Goldenseal Pro Progress: Monopolies (Feb 21)

Ithaca has five new-car dealerships scattered along the main drag. Years ago they were independent, but one of them started to buy up the others. Now they’ve gobbled all five, and are expanding into nearby towns and cities.

There’s a lot to be said for owning a monopoly. You can charge your customers more. You can pay less to your sales and repair staff. Where else are people gonna go? Even better, you can use the excess profit to expand and/or purchase the competition, and get even more monopoly. It’s a positive feedback loop. A chance for exponential growth. One reason why the rich get richer.

Doing business with a monopoly? Not so great. Fortunately, there still are independent repair shops in town. It’s also possible to drive an hour and get dealer services for 1/2 to 2/3 the local price. Both those options may dry up if the trend continues.

Sadly, more car monopoly is likely: dealerships are consolidating everywhere. The local group isn’t even in the top 150 for size. Their industry is following the same path as banks, auto parts stores, lumber yards. However, the difference is that auto dealers already have franchises: a local monopoly for one or a few brands. Merge them, and it’s like owning every bank in town. Hedge funds must be drooling.

Monopoly is a problem we face as a construction software company. TurtleSoft is a minnow swimming in a sea owned by trillion-dollar tech monopoly sharks.

The Apple/Microsoft desktop duopoly doesn’t mean higher prices for us. In fact, their development tools are free. The problem, I think, is a more general arrogance. It happens when wealth and power get concentrated. No competition, so no need to make their tools excellent. If it takes 4x as long to build for the platform, well, that’s just the cost of entry. Suck it up.

Plain old incompetence may also be part of the problem. Too many pointy-haired bosses in the decision chain. Or maybe there is something else at play. Minnows can’t easily understand sharks. All they see is skin, teeth and turbulence.

For whatever reason, we wasted more than 4 years with Cocoa/Xcode from Apple, and MFC/Visual Studio from Microsoft.

I did a post-mortem recently, looking back at all our past successes and failures. They very much correlate with monopoly.

TurtleSoft started with MacNail, estimating software based on Excel spreadsheets. It was back when Microsoft was the scrappy underdog struggling against Lotus 1-2-3. Later we released BidMagic, made with Apple’s HyperCard when they were the scrappy underdog competing against IBM, DOS and Windows. Next came Goldenseal, built using CodeWarrior from Metrowerks. They were the smallest, scrappiest underdog of them all. CodeWarrior was also the best tool our staff has ever worked with.

In all three cases, I think the scrappiness led to excellent programmer tools. They had to be amazing, or die. The end result for us was being able to create software in a reasonable amount of time. The tools were satisfying to use. Almost fun. Definitely productive.

Sadly, all three of those tools lost their greatness prematurely. Excel grew bloated after Version 3.0, with a bug that randomly zapped code in our macro sheets. HyperCard stagnated and soon disappeared. Metrowerks was absorbed by Motorola. After a few years they butchered CodeWarrior and sold its organs.

Scrappiness does not guarantee great software. Over the years we’ve tried at least a dozen development platforms that didn’t work out. Some came from big fish, but most were made by minnows that later died. It’s always a gamble.

Fortunately, Qt is proving to be like the 3 best development tools we’ve used. Every week it lets our staff make serious progress on Goldenseal Pro. Things are really cruising.

In the future, TurtleSoft will be less tolerant of BS from the trillion-dollar companies. They lost something important, getting to be so big.

Looking at the bigger picture, monopolies may have grown too powerful. There’s too much concentration of wealth and power these days. Too much arrogance and incompetence.

It may be time again for some Teddy Roosevelt-style monopoly busting. Clamping down probably won’t help car owners around here, but at least it can rein in the biggest of the sharks.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director

Author: Dennis Kolva

Programming Director for Turtle Creek Software. Design & planning of accounting and estimating software.