Stratagem 34:Deck the Tree with Bogus Blossoms
“Use deceptive appearances to make your troop formation look more powerful than it is. When wild geese soar high above, the grandness of their formation is greatly enhanced by the display of their outstretched wings.”
—From The Thirty-Six Stratagems
Microsoft is battling competitors across multiple fronts, competitors that are creating a network of alliances to contain their powerful adversary. In 2001, for example, about ten years after Microsoft toppled Britannica using Stratagem Three, Invite your enemy onto the roof, then remove the ladder, an unusual player entered the encyclopedia market.
Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger had been working for Nupedia, a Web-based encyclopedia that provided free content reviewed and edited by experts. Nupedia was innovative in that it delivered its content exclusively via the Web, not CD-ROM or print, and it gave its content away for free.
But organizationally it differed little from its competitors. It maintained a network of subject experts who applied a seven-step review process. The process was about as slow, and the resulting
content as stale, as any other encyclopedia.
On January 10, 2001, however, Nupedia added a new feature: an open encyclopedia that users could edit without the burden of expert review. This had the potential to unlock an ocean of content, as almost any user could submit articles, and an encyclopedia that changed daily, since this service would require no review process.
Contributors spontaneously organized to build content. By the end of its first year, the new service, called Wikipedia, grew to approximately 20,000 articles in 18 language editions. By the end of 2002, it expanded into 26 language editions, 46 by the end of 2003, and 161 by the end of 2004. By the end of 2006, Wikipedia, now a stand-alone business that absorbed its former parent Nupedia, wielded an army of over 4,500 “active editors” (those who do the bulk of the editing) who offer over 5 million articles in 229 language editions.90 Its English-language edition offers more than 1.4 million articles compared with about 100,000 for Britannica and 68,000 for Microsoft’s Encarta.91
By efficiently coordinating millions of individuals, Wikipedia has been able to replicate and arguably exceed the power of better-funded rivals. This pattern of competition—coordinating individual elements—has exposed Microsoft to another threat: open-source software.
The advantages of open-source software parallel the advantages of Wikipedia closely. Open-source software allows open communities of programmers to access, edit, and use software for free. In return, users agree to make their work—from debugging work to entirely new utilities—available to the community for free. This arrangement cuts down development time considerably and multiplies the library of software available to developers by giving them access to a vast community of contributors.
While experts believe open-source software is unlikely to oust Microsoft from its position atop the software industry because of the company’s impressive installed base, it has been steadily gaining market share.
Ironically, Microsoft pursues the same tactic of coordinating the parts into a stronger whole, but it uses company-owned assets rather than adversaries in a coalition. As described earlier, the company coordinates its products so that they support each other. By bundling its software products and ensuring that they are compatible with each other, Microsoft creates a more valuable network of products.
Similarly, in 1998, a group of handset makers that included Nokia, Ericsson, and Motorola teamed up to create a new company, Symbian. Over the years, they had seen what Microsoft did to IBM—take control of a key lucrative component (the operating system)—and did not want their handsets to suffer the same fate. If Microsoft were to dominate the cell-phone operating system market as it does the market for computer operating systems, handsets would become commodities with little more margin than personal computer clones. Individually, none of the companies in the Symbian alliance have the cash or software competency to compete with Microsoft. But by coordinating their efforts, they have been able to capture a 75 percent market share of handset software, effectively containing Microsoft’s inroads into that market.
During the Warring States period (475–221 BC), five states joined forces against Qi. Unable to resist such uneven odds, Qi lost more than seventy cities during the course of five years, until only two cities remained. Both cities were surrounded. One was under the ommand of the capable general, Tian Dan.
Tian Dan knew that he was outnumbered and could not defeat his attackers with orthodox methods. Without a brilliant plan, he would remain trapped until his people either surrendered or died of hunger. So he analyzed his nonmilitary assets and wondered how he could coordinate them until they were powerful enough to break his enemy’s encirclement.
He identified two useful nonmilitary assets: He had people— women, children, and the elderly— who were not slated for military duty, and he possessed more than a thousand bulls.
Tian Dan made three decisions. First, he ordered the children and elderly to guard the city walls and ordered the women to enroll in the military. Second, he had the bulls outfitted for battle. He ordered them covered with silk sheets painted in colorful patterns with knives fastened to their horns and oil-soaked straw bundles tied to their tails. Third, he collected gold from the citizens. Then he asked a group of wealthy men to bring the money to his enemy’s general. They delivered the message that the city was about to fall and the general was requested not to take their wives and children. This third order put his enemy off-guard. The enemy soldiers celebrated their pending return home, and then they slept soundly.
That night, however, after his enemy’s soldiers had fallen asleep, Tian Dan executed his plan. He had the oil-soaked straw bundles that were tied to the bulls’ tails lit and released the bulls outside the city walls, where they ran wild. The enemy soldiers woke up to find themselves under attack by strange ferocious beasts. Many fled for their lives. Tian Dan then ordered his soldiers to march on the enemy forces. They could do this in greater numbers because women fought with them while the elderly citizens and children guarded the city walls.
Tian Dan’s bewildered enemy fell. His city was saved. This triumph marked the beginning of a series of victories for Qi that led to the state recovering the cities that had been lost, returning Qi to its former splendor.