Americans celebrate rugged individualism and competition, red in tooth and claw. But this is a myth. We crave the standard, the simple, the bland, the shared. One of the glories of American capitalism has been its ability to crush variability, with all its unpleasant confusions and surprises.
Kemmons Wilson learned this lesson when he took his family on a car trip from Memphis to Washington in the summer of 1951. Every time they stopped for the night, the family would encounter hotels and motels of uncertain character, cleanliness and price. So Wilson, a home builder, decided to go into the motel business. He had an architect design a room (12 feet by 30 feet, plus a bathroom) that, by decree, became the standard for his company. He specified the number of towels in each room, the look of the sign out front, the regular nightly price. He called his cookie cutter Holiday Inn.
This is why Bill Gates is a great American.
Oh sure. Now it can be stated without fear or qualification: Gates is a capitalist pig. Two out of three branches of the federal government have agreed on this, so it must be true.
But for the rest of us, this seems a little rude. Those of us who know little about computers are privately grateful to Bill Gates. We're grateful that someone--Gates or whoever--was able to get at least some portion of the whole, confusing computer mess over with.
Microsoft, via its signature product, Windows, brought to computing all of the things we publicly attack but secretly adore: standardization, stasis, predictability, a familiar product that was at least a little bit better than mediocre.
"Those of us who survived the computer operating system wars of the '60s, '70s and even the '80s should give at least a salute and a bow to Microsoft," says author Cliff Stoll, whose latest book is "High Tech Heretic." "We can at least now sit back and say, 'Ah, there's a standardized operating system, standard programming tools, standard sets like word processing and spreadsheets that let us not just transport programs from one to the other but let an office worker with a Dell machine move to another office with Hewlett-Packard computers."
These are epic attributes, particularly in a business as fast-moving, intimidating and confusing as personal computers. They are, in fact, deeply revered American values that we reward greatly.
Think of Ray Kroc. A McDonald's hamburger tastes the same in Osaka as it does in Tulsa. This is a result of strict, ruthlessly enforced rules of standardization laid down by Kroc, a onetime milkshake equipment salesman who turned McDonald's into the global kudzu it is today. Kroc decreed that all his franchisees would follow fanatically detailed operating rules. According to the McDonald's handbook, a McDonald's hamburger was supposed to be 1.6 ounces, and 3 5/8 inches in diameter, with a fat content between 17 and 20 percent. Never again would a traveler have to be surprised by "local cuisine."
We may lionize deregulation, the ferment of the free market, the whole capitalist-Republican complex. But the plain fact is that Americans actually like monopolies.
Think of the old AT&T Bell System, with its towering dullness and one-black-phone-to-a-household efficiency. AT&T wasn't daring or creative, and long-distance calls weren't cheap. But AT&T was the soul of reliability. Its most soothing attribute was the total lack of choices it offered. It never called us at dinner time to persuade us to switch plans.
We like the electric utility for the same reason. Who ever thinks about it? But now, it too is being opened to competition. Swell. We know we will save a few dollars once electric power is deregulated, but at what price in aggravation? Which plan? Which company? It'll be something like selecting a cell phone: Calculate the number of kilowatts per day you currently use, divide by peak-time usage, and subdivide by offsetting slack demand periods. . . .
This is why we have made Gates the world's richest man. We don't want to be bothered. Windows is here; it works, sort of. Without it, your computer would not easily talk to my computer, and my computer would have been harder for you to learn to operate. We'd still be learning new computer commands instead of just getting on with it. Spare us.
Upon retiring from his sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld commented that the most frightening words a person can hear are, "Now you can do anything you want." Most people don't want unlimited choice. They'd rather have a short menu.
Neither McDonald's nor Holiday Inns nor Windows is the best at what it is. They are just better than what we are fairly sure is the alternative, which is chaos.
CAPTION: Microsoft's Bill Gates simplified our lives by limiting our options.
CAPTION: Bill Gates is proof that Americans actually like monopolies.