David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

In Defense of Microsoft

When I wrote my not-so-complimentary piece on OpenOffice the other week, I expected to receive at least a few slams from fans and believers in the open source movement. And I did receive an interesting comment from a fellow who signed his name MnMKY, which I excerpt here:

The accomplishments of a worldwide effort, unifying multiple cultures and countries, is what OpenOffice.org represents. It is not a company sole bent on making money but on helping…

Microsoft has showed little innovation since the beginning days, no wait they took the concept of a graphic interface from someone else to. Microsoft was a great marketing agency; their best client, themselves. Bill Gates is the ultimate master…

OpenOffice.org deserves your talents unless you would rather sit on the bench and criticize and follow the the rest of the groupies. Innovation does not come from working in a bubble (MS OS, MS Products, MS Backend, MS tools) and neither does efficiency. Innovation comes from competition and not buying it.

This has brought up something that really sticks in my craw that I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time. So now I’m going to ramble about it for a while for your edification and entertainment. You have been warned.

Bill Gates as the BorgFor some reason, all semblance of rationality goes out the door when techies talk about Microsoft. There are people out there who simply hate Microsoft. I’m not talking about people who just dislike Microsoft products; I’m talking about people who believe Bill Gates and Company are actually evil. Microsoft is throttling the open source movement! Microsoft is practicing mental slavery! Microsoft is an evil capitalist enterprise that seeks to dominate, control, and destroy!

(A lot of people have had the same kind of irrational delusions about our last two presidents. These are the ones who don’t think it’s enough that George W. Bush is incompetent and has made really dangerous decisions for really bad reasons during his two terms in the White House. No, George Bush actually plotted to overthrow democracy by rigging the tragedies of 9/11! He’s sending your children to Iraq to die because he hates Muslims and wants to claim all their oil for his Texas cronies! On the right, these are the folks who believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton routinely murder their enemies, and then lob a few cruise missiles at random aspirin factories to distract us.)

I think part of the problem with the hardcore Microsoft haters is that many of them simply don’t understand business, or capitalism for that matter. It’s not for nothing that I compared the open source movement to socialism in a previous blog piece.

Here’s the thing: Microsoft is a business whose primary goal is not to help people, but to make a buck. And there’s nothing wrong with that. America is all about making a buck. The main reason this country was founded in the first place was not because the Americans had philosophical differences with the British monarchy, or because they wanted the right to freedom of speech and assembly. It’s because said monarchy was taxing the colonists to death and not giving them anything back for it.

(A side note: Paul Johnson in his often brilliant History of the American People traces the character of this country back to two primary groups. There were the Jamestown folks who settled in Virginia primarily to make money; and there were the Plymouth Rock folks who settled in Massachusetts largely for evangelical reasons. It’s a brilliant thesis. Money and religion: if you think about it, those words really do sum up the two sides of the American culture pretty well.) (Update 8/15/07: I should add the caveat that Mr. Johnson gets a wee bit cranky and reactionary when talking about the late 20th century. He believes JFK was just a playboy blowhard and Nixon should not have been impeached for Watergate.)

Not only is there nothing wrong with Microsoft being out to make a buck, but that’s what a corporation is for. And yet one of the nifty benefits of a business making a ton of money is that it does tend to help people. There are thousands of ordinary people who made millions of dollars by investing in Microsoft stock back in the ’80s when Bill Gates was just the richest dork in the world. Tens of thousands of people have built long, prosperous, stable careers from Microsoft paychecks. And Gates’ private foundation is already one of the most generous and successful non-profits in history; some people estimate that Bill and Melinda Gates’ efforts to make malaria drugs more affordable in third world countries have saved millions of lives. Millions of lives. That’s not trivial.

The other reason companies incorporate in the first place is for stability. Corporations are collective entities whose raison d’etre is to generate predictable revenue. If the CEO is a crook or a bum or simply ineffective — if he/she is no longer helping the majority of the company’s employees and/or stockholders — the CEO can be replaced. Yes, a corporation is the sum of its people, but it’s also more than that.

In other words: Microsoft’s primary function isn’t to innovate. It’s to minimize risk. Most people who buy Microsoft products usually acknowledge that they’re not getting the coolest, fastest, slickest software package around. People buy Microsoft products because: a) they tend to be good enough at doing what they’re designed to do, b) they’re relatively easy to use, c) they’re predictable, d) they’re pretty cheap, e) they’re ubiquitous and compatible with just about every piece of technology in the known universe.

When I go shopping for cars, I head straight for the Honda dealer. Why? Because my Honda Civic is the coolest car on the road? No, because Honda a known entity that will deliver a B+ product every time. It gives me an acceptable compromise in just about every area I care about. Those who love cars for cars’ sake don’t buy Honda Civics, they buy Porsches and Audi TT Coupes and Land Rovers. Me, I just want to get where I’m going in comfort and safety.

Microsoft Office Word 2007 boxLikewise Microsoft Word. It’s stuffed with crap I don’t need, but everyone in the universe can read its files. If I save a file in Microsoft Word format, I can be 90% certain that I’ll still be able to open it, read it, and use it 10 years from now, or even 20 years from now. I’m willing to lay down money that Word 2017 (or whatever web-based Microsoft service replaces it) will still be a solid B product.

And what about the question of innovation?

I believe that private enterprise is generally the engine that drives innovation, not well-intentioned groups of people looking to help. Of course, you’ll find plenty of people willing to argue this point, but private enterprise has a lot of evidence on its side. Yes, government dollars paid for the development of the ENIAC and the computer industry to begin with; but it was IBM and Apple who brought them to your house. Government dollars got the Internet off the ground; but the Internet was just a nice little academic cluster until America Online and Yahoo and Google et al came along.

And the notion that Microsoft doesn’t innovate is just patently untrue. The common conception in the tech world is that Microsoft buys up smaller, more innovative companies and technologies and then simply milks them for profit without lifting a finger to improve them. But just off the top of my head, I can think of a bunch of Microsoft innovations over the years:

  • The mouse wheel
  • The tilting mouse wheel
  • On-the-fly spell checking
  • Ergonomic keyboards
  • Tablet PCs, handheld PCs, media center PCs, and pocket PCs
  • Software wizards
  • “Surface” computing
  • ActiveX, VBScript, ASP, and .NET
  • Proprietary HTML tags
  • Windows taskbar
  • Windows Sideshow
  • Vista ReadyBoost
  • NTFS and WinFS file systems
  • Windows System Restore
  • Zune squirting

I’m not saying these are all good innovations. I think the world could have done without ActiveX, for instance, and if the Antichrist has an MP3 player, it’s a Zune. But the point is that these are all examples of places where Microsoft did take some initiative. They created something new. Hell, for all the scorn heaped on Microsoft Bob over the years, it was a risky new product.

Microsoft ZuneThe reason Microsoft isn’t known for making radical innovations is because they’re not very good at it. What they’re good at is bringing fringe innovations — whether their own or someone else’s — into the mainstream of computing.

Of course Microsoft isn’t generally the first to market. They don’t want to be. If fact, the recent upsurge of interest in OSX and Linux and open source products like Firefox is a godsend to Microsoft. Now they can sit back and wait for all the cutting-edge innovators to discover what works and what doesn’t, what people will pay for and what they won’t. Then they’ll jump into the market when they’re good and ready, find that sweet spot between functionality and convenience the customers are looking for, and charge full speed ahead. This is what they’ve always done. Bill Gates thanks all you Mac and Linux users for acting as his R&D lab.

Does Microsoft have anything to fear from the open source movement? Well, sure. But not nearly as much as you think. Linux still cleans Microsoft’s clock when it comes to server software, but on the desktop Microsoft does not worry about Linux. Exact numbers are hard to measure (and controversial when you do), but most people think Linux desktop users make up about 3% of the PC user base. Which is roughly the odds of Dennis Kucinich being sworn in as the next President of the United States come January 2009.

So where’s the pressure coming from these days if not the open source movement? Google. Apple. MySpace. Yahoo. Facebook. Sony. Nokia. And so on. All evil, greedy capitalist companies looking to make a buck.

