The little bit of Microsoft that I like

I’ll be honest, most of what Microsoft does I don’t like. But somewhere deep in the bowels of the giant monopoly abuser are some good people doing some good coding and producing some interesting and profitable programs despite the efforts of the upper echelons to cripple good ideas.

First of all, forget the top two. They’re both there because Bill G’s mother sat on the board of IBM at the time IBM chose Microsoft to supply the Operating System for the new IBM PC. And don’t forget – they didn’t write that themselves, they hacked someone else’s code paying the inventor of CP/M $50,000 in the process. Since then they have hardly shown themselves to be especially talented, unlike many of the people who work for them.

Forget too the business ethics department at MS, because they palpably don’t have one. If they do, it doesn’t work the way you and I understand ethics. For one, they really seem to believe they are above the law. Even where they have been found guilty of abusing their monopoly – in the US and in Europe – they have tried wriggling out of things, or dragging legal cases on so long they evaporate competition while the courts deliberate. After being found guilty of monopoly abuse in the US they applied political and financial pressure to have the judge who found them guilty removed from the case that would identify the appropriate punishment in the US; the replacement left the company intact, a big mistake in my opinion for both the coders at Microsoft and their customers. In Europe they applied similar political pressure to politicians in an attempt to wriggle out of paying that fine – which they still haven’t paid 5 years after they lost the case.

Forget how they treat competitors. The Microsoft way to dominance is to bully the opposition either by forced or coerced buyout, by sabotaging other competitors’ markets by undercutting them with loss making cheaper or even free products (eg the neutering of Netscape), or by writing the code of Windows so that it favours their own Office product (eg the removal of Word Perfect from the No 1 Word Processor slot). I’m sure you can think of other occasions.

Forget anything to do with making customers want to do business with them, the Microsoft way is to force customers to do business with them. This is in sharp contrast to companies like Apple whose customers are wooed by the company with great systems, amazing designs, and an “I want one!” culture so powerful that the shares of other companies can plummet just on the rumour that Apple the innovator might enter their market (eg mobile phone maker shares on the announcement of the soon to be here Apple iPhone).

Forget innovation too. Microsoft haven’t made anything truly innovative since the, err, erm…. actually, what innovation have they brought to the table? Ah yes, the legal argument that if the company was split up it wouldn’t be able to innovate. Er, hello? Innovation is something other companies do Microsoft. You just copy and that isn’t the same. MS is a bit like Bizarro from the DC comics Superman stories, if you remember that far back.

But Microsoft really does have a diamond in its cupboard, and that diamond is Microsoft Office. OK, it has a load of crap stuck in there too, and some of it (such as Access) has been artificially restricted to force users (there they go again, forcing) to buy the more expensive SQL server.

Perhaps Word is rather too difficult to navigate, and sometimes you need to alter three seperate settings held on lower sub-levels of more than one menu selection just to change what something looks like on a page. Word also makes you change each formatting setting one at a time, whereas programs such as IBM”s Lotus Smartsuite have a pop up menu with all the options available in one place with one click alterations possible. Word files (.doc) take up a lot more space for storage than the equivalent from OpenOffice (.odt files) too.

PowerPoint and Publisher are pretty awful really when you look at other alternatives out there. FrontPage is tragic – have you ever seen the amount of sewage-code this generates for a simple text only web-page? It’s mind-boggling. As for Outlook, it’s really not very powerful and has loads of holes.

The brightest bit of the diamond is though, without a doubt, Microsoft Excel – particularly it’s graphing capabilities. This program is amazing, and when compared to the main opposition at the moment, OpenOffice, it’s like comparing a seedling with a California Redwood. Except that Apple comes from California of course, not Microsoft.

OK, the standard colours of the charts Excel produces are pretty uninspiring, but it’s amazing how few people change them. You can see them dotted around, here and there, in coprorate brochures, annual reports and other literature. But to give them their due, Excel I believe is a wholly grown internal project, not bought in, not pirated, not copied. When it was launched it really did mess up the sales of the then leader for spreadsheets, Lotus Corp’s Lotus 123.

