What Are We to Make of Microsoft?

from the September 2002 Newsletter
by Rob Zorn

Note: This article represents my opinion. It does not necessarily reflect the stance of Actrix or its employees. -Ed.

No matter what your attitude when you start to become familiar with the IT (Information Technology) industry, there is one thing for certain: before long you will have an attitude about Microsoft, even if it's a mixed one.

Microsoft have been headlining IT news for many years now,and their market dominance means that they have become part of most New Zealanders' everyday lives. Most of us use Microsoft products everyday and yet I wonder how many people have thought about whether or not that's a good thing. Don't expect me to tell you for certain. One thing I would like to do, however, is raise awareness a little, especially amongst those new to the internet.

Here at Actrix, as with any IT company, there is a wide range of employees. Some of my colleagues see Microsoft merely as an example of successful big business bestowing the benefits of standardisation, familiarity and ease of use. Others balk at the very mention of the MS word. Many in the IT world perceive Microsoft as being a bloated, fiendish, money-grubbing monster bent on enslaving the world and impeding true technological development. These people will not run any version of Windows on their machines, or anything barely resembling a Microsoft program. You can bet that these divergent attitudes lead to some lively discussions around water-coolers.

Who Fed the Giant?

I'm no market economist, so I have to keep this simple even for my own sake. Nowadays, around 95% of personal computers run Microsoft Windows in one form or another. Most people have heard of other operating systems such as Unix, Macintosh or even RISC, but not many have ever used these platforms. It wasn't always that way. In the past there were other players that were once not as insignificant as they now appear: Atari, Apple, Commodore, Sinclair, TRS80, just to name a few.

Back when personal computing was first becoming popular, there were a number of versions of DOS (the computer's basic operating software) around, but for various reasons not so important to us now, IBM chose Microsoft's MS-DOS and built their machines to run on it. Microsoft encouraged this by selling their DOS programs to IBM very cheaply, but only if they would buy them in bulk. The result was that when IBM introduced personal computers as a viable commodity to businesses and individuals, they all came with MS-DOS as standard. Most software developers then realised that they were more likely to sell lots of their programs if they designed them to work on the MS-DOS platform rather than on the other operating systems. It's easy to see how the snowball grew from there. More and more software was developed for MS-DOS. More and more people wanted MS-DOS based machines because there was more software around for them and on it went.

This process continued with the first development of Windows. Windows was quite a revolution because it gave you little picture icons on the screen that you could click to run programs. This was seen as a much more user-friendly and intuitive approach and further enhanced Microsoft's perceived desirability. You didn't even have to be able to read! Before Windows, you always had to type command lines in, and who could remember what all those were? Apple Macintosh enthusiasts will be quick to raise their contention that Microsoft stole the idea of clicking picture icons from Apple and were just better and quicker at developing it. That might be true, but then again, perhaps that's just business.

So we arrive at today where almost 95% of personal computers in the world run Windows. Software developers who want to make serious money don't even think about writing for other operating systems, and just about every one of us has helped to feed the giant and make it what it is today, a company grossing profits each year that could probably wipe out the entire foreign debt of a few small countries, and which probably has the power to alleviate world hunger second only to the Vatican.

Anyway, briefly now; The Good and the Possibly Bad and Ugly...

Let's start positively. What sort of good stuff can we associate with Microsoft?

Standardisation: Because Microsoft have achieved such dominance, and because it's in the interests of software developers to write for the Windows platform, the world is full of programs that all work and behave in similar ways. Anyone who has used Microsoft Office will know that things are all arranged similarly between programs. If you know how to find and change options in one program, you'll know how to do it in another (usually). Other software writers tend to copy the Microsoft format and set up tool bars (File, Edit, View etc) and menu bars in the same way. This makes moving between programs easy.

