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< Is Microsoft in your best interest? >

By Daniel Will-Harris

1/25/98 - I think Windows is great, and have since version 3.1. I love Word--I think it’s the best word processor I’ve ever used (and I’ve used more than I care to remember). Microsoft’s software has always been mostly reliable (more reliable than most) and reasonably priced. I’ve always been a strong supporter of Microsoft, and its products, even when it wasn’t hip to do so.

But lately, Microsoft’s actions have made me doubt their motives. At one time they seemed only to want everyone to have a computer that had some Microsoft software on it. Now they seem to want everyone to have a computer that only has Microsoft software on it. I think they need to take a long hard look at what Apple did to itself (and its users) and avoid making the same mistakes.

>The Apple Lesson

In the past Microsoft really was quite open, it had to be. Sure, they wanted to set their own standards, but they weren’t big enough, so they were forced to innovate, “integrate” (read mimic), and listen to what users and hardware manufacturers said. Because of this, Microsoft and its products continually had to change, evolve, and improve.

Apple, on the other hand, was an entity to itself. It designed everything itself, both hardware and software (though the Mac interface was clearly “integrated” from Xerox). The Mac had no outside source of stimulation, and so it stayed, virtually unchanged, for years. Apple’s recent decision to stop licensing its OS caused even Mac users to start to turn away and look for more choice.

Mac user and industry writer Michael Slater wrote “This was the turning point in my ability to sustain any optimism--and the end of my already waning willingness to base our company's infrastructure on the Mac. With this action, Jobs ended any real chance of increasing the Mac's market share significantly. We are back to a situation where all Mac hardware innovation depends on Apple. Where the only system configurations are the ones Apple chooses to offer. Where all Macs are priced the way Apple wants to price them.”

And now Microsoft seems to be trying the same flawed tactic, so that all innovation will be theirs, all decisions will be theirs, and users will have little choice but to accept it. (For a first-hand account of how Microsoft gave away the 3D market, and in the process didn’t let the market decide which system was best, click here)

>Better software through competition

We’re already starting to see the results of Microsoft’s owning a market: look at Word97 which owns perhaps 90% of the word processing market under Windows (and a lesser, but still large share on the Mac). As much as I love Word, I know it has some serious bugs involving graphics--they can just disappear for no reason. That’s really inexcusable, and you’d think that Microsoft would have quickly written a patch and given it away free, over the Internet. But it hasn’t. It doesn’t even admit there’s a problem. Why? Perhaps it’s because they’re not worried their users are going to defect to WordPerfect. Or could it be they hope it will give users another reason to upgrade to Office98 or 99 or 2000?

And what about the “browser wars?” At least temporarily, the public gets a break while they get free browsers. But would IE4 be as good as it is if it hadn’t had to compete with Navigator 4? Probably not. Once everyone is using IE4, will IE5 really be better? Will it even be free? Maybe you’ll have to buy something akin to a “service” contract to keep your browser current. Maybe you’ll have to trade your personal demographic data for its use. If you have no choice, then Microsoft can back you into a corner you may not feel comfortable in. In other words--will we be better off if there’s only one browser? I don’t think so.

There’s an easy way for Microsoft to show they’re competing on fair ground: let computer makers bundle Netscape as well as IE. Have both icons on the desktop. Let users decide which they prefer. That couldn’t be easier, and it couldn’t be better PR for Microsoft. It also couldn’t be better for users, who will then be able to decide which product they think is best.

If Microsoft had more competition, they’d be more competitive, and users would get better software. That’s how it’s worked in the past, and still works. Less competition and less choice produce software that’s not as good as it could be. I thought Microsoft was smart enough to know this. Now I wonder.

>Non-competition

I had another first-hand experience with Microsoft’s “new” approach. When I found the font embedding security breach in IE4, I contacted the Type Group at Microsoft. I told them about the font embedding problem before I published anything about it. Perhaps naively, I expected them to do something about it (and there were and still are things they could do to safeguard the intellectual property rights of others). Instead, they did nothing--at least nothing positive. They claimed I was overreacting, that it wasn’t really a problem. They said things I knew to be untrue, and that others who I had double-check my findings knew to be untrue. In the past, these very same people had sent me thanks and told me what a great job I was doing in reporting about their products. Now they acted as if I was an enemy, just because I was pointing out a flaw. Maybe I was naïve, but this really shocked me.

>This taught me several things
>about Microsoft

First, I learned that even huge, seemingly faceless companies do have faces. Decisions are made by people, not machines. These people can decide to do the right thing, or the convenient thing.

I learned that despite what people may tell you, you only really know their motives when you see their decisions. They can spend two years publicly saying they’re really concerned about something, that they’re doing everything in their power to correct it, and then when push comes to shove, they just ignore it.

But perhaps the most shocking thing I learned is not that Microsoft is ruthless (I knew this), but that other companies, even Microsoft’s competitors, are afraid to confront Microsoft, even when they feel strongly that MS has done something wrong that is jeopardizing their product, their property!

Why? Either they currently have some deal with MS, or they’d like to have a deal with MS. They seem willing to give away their wares just to have a relationship with MS, for fear that MS will otherwise squash them. So, sadly, other software companies are, in part, to blame for giving Microsoft too much power.

