The Knight Line

Is Microsoft the Enemy?

Dan Knight - 2001.10.15

Last week I made the case on Low End Mac that PC users are not the enemy. For the most part, they are not choosing Windows as an alternative to Linux or the Mac; instead, they generally see Windows as the only choice.

PC History

The roots of this go back to the August 1981 launch of the IBM PC. In those days, it was widely known that nobody ever lost their job by choosing IBM. Unlike all the other personal computers - and there were plenty of brands back then - the IBM label told the business world that it was time to computerize. Within a year, IBM became the dominant player in the personal computer industry.

IBM was unsure about the PC market, so they designed a computer using off the shelf parts and sold three different operating systems for it. The buyer could choose cassette tape or floppy disks for storage, a text-only display and/or a low resolution color display, whether they wanted parallel and serial ports, how much RAM they needed, etc. Let the market decide.

Microsoft was savvy enough to license DOS to IBM on a nonexclusive basis, which allowed them to sell MS-DOS to Compaq, Columbia, and all the other upstart companies that emerged to build IBM compatible computers. It didn't take long before the term "PC" went from meaning personal computer to indicating an IBM compatible DOS computer in the mind of the public.

Not only did the IBM standard dominate the PC industry; Microsoft controlled the operating system.

Beyond DOS

Windows 1.0 (1985) was pretty bad, and 2.0 wasn't much better. Microsoft almost got things right with Windows 3.0, but it took 3.1 (1992) before Windows became a serious choice for PC users and an acceptable alternative to the Mac OS in the mind of PC users.

Microsoft leveraged their virtual ownership of the DOS market by offering very generous deals to PC makers who would include both MS-DOS and Windows. They also coded the Windows installer to claim it was incompatible with DR-DOS, the leading alternative to MS-DOS. Windows wasn't incompatible, but this was just part of Microsoft's strategy for killing off the competition.

Microsoft Applications

Before Windows, Microsoft was known for BASIC, DOS, some games, and some less than popular productivity software. WordPerfect owned the word processing market, Lotus 1-2-3 was the spreadsheet standard, and dBase II was the database of choice.

Microsoft Word existed as a DOS application, but it only became a major player as Word for Windows. Microsoft was able to leverage their familiarity with Windows and create the leading word processor and spreadsheet for the new environment. As users moved to Windows, they often left WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 behind in favor of Microsoft Word and Excel.

It took a bit longer for Microsoft Access to displace dBase II, but today the typical Windows user thinks of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access (the main components of Microsoft Office for Windows) as pretty much the only options.

Mac users are not immune to Microsoft's charms - Word is so popular on the Mac that it has a higher market penetration than Windows! Excel is the leading Mac spreadsheet, and PowerPoint the top presentation program.

Internet Explorer

The Web was invented ten years ago by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, although the first browsers weren't released until January 1993. Mosaic, one of those early browsers, begat Netscape 1.0 in 1994 - about the same time the computer using public became aware of this thing called the World Wide Web. Netscape became synonymous with Web browser.

It took Microsoft a while to realize that they were missing out on the next big thing, and when they did, they solved it in typical Microsoft fashion - they bought an existing solution, then made it their own. Internet Explorer (IE) 1.0, released in August 1995, was essentially a licensed version of Spyglass. IE 2.0 followed in November, and 3.0 in August 1996.

Netscape was a commercial venture, and their browser was shareware. The license allowed free educational use and set a fee for business users, although most users never paid to use the program. Microsoft countered by making IE free, which eventually forced Netscape to do the same and go belly up.

IE and Windows

Microsoft drove the final nail in Netscape's coffin when it integrated the browser with the operating system, making it unnecessary for Windows users to even consider Netscape's browser. A clever licensing agreement with Apple at the lowest point in their history led to IE becoming the Mac's default browser as well, giving it a higher market share than Windows itself has (just like MS Word).

These are just some of the reasons the U.S. Department of Justice investigated Microsoft and declared them a virtual monopoly. Microsoft not only dominates parts of the personal computing industry, they also use dominance in one area to dominate the next area they target.

But Is Microsoft the Enemy?

Microsoft has managed to crush or marginalize almost every competitor, including DR-DOS, GEM (an alternative to Windows), OS/2, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, dBase, Netscape, and the Mac OS. Over 90% of computers sold today include Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Word, and Internet Explorer. About 5% run Linux, and about 5% run the Mac OS.

Of course, just because a company dominates an industry doesn't mean it's a bad thing. But Microsoft hasn't attained their position based on a superior product, but essentially by leveraging dominance in one market to take over another. That's what the whole Department of Justice investigation was about.

Doesn't Microsoft Make Good Products?

I readily admit to using IE 5.0 on my PowerBook. Although I often use iCab and sometimes use Opera, Internet Explorer remains my primary browser. (Yes, I also have Netscape 4.7x on my computer and use it occasionally. I've also tried Mozilla 6.1, but it went to pieces when I tried to change the theme.) I have to admit, IE 5.0 is a pretty good product.

At the same time, I have to admit that Internet Explorer is also the one application on my Mac most likely to lock up either itself or the whole computer.

I have Word on my Mac, but I only use it to open Word files so I can copy them into Claris Home Page. I haven't used Word for writing in years; my word processor of choice is AppleWorks.

I've also got a copy of Excel somewhere, but it's not even installed on my Mac. Ever since ClarisWorks 2 or 3, I've done all my spreadsheet work with ClarisWorks and now AppleWorks.

