Strong opinions, weakly held

I have gone soft on Microsoft

On the occasion of Bill and Melinda Gates sharing Time Person of the Year honors with Bono, I thought I’d talk a bit about my own attitude toward Microsoft. People who have been reading rc3.org since the beginning know that for a long time one of my major preoccupations was bashing Microsoft for its abuse of its monopoly power. (These days I seem to spend a lot of my time bashing President Bush for his abuse of executive power. What can I say, I fought the law and the law won.)

Anyway, I thought I’d talk about why Microsoft is not only no longer subject to my ire but really not even that much on my radar screen. The big watershed moment for me was when Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued his findings of fact in the Microsoft antitrust case. Even though Microsoft was never penalized, really, the simple fact that a judge who had heard both sides present their case in court agreed with me about Microsoft’s business practices was pretty much all I need to move on.

The second thing is that one of my main fears about Microsoft turned out to be completely unfounded. For some time I was gripped with paranoia about Microsoft simply taking over the entire IT landscape. There was widespread fear that soon if you wanted to develop software, you’d be using Visual Studio and Visual Basic or Visual J++ or ASP or whatever, and that if you wanted to surf the Web you’d have to use Internet Explorer because every Web site would be using Microsoft’s proprietary extensions. Of course, Microsoft’s general PR strategy was to promote the idea that this was inevitable, and at the time, Microsoft was rolling over its competitors like a steamroller.

Mostly, I have the rise of open source software to thank for releasing me from that fear. Not only because its explosive growth, but because it’s immune to the competitive tactics that Microsoft employed so effectively against other corporations. Open source software is fine as long as people want to use and improve it, and of course these days it’s easy to make a very productive career for yourself based only on your ability to work on open source platforms. When that became feasible, suddenly there was a lot less reason to fear Microsoft’s market power forcing you into working with tools that don’t really interest you.

Blogging by Microsoft employees has also made a huge difference to me. I don’t read that many Microsoft blogs, but the ones I have read put a human face on the company that it once lacked. It’s a lot harder to categorically detest a company that employs people like Raymond Chen, Don Box, and plenty of others who I won’t bother to list.

The final reason brings me back around to the Time Person of the Year thing. It’s hard to be too angry at Bill Gates when he’s throwing billions of dollars at problems that plague the people in the world who are most in need of help. Maybe he does so because he doesn’t want to be remembered as a rampaging monopolist, as some people assert, but I think he does it because it’s a good thing to do. More importantly, I don’t really care why he does it. If people want to give away their riches to worthy causes in order to burnish their legacies, I approve. I’ll be happy to assist in the burnishing, in fact.

I still don’t approve of everything Microsoft does, but these days I see the company more as a gravitational force that has to be accounted for rather than as an evil entity that has to be resisted. Microsoft exerts a huge influence on our industry, but these days it’s just not a great concern. I’m happy to have arrived at that point.


  1. To follow up (with what might be an obvious point) just because you’re worst fears didn’t turn out to be true, doesn’t mean that

    a) they were unfounded b) Microsoft wasn’t a monopoly c) all that Microsoft bashing was in vain

    The rise of open source (and really the rise of the awareness of idea of free software being about something other then the cost), MS’s move to put a human face on themselves, the rise of powerful (and somtimes scary) competitors, and even, in part, Bill Gates philanthropy.

    This is all what our activism won us. It didn’t just happen.

  2. They were definitely a monopoly, no question about that. I do think my fears were unfounded in that there’s no way everyone was going to migrate to the Windows platform.

    And I definitely think the activism was worthwhile and prevented a variety of worst case scenarios.

  3. There was a great piece on Bill and Melinda Gates (and the fight against malaria, in particular) in a recent New Yorker, and I was quite impressed that their concern was real (based, it felt to me, on the shock of encountering the depth of the problem (not recognized from inside the bubble?) and the tininess of the effort to fight it). They really thought, where can we put money where it will really leverage progress, won’t be redundant with government and other effort, etc. And malaria research, with its huge applicability but tiny profitability, really stands out. They’ve even listened to some criticism of their initial approach and included seed funds for on-the-ground efforts (of the mosquito net distribution sort) that are cheap and hugely effective. So, altogether an amazing confluence of ability and need . . .

  4. I think I agree with everyone, as usual.

    I’ve been very happy to see them putting serious money into malaria and so on. It needs doing.

  5. Oh come on, its just a nice PR campaign… I too read blogs from ms employees and watch channel9 videos and I have to say that some of the greatest minds in the it industry work for Microsoft.

    To create good/great software is hard work (being a programmer myself I know it from first hand ;)) and I really appreciate the effort the ms devs are putting into their work, but they don’t market/distribute their work and that’s where the problems start.

    The below belt competitive tactics of ms are that piss most people of and not so much the software itself (well, I’m making an exception for IE, which pisses many people off ;)).

    The worst and saddening part of it is that all those nice ms employees blogging and talking passionately about their work on channel9 do not seem to notice/know or care how their company competes in the market. Or they do know, but simply don’t care, which makes them, well… just as evil.

  6. I’m exactly where you are but I go the other way. Anger is exhausting. And at the moment we all have a lot to be exhausted about starting with torture and tolerance of slavery and what are getting close to being death squads, and Bill Gates has spent his charity money wisely . . .

    but I don’t think that makes it okay.

    Charity is good.

    Monopolies are bad (they cost everyone billions).

    I think we have to keep them separate in our minds.

    There are no evil people anywhere. There are no evil people at Microsoft. But there are fallible people who commit evil acts.

    I think the truth is that Hitler would come across as a sympathetic character, at least for brief flashes here and there, if I actually sat down and read his weblog.

    The likability of other people is what keeps us all from killing each other, and thank God for it, but that doesn’t make white collar crime–that indirectly affects everyone because of the ubiquity of Microsoft Windows–that doesn’t make white collar crime okay.

    To forgive it, and to continue to beat African American suspects black and blue . . . is racism.

  7. You just can’t take away all the money he has donated. He may have a monopoly of sorts, but at least you know the money isn’t being abused.

    If it were a true PR move, you would hear him goin to the press saying “look what I did”. You have to dig around to find the stuff he has done. I don’t think he is doing any of the charity stuff for PR.

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