Ease of Use: I believe that it has to be admitted that Microsoft have made using a computer reasonably easy. You don't have to know anything about how computer's work. All you have to do is know that when you click a certain icon or menu item, a certain thing happens. It's all picture based and reasonably intuitive. The more you play with Microsoft programs the easier they become to use and learn. Now the Unix/Linux crowd will be quick to point out here that this is actually a bad thing because it keeps people from learning and progressing and makes them more and more dependent upon their software, and less and less aware of what's really going on. I am not sure I agree with them. There are plenty of people in the world who have no inclination to learn about what's happening "under the hood" of their computer. No matter how easy you tried to make it for them they wouldn't learn because they just don't care. In my opinion these people are still entitled to use computers. On the opposite side of the coin, if you really want to learn about what's happening behind the scenes in computing, you will. There are all sorts of opportunities, and if your interest is piqued, off you'll go.

Comprehensive Software: Related to the points above, there is no end of software in the world that is easily accessible to millions simply because everyone writes for the Microsoft Windows platform. If you're a Windows user, you can virtually bet your life that someone somewhere will have written the program you want, and it will be useable on your machine.

Well-Supported: Again, related to the above, Microsoft programs are well supported. Macintosh users will tell you it is much harder to find help desk people experienced or knowledgeable with Macintoshes than it is to find them able to support Microsoft computers. Unix/Linux users would tell you the same if they were the kinds of people who were inclined to ask for help (and most find support from each other). So, my point is that most of us are well-supported with computer problems simply because most other people are using the same software we are.

The Bad

What are some of the reasons that many people find themselves hating Microsoft so passionately?

Money, Money Money: Microsoft sure know how to charge for their products. You will ordinarily pay several hundred dollars just for the operating system (Windows) and then several hundred more for their suite of Office programs. Then every year or two they will,put out an upgrade, and even if you paid good money for Windows 98SE, you'll be expected to pay good money again for Windows XP. Often it is felt that the upgraded platform has very little new to it - a few extra bells and whistles and a new look, and several hundred dollars, thank you very much. One of the arguments often used to entice you to buy the new version is that it's supposed to be more stable (crashes less often) than the version you have. The countering question to Microsoft would be then why are you charging me so much money to upgrade when you seem to be admitting that you originally sold me a sub-par product?

Related to this is the famous Microsoft "Dob in your mates" scheme. Microsoft offer monetary rewards to anyone dobbing in a company that uses any form of their software that isn't properly paid for by license. The argument that people would be more inclined to license their software if it wasn't so expensive to do so won't stand up in court, but it does embody the way many people feel about being nailed by Microsoft. When they start encouraging people to betray their employers for money, it just makes the whole thing worse, and could leave one feeling a bit "icky."

Licensing 6.0: This is a good one, and again it's related to "Money Money Money" above. Licensing 6.0 is a new approach by Microsoft whereby companies (and individuals, I guess) can join a scheme whereby they agree to update their Windows and Office software automatically every time Microsoft releases upgrades. In return they will get the upgrades cheaper than companies who would rather update only when they're inclined to. Many companies feel they are being manoeuvred here. If they don't join the scheme, they will be forced to pay outlandish prices when they do want to upgrade. If they do join, they'll be forced to upgrade more often than they like and their operational computing budgets will go up enormously. News stories on the web seem to indicate that this has been a very unpopular move, and many companies are now actually pursuing alternatives to running Microsoft software. And believe me, there are plenty of alternatives out there. There is nothing people resent more than feeling they are being manoeuvred out of their hard-earned cash by a company that lists yearly profits that are truly beyond comprehension.

Alleged Mediocrity: Microsoft products have a reputation for being mediocre. Almost all Windows users are familiar with the Blue Screen of Death, that blue screen that tells you your computer is hung and you will need to re-boot in order to come back to life. In fact, the rate at which Windows tends to crash like that is an in-joke in computing circles. Macintosh and Unix users will be quick to tell you that their systems never crash (which probably isn't entirely true).

Security: Microsoft Windows seems notoriously insecure. The rate at which Microsoft release patches for security holes in Internet Explorer (and other products) is staggering. This is very frustrating for the low-end user who has to keep on installing patches (and many find this a daunting process) or risk being insecure and having their computers hacked or their information stolen whenever they go online. Most in the know would agree that, even with all the patches installed, it can be risky to surf the web using Internet Explorer without your own personal firewall as well.