Some people call Microsoft nothing more than a marketer and repackager. But what’s wrong with being a marketer and repackager? Do you think every single product in your household is the end result of some mad genius in a lab coming up with a brilliant idea that’s never been done before? Hardly. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile; he just figured out how to do it quicker and cheaper than anybody else had. Likewise Bill Gates didn’t invent the operating system or the software application; he just figured out how to turn them from obscure hobbies into mass-market phenomenons.

Original Apple Macintosh(It’s interesting how few people have the same criticisms about Steve Jobs and Apple as they do about Bill Gates. I mean, Jobs didn’t invent the MP3 player, or the graphic operating system, or the all-in-one computer, or just about anything that Apple is known for. Everything people hail about the original Mac was borrowed from Xerox PARC. What Jobs did do is figure out a way to put it all in a slick, affordable, attractive package — and he deserves to be commended for it.)

My point in stating all this is not to fawn on Bill Gates’ feet and claim that the company he founded is above criticism. I just think that many people criticize Microsoft for the wrong reasons. They’re criticizing a Honda Accord because it’s not a BMW Z4 (the Mac) or one of those funky electric cars that gets 150 miles to the gallon (Linux).

Microsoft by and large achieves the goals it sets out for. But more than that, by and large they achieve their customers’ goals. Their products do generally get better as time goes on. Sometimes it takes a while, of course. (Think of the leaps they made from Windows 95 to Windows XP over just six years. Okay, so they haven’t exactly kept up the same pace with Vista, which is a rather troublesome development for them. But I say let’s see where things stand when Service Pack 1 comes out at the end of this year or beginning of next.)

So when you see someone who chooses to use Microsoft products instead of free open-source products, don’t whine that she’s a lemming or a corporate slave or an ignorant dumbass or a node in the Borg. Whether you like it or not, there are plenty of good reasons to buy and use Microsoft software.

***

(One last side note: The Microsoft/Borg comparison always cracks me up. It’s not like the Starship Enterprise was made up of independent thinkers using open source software on a ship built in some underground Mecca by a rebellious band of freedom-loving hackers led by Ice-T. Come on, you know the Enterprise was made by Boeing on some fat government contract. You know there was heavy support by corporate underwriting. You know that the crew members are just mouthing the platitudes that Starship Command told them to mouth, but the realities of the situation on Earth are much different than the pretty face we present to the aliens.)

***

(Okay, this is really the last side note: What’s Microsoft’s big Achilles’ heel? Security, security, security. They nailed the GUI, they nailed the first wave of the Internet [Update 8/15/07: okay, depends on how you define it, see my comment below], they nailed the Office productivity suite. But the rash of worms ‘n viruses ‘n such produced by insecure Windows 98 and Windows XP installations is the biggest challenge Microsoft has ever faced. I think they still have time to nail this one, and they’ve taken some good security steps with Windows Vista. But the clock’s a-tickin’. If you really want to destroy Microsoft, don’t bother with Linux. Write worms.)

Comments RSS Feed

  1. King Rat on August 15, 2007 at 12:18 am  Chain link

    I am not a rabid anti-ms hater, but then, neither am I someone who knee-jerk rejects an open source product such as OpenOffice because of a bug. I even worked for microsoft for a period of time.

    But MS nailing the first wave of the internet? Dude, you are so smoking crack there. They missed the first few waves. Netscape nailed one of those waves, then pissed it away through a crappy product (Netscape 4) and allowed MS to catch them and surpass them.

    Remember when Bill Gates had to go back and revise his “The Road Ahead” because the first edition barely mentioned networking?

  2. tobias buckell on August 15, 2007 at 1:49 am  Chain link

    Well written and dead on.

  3. David Louis Edelman on August 15, 2007 at 7:41 am  Chain link

    King Rat said:
    But MS nailing the first wave of the internet? Dude, you are so smoking crack there.

    Well, okay, I hear you. It took a while for MS to produce a decent TCP/IP stack, much less web browser. When I said “first wave of the Internet,” I was thinking “pre-Web 2.0.” As in, they did finally get their shit together before the bubble burst in 2000/2001. Probably shoulda defined my terms before throwing that out there.