If it wasn’t for Excel, I wouldn’t have bought Microsoft Office. I did buy it to run on a Mac though – I still don’t have MS Office on my PC. Actually, MS Excel appeared on Macs before it appeared on Windows, if you are to believe the stories. One other program Microsoft makes that is pretty good is Visio, but it doesn’t come with MS Office.

But don’t you think it is ironic that MS, who regularly spread FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) about other platforms such as Linux and Apple – and who try to put Apple off people’s shopping lists by dismissively saying “Macs are only good for graphics” actually have as their “best” products two, err, graphics related programs?

The best thing that could happen for Microsoft would be a breakup, as the one that broke up Standard Oil in the 1920s. When that oil monopoly was broken up into 34 daughter companies including Exxon, Amoco, Conoco etc the sum market capitalisation of all the post-breakup component companies almost doubled overnight – a capital movement the like of like which Microsoft hasn’t seen for many years, unlike the much smaller Apple Inc whose shares have more than doubled in the last year alone. But making more money probably isn’t important as keeping control of as much as possible when you reach top executive level at MS. If I were a shareholder in the company, that would worry me.

Only after a breakup will the bright young minds that are hidden away, deep inside Microsoft have the freedom and lack of top-down management to become truly innovative and bring the world ideas to stimulate our minds and make us finally want to buy MS stuff. Maybe the hard light of day shining into the recesses of the machine would purify and illuminate smaller, post-breakup companies. I fear it’ll be just more of the same though.

What a lost opportunity.


5 comments on “The little bit of Microsoft that I like

  1. I’ll certainly agree that the main ‘killer’app’ of Windows is office.It’s the main reason that business users often can’t entertain an alternative platform.Even office for Mac is a good product (albeit without the inclusion of Access).In the home market I would say that office is the world’s most pirated product (I doubt I know any windows user that purchased it legally).At least a bit of competition has prompted MS to open the Office formats up a bit more (in an MS way of course).

  2. I wouldn’t call Office the main Windows killer app, but the Microsoft killer app. Microsoft could survive without Windows, but not without Office, while many businesses buy Windows and not Office.

    As for opening up the document formats, that was only after it looked like not just many European governments but also the US government were going to adopt the Open Document format given the green light by the ISO (International Standards Organisation) and installed in Open Office since version 2.0 some months ago.

    Microsoft’s solution is so typical of the childlike and anal-retentive way they think – they have to own all solutions. Just so they can always exert leverage when they want more control. That’s just so insecure.

    With regard to pirating, most of the people using a pirate copy could not afford to buy the full version the prices are so high, so very often no sale is lost, but the hegemony persists more strongly as a result. Get rid of the pirates and Microsoft’s market share would instantly fall.

    Ironic that their whole strategy seems these days to be to do just that…

  3. Visio was an independent company was it not? It was based in the Seattle area and was bought out by Microsoft.
    So I guess that just leaves Excel.

  4. You may be right Paul, but it is still only available on PCs and I know of no direct Mac alternative, although a few people have suggested Omni Graffle on Mac.

    I’m not going to hold it against MS that this diagramming software wasn’t written by them – that comes under the heading of “lack of innovation” or “ability to code good products” or “questionable business ethics” more than anything, but since it is still only available on PCs, then it does mean it cannot be used on a Mac without virtualisation or Boot Camp – and that may stop some people switching.

    Of course, there are some excellent Medical Practice applications on a Mac which seem not to be so reliable on Windows, and other specialist software that gives Mac the edge, particularly when it comes dow to useability, but I do get the feeling that Apple competes only in niche markets at the moment, not across all fronts.

    At some point they will have to move onto a broader user front though – and I mean within the computer user market, not into further iPhone, AppleTV or iPod markets. They have a head of steam now, what will they do with it I wonder? In some areas Apple are not even treating European users the same as US users, even though we Europeans generally pay more for what are labelled as the same products…

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