In the world of technology, there always are companies that are seen as so powerful, so arrogant, and so -- well -- nasty that they become known as "evil empires." As it turns out, watching how the roster of evil empires evolves over time is a pretty good way to track the state of the tech industry.
So which companies are evil empires?
Six years ago, I addressed this very question in InformationWeek. Here's what my list looked like in 2002:
- Computer Associates
The landscape has changed a bit since then, so it's time to offer up a new list for the waning days of 2008. Here goes:
OK, how can a company whose motto is "Don't be evil" be an evil empire? Well, here's another phrase to consider: Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Whatever its original intentions, Google has become so powerful that it can do wrong in many ways, whether or not it actually means to, as it proceeds to catalog all of the world's information, suck up all of the online advertising dollars, read all of our e-mail, take pictures of every street, and pull computing power off our desktops and into the cloud -- which, by the way, Google wants to own.
Despite the policies of the company's cafeteria, there's no such thing as a free lunch; one way or another, someone's got to pay for Google's success. Oh, and all that money and that oft-cited air of casual superiority doesn't help much, either.
Has there ever been a tech company that so many people love to hate? In many ways, this company's products have changed the world for the better, making PCs ubiquitous and creating de facto standards for office productivity -- not to mention e-mail, servers, and even the Xbox. Sure, some of these products could be less expensive, less complex, more reliable, easier to use, and so on. But that's true of just about everything.
So exactly what is it that makes Microsoft the quintessential evil empire? I think it's all about attitude. Like Google, Microsoft seems to believe it should rule the technology world. But unlike Google, Microsoft never even tries to hide its ambitions for world domination. And it never seems to stop trying to throw its weight around. Not content with its long-running war to control the desktop, Microsoft also wants to own the Internet. After using Internet Explorer to crush Netscape, it lately has had its sights set on plucky, little Yahoo. If Microsoft wants to stop being known as an evil empire -- though there's no indication that it cares at all -- it will have to learn to play nicely with other companies. Don't hold your breath.
How can the people who brought us the Mac and the iPod and the iPhone be called evil? After all, Apple's a little light on the empire side of the evil empire equation. Except for the iPod/iTunes combo, Apple doesn't really hold a dominant position in anything. And lots of people think that Apple is insanely great.
But within the Apple world, Steve Jobs rules with an iron fist. Want a keyboard on your iPhone? Sorry. Want to use Mac software on non-Apple hardware? Not if Steve can help it. Want to play your iTunes tunes on anything other than an iPod? Get ready to jump through some hoops. Want a bargain notebook? Not so fast. After a while, that kind of control fetish can give you a reputation.
But, hey, if you don't like the Apple way, there's always Microsoft.
In a first, a cable TV company has become a technology evil empire. How did that happen?
Easy. Comcast decided it should block some Internet traffic coming from its broadband subscribers, and now it's jumping on the bandwagon to cap monthly usage. bMighty contributor Paul Korzeniowski defends Comcast, but I'm having none of it.
- Blocking traffic is simply unacceptable. Period. It violates the basic principles and expectations behind using the Net. And capping traffic isn't much better. The instant you have to start worrying about whether your next click is going to cost you extra, you'll then have to start being careful about your surfing and downloading activities. That adds a moment of hesitation to everything you do, making the whole Internet a very different experience. That double whammy earns Comcast its first spot in my hall of shame.
The Runners Up
So what happened to former winners AOL, Oracle, and CA? Did they suddenly get religion? Not exactly.
AOL's story is well-known. The company basically imploded as broadband eliminated the need for its proprietary dial-up service. AOL is desperately trying to reinvent itself as an ad-based destination site and content provider. Good luck with that. Either way, it's no longer an empire.
Oracle, meanwhile, is doing quite well, thank you. It's just that Larry Ellison's famous tirades and strong-arm tactics have been a lot less visible lately. If Oracle is still an evil empire, it's pretty much in stealth mode.
Computer Associates is the most interesting case. The company weathered some well-documented legal troubles, cementing its credentials in the "evil" department. But with a new management comes a new ethos, and CA now has to be regarded as just another really big software company -- one that doesn't make this year's list.
Are there other almost-winners? Of course! Lord knows I have no love for the record companies, but while they seem intent on being as evil as possible, their utter cluelessness concerning technology keeps them off my Evil Empires list. The new AT&T is once again big enough to qualify, but without its old-time monopoly, it's not quite evil enough to make it. IBM and Cisco are both plenty big, but neither seems to stand out much these days -- at least in the evil-doing department.
Self-consciously paranoid Intel would seem to be a viable choice given that its chips power both PCs and Macs, and have recently pushed AMD to the brink. I couldn't quite decide, and so opted to give Intel a break. This time.
That's my list, but I'm sure you have your own. I may have forgotten some worthy empires -- or mischaracterized others. Tell me: Which companies do YOU consider evil empires, and why? And if you think I'm being unfair, feel free to let me know.
Fredric Paul is publisher/editor-in-chief of bMighty.com and SmallBizResource.com.
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