Microsoft: Friend or Foe?
Colin Walker presents his personal take on the negative publicity that the computing giant seem to attract…
‘Microsoft bashing’ seems to have been a national sport for as long as we remember, but is the criticism levied at the Redmond giant really justified? In true Monty Python style you could ask, apart from Windows, Office, the Xbox, Exchange and a common computing platform, what has Microsoft ever done for us (think The Life of Brian and the Romans)?
For all of the gesturing of the Open Source Software community one thing remains constant: Microsoft has been instrumental in the adoption of the PC both in business and in our private lives, and created a whole environment within which third parties can thrive.
Hardware standardisation in the PC space has its roots back in the early 1980s with the decision by IBM to produce a personal computer in response to the success that Apple were having with the Macintosh range at that time. Shortly after, other manufacturers began making PC clones and the term IBM PC compatible was born to indicate hardware that would work just like an IBM, and duplicated the requirements of the platform so that software written for IBM PCs would work equally as well on these machines from other manufacturers.
IBM had PC DOS and crucially allowed Microsoft to supply MS DOS for these clone PCs, and the intention was that any software written for MS DOS would work on a PC from any original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
With a core framework in place, hardware manufacturers were able to design components and systems with the knowledge that, providing they conformed to the ‘standards’ in place, they were more likely to be purchased and in ever increasing numbers. Consumers did not have to worry that a new PC would not run all of their existing software, and the market stabilised.
The introduction of Windows took things to another level. While computers had been called PCs before, it wasn’t until the GUI that the general public really warmed to the idea and PCs became truly personal. Windows 95 hit at about the same time that the web was really starting to take off, and a whole new breed of computer users was born. These numbers triggered a burgeoning hardware market as home users clamoured to see what ‘this Windows thing’ was all about, and to keep up with the Joneses by getting online.
If Microsoft had not been around we may have all been using Macs for the past 20-25 years or another operating system may have taken the ascendancy, but you can’t deny that, as things stand, Microsoft have been at the forefront of the development of our computing experiences. And – regardless of your opinion of the company – we have to be thankful for the ease with which we can now buy software and hardware with so little worry about whether it will work with what we already have.
Software companies and individual developers have a ready made base of millions of machines compatible with their own products thanks to Microsoft operating systems. While we call Microsoft’s position a monopoly, there is no doubt that software standardisation has allowed great advances from outside of the company. And those applications which come from within Microsoft itself often trigger a new period of growth as those third parties will position themselves to match or out-do Microsoft – proving that they can do it better, cheaper and without the bugs or security holes often associated with Microsoft software.
Despite opening up the whole hardware and software universe around the Windows platform we must still ask: are Microsoft abusing their position as the market leader or is it just up to competitors to develop products that are able to compete?
Microsoft is very much the big fish in a small pond. In very much the same way that virus writers and hackers target the Windows operating system rather than Linux or Macs, elements of the IT community target Microsoft in order to generate the maximum impact and publicity.
Stories surrounding Microsoft are always big news and sections of the public cannot help but be influenced by this. High profile cases tend to fan the flames such as the Microsoft v Sun Java case; the Department of Justice anti-trust case and the recent action taken by the European Union which sought to get, and succeeded in getting Windows Media functionality removed from the Windows operating system in Europe resulting in the N versions of Windows XP and Vista.
There is very much a misperception that the average consumer actually cares about what Microsoft does and doesn’t do. The argument for sanctions against Microsoft is that they are in the consumer’s interest and in order to facilitate competition within the IT industry. I would argue, however, that the interests of those being protected are the other companies who are seeking to rival Microsoft with their own products. An average user will not care which media player they use to listen to their MP3s or which Internet browser they use to view web sites. Having both built in to Windows makes life easy for these average consumers as it saves them having to source – and possibly pay for – additional third party software. Average consumers like to keep things simple and are not going to debate the relative merits of this or that application.
If these consumers were to actually sit down and thing about it they would probably be appreciative of the efforts Microsoft were making to keep computing as painless as possible – everything you need in one easy package. Unfortunately for Microsoft, things aren’t that simple.
There is a definite dichotomy in our society. The West champions capitalism and the ability of an individual or company to earn what they can in a free market, but there is still the slight communist undertone which seeks to protect the interests of the smaller players so that they may keep market share and a share of the spoils – we call it competition. In a truly capitalist society, companies would be judged purely on relative merits and the market would decide who stays and who goes. Society, however, dictates that the smaller player should be protected and maybe even have a section of market share artificially reserved.
Microsoft is criticised for the way in which it has become the force that it is, and a common perception is of a large monolithic company that lets nothing stand in its way – not small business, Independent Software Vendors (ISVs), OEMs, governments etc. The company developed a reputation for ‘less than ethical’ business practices and bullying tactics to further its own cause.
Microsoft has been accused of bullying other software companies, OEMs, and even Intel, as well as deliberately preventing interoperability with other vendors’ software, thus, forcing you to use their own – the list goes on.
Mud sticks as they say and this historical view of the company still clouds judgment for a lot of people when viewing the company from the outside. Of course, Microsoft has not helped itself over the years. Take for example, the documentary evidence that recently emerged which indicates Microsoft considered abandoning Office for the Mac just so that they could cause Apple “a great deal of harm”. This type of comment just reaffirms the view that Microsoft is just a self obsessed, lumbering giant treading everything before it in to the ground.