  4. George Pedrosa on August 15, 2007 at 8:51 am  Chain link

    What I’d like to read was an article defining your political ideologies, just for curiosity. I mean, I always thought Infoquake was critical of capitalism. I seem to remeber you initially thought of setting the book in a socialist paradise. I remember an article of yours saying Alien is a critique of corporations and the exploitation of blue collar workers, and you seemed to agree with the movie’s stance. You even wrote that a big problem of the Bush administration was that they gave the spoils to the rich through ridiculous tax cuts.

    But then you write an article that is extremely favorable to corporations. Personally, I prefer cooperatives. They work under some of the same rules of capitalist economics (such as supply and demand, free price system…) but the workers themselves own a share of the cooperative, which is extremely beneficial for the worker AND the company. Cooperatives are rising in number here in Latin America, and the countries which favor them are the ones that are growing fast (Argentina, Venezuela…), which proves their benefit to the economy.

    But then, again, you seem like a really thoughfull guy, so you’re probably being realistic about the state of our world and capitalism. Besides, Bill Gates is a good example of a business man who really wants to help the world. His charital work probably saved millions of lives. Unfortunately, he is the EXCEPTION. For every Bill Gates and Bono Vox, there are hundreds of Enrons and Wall-Marts, hell bent on making this world even more miserable.

  5. S.C. Butler on August 15, 2007 at 9:33 am  Chain link

    Great piece. You should be writing syndicated op-ed. Your point about business that make money actually helping people is an important one. If you ever want to get your face punched in a left-leaning bar, ask the question of who helped more people in the world, Mother Theresa or Michael Milken? No denying Mother Theresa’s saintliness, but her specific effects were limited to Calcutta. Milken, on the other hand, helped spread Capitalism across the world.

  6. David Louis Edelman on August 15, 2007 at 9:34 am  Chain link

    George: I have difficulties defining my political stance myself sometimes. You’re not imagining the critiques of capitalism in Infoquake and elsewhere. But anyone who imagines I’m going to tie up book 3 of the trilogy with “…and Natch realized that being a selfish capitalist is bad. The end” is going to be disappointed.

    I try to be apolitical where I can. My guess is that I’ll probably vote for Hillary Clinton in 2008, should she get the nomination. But I think Ron Paul is saying a lot of good things too, and Rudy Giuliani has some traits I admire. I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the Republican Party if so many of them didn’t believe that the world was created 6,000 years ago by an old man with a long white beard who thinks that homosexuality is sinful.

    S.C.: Thanks! But can you say “fuck” in syndicated op-ed? I like being able to say “fuck” when I want to. :-)

  7. George Pedrosa on August 15, 2007 at 10:22 am  Chain link

    Dave, since you are against unnecessary tax cuts for the rich, you’re definitely not a right-winger. You seem more like a social liberal to me. A person who accepts capitalism, but tries to diminish some of its natural problems. What do you think about the cooperative movement?

    “But anyone who imagines I’m going to tie up book 3 of the trilogy with “…and Natch realized that being a selfish capitalist is bad. The end” is going to be disappointed.”

    Actually, I’d expect Natch to destroy the entire space-time continuum through a selfish business decision. But I know you’re gonna surprise me.

    “I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the Republican Party if so many of them didn’t believe that the world was created 6,000 years ago by an old man with a long white beard who thinks that homosexuality is sinful.”

    Well, even if the Republicans come to accept evolution (given their policies, that will probably happen 157 years from now, around the same time that they will finally realize the Rapture is not gonna happen), my personal opinion towards them probably wouldn’t change.

    S.C. Butler said: “Milken, on the other hand, helped spread Capitalism across the world.”

    Hmm… how exactly is THAT helping the world?

  8. tommyspoon on August 15, 2007 at 11:33 am  Chain link

    Dave, I think that most of us tech-savvy folk don’t like M$ because they seem unresponsive to our needs. It’s kinda like that movie “Who Killed the Electric Car?” We could be on our 4th or 5th generation EVO by now, but for the filthy lucre. And I say this as a committed capitalist.

    At some point in the near future, these big companies are going to have to accept the premise that you can make money and not act like a giant penis. This is why I’m 99.999% certain that my next computer purchase is going to come in a box with a fruit logo on it. I’m doing the capitalist thing: voting with my pocketbook. If more and more people do that, then the marketplace will truly become vital and interesting.

