What's the Billy Problem?

(warning! the Billy problem, ie Billyworld, is a rather large one and takes a while to read - but it's a great story so indulge yourself)

You may have heard of the year 2000 problem and no, it is not how are we going to pay for the Olympics, but the fact that when software programmers first got into setting up all the mainframe stuff for banks etc, they never realised that the year 2000 came after 1999 (or at least said they didn't) - so they didn't cater for it and on 31 Dec 1999, the whole computer world will grind to a halt. Well actually they are fixing it and that's the perfect lead into the Billy problem, ie never do anything properly the first time, nor take out the mystery.

Back in 1991, in an leafy commuter town of the United States, Billy awoke and looked in the mirror but saw nothing. Billy put his glasses on and looked again and saw that he was neither happy nor sad. He was simply the richest man in America - so why wasn't he happy? A harder look told all. He had only earned 5 million as he slept that last night and he really wanted to make 50, otherwise it was hardly worth going to bed.

This played on Billy's mind so he got professional help, not from a shrink but from his Marketing Consultant Mervyn Marvin Jnr, VP of We Sow'em You Reap'em Inc - some would say a shrink in disguise. It was the best thing Billy ever did. MM explained to Billy that his products were too good. ----'But my flagship Excel 4 is the best thing I've ever done, and I've converted 90% of Lotus 123 users according to your last survey'.

'Exactly'. ----'How do you mean?' ----'Well Billy, you just said it, you've saturated the present market and you were stupid enough to not even put in a 2000 problem.'

'I should hope not, Excel 4 works beyond the year 2 million'. ----'That's right, and you don't make another cent'. ----'(Gulp) You're starting to make sense, so what do I need to do?'

Two things basically, we widen the market and then we come back and knock off the present contented users with our own 1995 problem'. -----'Can you go a bit slower?'

'We start by making Excel attractive to every man woman and child'. ----'You're joking, Excel is a spreadsheet and a SS is a highly technical program for engineers and accountants and scientists and...' ----'And every man woman and child'. ----'But most people just use a WP program, that's all they need, especially with my Word for Windows.' ----'Used to just use a WP Billy, used to'

'OK smartarse, how is Mrs Housewife going to use a third order Butterworth function with tangential Newtonian convergence'. ----'She wont be able to anyway, it wont be there anymore.'

'Now hang about a bit, you're not thinking of chopping bits out of my flagship, no way Jose.' ----'Well why leave them in, you can't access them from a WP menu bar.' ----'You're not seriously suggesting making my flagship into a defacto WP. Yes you are, aren't you?'. So what do I do with Word? That's got you!'

'Billy, keep calm, it's still going to be Excel, just a bit more user friendly.' ----'Well let me tell you smartypants, we've been through all this marketing crap and that's why we came up with Works, the poor man's SS and WP.' ----'Yes Billy, and you went to a poor man's marketing consultant in those days and now you're with us, remember rule no 1 - never suggest to the customer they are getting a lesser product.'

'But you just said you were going to chop Excel to bits, make it inferior' ----'How would Mrs Housewife know what was there before? All that matters to her is that she has Excel, the world's most powerful SS' ----'Which you just said will be a shadow of its former self, yeah I know, how would she know that? Are you saying people buy software as a status symbol?' ----'Now you're learning Billy, that's exactly it, just like a CD collection which they hardly ever play.'

'But I still don't see why they don't use it if they paid for it?' ----'That's easy Billy, we have them working their little arses off in order to pay for all the junk we convinced them they need - and any other time they have, they spend it socialising so they can impress others about what they bought.' ----'Why wouldn't they skip the second bit and use that time to use what they bought?' ----'Billy, Billy, you are asking me about the nature of the beast?, that's shrink territory, marketing is simply exploiting the nature of the beast, not explaining it.' ----'Oh, I see, I think.'

(Bill gives up on Freud and refocuses on money) 'So, what I've got to sell is a WP plus a WP that thinks it is SS, or is it SS that thinks it is a WP? ----'Interesting point Billy, I'll get our people working on that straight away - could be a new angle there.' ----'Sure, sure, what I mean is why would someone want to buy two packages that do the same thing?' ----'They are not going to be the same, we'll tart Excel up a bit, you know, a new feature, we've already come up with a name, the pivot table.'