Yes, Microsoft makes good software. If they didn't, there'd be more Mac and Linux users in the world.

So What's the Problem?

The problem isn't the software, but the mindset. Microsoft is like the Borg; they want to assimilate and control everything. They started out making a BASIC interpreter that became the industry standard, then bought an operating system that they grew into an industry standard thanks to a licensing agreement with IBM (which grew out of IBM's need to put MS BASIC on the PC).

From the dominance of DOS came the dominance of Windows. Thence grew the dominance of Microsoft Word and Excel and Access. Later came the preeminence of Internet Explorer. In most areas, Microsoft controls 90-95% of the market.

The problem is the way Microsoft has used their dominance in one market to become top dog in another. The danger is what Microsoft can do as the premier software company in the world. And all our fears will be fulfilled with Windows XP, Passport, .NET, and Microsoft's latest license agreements.

Microsoft Tomorrow

Once upon a time we had atomistic personal computers. If we shared data, it was via printout or floppy disk. Then came modems and bulletin boards. Then came ethernet and the Internet. Today most personal computers are also networked computers, either around the clock or via modem.

Microsoft is using that to change the paradigm. They want control of your computer. They want to know what programs you use. They want to help you by managing your passwords. They want to make your life easier by letting your computer save documents and even run programs over the Internet. They want the right to automatically install updates to any Microsoft programs on your computer (especially on Windows computers).

The original vision of personal computing was personal control - my computer, my choice of software, my data, my privacy. The Microsoft vision is centralized control - your computer with our OS, our applications, our access to your data, our management of your privacy. Big Brother may very well be watching, especially with Windows XP, .NET, and Passport.

Paranoid? Maybe. Maybe not. However, showing their ability to throw around their weight, Microsoft has announced a new upgrade policy for businesses: They can pay a fixed annual license fees and receive automatic software updates or they can buy new software as it is released. Software updates as we have known them will be a thing of the past if Microsoft pulls this off; you will either pay a fee and get the upgrade (whether you want it or not - those are the terms) or pay full price for the new version.

It's nothing short of extortion, and business users are up in arms. In trying to keep the cash cow producing, Microsoft may have given users a reason to stick with the operating system and applications they already have or seriously consider non-Microsoft alternatives for the first time in years.

Of course, as noted in PC Users Are Not the Enemy, most Windows users have never considered Macs or Linux. Windows has been the default choice for most users since at least 1995. It may be very hard for Windows users to think different, but in the face of Microsoft's Orwellian tendencies, now is the time to do so.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Microsoft and, to a lesser extent, Intel have made their millions by convincing the world to upgrade software and hardware every two to three years. That was part of the reason for Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows 2000. Sure, they sound modern at first, but a year or two later they sound so dated.

In the same way, an old 66 MHz Pentium or 233 MHz Pentium II seem dated in comparison to the 2 GHz Pentium 4 - or even the pedestrian 733 MHz Celeron. If nothing else, Moore's Law (in a nutshell, computers double in power ever 18 months) makes last year's wunderputer seem dated.

And with new computers come new operating systems. As much as possible, Microsoft wants to make sure that will be Windows XP, a key component in their desire to keep milking the PC industry and PC users.

There are a few things we can do:

  • Remind Windows users that newer versions of Windows tend to run slower than older ones. (See A "Must Not" Upgrade: Windows XP for more on that.) If they aren't buying new computers, they are probably best of not buying the new OS.
  • Remind Windows users that if they don't need the newest OS, they may not need the latest GHz-plus computer. Older PCs have been doing the job for years, and the won't become slower if users avoid the power-sapping Windows upgrade. (See The PC Performance Scam.)
  • Let them know that there are alternative operating systems available, particularly Linux. Not only does Linux provide the benefits of Unix, it's also free.
  • Let them know that there are freeware alternatives to Microsoft Office, alternatives available whether running Windows or Linux.
  • Remind them that there is an alternative to Intel and Windows. The PowerPC provides impressive performance at lower clock speeds. The Mac OS integrates more tightly with the hardware than Windows. Microsoft Office runs on the Mac (except for Access - I swear Microsoft keeps that one off the Mac to keep Apple's market share down).
  • Remind them that Windows is the target of over 99% of all viruses. Mention Nimda, Code Red, Love Bug, etc. Compared to Windows, Linux and the Mac OS may as well be immune to viruses. (They're not, but viruses are counted in dozens, not tens of thousands.)
  • Explain the way Microsoft is changing everything with automated updates, new licensing terms, etc. Ask if they feel secure letting Microsoft know their passwords, manage their data, and track whatever you may do on their computer.

Don't bash Windows. They know Windows. Use it as a point of comparison. If they have a lot of crashes, tell them there are more stable operating systems. If they complain about the cost or system requirements of Windows XP or Microsoft Office, explain that there are alternatives. If they have security concerns, let them know that other operating systems are more secure.

Most of all, if they're content with Windows and their current software suite, convince them not to upgrade. Between Passport, .NET, and Windows XP, the potential for Microsoft to abuse their power is too great. A lot of us wouldn't want the government to find it so easy to intrude on our privacy, let alone a corporation that seems to hold itself above the law in the U.S. and abroad.

Finally, if they are looking for a whole new computer, remind them that Windows is not the only game in town. They may find happiness with Linux or a Mac - but only if they're willing to look beyond what Microsoft has to offer. LEPC

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