Once upon a time, the Artist to Be Known in the Future as the Artist Formerly Known as Prince was a very powerful man. Among his many magical powers was the ability to make record companies release his albums not on Tuesdays (as is their wont) but on his birthday, which is June 7.
The Artist Formerly Known as Prince has since moved on to smaller and less lucrative things. However, the cultural gap that now exists on June 7 has been filled (at least this year) by that current prince of cultural funk, Bill Gates, and the rollout of his all-singing, all-dancing Office 2000. The crowd goes wild! Let the dance be unrestrained, let joy be unconfined!
Right. Not only does Microsoft wish it were one-tenth as cool as the Artist (even in his current fan-site-bashing fugue state), Microsoft has as much chance of achieving Software Cool as I do of getting my calls to Microsoft's PR department returned. No matter what, no matter how many splashy rollout parties Steve Ballmer throws in Silicon Valley, no matter how many crowds are (at no small expense) whipped into a buying frenzy at the gates of CompUSA, no matter how good it is, Microsoft Office 2000 will never, ever be cool. It'll never be legendary. It'll never be beloved.
It'll never, may I suggest, be cultware.
The mass of computer users use their software, like you use a tool or an appendage. And yet there are software packages that inspire unlimited, glassy-eyed devotion. Software that users tweak and kludge and yet give no thought to upgrading. Software that endures. Software that makes users deeply happy and companies like Microsoft absolutely nuts.
Often cultware is an operating system—the stuff that gives a lump of silicon its personality or lack thereof. The winner and all-time champeen of computer cultware is, of course, the Mac operating system. Any technology writer who's ever neglected to champion Macintosh as the One True Way has felt the collective wrath of the MacEvangelist mailing list, an experience not unlike being nibbled to death by goldfish. If Steve Jobs ever gets a Ouija board, he should call up L. Ron Hubbard and compare notes on how to found a 20th-century religion. Say amen, somebody!
There is, however, a new jug of purple Kool-Aid in town, and its name is Linux. Linux is what happens when you combine the ABM (Anything But Microsoft)ism of the Mac crowd with the bargain-hardware urges of the PC heathen. Even better, the Linux crew has a holy jihad groove on: Open source is the bedrock on which the path of true (i.e., non-Windows) computing was built in the time of our fathers, and only by turning back to the True Path will we be saved from the Redmond Menace. Selah.
Linux was recently awarded grand prize in the prestigious Prix Arts Electronica, which normally recognizes groundbreaking digital art but chose this year to give Linux the award in order to emphasize that "the real material of the Net is the code." In addition, the presenters of the award praised the freely collaborative (i.e., open-source) fashion in which Linux was developed. That collaborative genesis has not, by the way, prevented the Linux hordes from deifying Linus Torvalds, the developer who laid the foundations—but whoever heard of a cult without at least a titular head?
Program-specific cults, on the other hand, are headed not by men but ghosts, since programs become beloved only when they're all but obsolete. For instance, when it was the standard in publishing houses, the DOS version of XyWrite was a mouse-challenged pain in the butt; now that Word is slopping around our systems, many's the elderly journalist who yearns for its one-floppy footprint and its speedy performance. Word processors are often the focus of cult-like devotion, due to the amount of time writers and students spend at the beginning of projects praying to the gods of blank screens (Larry, Moe, and Curly). XyWrite, WordPerfect, WordStar . . . the list goes on, martyred to Microsoft Word but not forgotten.
Ironically, Microsoft had one shining cult-fave moment, one instant where the love of the users was with them. And the fickle bastards threw it away, threw over that beloved software like an ugly freshman at the senior prom, for which some feel that the current DoJ troubles are scant justice. What was that software? What was Microsoft's long-past moment of Cool?
It was a word processor.
It was MacWord.
For the Macintosh.