Monday, July 28, 2014
Strained Analogies Between Recently Released Films and Current Events: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the Microsoft Layoff
by Matt McKenna
Back in 2000, chances were that if you were using a computer, it was running a Microsoft operating system. In 2014, those chances have diminished considerably, and you are now more likely to be using a device running Apple's iOS or Google's Android software. Microsoft's stock price has responded accordingly, and its inflation adjusted market cap is now less than half of what it was at its peak in 1999. How appropriate it is then that Matt Reeve's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes was released this month just as Microsoft announced plans to lay off 18,000 employees in what looks to be the dawn of the trivialization of Microsoft's standing as a technology leader in the same way that the rebooted Apes series chronicles the trivialization of the human species as a planetary leader. While there are many tempting social readings crawling along the surface of the Planet of the Apes series, the most coherent one invites viewers to imagine the story's fictional planet Earth as a metaphor for the consumer electronics industry, a metaphor in which the humans represent Microsoft and the various species of apes represent the various technology companies usurping Microsoft's dominance.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes picks up immediately where its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, takes off. In Rise, the first film in the second reboot of the Planet of the Apes series, James Franco's character creates a supposedly benign virus that regenerates brain cells, resulting in the reversal of diseases such as Alzheimer's. Unfortunately, the virus has the annoying side effect of afflicting humans with flu-like symptoms (you can see where this is going). The apes on which the virus was tested, however, receive all the positive effects to their cognitive abilities without any of the negative effects to the rest of their bodies. At the end of Rise, the brainy apes storm the Golden Gate Bridge en route to Muir Woods where they plan to live the peaceful simian life. The humans, on the other hand, are impotent to stop their zoological Frankenstein's monsters and can only look on while engaging in some ominous sneezing.
This summer's Ape film begins by explaining to the audience that the virus from the first film resulted in a catastrophic pandemic eliminating most of the human population. Meanwhile, the apes in Marin County have been having a super time hanging out, living in tree forts, and pondering if humans still exist. Well, humans do exist, and they arrive at Muir Woods looking to restart a busted hydroelectric dam mainly so Gary Oldman's character can charge his iPad. The inevitable conflict arises over this dam, and so begins the decisive battle in the war between apes and humans, complete with requisite close-ups of screaming ape maws and grimacing human faces illuminated by the flashes of their machine guns' staccato muzzle flares. And since the movie's title is Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it's not a spoiler to tell you the apes win.
After watching both Rise and Dawn, it's difficult to not be struck by the films' clear allusions to Microsoft's business practices during the company's heyday. Where the humans in the film took advantage of their dominance by torturing apes for humanity's benefit and amusement, Microsoft extracted huge licensing fees from hardware vendors and squeezed out competitors by bundling its own software products with the Windows operating system on which consumers had become so dependant. And just as the films' humans took their dominion over the planet for granted, so too did Microsoft take its dominion over the consumer electronics industry for granted.
As if the comparison between the arrogance of humans in the Planet of the Apes series and the arrogance of Microsoft in reality wasn't conspicuous enough, their downfalls bear an even more glaring similarity. Let's start with Dawn's most on-the-nose reference to Microsoft: In the film, a virus is the force by which humanity is driven to the brink of extinction. And as any user of computers in the nineties and the aughts will recall, Windows machines were notorious for becoming infected with software viruses that could only be remedied by wiping the machine's hard drive and starting over. Microsoft's competitors--namely Apple--took advantage of this fact and advertised their own products as virus-free. Though Microsoft only lost a fraction of its desktop operating system market share between then and now, the viability of an alternative to Windows was the harbinger of shifting consumer behavior in which Microsoft's products would increasingly become irrelevant.
In particular, the shift in consumer behavior that doomed Microsoft was the trend away from desktop PCs and towards mobile devices. Complacent with its position atop the desktop software market, Microsoft didn't feel the urge to compete in the burgeoning mobile space until it had fallen too far behind to compete. This complacency is reflected in Dawn's humans who had no reason to believe their place atop the global food chain was at risk until it was already too late to respond to the threat posed by the apes. Just as Microsoft didn't have a plan in case mobile device sales ate away at the desktop market, the humans in Dawn didn't have a plan in case apes evolved into a hyper intelligent, bloodthirsty species bent on self-determination and the subordination of humanity.
In the beginning of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a human soldier remarks that humanity's most debilitating weakness is its inability to survive without electricity. The soldier posits that, whereas modern humans require power for heat, the production of various necessities, and self-defense, apes have none of these concerns. In a similar fashion, Microsoft's weakness has been its inability to thrive without strong desktop computer sales. As mobile devices replace desktops and even expand into markets that desktops never penetrated, Microsoft's footprint in the consumer electronics industry has subsequently dwindled. By comparison, companies such as Apple and Samsung have shown ape-like self-sufficiency in their ability to build both hardware and software that matches consumer demands.
Due to the success of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves has signed on for a sequel currently scheduled for release in 2016. Though I don't have any inside information about the plot of the upcoming film, I would venture to guess it doesn't end with the humans triumphing over the apes. Likewise, in 2016, I don't see Microsoft faring much better either.
Posted by Matt McKenna at 12:10 AM | Permalink