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Technological chauvinism

"Europe is far too dependent on Microsoft." I thought I accidentally clicked on an old article, perhaps from the end of the last century. At that time, Microsoft was in trouble for abusing its dominant market position to stave off competition. It was the start of a series of legal battles both in the States and in Europe, culminating in the Windows Media Player saga. You know, that thing you may have used to watch video on a pc, if you didn’t skip it entirely because you belong to the YouTube generation. Microsoft was fined a massive sum by Europe in 2004, but continued to resist strongly until 2012. In the end, they subsided. Or that is what we would like to believe.

Back to today. According to a group of research journalists, the intensive collaboration with Microsoft makes Europe vulnerable, for instance because our data is in the hands of an American company. And we would regret that, now that our American allies seem less steadfast. A German Euro parliament member called for immediate action to force the mighty Microsoft to its knees. By comparing IT with aviation, where Europe broke Boeing’s dominance with the launch of the Airbus, he called for an “ICT Airbus”. Nice one liner, and maybe a beautiful dream for European chauvinists, but utter nonsense in the end.

The world in the 1970s cannot be compared to the here and now. Of course, technological innovations were made and we pushed forward, but the rate of change was lower and the impact was much smaller. Moore’s Law, anyone?

Changing a sector is not the same as overthrowing a whole economy. It shows little insight into our connected and globalized society to propose such a change of mind. And it’s out of touch with reality: in spite of earlier attempts to control Microsoft, it is still one of the world’s largest (IT) companies. Like it or not, the whole world has been running on Windows for 30 years.

Another question is whether Microsoft is really such a patriotic American company. Ultra large companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon do not only transcend geographic boundaries, but mental boundaries as well. Wasn’t Facebook called ‘the largest country in the world’ because it has more ‘residents’ than China? Globalization on that scale questions all the old paradigms, which our politicians love for obvious reasons.

Large companies tend to be very committed to their ‘citizens’. They have an eye for local needs and expectations. For example, Microsoft has worldwide data centers to ensure quality of service and data protection. The company was recently proved right in a lawsuit by a magistrate in New York. He had summoned the company to supply data (e-mails) from an Irish-based server as part of an investigation. Microsoft won the plea, with the full support of the Irish government.

To the current CEO Satya Nadella, a man born in India, Microsoft is not so much a business as an ecosystem. He wants to build the world’s best cloud platform, open to anyone, at any time and any location. And he does what he can to fulfill that promise. For example, Microsoft’s employees are leading the ranking on Github, an online platform for open source developers who share code with the community. No one has more active developers on that platform than Microsoft. Not even Facebook and Google. And still, we tend to fear Microsoft.

Fear is a bad counselor and protectionism is a weak strategy. The only question that really matters to Europe is: how do we make sure that the next Microsoft, Google or Facebook has its roots in European soil? That is, if you see yourself as a European rather than a world citizen.

Note: This opinion was first published on SmartBiz.be on 20 April 2017 (in Dutch). 

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