  9. Brian on August 15, 2007 at 12:53 pm  Chain link

    Well said. I cannot believe we’re still having this argument, in 2007.

  10. Al on August 15, 2007 at 1:16 pm  Chain link

    This argument is pretty dated – it would be more relevant 10-15 yrs ago, but the Information Age has made it much more of a competitive playground.

    In the earlier post about OpenOffice, I agreed with your point about using the best available software. Especially if my livelihood depended on it, my goal is to get the job done and I won’t cut corners unless necessary.

    However, Micro$oft has historically proven that it will behave as a monopoly whenever they get a chance, and monopolies by nature hampers innovation and they will overcharge the consumers because they can and no one could stop them – until now. Their tactics worked in the 20th Centruy Industrial Age, but in the 21st century Information Age, they do not have the same leverage. 10-15 yrs ago, I would do everything in my power to avoid giving them a nickel, but they aren’t as much a threat as they once were.

    For the starving artist, sometimes it is necessary to use a tool like OpenOffice or Google Docs, or even GIMP vs Photoshop. Because there will always be the starving artists, there will always be OpenOffice and GIMP. Sometimes, there may never even be a reason to go beyond the FOSS tool, such as using Linux and Apache as a web server over Windows Server and IIS. But if my livelihood depends on the written word or the publishable image, I will not be as good as I can be if I don’t invest in MS Office or Photoshop. If MS was the monopoly like they once were, I’d reconsider, but since they’re not, we all are free to make the choice that makes the most sense for us as individuals.

  11. David Louis Edelman on August 15, 2007 at 1:36 pm  Chain link

    At some point in the near future, these big companies are going to have to accept the premise that you can make money and not act like a giant penis.

    This is true. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I can defend every anti-competitive practice Microsoft’s legal team has ever done. I think the real responsibility lies with the government to deal with monopolies in a fair and just way. And the antitrust lawsuit has produced little in the way of common-sense oversight.

    This argument is pretty dated – it would be more relevant 10-15 yrs ago, but the Information Age has made it much more of a competitive playground.

    Yeah, that’s a very good point, Al. It’s going to be very interesting to see how things change in the 21st century. I’m glad we’ve got more choices now, and I think it’s going to make for better computing all around.

  12. Brian on August 15, 2007 at 4:02 pm  Chain link

    Al,

    However, Micro$oft has historically proven that it will behave as a monopoly whenever they get a chance

    I do not think this is true.

    * I’ve been working in IT since 1989. I’ve always been able to use ‘stuff other than Microsoft’ if I’ve wanted or needed.

    * Monopolists raise the prices of goods to what they want says the theory – Microsoft has never done this in my experience. If they _had_ the various business I’ve worked for would not have switched to Windows, nor chosen it for a desktop or server OS.

    monopolies by nature hampers innovation and they will overcharge the consumers because they can and no one could stop them

    I’d have to dig up the book (it’s at home) or google (I am at work ..) but I believe this is not true either. Or rather it’s true in theory but not so true in the real world. What comes to mind are Standard Oil – after Standard had become a monopoly oil prices dropped. I also recall cases where a company gained a transportation monopoly in NYC in the 19th century after which prices dropped for customers and stayed down.

    Of course there are always government enforced monopolies like the AT+T where this _is_ true but it seemed like you were speaking of ‘capitalism pure and raw’ not an artificial state of affairs.

  13. Brian on August 15, 2007 at 4:04 pm  Chain link

    If you really want to destroy Microsoft, don’t bother with Linux. Write worms.)

    Or show your boss how much defending against malware is costing your company.

  14. Al on August 15, 2007 at 6:06 pm  Chain link

    Dave – just wanted to clarify my earlier comment. When I said “this argument is dated“, I wasn’t referring to your argument per se, but to the whole argument of whether or not we should bash everything Microsoft just because they’re from Microsoft. I think my first sentence didn’t really make that clear.

    I actually agree with the points you made about Microsoft, except I do sincerely believe that they would behave like a monopoly whenever possible and that would trump all the other practical points that were made. It’s a moot point though since there’s actually quite a bit of competition now.

