"The future is a race between education and catastrophe."
-- H.G. Wells
Honor where honor's due: Microsoft accomplishments are impressive. Gates and Allen started with practically nothing in the early seventies, and today Microsoft is perhaps the most commercially successful company in the world with a net worth that runs into billions of dollars. Their methods may always have been doubtful from both a moral and a legal standpoint, but they did turn inferior products into a commercial success, and a small startup company into the biggest money-making machine in existence today. This requires commercial genius, which Gates undeniably has, even though he never really contributed much to technology or to life in general. Being a great salesman, he has become perversely rich by selling bad, copycat products. Which only goes to show that for every rule there's an exception; in this case the computer industry's old maxim that wealth is a function of creativity and innovation. Commercial ingenuity will do as well, and Gates' marketing strategies have been nothing less than brilliant.
Even though the company has done little more than disguise various ideas as their own, it cannot be denied that Microsoft products have played an important role in the maturing of the IT industry. Microsoft (in a symbiotic relationship with chip manufacturer Intel, largely thanks to IBM's decision to allow third party manufacturers to clone the IBM PC design) has been one of the factors that made computer technology available to the masses.
When these accomplishments are regarded in their proper perspective, though, the picture that emerges is less than wonderful.
Microsoft has been credited with being a stimulator of technological development, and has even been called "the jet engine of the new economy". The truth is, however, that corporate ICT investments and efforts have rarely triggered technological development, but at best followed up on it. Nuclear research (which lead to a better understanding of semiconductor materials and ultimately to the modern microchips) and computer research initially took place as part of the war effort during the 1940's. The first real electronic computers (Colossus and ENIAC) were developed at Bletchley Park in the UK and at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering of Pennsylvania, respectively. Both were developed on a defense budget. The cold war and America's urge to outclass the Soviet Union in achievements such as space travel triggered the founding of the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) which developed much technology, including communications technology and ARPAnet. ARPAnet eventually matured and grew as other research institutes began to use it, and ultimately became the Internet. The World Wide Web, powerful as it is, was simply the next step to its inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who had no commercial interests in mind and is said to have described his extending existing hypercard systems with Internet capability as "a logical, perhaps even inevitable next step".
Moore's Law has been in operation for decades: computing power has roughly doubled every 18 months, while hardware integration has increased and hardware prices have dropped accordingly. The first cellphones weighed over 20 pounds, the first GPS receivers filled a desktop. Today we can buy such devices for a song; they fit into a shirt pocket and perform much better than those early dinosaurs. Bill Gates claimed that Microsoft helps keep prices down, saying that modern computing power is "the equivalent of getting a 747 for the price of a pizza". The nonsense of this statement is proven by the fact that similar evolution and price drops have occurred with technology that Microsoft has nothing to do with. The reduced price of computing power is merely a reflection of achievements in the fields of micro-electronics and physics, and of the simple economics of increased mass production.
Microsoft has ridden the wake (but rarely the crest) of these and other developments that stimulated technological innovation. They have followed the trend and capitalized on it, but they haven't driven it noticeably. They have contributed to making new computer technology available to the masses, and they created the foundation for today's IT market by turning available technology into commercially viable products, with great success. But as is so often the case, the initiator has long since become an impediment to further progress.
We owe Microsoft our gratitude for two (and only two) accomplishments. Before Microsoft came along, a computer owner could obtain software only from the manufacturer of that particular computer. If IBM had had it their way with PC-DOS, this would still have been the case. Microsoft changed that, first by selling BASIC interpreters to various competing manufacturers of home computers, later by doing the same with MS-DOS. Their marketing strategy was instrumental in changing a vertical market (where users buy all their products from one supplier) to a horizontal market (where many different suppliers sell components that go into the final end product). Both PC manufacturers and software manufacturers owe their existence in the PC market largely to that single fact. Also, by implementing an entry-level user interface in Windows, they made the PC accessible to the novice user.
These are Good Things, and Microsoft deserves due credit for it. But these accomplishments were mainly a by-product of Microsoft's marketing strategy. Their beneficial effects pale next to the damage that Microsoft has done.
In today's Microsoft-dominated market, customers aren't served. They are being used. Microsoft manipulates the market, with the customers as pawns in their marketing strategies. The needs and wishes of the customers themselves are completely ignored, unless responding to those needs would help Microsoft in their rise to complete market domination. And all the while, Microsoft's marketeers paint this company as the best thing that's ever happened to us.
Microsoft replaced our dependency on different hardware manufacturers by an even stronger dependency on one software company (Microsoft) and one platform (Intel), and the pretty colors of a friendly-looking user interface only hide the very badly designed technology with which they've saturated the market. After changing a restrictive vertical computer market into a less restrictive horizontal one, Microsoft now moves back into a vertical market where all software products in an otherwise horizontal market are again available from (or with the consent of) a single supplier. Microsoft has expanded the market for PC software, but also set the standard for that market: notorious unreliability, sloppy code, and marketing interests that impede the introduction of new ideas. The software market is the only market where products are still accompanied by license agreements that state, often in a few thousand words that are extremely hard to read, that by using the product you indemnify the vendor against any claims, losses, or problems it may cause, even if the vendor knew about the problem before it sold the product. In some cases you even agree to let Microsoft remotely modify your software and you can't hold it liable if something breaks as a result. Can you see the an automobile manufacturer demanding that you sign a waiver before they'll let you drive one of their cars, in case the brakes don't work? Of course not. Yet this is considered a normal standard of conduct in the software market, and while Microsoft is not solely responsible for it, they have contributed greatly to the blind acceptance of this deterioration of quality standards. And if you don't like Ford trucks, you can buy a Jeep instead. PC users generally do not have that option.