Recently, the company has been making great efforts to recreate its public image and present a more open, transparent face to the rest of the world. Microsoft staff are sharing more information by way of blogs and encourage a better “conversation” with their customers via the web. This is to be applauded, but the unfortunate position is that this conversation does not generally engage the end user. Just as they are not interested in the workings of the company, the average consumer is not interested in reading the rationale behind the design of a particular product for example so the conversation generally ends with the more technically astute, IT professionals and, of course, the press.
Probably the most eagerly anticipated event in personal computing was the release of Windows Vista, the new operating system from Microsoft which – after five years in the making – was always bound to cop a lot of flak. From the delay in its release to the supposed stealing of ideas from the competition Vista has been, and continues to be, fair game for the press; the fact that it is a Microsoft product is an added bonus and makes the whole thing instantly newsworthy.
Nothing sells in the IT press like criticism of one of the big companies: Microsoft, Apple, Cisco et al, so the tendency is to grab the attention with an overly dramatic cover story even if the true nature of the article inside the magazine doesn’t quite follow along the same lines. One specific example was that in this very publication. The cover headline concerning the release of Microsoft’s new Operating System, Windows Vista, ran “Is This 2007’s Most Pointless Upgrade?” Numerous other computer and IT publications followed along similar lines with titles such as “Vista, do you really need it?”
Now, the actual Micro Mart article ironically recommended Windows Vista as a good upgrade for 2008 but perhaps things weren’t ready yet for immediate adoption, but rows of magazines on shelves all toting a similar cover story can go a long way to influence the opinions of readers. While the public may be able to get the full story by thumbing the pages and reading the whole article, there can be little doubt that an instant, knee-jerk reaction can occur to these headlines as it did with me. My initial thoughts were that the OS was not being given a fair chance and I felt no inclination to read the articles in question. An over reaction definitely on my part, but if I could be made to feel this way how many others were influenced?
The launch of Windows Vista caused a frenzy in the press with everyone wanting their say. Bill Gates made bold sweeping claims that Vista would do for multimedia what Windows 95 did for the Internet but others weren’t as confident in the product for one reason or another. Probably the biggest issue with Vista was the continuing delay – five years in the making with a stripped down feature set, is that what we've all been looking forward to? The loss of “revolutionary” core features like WinFS (a replacement for NTFS which holds all files in a relational database like SQL) from the product lessened the impact of the new OS and great play was made of the idea that the new operating system was no longer such an advancement; just Windows XP with a new skin. This view is, of course, completely wrong with Vista having a significant number of changes and enhancements under the hood as well as the obvious graphical improvements with the new Aero interface.
Other inaccuracies were also being reported as fact by widely regarded publishers both on the web and in print. As we progress from one version of a product to another the hardware requirements will always alter as new software adapts to take advantage of the technology of the day; this being a Microsoft product, however, it resulted in wild speculation and accusation from various parties in order to play down the significance of the product.
It was being reported that Windows Vista required 2GB of RAM as a minimum when 1GB will be perfectly adequate for most people. The same “reputable” sources also claimed that hardware over a year old would not be able to run Vista. Additionally, the horror stories continued with claims that Vista would apply its DRM (Digital Rights Management) to ANY media file you chose to play on it whether it was already protected or not!
Clearly reports like these were not based on the facts with many originating in anti-Microsoft quarters, but to have widely respected, mainstream journalists repeating them without adequate research or fact checking illustrated a complete lack of professionalism.
Microsoft were also accused of ripping off Apple’s OS X – from core functionality to the interface but, let’s face it, there's only so much you can do with an operating system and they have been ‘borrowing’ from each other for years, and not just the ‘big two’. If a feature is announced in one OS you want to try to keep up with the competition and provide your users a reason to stay with your product rather than switch. The whole Mac vs. PC thing is getting a bit tiresome; OS ‘flame wars’ have been around for years and are unlikely to go away, but it is up to us to ignore the fanatics on either side and make an informed decision based on all of the facts available.
For all of Apple’s posturing with the Mac vs. PC advertisements recently, it was refreshing to finally see one which simply says words to the effect of “We get along better than you might think”. Apple, as the main competitor here, is always going to make unfair comparisons between Windows and their own product, but for them to lead the way with this one small ad says a lot.
Being the market leader, Microsoft have always been an easy target and considered “fair game” when it comes to publishing a sensationalist story so there is no doubt that the criticism levied at the company is as a direct result of who it is. Windows advocates seem far less likely to attack other software companies based on the merits of the software, whereas those that criticise Windows are often basing an opinion on the company itself with its chequered history being rolled out in front of the cameras each time even if it bears no relevance to the current argument.
What was supposed to have been a piece looking at the way Microsoft get a raw deal from computer users changed direction. The average user wants something that, in Microsoft’s own words, “just works”. Whether that is a Mac, Windows PC etc. is largely irrelevant, it is merely a means to an end. Getting on the web, checking your mail, word processing, watching movies and listening to music can all be done on any device is essentially the same way so the consumer has a choice. The raw deal in fact comes from those who attempt to influence that choice by seeking a competitive advantage or sell some sort of publication. Consequently, if a consumer becomes blinkered by the coverage available the perception of any company will change. Microsoft are fortunate to be the big player in the home computing arena but success always comes with pitfalls of it’s own.
Without Microsoft and Windows we would be looking at a very different picture. The company is continuing to make great strides to improve its appearance and practices and strives to produce innovative, easy to use software to enhance our computing experience and I for one say that they should be granted the respect they deserve.