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Sometimes, a company can become too successful. Instead of earning admiration for creating wealth and useful products, the company becomes a target for resentment and bitterness, even by its customers. In extreme cases, such companies acquire the dubious honor of the "Evil Empire" label.
Evil Empires can acquire their reputation through no fault of their own. But all too often, they earn the characterization through a distasteful combination of success-fueled arrogance and a thinly disguised disdain for customers, competitors, and regulators.
Back in the 1970s and '80s, IBM was clearly the IT industry's ruling Evil Empire. The company was often seen as justifying its lofty prices with claims that "no one ever got fired for buying IBM." Well, maybe not, but a lot of people resented its dominance.
That may be one reason a scrappy little software outfit from suburban Seattle was able to pull off the deal of the century by licensing an undistinguished operating system to run IBM's PC. In the eyes of many observers, Microsoft used that clever trick to grab a stranglehold on the PC business, strong-arming computer makers, driving competitors out of business, and not even bothering to hide its contempt for government attempts to rein in its power. Today, Microsoft is clearly seen as the industry's Evil Empire Numero Uno.
But remember, Evil Empires are in the eyes of the beholder. One of Microsoft's biggest victims was Netscape. In fact, many users were so mad at Microsoft that they kept using Netscape's browser even when Microsoft's free alternative was clearly superior. It wasn't about the technology; it was political. And personal.
But then a funny thing happened. Netscape was swallowed up by AOL, now AOL Time Warner. And with complaints of AOL's carpet-bombing approach to marketing, consistent dumbing-down of the online experience, and mean-spirited attempts to dominate instant messaging, the former Microsoft victim has clawed its way into the No. 2 spot on the Evil Empire charts. Disgruntled Web surfers are being forced to turn to Opera, for heaven's sake.
Who's Evil Empire No. 3? It has to be Oracle, based primarily on the prickly personality of its high-profile CEO. Larry Ellison's take-no-prisoners attitude has created a corporate culture with a ferocity second to none. And that culture has affected the company's relations with everyone, from the media to its own user groups!
The No. 4 position on the Evil Empire Charts is held down by Computer Associates. The current federal investigation into accounting irregularities notwithstanding, a bigger issue is what some users see as the company's longtime practice of acquiring aging technologies, slashing new development, and attempting to milk the installed base for service and support. Users can feel trapped.
By comparison with these companies, IBM seems almost cuddly these days. And since the Empire-ish AT&T was chopped into so many parts, the scariest title old Ma Bell could muster these days would be Evil Neighborhood.
So, what's the problem with being an Evil Empire? After all, you can't grow big enough to qualify as an Evil Empire unless you do something right. However, IT's Evil Empires have to be careful. They may discover that a significant portion of technology professionals, including many of their best customers, would be more than happy to see them get their comeuppances. If and when an Evil Empire stumbles, it may have trouble garnering much sympathy. And it may find its fall from grace is faster, deeper, and harder than that of a similar company blessed with a reputation for playing nice.
The Evil Empires--and all the potential Evil Empires--would do well to mind their manners from the beginning. It's much easier to avoid this label than to shed it once it's been stuck on you. Witness the widespread skepticism greeting Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's professed sincerity as he promises that his company will really try hard to be a better partner. Only time will tell if he's on the level, but the IT community would be well-served to watch closely and make sure Microsoft--and all the Evil Empires--follow both the letter and the spirit of the law, not to mention the standards of business ethics.
Fredric Paul is editor in chief of CMP Media's TechWeb.com.