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<Why Microsoft is History>

By Daniel Will-Harris  

Unless you’ve been living under a Rock (or maybe an Apple), you’ve heard the big news about the government’s ruling to split Microsoft. I had said, years ago, that this is what should be done—as much as a punishment for their constant “all competition must be eliminated!” behavior as for the market itself.

It’s been interesting to watch, because Microsoft could easily and cheaply avoided all of this, with a few simple actions. They could have allowed computer companies to customize the Windows desktop and let others like Netscape in. That probably would have been that. But instead, they acted as if they were more powerful than the government of the United States, and as my wife said, “This is going to end in tears.”

The tears are Microsoft’s, and it’s virtually impossible to feel sorry for them, because they were so totally arrogant and predatory. It’s almost like one of those Greek Tragedies only what’s happened to them is only a tragedy in the mind of Bill Gates and his sound-alike CEO Steve Ballmer. Microsoft showed endless hubris, and now they are paying for it. The harder they push, the more they get pushed back. Even Larry Ellison understands that you can use the weight of your competition against you by deflecting their energy, rather than pushing harder against it.

>What Microsoft did wrong

What Microsoft did wrong was to try to destroy rather than compete. If you look at the places where they competed—they did just fine, they still won. The Internet Explorer actually is a better browser than Navigator—but only because they were forced by the competition to do better.

But they weren’t content with that, or secure enough in their own software to just win by being better. They had to try to crush the competition, which is what they have done all over the map—not just with large companies, but small companies, such as font designers, and now they’re even appropriating trademarked domain names (they created their “DigitalDiva.com” site which is surprisingly close in both name and content to “DigitalDivas.com.”

When MS doesn’t have competition, they release software that’s buggy, they don’t release fixes, and they design software like Outlook that’s full of holes large enough to drive the “Love” virus through. All that trouble and lost time and money by their customers wasn’t necessary. Those viruses only worked in Microsoft’s e-mail programs because they were careless in their design, and they could be careless in their design because they felt, “what else are people going to use?”

Microsoft said these viruses weren’t their fault, it was unscrupulous people taking advantage of their software. Well, yes, that’s right on the surface, but everyone knows there are unscrupulous hackers out there, so it is the responsibility of the software makers to make more secure software—not to think the world is going to change to fit their design.

Microsoft has taken advantage of the position that they created—not by creating the best software but by destroying the competition. How many times a day do you have to reboot Windows? On a good day, its only one, on a bad day it can be three or more times. And what do you do when Windows acts up? A friend of mine, who’s very tech savvy, has a computer where Windows has somehow lost the sound driver. It won’t allow him to reinstall it. His solution—buy a new computer. That sounds absurd, and it is—but sometimes it’s also the only way. You can reformat and reinstall until you’re blue in the face and it doesn’t always help. That’s because Microsoft isn’t worried you’ll buy another Operating System.

>Hey, look, it’s “Innovation!”

They’ve now announced their Microsoft.net service, whereby they’ll deliver everything to you over the web—your operating system and your software. And guess what—they’ll also get to charge you every month. This sure beats them only getting money out of you ever year or so with an updated, doesn’t it?

But once again—their “innovation” isn’t an innovation at all. Others are already doing this—and so Microsoft is pre-announcing vaporware that won’t be available for something like two years. I’m sorry, but that’s bogus. It’s a ploy to scare their competition from getting into that market—and to scare their customers into waiting for the blessed Microsoft “solution.” Don’t be fooled. Microsoft is the one that’s scared.

If you look at the record, Microsoft has yet to create any truly compelling and popular web sites (except their own, which is popular among people trying to figure out how to make their Windows work right). They’ve either closed or sold most of the web sites they’ve tried to create. They don’t offer any web applications now, even though there are already sites like www.thinkfree.com that offers you a free, web-based office suite of programs like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. They’re doing it today, and Microsoft is claiming they’ll innovate it two years from now. Does anyone really believe them anymore?

It doesn’t matter how much Gates whines about “innovation,” (in new TV spots, wearing a carefully calculated sweater without a tie), Microsoft has done precious little of it. They claim to have spent three billion dollars a year on R&D (research and development), but what do they have to show for it? Are computers really easier to use? Faster? More reliable? No. What have they spent that money on? They seem unable to do much that’s truly original—the few original things they have they really bought from other companies.

Even their logos are unoriginal. The new msn logo, with the butterfly, is like a cross between WordPerfect’s famous butterfly, and the NBC peacock (maybe not surprising, since Microsoft partnered with NBC for MSNBC—and if you look at that logo, you’ll see who’s on the top of that deal, MS. (Incidentally, you won’t find a slower or less appealingly designed news site than MSnbc—a site that manages to stick ads right in the middle of the news—not very responsible journalism).

In my house the cry “Innovation” has become a joke—especially when whined in an imitation of Truman Capote (in-o-vaaaa-shun!) that sounds depressingly like Bill Gates.

>The beginning of the end

Every time the major operating system changes, the major players change. And the operating system is changing. Windows is history. The web is the operating system of the future, and Linux is the web’s best friend.

The truth is that most people don’t need computers at all. They just need Internet terminals or something like WebTV (Yes, WebTV is owned by Microsoft, which is a smart move on their part). See Internet.com’s “NetDevices” for more info.

The truth is that most people don’t need a full PC. They don’t want to think, much less worry about their OS.

These simple devices are the future, my friends. If you’re a “power user” you may still have a stand alone computer in the future, but most people won’t. And so far, Microsoft hasn’t been able to get into this market—because they are afraid to let go of the messy money machine called Windows.

OK, so why haven’t these “cheap and easy” devices taken off? They haven’t been very well-designed, and most haven’t been well-priced, either. But it’s coming--and companies would rather get $20 a month from you than $800 all at once. Why? Because the revenue stream just keeps on flowing.

>As the OS turns...

Now the operating system is changing again, whether or not Microsoft will admit it. No, I don’t see Apple’s new OS/X taking over. It’s basically Steve Job’s NeXT OS in Apple clothing. Like the “old” ideas of Apple and Microsoft, it’s basically closed and locked from inside.

The real threat to Microsoft, and the real promise for us is Linux—with its openness, reliability, and support from companies who do nothing but support. Some smart people, including those who designed the original Mac, are now building a friendly face to put on Linux, and when they’re done, both Microsoft and Apple won’t know what hit them.

Most people don’t care what OS they’re using. They don’t know what an OS is. And why should they? They just want to be able to surf the web, buy things online from stores and auctions, read and send e-mail, send digital photos to the family, do a little word processing and maybe balance their books and pay their bills. And they can do all that faster, easier and cheaper without Windows (or the Mac). You figure out the rest of the story.

>What does this mean to you?

Hopefully--more choice. We won’t be locked into basically one choice (yes, the Mac is another choice, but it’s just as closed as controlled). While things now seem good, I saw computer systems at Xerox 15 years ago that did as much as what we have now. So we could have been a lot farther along than we are--and hopefully, breaking apart one monopolistic company will help give us some true computing freedom.

That is... unless another monopolistic company takes over... There's a new bully in town, and its initials are AOL. And that’s what I’m going to rant about next...

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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