    Brian – regarding Microsoft and whether they’re a monopoly, two instances come to mind:

    * When Dell wanted to initially offer PC’s pre-installed with Linux couple years back, Microsoft slapped their wrists and Dell quickly rescinded the offering. Dell is now trying again with Linux PC’s since the competitive landscape changed, but they don’t price them as competitively as they like in order to appease Microsoft.

    * When the Internet was starting to hit the mainstream, Netscape was the only real player in town, but Microsoft then bundled IE into windows and virtually drove Netscape out of business. Who cares? Consumers should care, because IE is notorious about blatantly not complying with W3C standards and web developers have nightmares trying to make their web applications universally consistent with their look-and-feel. There is a growing movement of having traditional desktop apps being served over the web, and if the browser is going to be the main interface, non-compliance with standards will deter progress. Thank goodness Firefox is helping to keep them in check :)

  15. Brian on August 15, 2007 at 9:35 pm  Chain link

    Brian – regarding Microsoft and whether they’re a monopoly, two instances come to mind:

    Neither example defines a monopoly. Driving competitors out of business and smacking business partners around is what a profit driven corporation does.

  16. […] – In Defense of Microsoft David Louis Edelman steps into the firing line with a very well-reasoned piece. (tags: business […]

  17. James on August 16, 2007 at 6:50 am  Chain link

    Two things.
    Firstly MS are pretty good to software developers: they’ve have great resources, great tools, even more transparency these days due to numerous blogs and they don’t rip off you’re ideas ala Apple. Of course, they should be good to developers because people buy OS’s to use applications, and software developers write applications.

    Secondly. “Microsoft is a business whose primary goal is not to help people, but to make a buck. And there’s nothing wrong with that.” Well, that’s the entire problem isn’t it? We (most of the western world) live in a captialist society and a lot of people (me included) hate it. Having said that, either change society or put up with all the crap that companies do to make money. Having a monoplies commision seems a bit pointless to me, it’s like some vague effort to pretend that capitalism isn’t all bad, of course everyone is trying to dominate everyone else, of course they will do whatever it takes to make money, that’s how the game has been set up.

  18. Al on August 16, 2007 at 8:22 am  Chain link

    Brian – not quite sure what to say. Microsoft historically behaving as a monopoly is pretty much accepted as fact by a lot of people. I can see you don’t see it that way, so I won’t waste your time convincing you otherwise.

  19. jack_is_for_backup on May 12, 2008 at 9:26 pm  Chain link

    Microsoft has done and do monopolistic things and has indeed squashed their competitors with marketing campaigns and a clear desire to take over and be the only one providing a product/service. That’s unquestionable, if it wasn’t, the GOV in various states had not been prompted to tighten the knots and bolts on Microsoft and sue the company for anti-trust.

    However to say that Microsoft hasn’t innovated is the other extreme, same as to say that Microsoft doesn’t have smart people working for them or that the people that work for Microsoft are bad monopolistic people as well. Maybe some are, but I am pretty sure the vast majority of them are just pawns in the bigger chess game played by their management infrastructure at the highest levels. Basically the people that work at Microsoft are trying to get their beans or their fortune (if they are lucky enough).

    Also let’s not confuse, Capitalism with Monopoly, Capitalism is the healthy human cell and Monopoly is the cancer cell. Capitalism if growing at a reasonable rate is a good system, however if turned into a monopoly, it is cancer even for capitalism itself. If that wasn’t the case, the GOV wouldn’t care about how many monopolies sprout out there, but it seems they do care.

    This is a common issue of speaking adjectively rather speaking adverbially. The difference between using the word Capitalism in a context where no adverb of quantity has been use as opposed to using the phrase “Overly Grown Capitalism” = “Monopoly” where adverbs of quantity can tell you how much of capitalism we have, thus being indicative of health or unhealthy.

    No doubt everything, even the healthiest thing, in excess is always bad for any system. What did I mean by that? Well let’s say that Microsoft could have been or could be (in the future) somewhat more con descendant to the Open Source cause, WITHOUT losing any influence or any SIGNIFICANT amount of money in the process. Then it is possible that the Open Source community will look at the company with a different face and different opinion, much like other companies are seeing by the Open Source community from a more favorable point of view.

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