Commentary

Silicon Hutong: Sympathy for the Devil

David WolfBy David Wolf
I woke up the other day feeling a little bit sorry for Microsoft. And a little pissed at myself. I, like most of us, have watched from the cheap seats as the company has been tossed to the floor of the arena and attacked repeatedly by Scott McNealy, Larry Ellison, half a dozen competitors, a legion of Linux fanatics, fifty State Attorneys-General, the United States Department of Justice, the European Union, and now a combined horde of the governments of Japan, South Korea, and China.

And I've cheered them on.

I too thought Microsoft was getting awfully big, that competitors had all fallen away and that there was a good chance that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer were taking their cues from John D. Rockefeller, Gordon Gecko, and Genghis Khan. But after the better part of a decade of ongoing investigations, inquiries, and court cases, it seems pretty clear that at some points they pushed the edge of the moral and legal envelope with their hypercompetitive practices.

And while I can't condone the instances that rode on that razor sharp edge of law and ethics, I think Microsoft has paid a price in legal fees, distraction, and opportunity costs that will in the end cost the company far more than any putative fine.

And here's what started to really set me off–while the Defenders of the Little Guy (i.e., the collective Attorneys General in the United States) were spending the public lucre crawling up Bill Gates' backside with a Microscope, they missed the greatest systematic destruction of personal wealth in history going on around the dotcom boom and bust. They missed Enron, they missed Global Crossing, they missed the accounting firms, and they missed the brokerages and their analysts. Tell me, who over the last ten years has wreaked greater havoc, the aforementioned list of corporate thieves, or the guys in Redmond?

And I can't think of anything that any agency can prove that Microsoft has done would justify the disgraceful vilification of the company by national governments. How is it that the Greater East Asian Coalition of the Willing, which cannot even agree that the government of North Korea is a danger to the world, are able to turn their attentions from a nuclear crisis to take on a software company whose greatest crime is that they sell more software than anybody else.

And lest we think that market dominance came easy or merely because the Wizards of Washington did a Godzilla on legions of little startups writing operating systems, let's stop for a moment, and remember exactly what this horrible monster is forced to do to earn its breakfast:

? Develop software that works the overwhelming majority of the time on thousands of different hardware configurations sold by literally over a hundred computer manufacturers;

? Make sure that software can work on those thousands of different machines when plugged into a greater number of monitors, printers, PDAs, keyboards, mice, scanners, card-readers, modems, plotters, and every other imaginable kind of peripheral simply by plugging the damned things into the computer;

? While all of that happy hardware compatibility is going on, make sure that software from dozens of different manufacturers all work together while the above is going on;

? Plug these already insanely complicated machines into even more complicated networks, and withstand the assaults of any and all of zit-faced sociopaths that make a hobby out of turning software into soup;

? Do this all in a way so that people who are incapable of using a VCR are able to make easy, daily use of it, and staff massive support centers and websites to support them despite the growing ease of use;

? Deliver the product in a format where people two or three dozen different language groups can use them with equal ease;

? Oh, yes, and by the way–do it all every two years to keep up with the evolution of the hardware and the growing expectations of users.

These are huge challenges–so huge, in fact, that nobody else in the business has been able to do it with any kind of success. And lest you suggest that it was Microsoft's size and power that has stomped out any potential OS competition, remember that the most credible challenge to Microsoft ever came from a giant company that has been in the software business longer than any other company in the world: IBM. Remember OS/2? Trust me when I say the people at IBM headquarters in Armonk, New York who still remember OS/2 are trying very hard to forget it.

Whenever Apple releases an update of its Mac OS, it faces a far simpler proposition, given that nearly all of the computers it will run on were manufactured by Apple itself. This is why the MacOS enjoys a great reputation for stability and why Apple is able to upgrade the OS every six months or so. Microsoft would be delighted, I am sure, to operate under such conditions. Unfortunately, when you are serving 94% of the market rather than 3%, you don't have that level of control.

And Linux? If it weren't for a small group of hard-core IT managers and enthusiasts, Linux wouldn't exist. Ignore the hype stirred up by the people in the industry who dislike Microsoft–Linux is not for the rest of us and probably never will be, certainly not those of us who want 24 hour phone support 5 years after buying a product, ease of use, and lots of hardware and software compatibility.

And for those of you reading this who think tinkering with your computer and trying new software are fun, please remember that 90% of us who use computers just want the things to work when we turn them on, so we are not interested in using operating systems or office software cobbled together by well-intentioned coders around the world.

It's all gone a bit too far. It's time to stop, breathe, and get some perspective.

Late last year, Microsoft told the world it was ending support for older versions of its Windows operating system, starting with Windows 98 and going backwards. Predictably, consumers, IT managers, pundits, and analysts howled with righteous anger. It seems that, in the U.S. alone a whopping 80% of the companies surveyed by AssetMetrix still use Win95 or Win98 on upwards of 40% of their machines.

Obligingly, and to the nearly unanimous applause of all, Microsoft backtracked on that decision and at its own expense will continue support until 2006 at least.

That may sound like little more than a smart business move rather than an example of corporate generosity, and that's probably true.

But some food for thought:

If the Korean, Chinese, and Japanese governments had their way and Microsoft went away tomorrow, we would be getting our computer operating software from either an unorganized group of enthusiasts scattered around the world (Linux), or from the Chinese government.

Where would the support come from then?

About the author:
Silicon Hutong is an ongoing series of thoughts and commentaries by David Wolf, President and CEO of Wolf Group Asia'a management advisory firm providing strategic communications counsel to technology, media, entertainment, and telecommunications companies in Greater China and the Asia-Pacific region. David's opinions are his own and do not reflect those of either WGA or it's clients. Past articles can be found at www.chinatechnews.com, the Silicon Hutong Blog can be found here and David himself can be contacted at [email protected].

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