(Bill goes pensive again) 'Just thinking, we always start the manual with 'what's new in this version', shouldn't we be honest and actually tell them what we have taken out? ----'No problem there, we've done away with the manual as well, it's called marginal costing Bill, once you recoup your development cost, every extra sale is almost 100% profit, a few lousy discs, but put in 4 inches of manuals and you're down to 50%.' ----'Mmm, and as you say they wont be even using the software, so what the heck.'

'But what the hell does a pivot table do?' ----'It will allow you to pivot the x and y axis in tables and charts' ----'You can do that already' ----'Billy, your existing, soon to be defunct customers can do it already, the new ones haven't got a clue and wont ever use it anyway.' ----'So you're saying my beautiful flagship is going to sit on millions of computers and be overlooked by preference to Space Invaders, but I have to explain to my loyal customers, to whom I have promised upward compatibility, that they now have a problem?'

'Billy I thought you were beginning to understand, let's backtrack a bit. You only make 5 million a night and you want to make 50 and one of the reasons you only make 5 is that you have provided a group of people with some software that is so good they don't need to upgrade until the year 2 million. Billy, you are the one with the problem, not them, which means we have to make a problem for them and that's the 1995 problem.'

'OK, I may have been overly keen to make Excel the best thing since sliced bread but I've already told you, these people can use Excel 4 to the year 2 million, no sweat. There's no way they would want to go backwards to this glorified WP you are suggesting' ---'Exactly, so we attack them at the GUI level, cut off the lifeblood to their precious all singing, all dancing Excel 4.'

'Hang about there, you may convince me to castrate Excel but Windows is my crowning glory. I've even worked out how to stop it crashing. How could you improve Windows anyway?' ----'What do you mean improve it, all we need is a new feature and a catchy name. We have already decided on long filenames as the new feature and Billyworld as the new name'

'You're really off your perch this time buddy, what's wrong with DOS file names, people like them.' ----'Bill me old son, since when has marketing had anything to do with what the people like, it's what we tell them they should like. People are basically like sheep, what they come to like is simply a matter of how well it is advertised. Most would even go for a kick in the head as long as it was done by Big Arnie. We say you need long file names, end of discussion.'

'OK then, but it's no to Billyworld, and that's a capital NO - read my lips' ----'But this is a brave new world of entertainment in the home, folks are used to vacations at Disneyworld and even travelling clean across the States for Wallyworld, this is Billyworld' ----'And I say it's not, if we do this thing in 1995, we call it Windows95, screw Billyworld' (Editor: a lot of people would live to wish they had when the time came)

'But just consider Billy, you as a former tech head have become an international icon, more famous than Alistair Nicholson.' ----'Who's he when he's at home?' ----'Some judge or King in Australia who's always in your face on TV marketing divorce investments.' (MM mumbles to himself) 'shit, there I go using the wrong word again, gotta keep telling myself marketing sows the seeds, sales reaps the harvest, I do the sowing, Bill does the reaping and so does Alistair, or does he sow, Christ I don't know.'

(Bill remains oblivious but a puzzled look comes over his head - all of it)' ----Where's Australia?' ----'Somewhere South, past Brazil I think' ----'That doesn't help, am I there though' ----'Of course you're there, we make sure you are omnipresent - sales wise anyway' ----'Skip the crap MM.'

'In fact, one of the things we are putting into Excel to fill the gaps is an atlas' ----'An atlas in Excel, will that help anyone?' ----'Us for a start I'd say' ----'But we could use ENCARTA to find where our offices are in these bloody native colonies' ----'I thought ENCARTA was a Zulu political party in South Africa, ' ----'Where's that?' ----'I know this one - well at least I know it's South' ----'Big help - maybe we do need that atlas bit.'

'But I tell you Billy, call it Windows95 and it will look very old hat in 1997' ----'Does that come before 2000' ----'I think so' ----'Maybe we should call it Apocalypse 95, to mark the year we screwed 'em all up? ----'For Christ's sake Billy how many times do I have to tell you not to tell the truth in these meetings, the walls have ears, we don't want another Billygate.' (Editor : honest injun, that one just came out, you know, Watergate/Billygate/Billy Gates - ha ha!)----'OK, OK but not Billyworld.

'Anyway MM, I've just yellow flagged you on what you did tell me 5 years ago, you know that marketing video 'Defence, Defence' where the VP of the good company says 'show me a customer who is being ignored by his supplier and I'll show you my next account', that's what I followed to get all the Lotus 123 people switched to Excel.'

