Clash of the titanic business-press cliches

My eight-year-old sons don’t pay much attention to the business pages, but yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Business cover — featuring three cartoon characters in a boxing ring — caught their eyes over breakfast.

“Who’s the big fat guy?”

That, I told them, was supposed to be Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO. “The one in glasses?” Bill Gates. They’ve heard of him. The third figure, I said, was a poor likeness of Google CEO Eric Schmidt.

As their interest dwindled, I explained the illustration. And it occurred to me what about the cover bugged me. The headline, no joke, was “Clash of the Titans” (omitted from the Web edition, for some reason). And the whole tired frame for the story had been constructed with an eye to the sensibility of eight-year-olds.

It’s the oldest cliche in the business-journalism book: Corporations are led by warriors and market conflicts are military campaigns — “clashes of the titans.” The trouble is, it’s not only infantile, it distorts our understanding of reality.

Are Microsoft and Google in conflict? Of course. They have fundamentally different visions of where computing’s headed — visions that the Times article, by Steve Lohr and Miguel Helft, ably lays out. But it’s not as if they are feudal fiefdoms fighting over some fixed patch of ground. Their conflict will play out as each company builds its next generation of software and services, and the next one after that, and people make choices about what to buy and what to use.

Those choices are the key to the outcome. In a battle, civilians are mostly bystanders or casualties. In the software business, civilians — users — determine who wins.

Remember that the next time you see a business publication trot out the old corporate-battlefield cliches to talk about the software industry. And if you want to know where the software world is headed, watch your nearest eight- or ten- or twelve-year old — they’ll be making decisions over the next couple of decades that, far more than any punches thrown by Ballmer or Gates or Schmidt, will determine which titans prosper.
[tags]software business, business press[/tags]

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