The 10 greatest tech U-turns

1. Microsoft and the internet

When the internet was in commercial kindergarten, or 1993 as it was known, Bill Gates allegedly pooh-poohed the whole concept, saying: “The internet? We are not interested in it.”

Legend has it that he followed up this sage wisdom two years later with the assertion that the web was merely “a passing fad that will go the same way as BBS”. Urban myth or a Schadenfreudean moment of madness?

Could it be that Gates was dismissing the net in a bid to promote his own Microsoft Network? Whatever the company’s motives, no-one could
say Microsoft didn’t catch on fast.

In a move that wasn’t so much bolting the stable door after the horse had bolted as chasing it down and running it over in an Abrams tank, the company began bundling Internet Explorer with Windows, a move that would seal its browser dominance for more than a decade, annoy website developers no end, and land the company in hot water with US judges.

Fifteen years on, and despite EU and US protests, Microsoft and the internet are as intertwined as the guests at a Hugh Heffner evening party.

2. Dell and direct

Dell Latitude keyboardSafe to say Michael Dell believed in the direct model. Even at the age of 12 he was learning its virtues, writing in his 1999 autobiography Direct from Dell, “I learned an early, powerful lesson about the rewards of eliminating the middleman”, after his very first dalliance with selling direct – although this time selling stamps, not PCs.

It was a strategy that served him well when he set up Dell Computers in 1984, with the company outperforming its rivals for 20 years, until something strange started to happen. Dell as a company had grown used to lovely-looking graphs that always pointed upwards, but in 2006 it lost the number one position to arch-rival HP (according to analyst Gartner), seeing both sales and profits tumble in the process.

By this point Michael Dell had left the building, a “gone fishing” sign hanging on his chairman’s door. Which proved a bit of a problem, as his successors found it rather difficult to abandon the long-time mantra of selling direct.

In the end, only one person could make that kind of decision, and to the relief of shareholders, Michael Dell swapped his galoshes for a crisp blue suit. And then announced: “The direct model has been a revolution, but is not a religion.” Hallelujah, investors cried.

3. Google and browsers. Oh, and OSes

Google may not do evil, but next time the search giant makes a promise it might be worth peering behind its back to check for crossed fingers.

As evidence, let’s look at some of Google’s recent proclamations. In 2007, the company was busy swatting away rumours it was working on the Gphone. “Smartphones?” it sniffed. “We’re a software company, what would we even do with a smartphone?” Cue Android, a smartphone operating system – “well, it’s not really a smartphone, is it?” the company stopped just short of saying.

In 2008, Google was at it again. Despite repeated assurances it wasn’t interested in producing a web browser (“don’t even know what one is, guv, we only does search,” its evasive execs effectively said in a series of interviews), deep in a Google laboratory test tubes were bubbling away to produce the sparse and slick Google Chrome.

“Ah, well,” it then said, “when we said we weren’t interested in web browsers, that was just a tiny bit of a white lie. But we definitely, definitely, cross our hearts, have no plans to produce an operating system. We don’t trust them. Oh no.”

Another ten months passed by, and then in 2009 yet another miracle transpired. “Oh, you mean that operating system? Why didn’t you say?” And Google still insists this isn’t a real Windows competitor, as it’s only designed for lightweight netbooks, not full-blown systems. So, that’s all right then. Who would doubt Google on its word, after all?

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