Heir to the Evil Empire Throne

A lot of people might think this is a bit premature, but I'm struggling to figure out which company will inherit the "evil empire" mantle from Microsoft. Right now, I'm betting it will be AOL Time Warner, but I've been fooled before.

A lot of people might think this is a bit premature, but Im struggling to figure out which company will inherit the "evil empire" mantle from Microsoft. Right now, Im betting it will be AOL Time Warner, but Ive been fooled before.

The evil empire is the company that, in any given era, happens to represent a catastrophic threat — sometimes real, often imagined — to civilization as we know it. For decades, it was John D. Rockefellers Standard Oil, followed by such titans as General Motors, Dow Chemical, AT&T, IBM and finally, of course, William H. Gates III and his Redmond monopoly.

In most eras, you can identify the evil empire du jour simply by ascertaining which company the U.S. government is bent on breaking up at the moment. But not always. When President Dwight Eisenhower warned of a growing "military-industrial complex" as he prepared to turn the White House over to John Kennedy, he was describing the opposite of trust busting. His dark vision was a dangerous collusion between big government and big business, born of the Cold War and sustained by secrecy and cries of national security.

It peaked during the Vietnam War era with a handful of big companies whose defense contracts enabled them to wield near-monopolistic power within their respective industries.

Several things are apparently necessary to claim the evil empire title. First, the company has to be big, of course. And it helps if cool, youth-culture types hate the enterprise in question for undermining one or more of their heroes. Thus Apple Computer could never be an evil empire unless Steve Jobs actually managed to out-market the Wintel duopoly, which will not happen in our lifetimes.

It also has to be savvy. This leaves out Sun Microsystems, the Hamlet of the digital age. Is it a chip company? A hardware company? A software company? Apparently, Scott McNeally and Ed Zander are keeping the answer to themselves. Theyre so far behind schedule with their next-generation chip development that no one is really factoring Sun Box the Sequel into their plans anymore. They could have co-opted the open source community with a smart Java license, but got so spooked by Linux socialism that they crawled into a licensing hole. They could have led with open standards, but got scared away by jealousy over IBMs assignation with Java.

Heres a paradox: Microsoft is now more firmly committed to open standards than Sun is. Cool people everywhere are not pleased. And what of Sun One? Its another enlightened technology from a company that has been remarkable for enlightened technologies. But this potential .Net killer is being so poorly marketed that much of the market cant figure out what it really is.

Finally, any candidate for evil empire has to be ruthlessly aggressive and at least slightly arrogant. This means that Oracle could qualify nicely. With a few of the right breaks, Larry Ellison could become the Bill Gates of his era. Oh, wait! There already is a Bill Gates of his era. Things get so personal with Larry. Even when hes right — which, lets face it, is a lot of the time — people dont take him seriously. Maybe because his ambition so often smells like vendetta.

That really leaves only AOL Time Warner to take over the world and destroy civilization, democracy, culture and the American ethic. Cool geeks hate this company with a passion, so it qualifies on that account. Its the biggest, baddest media conglomerate in history. Its as rich as God, and — most importantly — AOL has demonstrated its no longer afraid of mixing it up with Microsoft.

The last round of failed negotiations between the two companies brought to mind the OS/2 divorce that sent IBM reeling into humility and began Microsofts image metamorphosis from wunderkind to bully.

Think Im wrong? Let me know. Im accepting nominations for Evil Empire 2002.