Microsoft has spun out of control, and rules the field of computer technology and the IT market with an iron fist. Whatever Microsoft's next whim may be, IT customers must follow it, despite forced upgrades, replacements of existing software and hardware, huge costs of ownership and ever-increasing overhead.
Customers in today's IT market no longer have a truly free choice about the products they want to deploy. It has become all but impossible to run an office without using Microsoft products. There are so many MS-proprietary document formats and protocols being used these days that Microsoft products have become the only game in town. Alternatives are no longer a real option, because the companies that used to offer them have either been assimilated or eliminated, and the remaining few are ailing after years of struggling to cope with proprietary standards designed for incompatibility with non-MS products.
And nothing will change. The old saying that "Sony will make more compact things, Apple will make more beautiful things, Microsoft will make more money" will hold true as it has done in the past decades. Microsoft is driven by sales targets, not by quality targets. No matter how bad their products are, as long as they continue to sell them nobody will get fired. An sell them they will, by force if necessary.
Microsoft has grown beyond control. Even the DoJ has been unable to come up with effective measures against the company. This demonstrates that Microsoft is now effectively above and beyond the law. Microsoft won't be unhorsed by competition either, because there's virtually no competition left. They'll just go on as planned, tightening their grip on the IT market and the user community, continuing to increase our dependency on their sloppy products, and forcing us to buy useless new releases every other year or so.
Computer hardware is more powerful than ever, but software efficiency and reliability have steadily dropped. PC programmers no longer know any serious quality standards for software development, users still don't do their work any faster or any more efficiently, and therapists are now treating something they call 'Technology Related Anger'.
And we're stuck with all this. That's the whole point: because of Microsoft, we're stuck with Microsoft. In fact we're stuck not only with Microsoft, but also (and especially) with what Microsoft has done to the ICT market. Even if Microsoft would cease to exist today, the PC software market would need years to recover from the huge impediment to innovation that Microsoft has become.
For years and years Microsoft has stunted the true growth of computer technology under the guise of innovation. In the early years the PC and LAN market was driven by innovation that resulted directly in enhanced productivity. Simple products like DOS and DOS-based applications, even with all their limitations and drawbacks, achieved dramatic boosts in productivity. End users could streamline their business processes with batch files, macros and other forms of scripting, and applications were mostly limited to features that made sense. In those days the investments in automation usually paid off directly in the form of enhanced productivity. But as Windows began to dominate the market this tendency changed, and was ultimately replaced by exploding costs without any further increase in productivity.
Nowadays most desktop tasks actually take longer than they used to ten years ago. Most office applications such as Word and Excel lack features that users would like to have (such as simple macro's and scripting, control over markup codes and freely interchangeable documents) but eat up a lot of production time while users try to find their way through the maze of added bells and whistles and an inconsistent and unergonomic user interface. Windows is designed to be operated manually; the use of scripting and macro-based jobs is no longer possible.
Ideally Windows should be replaced with an OS built around a robust kernel (the Unix approach comes to mind) but with the focus on user-friendliness that has been one of the deciding factors in Windows' popularity. Open API's and toolkits would let application developers create products with a uniform look and feel to the user interface. This could certainly be done with the technology available today. There are a lot of players in the software market who would be eminently capable of such an effort. But nobody in his right mind would invest in such a project, because commercial success requires displacing Microsoft from over 95% of the world's personal computers. The inertia of the market alone guarantees that such a transition will take at least five and maybe as much as ten years, and that's not counting Microsoft's sabotaging such efforts.
Some readers have taken this paper as an advocacy for Linux, MacOS or other products. While those would indeed be better alternatives from a technical point of view, one should not be blind to the fact that for most of us these are not viable alternatives. In order to make our living, we're expected --even forced-- to be compatible with the one brand of products that has been deliberately made incompatible with almost everything else.
Several readers have pointed out that recently OSX has become a more and more realistic alternative, now that Apple has begun to sell computers based on Intel processors. In fact OSX has been made to run succesfully on standard PCs. However these experiments involve illegal versions of OSX, which then have to be massaged and occasionally reverse-engineered (all in violation of the applicable licensing conditions) to make them work. But the point here is not that OSX can now be made to run on a PC, at least from a technical standpoint. The main thing is that Apple is not doing it. If there's anyone who can release such a product and make it popular, it's Apple. But no such product is apparently forthcoming.
At the same time, more and more readers of this paper are wondering what Google is up to. Notwithstanding widespread concerns that Google is getting more and more powerful and could become the next Evil Empire, the fact is that Google is gearing up for something major. They're building humungous datacenters, the locations of which are largely governed by how many Gigawatts of electricity are locally available. That should tell us a few things about Google's visions of the future. Google undeniably packs a punch, and could certainly release, say, a $40 operating system based on a Linux or BSD kernel, and get OEMs to sell it with name recognition. People would definitely buy it. However, again the point is that Google has not done that, and appears to have no plans whatsoever of venturing into that particular market. Google focuses on information providing, online advertising and online application services, which makes sense because that is what they're good at. They're not into operating systems and application software.
So it doesn't look like a change is in the winds anytime soon.
Microsoft has stunted the true growth of computer technology under the guise of innovation. They have manipulated technology in order to force their customers to turn to Microsoft as a sole supplier. They have driven up the cost of computing in order to spike their own revenues, and behaved in ways that show contempt for their customers and the law. They have shown a tendency towards lying and general dishonesty. And with a towering display of hypocrisy they keep telling us that everything they have done has only been in response to public demand for innovation and to the needs of the IT professional.
That is why I hate Microsoft. Microsoft isn't the answer. Microsoft is the question. And the answer is "No".
Mr. Gates, Mr. Ballmer, I've upped my standards... so up yours.
Comments? E-mail me!