'Ancient history Billy, we don't use that video anymore.' ----'What do you say now?' ----'Don't give a sucker an even break' ----'Wasn't that from a movie?' ----'I don't know - actually Bill, let me bounce one off you, we are thinking of enhancing our new aggressive stance as a leading marketing consultancy by changing our name from We Sow'em You Reap'em to We Sow'em You Rape'em, what do you think?' ----'If the cap fits sort of thing?' ----'Huh? .... Forget it!'

'By the way MM, when are we talking about Word 1 for Windows?' ----'That's Thursday morning, but it's not Word 1 anymore, so start getting used to it.' ----'I though you said people were happy to use a WP and I have to say (Bill blushes) Word 1 is a gem.' ----'That's why you need Word 2, get a few bugs in there this time, make it crash or something'. ----'Pardon me, why?' ----'How else are you going to get people to buy Word 3 to 6?' ----'Why would people buy an update with bugs?' ----'To get rid of the bugs of the previous version.' ----'Which you don't though.' ----'It's a gradual process getting rid of bugs, people know that.' ----'But there weren't any in Word 1' ----'But it's been upgraded to Word 2, Word 1 is not available anymore'.

'Billy, we should block in a full day on Thursday, I think we're going to need it. Besides I also need to talk about the size of Word, you know the bytes.' ----'Well yeah, I've kept the exe file below 1 MB, not bad eh? ----'It's disgusting, we need at least 4, if not 5 MB to market it properly.' ----'Are you saying size matters, I thought the idea was to be as small as possible so people could have as much room as possible for their own work?' ----'Billy .....' -----'I know, they wont have any valuable work any more. ----'Exactly my little sleeping beauty, the rule is that the total stable shall be 80% of the size of the average hard disc, as sure as you leave a vacant parking lot, they will fill it with software from others. It has to bulge man, the bigger the better.' ----'So this is a bit like Excel?'. ----'If you are asking do you have the same problem, sure it is, but let's talk on Thursday.'

'So let me understand this, what you are suggesting is that Excel 4 no longer works in Billyworld, shit you've got me saying it now, in Windows 95. ----'No, that's too blatant, even for us' ----'How's blatant go?' ----'You know, even the dingbats using Billyworld would smell a rat, no, there's more than one way to skin a rat - or is that a cat, what we do my little tech head friend is chop the macros.'

'How's that going to stop these people still using Excel 4 and Win 3.1?' ----'It wont, but it will stop their customers using it.' ----'You lost me again, how do these people have customers?' ----'Billy, do you realise the harm you did to the whole computer industry with Excel 4, you had accountants, for example, simply writing one of your so called 'custom applications' to do a company's full financial accounting needs and then firing the whole EDP department. Do you realise that unless the software jocks had exercised the foresight they did in coming up with the year 2000 problem, most would now be out of work.'

'Do you realise that the entire $7 trillion GDP of this country is 'calculated on a pair of personal computers that might fetch a few hundred dollars at a garage sale in which a handful of computer discs are fed into a customised spreadsheet program that runs on circa 1987 PCs'. (Editor : and still does in 1997 according to a recent Bloomberg report) Can you see it Billy, can you see the damage?'

'Who's side are we on anyway? ----'Think about it Billy, not with your solutions hat but with your 'I want to wake up 50 million richer each morning' hat. ----'You make sense I guess and by the way, could we promote me as making 50 million each day, this 'wakes up each morning' business makes me out to be a moron - like I can only make money while I sleep, you know, like it's not even me that's making the money.' ----'You're not Billy, it's us, but if it makes you feel better I'll get someone working on your image bit.'

'Thanks, anyway we come up with this new GUI called Windows95 and it stops them dead, so how do we sell this to people?' ----'Easy my little silicon headed friend we make them think we are starting them up.' ----'This is a bit too much for me to take in, I'll just grab another bagel and coffee' (Billy grabs a coffee and bagel). ----'Let me slow down for you a bit, we put a button on the screen that says START and when they click on it they are taken down our chosen path so they can then do what we want them to.'

'But the whole idea of Windows was to allow people to set up a screen with all their favourite software just one click away, it was sort of 'where do you want to go today' and off you went.' ----'Exactly my bagel munching mate, and you just came up with the magic words. The truth is that only your smart mates come up with a customised windows screen, in most cases it looks like a dogs breakfast, and takes a treasure hunt to get to where they think they want to go.' ----'Yeah, I've always been disappointed people are so dumb they can't even configure my beaut GUI.' ----'Don't knock it Bill, this stupidness is your key to success.'

