SLIDESHOW

Big, Bad Bullies of Tech

Everybody loves the underdog -- until it comes out on top.

From Underdog to Pitbull

In 1976, Bill Gates, the 20-year-old head of a company that was still spelling its name "Micro-Soft," wrote an "open letter to hobbyists" decrying their copying of his company's Altair BASIC code, a landmark in the transition of computing from hobby to industry. It was also an instance of Microsoft, in its infancy, flexing its muscle to impose its will on an industry of free-wheeling free-spirits.

My point is not that Microsoft was wrong to put the hammer down -- indeed, some could say that the entire for-profit software industry sprung forth from that letter -- merely that the seeds of the company's behemoth nature were evident from the beginning. But other companies were instead viewed as upstarts, plucky underdogs, for years before everyone noticed that they were in fact multimillion dollar corporations required by fiduciary responsibility to maximize their profits. We offer you a tour of once-beloved tech pioneers that suddenly found themselves wearing black hats.

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Apple

Was there any doubt that this company would come up at the top of the list? Apple has traditionally aimed its incredibly skillful marketing at weirdos and outsiders (or at least creative hippie-yuppie types who thought of themselves as such). For much of the 1990s and 2000s, the company made a virtue out of necessity, casting its single-digit market share as a sign that it built computers for the rest of us. Macs were always disproportionately beloved by reporters and others in the media, so they maintained a profile that far outpaced their actual market penetration. The company itself was so close to the edge in the late '90s that Microsoft ended up investing millions in the company, seemingly just to maintain a fig leaf of competition for the antitrust regulators.

But then came the runaway success of the iPod, the growth of iTunes as a controlling factor in the emerging digital music market, and the game-changing iPhone, and Apple found itself with Microsoft-Sized chunks of new markets. And suddenly behavior that was endearing in an underdog -- obsessive attention to the user experience to the extent of telling third-parties exactly how they'll be allowed to write code for Apple products, for instance -- began to look downright monopolistic. Now the anti-Apple cries, especially regarding access to iPhone OS for Flash and other non-Objective-C languages, have become a chorus.

Picture courtesy of Flickr user -nathan

Google

Coming in close behind Apple for the sheer swing of turnaround is another company once thought of as an alternative to the way business was done in the tech industry. Founded by two nerdy academics as a part of a research project, the original Google search engine page -- just a logo and a search box on an otherwise blank page -- was a marked contrast to the increasingly-crowded portals of the late '90s, and the search quality was so much better than the competition that people were willing to embrace the company as a savior of an increasingly crowded Web. Even when the company turned to money-making pursuits, the avenue they took to do so -- tiny text ads -- seemed positively tasteful compared to the punch-the-monkey banner ads everyone was sick of. They seemed a small price to pay. The company had "Don't be evil" as its motto, for Pete's sake. How could it be bad?

[ So, Why Do We Trust Google with Our Data? ]

Perhaps the first twinges of doubt in the mainstream came with the advent of Gmail. Yes, Google had created an elegant Webmail platform that ran circles around the other offerings at the time, especially in terms of storage. But contextual ads based on the content of public Web pages were one thing; when they were based on the the content of your private emails, didn't that seem a little ... creepy? As the '00s progressed, it became clear that Google's stated aim to "organize the world's information" in practice involved keeping track of your information and Web-surfing habits. The omnipresence of Google's advertising platform gives one pause; have you ever been unnerved to, say, search Google for the price of gold, only to have the Google ads on the next 10 Web sites you visit offer up gold coins for sale? Concerns about user privacy have transformed Google's reputation into a much more ambivalent one for the '10s.

Picture courtesy of Flickr user Extra Ketchup

The Santa Cruz Operation

Once upon a time -- the time being the late '70s, and the place being Santa Cruz, a groovy college town on the southern fringe of Silicon Valley -- a group of hackers (in the original sense of the term) banded together to create what Eric Raymond called the "first Unix company" -- which is to say the first Unix vendor that wasn't a hardware manufacturer or a telephone company. As you might expect from that time and place and industry, the atmosphere was a bit relaxed; employees soaked in the company hot tub and, according to some uncited info on Wikipedia, would walk the halls of the office naked. Over the course of the '80s and '90s, the company -- now going by the somewhat more corporate-sounding abbreviation "SCO" -- maintained its good reputation among Unix users, and acquired some rights (exactly which ones would later prove controversial) to AT&T's System V Unix.

