need Internet Explorer).
When Sony launched the Playstation 2, it was planned to be the begining of a full advance into the PC market. Not only did th PS2 have USB and Firewire ports, it also had an optional hard-drive and network adapter. In Japan a Linux-based full computer version of the device was test marketed. Sony was planning to invade the Personal Computer market with a Japanese Computer, becoming a third option: PC, MAC and PSX (the planned name). It was to be a market entrance that would revitalize the micro-computer market and challene the dominance of the Windows-Intel PC. But the strategy was to enter through the growing home entertainment gizmo market. Digital Video Recorders like TiVo were making the television more like a computer. The growing graphics acceleration of the personal computer and the internet made the PC a bigger contender in the video game market. Sony decided to be on the cutting edge of the convergence and marry the two with a new product.
Microsoft lived and breathed on sales of new PCs. Apple was not a serious threat because of price. But an open source Linux device? If Sony turned the home entertainment market into a computer market before the PC got there, then Windows would be threatened with real competition and a loss of its twenty-year monopoly over operating systems. So Microsoft got together its best and brightest and had them do what IBM did a generation ago: beat Sony to the punch and develop a home-entertainment device first. The team came out with two such products: the Microsoft Windows Media Center Personal Computer and the Microsoft Xbox Video Game Console. They are the same product, a generation or two removed. The original Xbox (and its successors) are special Intel PCs, preloaded to only use Xbox software and games. Only by hacking open the system does one realize it's only a computer and may be reprogramed to do exactly what that thing on your desk does. The Media Center PC was the next step, combine the TiVo style DVR, the DVD player and the content of the Internet and hook it up to your cable/sattelite dish and the big screen TV. Within a decade, the Media Center PC will sprout little plugs for Xbox controllers.
But wait, the Media Center PC is ahead of its time and the Xbox was a success without having anything to do with Windows. But that is because of the nature of the video game business. It was Halo and Halo 2 that made the Xbox so wildly popular. Before this game came out, the Xbox was a boring toy. Better than a PS2, yes, but with few of the smash hit titles, it only provoked yawns. Only when people HAD to get Halo did the Xbox take off in sales. But it was far from the crushing victory of the nineties. The PS2 sold plenty of units and games and the Nintendo Game Cube managed to claim a profitable third in the market. Far from simply being a format war over video games, the struggle that opened this week--PS3 vs. Xbox 360--is the continuation of the struggle for dominance that Sony and Microsoft see themselves in. If personal computers and home entertainment electronics are merging, then Sony (maker of entertainment electronics) and Microsoft (maker of personal computer software) are in a fight to the death for the future of the computer.
Enter Apple. The funky California company always had that hippy vibe around it, damaging its credibility as a serious machine. But when Steve Jobs returned from his exile, he set about reshaping the company into an American Sony. He and Bill Gates go way back and there were both good times and bad. But what drives Jobs is not greed or revenge but vision. He never lost his hippy visions about how the computer can make life more groovy. His sixties revolutionary lives on in a constant need to innovate and change the world. At every step of the way he has successfully identified huge trends ten years before they happened and has always tried to put himself at the front of the pack. While it's not always the market dominator, Apple has always been a trendsetter. Which is why few gave the iPod much notice when it debuted in 2001. The tech market had crashed and Apple was always popping out this or that too early. The iPod accidentally happened at exaclty the right moment. The CD player market was depressed into a glut of cheap devices. The mp3 players available were junk due to the cost of flash memory, the size of hard-drives and the poor design of the things. Online music was a wild west of pirate downloaders and overpriced music services. Jobs hit upon the prefect combination of design, functionability, ease of use, and price at exactly the right moment, before everyone else. And he won big for it.
Sony saw the personal music player as its core product going back to the Walkman. It integrated a music player into some mobile phones and its Playstation Portable. But the PSP was primarily a gaming device to the public, and while sales have been brisk, the public has not embraced convergence here yet.
Ever since Apple started in 1976, it has been trying to be at the right place at the right time with the right product. Now after thirty years they have doe it in a way that their dominance is unassailable. The Zune will not supplant the iPod because there is no reason for it to. The cutsie features are not enough to alone build the critical mass of buyers needed to make these features really usable in the first place. "Buy a Zune, just like all your friends," is difficult enough to pull off even when all your friends do all have Zunes.
But the real Achillies Heel of the Zune is the DRM, the Digital Rights Management. The iPod has skirtted that narrow line between usability and copyright protection only by making those limitations easy enough to get around that anyone who wants to can, and just strong enough that it unlocks the magic word to make it practicle.
Were the iPod to use a system that did not fit with what major media companies felt was secure enough, then not enough content would be available on the iTunes Music Store and iPod users would automatically drift into the pirated music sphere. But to lock the iPod into an extension of iTunes would also limit sales of the device. And so, if you are so inclined, there are many ways to still use an iPod and not pay for music. The Zune fails here. In order to justify the lower price per song, Microsoft tightend up the DRM. But by locking into only what the Zune Marketplace allows, it handcuffs ithe Zune and makes it too troublesome to use.
My prediction, unless Microsoft relaxes on DRM, the Zune will be a disaster. After all, what does it have to offer?