• A Look at Microsoft’s Delusions

    January 1st, 2005

    Let me set this straight from the get-go: I am not a psychiatrist, nor do I play one on TV. But all you need is common sense to determine whether some people and/or corporations are somehow deluded.

    Take Microsoft, please. In response to antitrust complaints, poor Bill Gates says that all he wants to do is innovate and produce great products for his customers. Now I have nothing against Gates. Although he’s the poster boy when it comes to the image of a computer nerd, he’s also a very decent person. As many of you know, he and his wife have donated billions of dollars to various charities around the world. He believes in sharing the wealth, and for that he is to be commended. In fact, at this point in his life, maybe he’d do well to leave his company behind and become a full-time philanthropist. I’m willing to bet it’ll get him a “Person of the Year” rating next year from Time magazine.

    However that’s probably in the distant future. Today, we have Gates, the soul of Microsoft, telling us things that aren’t quite true, except perhaps to him and his subordinates. You probably recall how he built Microsoft in the first place, by buying an operating system (DOS) and licensing it to another company (IBM). Other than labeling it MS-DOS, how did Gates innovate anything? He just acquired a product and licensed it, period. Maybe a good salesman, or a broker? You decide.

    Over the years, there aren’t too many things Microsoft has developed that could remotely be called innovation. Whether acquiring a product, or imitating an existing one, Microsoft is very good at packaging and promotion. And yes, sometimes it does create something new, but that’s not its stock and trade.

    In all fairness, Microsoft sometimes produces the better product. Word, for example, didn’t trounce WordPerfect simply because of predatory marketing practices. Word was the better word processor, and WordPerfect came too late to save itself from its present niche market share.

    Even though Microsoft was made to suffer badly in public about how Internet Explorer came to own the browser market at the expense of Netscape, it didn’t just happen because of the monopoly status of the world’s largest software company. For a time, Internet Explorer, both the Mac and Windows versions, was superior to Netscape, pure and simple. When Mac OS X came out, Internet Explorer was pretty good and it still has a decent rendering engine compared to the competition. It’s just that other browsers, notably Firefox, OmniWeb and Safari, are far superior.

    Another problem with Microsoft is that it seems to design by focus group, meaning it works hard to stuff in features its customers want. This is a double-edge sword. You may get new customers and sell more upgrades by delivering interesting new capabilities, but if they’re poorly executed, and just contribute to an application’s girth and raise system requirements, that’s not innovation in my book.

    Today, Windows is one big mess, and thousands of Microsoft programmers will never put it back together again. Although Windows XP SP2 is better, it remains highly susceptible to virus and spyware invasions. Longhorn, supposedly a massive reworking of Windows, is late, and hemorrhaging features on a fairly regular basis. In the end, it may end up as just a pretty regular update to Windows XP, with some interface improvements (or changes) and a few fancy frills to make it seem more different than it truly is.

    It’s not that Apple has been perfect, of course. The long and winding road from Mac OS to Mac OS X was littered with false moves, wasted money, and more troubles than you could contemplate. That it all worked out in the end was sheer luck. Apple came to Steve Jobs at the right time to buy his company. At the time, NeXT really wasn’t going anywhere, so Jobs was primed for an acquisition. Or maybe he planned it that way all along. Aren’t conspiracy theories fun?

    Getting back to Microsoft, if Bill Gates and the rest of the crew believe they are in the business of innovating, they clearly have decidedly unconventional views of what innovation means. Maybe they are all deluded, or haven’t looked at a good dictionary lately.

    Innovation doesn’t mean selling, and it’s clear that Microsoft ‘s best days are behind it. Now maybe it’ll remain on top for a decade or two, but, unless it discovers what true innovation really means and gets its act together, it’ll end up like AT&T, a shadow of its former self, long since past its prime.

    It means Apple has a golden opportunity to gain ascendancy, and let’s all hope it doesn’t blow it this time.

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