Here's of the most telling statistics ever offered about Microsoft: In l996, a New York City telecommunications consulting firm concluded that Bill Gates could buy a computer for every unwired kid in America for roughly $6 billion, a fraction of his total wealth. In fact, said the study on the uneven distribution of technology in American education, if Gates invested the interest on his wealth for a couple of years, he could buy those computers without even dipping into his principal.
The industry of which Gates has been the titular head of for years has historically exhibited scant generosity, empathy, or social vision, although recently having discovered the need for better public relations, has begun making some gestures towards charity. Bill Gates has personally given hundreds of millions to charitable causes, along with some Silicon Valley moguls, but bold and dramatic moves towards technological equality and empowerment are not in the nature of modern corporations.
In corporate America, it's practically illegal to do anything with money except distribute it to stockholders as quickly as possible. This is great for the stockholders, but is short-sighted, especially tough on the social fabric of a country in which politicians campaign for office mostly on vows to do little or nothing.
That's why Ford Motor's announcement last week was potentially the most significant technology news in years, vastly more important than the river of hype about mergers and IPOs. Ford will offer each of its 350,000 employees worldwide, from factory workers in India to designers in Michigan, a high-speed desktop computer, a color printer and unlimited Internet access for just $5 a month. This announcement was potentially the most significant technology news in years, vastly more important than the river of hype about mergers, IPOs and stock prices.
Company founder Henry Ford came from a different business era, a time when the individuals running companies could, and sometimes even did, make moral as well as financial decisions about the way their companies worked.
Although by all accounts, Ford was neither an admirable individual nor a likeable boss, his vision of technology had enormous impact on the world. He brought mobility to countless millions who never had it. He understood that workers who were treated well did better work than workers who weren't. He's the reason the automobile quickly became a universal work and recreational option for people of many income levels.
Presented with a number of ideas about how to sell automobiles, Ford became obsessed with the idea of the cheap car, a well-made technological product that almost everyone had a shot at buying. For better or worse, he changed the world, and made a ton of money in the process.
Modern corporations aren't run by individuals but by amalgams of lawyers, directors, stockholders, analysts. Companies aren't interested in bold visions, which is why Ford's computer initiative sent shock waves through the business world. Nobody could remember a move like it.
It's ironic that few computer companies are as visionary. Although several are scrambling to market cheap PC's, the industry for years has been marked by high costs, poor quality, confusing products and service, and endemic arrogance. The industry has always focused on hardware and software; technology's users and their needs are rarely in the forefront of design. Apple computers stunned the industry simply by making computers that were pleasant to look at.
Computing has spread throughout the U.S. and much of the world despite the people who sell and design computers, not because of them. If Ford's initiative spreads - it should - the Net would rise to a completely different level almost overnight. Technology would mean something radically different to many millions of people cut off from it now.
It was ironic how short-lived the publicity was over this astounding business move - especially when you compare the coverage of the cracking of Yahoo. Ford's move didn't get a fraction of the attention and discussion it deserved. It may - almost surely will - turn out to be a much-remembered turning point in the way corporations view technology and their own inter-actions with employees.
The computer give-away harks back to Henry Ford's genius. Companies like Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Apple ought to be particularly mortified that they didn't think of it first. So should schools, universities and governments.
Ford once enraged other fat cats when he doubled the wage for assembly-line workers to $5 per eight-hour day in 1913. The move reduced training costs at a time when laborers were so hard to find in Detroit that only one in 10 Ford employees stayed for more than a few months, a scenario familiar to contemporary tech workers and companies.
Now his company's trying something even more radical. Ford's new Web sites will link employees all over the world, and give the company new ways of communicating with its staff. It will affect the way the company does business and the personal lives of the people who work for it.
Ford says it will offer Internet home pages in 14 languages, and provide home page links to Ford Web sites, with UUNet as the ISP.
Ford thus not only makes its employees happy, but gives them a strong incentive to stay in their jobs. It gives employees' children the tools they need to compete in the 21st Century workforce. It helps develop a technologically-skilled labor pool that can communicate internally, and promotes interactivity (not readily available in most corporations) and promotes computer literacy abroad. As computing spreads overseas, it could also have broad social, cultural and political consequences. The Internet promotes freedom, education, democracy and prosperity.
If other American companies adopted Ford's model, the technological gap looming between the middle-class and underclass would begin to close. The United States workforce would become the most technologically sophisticated in the world. The high-tech workforce would expand dramatically, along with the educational, cultural, social and economic benefits of computing still unavailable to more than half the American population.
New kinds of programmers and computer users would surge online, perhaps bringing new ideas and approaches to programming, software and the nature of the Net and Web.
Ford's move could upend a few of the conventional stereotypes (many enthusiastically advanced by yours truly) about greedy corporatism. It hasn't yet, of course.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore talked incessantly about building bridges to the future in the last election, but their administration has done relatively little to wire up the country. It could be argued that this is a role for government, but Ford has challenged that notion. If corporations grasp the benefits for themselves and their employees, and take it upon themselves to provide their workers with computers and Internet access - increasingly, a necessity, not a privilege - they can begin rewriting their own sorry history.
Ford really did have a better idea this time. Perhaps even ground-breaking, if it catches on.