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The Moving Picture: Monopolies
Posted Aug 12, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Controlling the market. Bankrupting the competition. Being a Monopolist. These are the surest paths to success in Parker Brothers' Monopoly, and they never seemed like such immoral aims when I was playing the game as a kid. I personally liked Rail Baron even better, another game based on the very principles of amassing money by owning properties and getting the other players to pay you for their use.

Instead of Atlantic City real estate names, Rail Baron's board consists of a map of the United States with twenty-eight past-century rail lines intertwining and connecting major cities. Instead of passing "Go" and spending a night on Baltic Avenue or St. James Place, Rail Baron players draw trips from one city to another, then travel the various railroads in between—the B&O, Rock Island, Pennsylvania, Union Pacific, or Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe, et al.—to get there. As individual players acquire the rail lines, they can upgrade the service from coaches to superliners, instead of building housing and hotel monopolies, and collect larger fees from their patrons.

While both are random games of chance at the core, dictated by rolls of the dice, in Rail Baron, competitors can usually choose between different routes to their destination city by weighing prices, distances, and which players they may or may not want to pay. Even monopolists must be sensitive to competitive forces and consumer fancy. Both Rail Baron and Monopoly allow smooth talkers to trade properties with other players to control specific regions, although there's little subtlety left in the game when everyone knows what properties you already have and what else you need to accede to market dominance.

Of course, both games also eventually end when all the competition is bankrupt, yielding a tidy conclusion. That's not usually the result in real business, although there might be a distinct appeal in just declaring a corporate winner, creating standards, and moving on with life. Real-life companies who seek to dominate the markets in which they ply their trade typically must continue to evolve by finding new customers or new opportunities for existing customers to use more of their monopolist product or technology, thus feeding the corporate machine.

In the best cases, that can beget marvelous new innovations and advances in technology. In the interest of leveraging strengths and infrastructure, monopolies are often the most able to pour cash into innovation. For example, Xerox PARC in the 1970s is readily credited with developing the first graphical user interface, as well as ethernet. AT&T Bell labs, in search of ways to further entrench phone line usage with videophones, developed digital video technology that became the underpinnings of early digital video capture cards.

In the 1990s, Intel's richly funded Architecture Labs did a great service to desktop video by developing the Indeo compression format. Naturally, Intel's goal was to find reasons for customers to buy their faster CPUs, and digital video might have provided just the impetus they needed. Yet even if Intel's motives were predominantly self-serving, creating Indeo altruistically solved problems for content developers. Indeo Video Interactive, a later version of the codec, pushed video quality even farther, but ultimately stayed too close to Intel's main goal of demanding greater processor strength and scared away mass-market content developers.

Today, Microsoft is in something of a similar position with Windows Media, endowing very smart mathematicians with the resources to build the best video and audio compression available. The company has long claimed that its goal is making Windows the best computer platform for creating and distributing digital media, and that's fine. In isolation, there's something rewarding about seeing professionals in any line of work doing their jobs well and, in the case of Windows Media 9 Series, the results are impressive gains in quality. Not bound by the lengthy standards process that's plagued MPEG-4, nor the cash limitations that smaller companies must contend with, Microsoft is doing a great service to future digital video by creating technology that may ultimately make high-quality Internet video commonplace.

Yet, just as small technology pioneers must evolve or die (See Jan Ozer's October Moving Picture, www.emedialive.com/r10/2002/picture10_02.html), monopolies must ultimately allow such potentially far-reaching technologies to thrive away from any self-interested purpose. To the point, neither Xerox PARC nor AT&T, nor Intel for that matter, profited from some of their best R&D. Apple, and later Microsoft, product-ized the GUI, while both Cisco and 3Com became wealthy from ethernet. AT&T's work with digital video would ultimately create the roots of products from companies like Truevision.

With Windows Media, Microsoft may indeed have an asset that satisfies its goal of making Windows the dominant platform for digital video. But, so what? That doesn't end the game. As glamorous a prize as it may be, the success of the technology is causing the widespread adoption and use of Internet video regardless of the platform, to beget smarter, more efficient, and more usable consumer electronics devices with or without a Windows operating system, and to find completely unforeseen opportunities for digital media.

If those things happen, Microsoft should be in the best position to take advantage. As the initial developer of the potentially unifying video technology, Microsoft will be in the best position to exploit that technology in the computer industry. But if the technology isn't available to the rest of the world—that is, if they refuse to provide cross-platform computer support, as well as the open consumer device support that's more readily discussed, without strings to Redmond—Windows Media 9 may garner Microsoft little more than all the play money at the end of the game.

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