Viruses are also an issue here. People who write viruses usually write them for Microsoft Windows, simply because (with almost 95% of the world using the product) they are more likely to do their damage to more people. Yes, viruses have been written for Unix and Macintosh users, but they are nowhere near as common.

Proprietary vs Open Source: This one can get complicated so I won't go too deep (and admittedly my own understanding is cursory anyway). Microsoft software is all closed-source. This means that the code behind it all is encrypted and you can't modify it or even read it without going to an awful lot of trouble, and without breaking the law. Fair enough. It's their code and they own it. The open source movement favoured by Unix and Linux users, on the other hand, renders all its code open and accessible. The idea is that you get the program, and, if you don't quite like it, you can access the code behind the program and make a few modifications for your own personal use. You are then expected to send your modification back to the developers, who can decide whether they want to build that in to the next release. This is the sort of co-operative mindset that the Internet was built on, and which it still runs on. People co-operating and working together tends to lead to better and more secure products. It encourages growth of knowledge and general technological development for all. In contrast to this, Microsoft can seem to come across as spoilt, greedy and arrogant.

Vendor Lock-in by Using Their Own Standards: Despite the impression you might get nowadays, Microsoft actually had nothing to do with the original development of the Internet. The Internet was developed in a military and academic environment using servers and standards (the sorts of things computers must agree on in order to communicate with each other) associated with the Unix operating system. As stated above, things were worked out co-operatively, and over time, as technicians experimented with the best ways of doing things and communicated their findings to each other, these standards became, well, "standard."

Then, along came Microsoft. By the time the Internet was already in full swing, Microsoft were powerful enough because of their popularity, to start developing their own Internet related servers and products, but they deliberately designed them to work only with their own standards, separate from the ones Internet developers had already agreed on, and often quite incompatible with them as well. The result was that if a company, such as an ISP, wanted to provide a Microsoft related service (and which could afford not to?) then extra software (typically costing many thousands) had to be purchased. Typically, too, a whole lot of extra trouble has to be gone to in order to make sure the Microsoft stuff interacts properly with the open-source stuff already developed.

Of course Microsoft have every right to do this. It is business after all. However, their proprietary muscling in on what was already a good and co-operative system was perceived by many as being arrogant and greedy, and once again an example of them not adapting their products to the market. Instead they are seen as attempting to bend the market to their will. This is probably the main reason why most technicians you talk to who have been involved with the Internet for a long time are reasonably disparaging in their Microsoft attitude.

I've been brief (despite this article's length). It would be good to go further and investigate some of these issues more deeply, but I think this is enough for now. My aim here has only been to introduce the issues and provide a framework for further food for thought. One last question before I go:

What will happen?

Gazing into my digital crystal ball I can see what I think will happen. I think the three major players will continue to be Microsoft, Macintosh and Linux/Unix. In terms of widespread use, no one comes near Microsoft, but the other two mentioned are the only serious contenders. Over time I think we will see Microsoft's dominance being slowly eroded. How much is anybody's guess, but already, many are feeling an increasing alienation from them, mostly due to the reasons or perceptions I describe above.

The open source nature of Linux/Unix makes them already largely favoured by those in the "IT know" and indeed the Unix/Linux range of operating systems have an excellent reputation for stability and functionality. The problem is that Unix/Linux is not yet user-friendly enough to appeal to the masses. This is changing as more and more people become involved in the open source movement, and eventually, these operating systems may become as simple as Windows for the novice to use and install. Because open source software is often free (or at least vastly cheaper than Microsoft products) this may well give them an edge over Microsoft, especially if their reputation for security and stability continues to outshine anybody else's. What happens to Microsoft will depend on how they react to the this changing market. Whether they've been right or wrong in their past marketing tactics is less of an issue than how they are perceived and how aware the public are of the alternatives.