But the truth of the matter is that if MS wants to squash a company, they will. I had been under the impression that Microsoft, as a company, only created a really focused attack if you attacked them directly. Corel said their office suite would beat Microsoft’s, and this was a clear, frontal attack that Microsoft defended. That’s business--that’s understandable.

But now I’ve seen Microsoft attack even in a minor skirmish, with companies whose entire yearly gross is less than many of Microsoft’s executives (and even their lesser-paid employees). Their core business was not at all at stake, they were just acting like a bully.

>The future

And what can you do personally? There is only one language Microsoft understands: Money. It’s not realistic to say we should stop using Windows, it’s too ubiquitous and too essential to the jobs that most of us do. What I am saying is that we should make our software purchasing decisions wisely. Don’t blindly buy from Microsoft when there might be something better out there.

Before you buy the standard fare, look at some of the innovative new word processing programs, like Trellix which gives a word processing more of a web-site-like metaphor, or “YeahWrite,” a clever $19 word processor with a wonderfully simple interface. Do the same with all your software, your web site creation and management software, your accounting, and spreadsheet, and database programs. Yes, it will take you longer. Yes, you will have to make decisions. But you will be showing Microsoft it has to keep up with its competition.

Don’t blindly upgrade unless you really need one of the new features being offered (upgrades are immensely profitable for software makers). I’m not saying you should blindly buy anti-Microsoft products--that might not be in your own best interest. But I am saying you need to be more careful with your money, and not send it to Redmond unless they’ve earned it.

And once you do have your Microsoft software--speak out. Loudly and often. Send them e-mail and tell them what’s not working, what needs improvement. Don’t let them rest on their laurels.

You can also write to your elected officials, many of whom now receive e-mail. Tell them what you think. The government should be working for you, even if a particular software company isn’t.

>Updates

2/2/98 - According to InfoBeat, “Motorola, Sun in biggest Java license dealMotorola Inc and Sun Microsystems Inc announced the biggest licensing agreement ever for Sun's Java programming language.

Under the agreement, Motorola will incorporate Java technology across its wide portfolio of products, including semiconductors, smart cards, automotive components, wireless devices, advanced electronics systems and computers. “This agreement marks the largest technology license agreement in the history of the Java platform,” said Scott McNealy, chairman, president and chief executive of Sun. “Motorola ships many tens of millions of embedded silicon solutions and radio products a year worldwide as the market leader in various industries.”

What’s important about this? The more widely Java is used, the more important it becomes to the web.

1/24/98 - According to the San Jose Mercury News and the Scripting News, Netscape will not take responsibility for porting and maintaining the Java virtual machine for all the operating systems they support.

This is major news, because it means Sun is basically left to fend for themselves. Microsoft has said in the past it included Java because it wanted to be competitive with Netscape. If Netscape doesnt develop Java, will Microsoft lose interest?

This is not necessarily bad news for competition--Sun is certainly capable of developing JVM (JavaVirtualMachine) software for many platforms--in fact, they developed one for Windows to replace the Microsoft version they consider is incompatible.

Whats more, even set top box developer TCI, long a partner to Microsoft, has said it will use both Windows CE and Java in their set-top boxes. Theyre hedging their bets.

If Microsoft decides to stop including the JVM, people will have to get a browser, then separately get the JVM. Many people wont go out of their way to do this, so then most web developers wont be sure that their site visitorsbrowsers have Java. So theyll be less likely to use Java.

Then again, Microsoft is the leading supplier of Java-related programming software, so it doesnt seem likely theyll totally abandon this market. But its unclear if this latest action this will lead to a Java thats more uniform across more platforms, or less prevalent.

Dont be confused, Java still has a lot of support. Programmers like it. And as web browsers become more of a platformof their own, Java is currently the language of choice for browsers. This move may be no more than Netscape showing their going to focus on their own products, and it could give Sun a chance to really control the language again. Well all have to wait and see.

1/23/98 - Not only has Netscape decided to give away its browser and Communicator suite, its also going to start giving away the source code--the very programming that the software is based on.

That means that any programmer can take this source code, edit it, refine it, add to it, and create new programs, or new versions of browsers. Now, instead of having a few dozen programmers at Netscape trying to add every feature imaginable, theyll have tens of thousands of people around the world, adding their own special features, inventing new ideas and approaches.

Its not just great, PR, its a very webthing to do, to really open this up to the world.

Its a truly open gesture that encourages people to support the Netscape browser, and build upon it. Now thats asking for innovation instead of inhibiting it by shying away from competition. Thats giving us all a chance to see better ideas (two million heads are better than one), from wherever it may come. Thats a good for everyone.

Whats in it for Netscape? Theyre a company, and their goal is to make money, but this is a smart move all around. As well as getting priceless good-will from users and developers, they get the rights to any modifications, and the ability to merge these back into their main product. The bottom line--theyre getting free programming talent (but for a product theyre giving away). So while they may not make money on a browser anymore, they will make it from all the products that surround and support this new, open browser.

Good for Netscape--let's hope this clever idea takes hold. Not only will this mean continued competition for Microsoft (not just from one company, but from countless companies and millions of programmers), it will mean better software for all.

 

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved