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The Next Cluetrain Test

Microsoft Windows XP SP2 will be an important, but probably un-noticed, watershed in the progress of the "cluetrain".

I've yet to see a major case where "cluetrain" customer/user-emplowerment juju actually had an impact on any company's actions. There are lots of cases on the books of products doing poorly, but the vast majority are the same traditional feedback mechanism: The product sucks, people don't use it, the product fails; or, the product is poorly marketed (Coke C2? New Coke?), people don't buy it, the product fails.

A cluetrain feedback loop would be different. It would mean that net-empowered buyers (which doesn't necessarily mean internet-empowered buyers) had acted consciously -- as opposed by passibly, by simply not buying -- to make the product fail. That action could be in the form of spreading word of the product's suckfulness via some network; in the pure Cluetrain vision, that network would be a human network, enabled by technology. (Side snark: Which network will shortly be owned and controlled by Google...)

Cluetrain thinking is quite a bit like Marxism or "singularity" theory, in that it presumes the inevitability of something which a little basic observation and some applied knowledge of human nature would tell you is highly unlikely. "But it's emergent," is one common (if foggy) response. "You won't be able to predict the shape of the future from the present." "But from what will it emerge?" would be my response. I've yet to see an "emergent phenomenon" that couldn't be traced back to properties of its culture medium.

So, what the hell does all this have to do with Microsoft? Well, they've decided not to bother doing security patches on IE for anything but XP, once they release SP2. (At least, that's what I think they mean; they might mean they're stopping now.) Many see this as a calculated move to incentivize paid upgrades (XP SP2 won't be free -- it will cost $99 for most XP users). If so, it's a very calculated move, based on the idea that they don't need to care anymore how people feel about Microsoft. It's Rock v. Hard Place. It means they think they're winning the anti-Linux fight (which may well be true).

If the Cluetrain is what it's boosters have always said it is, it will stop this, and what's more, it will stop this in a particular way: It will wound Windows XP via Market Forces. Microsoft's sales of SP2 will be poor, Linux and Mac adoption will rise sharply, and Market Forces will drive radical improvements in the usability of Linux desktops. Or MS will "get on the cluetrain" and cancel plans to charge for SP2, at least -- and ideally, continue to distribute updates for Win2K. (Which is a better OS, anyway -- though it doesn't have all those wonderful hooks for MS lock-in...)

Now, I actually think it's pretty likely that XP users will be getting SP2 for free. Whether MS continues to update Win2K is another matter. This will happen because their corporate customers will communicate their profound disappointment, and telegraph a willingness to migrate to Firefox or Googlezilla. Is this a manifestation of the Cluetrain in action? I don't know; it would tend to support the view that the "cluetrain" is nothing new or emergent, if it were, because changing plans based on Big Customer feedback is as old as the PC industry, and is mediated not by networking but by traditional sales channels. And the reaction would be just exactly as little as Microsoft has to give up to get what they want.

Now, all that snark having been levelled, I would love to see MS take a hard line on this. Because it would force the watershed, and make it that much more visible. Such a watershed would place more pressure on the open-source communities to come up with alternatives, whatever those might be. But whether those alternatives are really better and more empowering than Microsoft is another matter. Given the exclusive choice between a joyless overlord despised by most who still knows relatively little about me, and a beloved overlord who knows my every browsing habit, I'll pick the former -- Microsoft -- every time.

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