'So what happens Billy baby is that when they turn on the PC they go straight to a screen with a button saying START and for the ultra morons we even put in a little arrow, like a dog having a poke, that says 'start here', like where it says START, follow me?' ----'Sounds absolutely moronic' ----'Glad you like the idea, we got it from an account we did for a supermarket chain, you direct the shoppers in at the far end from the checkout and make sure they fill their trolleys with high profit crap before getting to what they really need.'

'But what are we trying to hide?' ---'Let me give you an example, that dog of a backup program you had to can, and then go and buy a good one from Symantic, well now you can save the equivalent of one hour's sleep by simply dusting off your own and putting it right up behind the toilet bowl cleaners, if you know what I mean, where nobody can find it.' ----'But what about people needing to back up their valuable work' ----'What valuable work, remember they ain't doing anything valuable anymore, this is the world of virtual reality, virtual worth, it's Billyworld.' ----'Start that again arsehole and I get a new consultant, and that's a promise.' ----'Calm down baby, we all need each other, don't we?' (Bill remains silent and dusts the bagel residue off his tie).

'OK I get back to how are we going to promote this start thing when we are obviously simply leading them down the garden path, our garden path.' ----'Already in hand, I've signed up a clip from the Rolling Stones, they have a song 'You Start Me Up', I've offered them the proceeds of 10 minutes of your sleep last night.' ----'I didn't sleep much at all last night with all this worry.' ----'Well there you go, the million dollars was probably only 5 minutes worth.' ----'It does sound better but who are the Rolling Stones anyway? ----'Beats the crap out of me, some new heavy metal group I think.'

'I'll have to sleep on all of this, but just one thing, how does this help the software jocks and why do we want to anyway?' ----'Glad you asked, what we do is dust off some old language they are happy with, tart it up, give it a name like basically visual or something and let them loose on the whole stable.' ----'Right, so the Excel solutions people wont know how to use it and wouldn't want to go back to the bad old days of seaming a whole lot of redundant modules together anyway.' ----'Catching on Bill, proud of you.' ----'Yeah but why are we on the jock's side and not the side of the guy we are screwing, but who actually supported me and got me to where I am today while the jocks were bashing useless code?'

'Bill, we're not on either side, we're on our own side, just rejuvenate those little grey cells for one last intake for the day and you can go off to sleep. On the one hand you have one person, and a lay person at that, providing a solution with one bit of software that is so good he wont be even looking for an upgrade, OR you have 10 software jocks bashing out useless longhand code, each needing to buy (or their employer to buy) 10 or more of your packages." ----'What's 10 times 10?' ----'About 100 I'd say.'

'Guess you are correct in what you say but I still feel we are in reverse gear and going at 60 MPH - like (Bill attempts a speech) I really felt what I tried to create was progress, you know, take the mystery out of computing and allow intelligent people to create things for the good of mankind.'

'Leave the speeches to us Bill, (this is a speech) OK Bill, you did have a vision but you went too far, much too far, you threatened the whole opportunity of making money out of computers and software, you put power in the hands of intelligent people and took it away from software programmers and what's more, you forgot about the man, woman and child in the street (and at home when they get off the street) who we have decided needs to use a computer to help their interpersonal and communication skills in their ever increasing need (as we have devised it) for them to interface in their life cycle in a seamless plethora of interwoven workplace and homebase skills and God bless America.' (Bill wipes his eyes with one hand and places the other on his heart).

'Just seems funny that you are so smart MM but I'm the one who makes all the money.' ----'You don't Bill, you don't. We make it for you remember, all you need to do is sleep.' ----'I though we were going to change that?' ----'Oh yes, so we were, but just give me a bit of time, I'm trying to take up on your earlier bit about going somewhere today.'

'I wonder if we could get Billy Joel to do a number like Where are you going today? or Where do you think you want us to tell you where you think you're going today? - the pieces are there in the mind Billy, I've just got to communicate them out to my people so we can have a brainstorming workshop, run them through the WIFM and SWOT models and we'll be there. Maybe we could try, where do you want to sleep tonite after going nowhere today? - not quite there, just leave it with me Billy.'

'What about simply, We stop you dead. Sorry MM, just joking.'

And the meeting concluded, MM and Billy appeared from the (as we see, bugged) boardroom, linked arms and lightly skipped down the corridor singing 'You start me up, yeah yeah yeah, you start me up.' Yes Folks, Billyworld was conceived, even if not born or named properly.