At large: Putting it into perspective

Unleashed from his watery tomb, ARN's Matthew JC. Powell emerges to inflict his opinions on a defenceless populaceThe word "billion" has a strange effect on people, doesn't it? Most of us have a notion of what we'd do with a million dollars - exotic cars, a house with a view, a degree of financial security or a lifetime supply of ice cream and leather goods - because a million seems somehow attainable. Even on a fairly ordinary salary, a million bucks will likely pass through your hands over the course of a 25 to 30-year career. Keeping it there is the trick. And of course, one can always hope to win the lottery.

But a billion? Well, that's a lot of dosh, isn't it? No lottery offers such a prize, and an average-waged career won't last 25,000 years. Something amazing has to happen to get a billion dollars. Therefore, most people don't really know what they would do with a billion dollars. It's hard to think of things to spend that much money on while maintaining any kind of link with reality. Imagine, then, how incredible the event would have to be to place $9.6 billion at your disposal.

Think about this: if you spent $1 million a day, $9.6 billion would keep you going for 26 years, 3 months and a couple of weeks. That's a lot of cars, houses, ice cream and leather.

At prices quoted by Community Aid Abroad, 9.6 billion US dollars would buy a day's clean drinking water for 633,600,000 people in the third world. For that matter, you could keep 1,735,890 people drinking healthily for a year (less if it's a leap year).

If you were feeling magnanimous and just wanted to do something lavish, you could buy every human being in Australia a movie ticket, a nice meal and a weekend in a Hilton hotel, and you'd probably still have change.

Makin' movies

For creative types, you could remake James Cameron's Titanic almost 50 times. If you didn't want it 50 times, you could hire Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sigourney Weaver for the lead roles (at their top asking prices), rebuild the ship to 1:1 scale, film it on the North Atlantic, and you'd still be able to produce the movie more than 30 times. If you were so inclined, you could probably come pretty close to being able to drain the Atlantic.

For the less imaginative, you could purchase 64,429,530 shares in Microsoft at its quoted price on 29 January. That's (wait for it) just under 5.5 per cent of the company's outstanding stock.

Or, you could just buy Digital.

Temporal distortion

I've always believed, or been led to believe, that the computer industry moves like an eel on amphetamines - so quick you can barely see it. All you can do is look at the wake and try to figure out what happened. I have presumed that that was why you had things like, for instance, weekly newspapers dedicated to reporting on this industry.

In some ways it's still like that. You stock a product today, turn around twice and the guy over the road has the next version in the window, or the same one in a new box bundled with Microsoft Internet Explorer. Either way, you have to change your prices and try to move your old stock, hoping that another revision won't pop up while you're writing the new price stickers.

In spite of all that, some of the large players seem to move more like brachiosaurs in cold mud.

For instance, IBM has just announced a suite of high-end server applications, with which it hopes to compete with Microsoft Back Office. Maybe I'm wrong, but wasn't the time for competing with Back Office early last year?

Likewise, IBM's applications bit, Lotus, is now saying that its next revision of Notes will arrive sometime in the second half of the year. Great guys, wanted that one from you a while ago.

Even Microsoft itself won't commit to release dates for Windows 98 or NT 5. It's quite prepared to talk about the migration path it expects its users to follow from 98 to a "desktop" version of NT, but when either of these things will happen is part of the mythos.

Step on it

So what's the problem? Lack of genuine competition? Department of Justice taking MS's eyes off the ball? General malaise? Ennui?

Whatever it is, it needs straightening up. The longer we have to wait for these things, the less interesting the story is.

We journos, whose attention spans are notoriously limited, will find a more fast-paced show to watch.

Apology: I promised a friend of mine I wouldn't mention either Microsoft Internet Explorer or the Department of Justice in this column, and I have failed to keep my word. I apologise unreservedly. At least I didn't mention the millennium bug. D'oh!