Culturally, Sun Microsystems and Microsoft don't have too much in common. But right now they find themselves in similar positions. It will be two years before the fruits of their investments can be judged in the marketplace. With Microsoft, it's Longhorn, with a new search engine and a new graphics engine. With Sun, it's new multithreaded hardware to take advantage of super-scalable Solaris and Java.
So for now, these two IT giants need to fill that vacuum, and they've decided to engage in a strange sort of public arms race. Microsoft has deployed 400 webloggers to blog about Longhorn. The more they blog, the more the product seems to slip, and non-blogging Apple underlined that yesterday by demonstrating features of OS X Tiger that Microsoft has promised for Longhorn, but that will appear long before the next version of Windows ships.
Now Sun has perceived that it has a deficit in one of the few areas in which the Internet is still quite useful: IGRTN, or the Infinite Generation of Real Time Noise. It's trying to close the IGRTN gap by deploying some webloggers of its own, and today rolled out Sun's president and COO Jonathan Schwartz.
Monkeys - to your typewriters!
Of course, there is no magic to weblogs, or Usenet, or any other communication tool. When someone makes such a claim, you must ask what they're trying to sell you.
But there is a vast gulf between true weblog believers and the rest of the world, which deserves some examination. Weblogging has been the subject of more heated hyperbole than any technology hype since the early days of AI. Perhaps not too surprisingly, as they're both variations of the "wise machines" narrative. Some people wish for machines to be cleverer or wiser than they really are. Others look, quite understandably, at democratic or social dysfunction and wish that we had machines that could help us fix it. And it's only natural that technologists look for technology as a fix to our problems, even if the problem doesn't have a technological solution. (A good example is music downloads). "Wise machines" bring their own set of philosophical problems, but they aren't the issues we have to worry about right now, because machines showing any sign of intelligence are tens, or maybe hundreds of years away.
Outside the brave band of true believers, people hate this hyperbole with a passion. Step into any recent Slashdot discussion and you'll find some very waspish remarks. True believers are quite startled by the negativity that weblogs engender. This isn't always fair: people may hate weblogs unfairly and unfairly associate them with failure, when what they're really objecting to is unjustified hyperbole, mutual backscratching, or simply bad writing, all of which weblogs seem to create in abundance. Blogs took the blame for Howard Dean's hubristic tilt at the Democratic candidacy, but then blogs took the credit for his brief frontrunner status. In neither case is it fair, as the success and failure is human, and the machine merely an excuse.
People seem to hate webloggers with the same passion that they reserve for Apple users: accusing them of behaving as if they have discovered some secret meaning to life. This is only partially false: in some cases, bloggers actually think they have found some secret meaning. This is patently unfair to excellent writers who simply view their weblogging software as a tool, as many do, but there you have it.
There are even signs amongst tribal elders that the B-word has become so dubious that the exercise might need rebranding, just as Free Software was rebranded as "Open Source". (The trouble is, none of the replacements are very catchy. One, "Stand Alone Discussion" at least has the merit of lending itself to a snappy three-letter acronym: "SAD").
ET, koan home!
It is legitimate to ask how effective this form of computer-mediated discourse is - we wondered here how useless the computer lobby has been, and whether it has anything to do with the tools we use. However, Sun evidently believes it can make a difference. Schwartz wants to bypass reporters who provide context, he writes, and appear more authentic than traditional corporate PR permits. We're asked to believe that it's more authentic because it's unmediated. But then he writes,
"I'm a big believer in the idea that innovation is self-sustaining when it loses its predictability. I figured I'd do my part to promote self-sustenance."
In fact, that's the kind of statement that makes you wish it had received some mediation before it was pushed out, perhaps with a quick edit by a good PR professional. It's the sort of meaningless koan that management gurus are fond of, and perhaps it fell out of a cracker at Tom Peters' Christmas Party. We'll ask.
"No more comments from the pundits 'in context'", promises Jonathan. "Now you get them straight from me." But this koan cries out for someone, anyone, in fact, to provide some context, because it's gibberish.
Is it self-sustaining?
It does reflect some wishful thinking that proponents are very fond of: that blogs will somehow make the established media vanish, in a magic puff of smoke. This is a point of view that flatters the proponent enormously, and also flatters the press. (Many of us like to imagine that the world hangs on our every word, when of course it doesn't; and there's nothing journalists enjoy more than discussing their exalted position as the Fourth Estate. If webloggers are a New Media, they've inherited many of the vanities of the Old Media.) If you follow Jonathan's argument to its natural conclusion, then he doesn't want the reporters there at all. We can hardly blame him for entertaining this fantasy for a brief moment. But imagine a year's press silence: a year of CNN, the Times, and El Reg only writing about the excellent computer systems from Hewlett Packard, IBM and the Wintel manufacturers. So you see that he doesn't really mean it. It's a better press he wants, rather than no press.
Like so many utilitarian arguments, this is essentially a supply-side theory: if you increase the volume of writing, the amount of stuff being read will increase too. But this hasn't happened. And if only for reasons of scarce resources, corporations can only afford to woo or groom a few people at a time. They may indulge, like Sun and Microsoft are doing, in games of "more-authentic-than-thou". But they're only deluding themselves if they think that it's anything more than public relations. The last critic departs only when the last customer has departed.
Although it's hard to believe it at times this week at JavaOne, Sun makes its money from selling computer systems, not from blogging. This is going to feel like a very long two years... ®