As Barack Obama trotted the globe toward the end of last week, back home a story on the technology front was creating a bit of a buzz. Google announced its plans to introduce a new operating system called Chrome OS that tech sector experts saw as a frontal assault on Microsoft. Chrome would go after Microsoft where it lived, attempting to offer an alternative to its Windows franchise that has dominated since the dawn of the PC era it helped make possible. But Chrome would employ a new paradigm, the idea the future of computers is in harnessing the power of the web, that vast computing power, storage capacity and other resources can be found in the "clouds" of computers that are linked together in the Internet universe.
Chrome's full potential is far off. It will first only be introduced for netbooks later this year. Laptop and desktop versions are many months away. But reading about the announcement and talking to a bunch of computer users, I came away with the sense that the market was viewing this introduction with great hope.
Why? Well, in large part because Microsoft is seen as having become a complacent bully. Microsoft was a tech darling in the 1990s, a symbol of American ingenuity and a likely engine of future American growth. When its market capitalization grew greater than that of GM, it made headlines. Ironically, this ascendancy came at the same time as America's post-Cold War assumption of its role of sole-superpower. In the mid-90s, America and Microsoft were clearly the future of the world.
Then both started to abuse their power. America, in the wake of 9/11, undercut the international system it built, rhetorically flaunted its hallowed values and then crudely and repeatedly undercut them in its behaviors. Microsoft went from a symbol of the garage-launched entrepreneurial energy of the tech revolution to being a ruthless crusher of competitors. In fact, it became so dominant, that it felt it could foist on the American public products that didn't work, were full of bugs, were vulnerable to security breaches and, as in the case of Vista, should never have been released in the first place.
Microsoft blew it. Today, consumers and specialists alike are rooting for it to fail. (Hence the love affair with Apple which is seen as the resilient insurgent, the better unconventional choice, even in its advertisements.) Fortunately, for tech consumers worldwide, the growth of Microsoft and the tech sector led to the birth of competitors like Google (founded just over a decade ago.) Google itself is now so large that many wonder if it will become complacent or employ ever-more unfair competitive practices. But it is also big enough that it actually has a chance to undo Microsoft's stranglehold on the inside of the world's computers (of all sizes and shapes), perhaps the most important real estate on the planet earth today (which is appropriately largely virtual).
Under George W. Bush, America also blew the opportunity to consolidate the position it achieved as victor of the Cold War. For years now, many have been rooting for America to fail as well. Certainly, this was never so clear as in the calls for an end to American capitalism during the peak of the financial crisis. But here is where America's fate has thus far diverged from that of its industrial doppelganger Microsoft (the fall of GM, Microsoft's predecessor in the flagship company role, echoes and amplifies many of the points made above...it too grew complacent, ignored the consumer...and invited the competition that has crushed it.) Because while the American brand endured untold damage during the previous administration and continues to be damaged with each passing week of this economic crisis for which we are seen to be responsible, there is still no alternative brand with anything like the appeal of our system, our values or, even today, our track record for creating opportunity for our people.
There is No Alternative (TINA) was a favorite watchword of Margaret Thatcher, used by her to indicate that market capitalism was the only way, and used by her supporters to indicate that she was the only viable option available for saving Britain from the slough of despond it had entered in the 70s. Her enemies were the socialist ideas that had grown so popular in Europe in the post-war era. Soviet communism cooperated by failing during her years in power. And she, of course, spoke for a perspective that was not just British, but was embraced by her soul-brother Ronald Reagan. In a way, it all seems very old-fashioned now. That world seems far away with the Cold War over, the G8 on its last legs, emerging powers rising, America's brand so damaged. And yet, search the horizon. America's greatest ally remains TINA.
Barack Obama can lose his star luster and conduct only marginally effective, workman-like diplomacy as he did last week, and still, post-Bush, post-Iraq, post-Guantanamo, post-Lehman America remains at the center of every critical discussion, the most important player, the basis for all comparisons. China, the rising rival, gains its power from descriptions of how it will have an economy equal to America's within decades...but it is no real alternative. Its political system is defective, fraying at its ethnic edges. Its economic growth is admirable but when we get to the far side of this crisis and the world is depending on China to pick up the slack in the place of diminished American demand, we will see that there are perhaps 50 million Chinese who are anything like Western consumers, a true addition to the market roughly the size of a mid-sized European economy. China with Russia and others seek to sell an alternative to the dollar and the response of world markets is deeply skeptical. Other revolutionary voices for the most part echo the failed approaches of the past.
Had there been a good alternative, now would have been a great moment for it to emerge. In fact, it is perhaps the most telling indictment of the alternatives that are out there...politically, economically, socially, in terms of world leadership...that after such a bad streak, that nothing is really taking hold as Plan B...which creates a terrific opportunity for Barack Obama and his team. We can learn from the Microsoft and General Motors examples. We can seek to adapt to new realities. The trick is going to be convincing the world that a United States that grows at 2 percent a year (which may well be the average for the next 5 years) offers a better approach than a China or an India that grows at 10. Or that the United States offers a better way of life for its people or is a country that deserves the leadership role it has.
It is clear to me that absent a strong recovery, real healthcare reform that meets the needs of all Americans, genuine leadership on climate, and an effort to address the flaws in our system that are exacerbating inequality, sooner or later a weakened, necessarily more inward looking U.S. will find that TINA has flown the coop. It is a telling irony that left-leaning development advocate Susan George offered as a successor to TINA, TATA...which means "there are thousands of alternatives" but also echoes the name of the Indian entrepreneur who now owns the auto brands that were among the British industrial flagships of the Thatcher era (Jaguar and Land Rover) and is the producer of the Nano, the small car designed for the emerging market demands of tomorrow. It is a reminder that things do change and that history suggests that almost certainly there will be alternatives.
But with some luck, America can play the role adopted by the innovators who last at the top, resisting the complacency that TINA's love brings and by seeking to become the even better alternative to ourselves the era requires.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.