Then, in the early '00s, SCO pivoted, and made an ultimately failed all-in bet on a product called Tarantella that allowed users to access applications remotely via a browser-based Java applet. In 2001, SCO changed its name to Tarantella, and sold all of its Unix rights -- and the SCO brand -- to a Linux company called Caldera Systems, which promptly redubbed itself with the SCO moniker it had just purchased.

Tarantella crashed in the early-'00s dot-com bust, and its remains were scooped up by Sun in 2005. By that time, the the leadership of the new SCO had dragged the old company's name through the mud: in 2002, the company claimed that IBM had stolen System V code and put it into Linux, which meant that every Linux user was infringing on SCO's property. SCO quickly became a byword for bullying in the Linux and open source community. After the better part of a decade of legal wrangling, US courts finally decided that not only did IBM not infringe on System V copyrights, but SCO never actually acquired the rights to those copyrights from Novell in the first place; by that time, though, any goodwill one might have had towards the long-dead Santa Cruz Operation was at least a little tainted by the actions of the ex-Caldera. Branding is all in business, after all.

Picture courtesy of Flickr user CanadaGood

Dell

Who doesn't like the story of the resourceful college kid taking on the world? In 1984, young Michael Dell was just such a college kid in just such a position. The nascent PC market was dominated by specialized resellers, where you'd go into a physical store and choose a computer from a variety of manufacturers. Dell had a different vision: he would build computers from stock components and sell them directly to customers, which would give him a better idea of what those customers wanted in a computer. The company, founded in Dells' UT Austin dorm room as "PCs Limited," soon took on the much snappier name of its founder. By the mid-'90s, Dell was selling PCs to order online and was worth billions. An American success story!

But like many success story, it left failures in its wake. Dell's direct-sell methodology was really about serving businesses, who in the '80s were beginning to buy PCs en masse for their employees; but it also spelled the end of the local mom-and-pop computer shop, a beloved institution for the first generation of computer enthusiasts. While the occasional representative of this dying species can still be found, most of us are buying our computers direct from their manufacturers, online or at brand-specific stores, or (at the low end) from electronics or office retailers.

Picture courtesy of Flickr user Qai & Riley's Dad, Arnel

SpringSource

This is probably the most obscure company on this list, but it's followed the typical trajectory outlined here, in its niche. Spring is an open source framework that was born as a reaction to the code bloat inherent to programming to Sun's official Java Enterprise Edition spec. Offering a core set of enterprise features that were enough for many developers, with none of the expense of writing reams of Java EE-required classes or buying an expensive Java EE-certified app server, Spring made for an appealing alternative to the mainstream.

But you know these things work: Spring became more ambitious, started offering its own app server. The company's founder, Rod Johnson, seemed determined not just to offer an alternative to Java EE, but to eclipse it. Some became convinced that writing code for the Spring Framework was becoming almost as onerous as Java EE code. And then the company was acquired by VMware, which quickly integrated it into its cloud computing ambitions, which involved deals with Salesforce.com and, yes, Google. Now Spring threatens to become a de facto standard of its own -- one controlled not by the open Java Community Process, but by a single company.

Microsoft?

Wait, didn't we start out by saying that Microsoft was never an underdog? Well, it's true that it wasn't at its birth, but the strange thing is that the company has never been as much of an underdog as it is now. True, its dominance in operating systems and office suites are more or less total, and extremely lucrative; but over the past decade the company has tried repeatedly to break into new markets -- gaming, MP3 players, smartphones, Web search, cloud computing -- and repeatedly either ended up an also ran or failed entirely. You almost sort of feel bad for them. But it seems at least possible that one of these days it'll do something right -- and if there's anything the press likes more than a victim-to-bully story, it's a comeback story. Who knows, maybe Windows Phone 7 or Microsoft Office Live will take the world by storm. And then we can all get back to resenting Redmond again.

Picture courtesy Wikipedia user; Swtpc6800

You might also enjoy:
Why Google Has Become Microsoft's Evil Twin

A Brief History of Geeks

See also:
Confessions of tech hoarders
Facebook's most wanted
Flops and vapor: 10 ways Microsoft tried and failed to rule mobile