Is the Tech Media Afraid of Microsoft?

August 6th, 2009

In recent years, some media commentators have claimed that certain news outlets are in the “hip pockets” of major news sources. So, for example, it’s believed that the MSNBC cable network favors liberals, whereas Fox News favors conservatives. When it comes to interviewing someone holding an opposing viewpoint, they tend to get hardball questions, but those who are favored receive are treated with kid gloves.

Now this is a gross generalization, but it’s meant to convey a specific point. The tech media, by and large, when given the opportunity to question a major figure in the industry, tends to clam up when it comes to asking proper follow-up queries or even posing an inquiry that might challenge the subject of the interview.

How does this apply to Microsoft? Well, not so long ago, yet another stupid statement from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was widely quoted, that Apple’s recent sales success is nothing more than a “rounding error.” On the surface and below the surface, this claim is utter nonsense. But is Ballmer being given proper questions to explain why he spews such tripe? Maybe, but you don’t read about it very often.

Of course, the oh-so-gentle handling of Microsoft has been part and parcel of the way the media has treated the company for decades. Back in the days when Bill Gates would tout some alleged innovation they were planning, the claims would be taken at face value, seldom questioned. Indeed, one of the big reasons for Microsoft’s stellar growth and industry dominance for so many years is their penchant for deception and bait and switch.

Is Gates truly the former boy genius computer programmer as portrayed by the media, or a brilliant salesman whose company engaged in a number of questionable tactics over the years to push aside all comers on its way to the top? What is his singular brilliant software invention for that matter? Altair BASIC? While some think that MS-DOS was a Microsoft invention, they actually bought the code from another company for one sum and them licensed it to IBM for a lot more money. Gates and his people came up with the brilliant idea to make the deal non-exclusive, and thus there were IBM clones.

Gates also hoodwinked former software drink salesman John Scully, then CEO of Apple, to license some Mac OS code to Microsoft. That gave them the ammunition to graft essential elements of its look and feel onto MS-DOS, and thus beget Windows. The rest is history.

As Microsoft’s sales prospects dim, particularly in the wake of the failure of Windows Vista to catch on in the enterprise, and the dismal performance of the Zune music player, it does appear that the company is taken less seriously. But the buffoon-like rantings of Steve Ballmer are still quoted without much effort to get contrary — meaning factual — points of view.

The growing skepticism about Microsoft, and that includes their search and advertising deal with Yahoo!, does indicate, though, that the glory days may at last be over. If this misguided transaction actually receives government approval, it’s hard to see where two companies with failing strategies will somehow manage a marriage made in haven. So far as Ya-Bing is concerned, I regard it as a gift to Google, one that’ll allow them to compete unchallenged as their two largest competitors struggle to sort things out and find those cherished if elusive technological synergies.

Oh, and before you ask, yes, I’d like to see Apple subject to the same hard questions. The closest they come, alas, is the quarterly conference with financial analysts. However, most of those questions concern arcane money-related issues. Apple deflects any question that doesn’t conform to their marketing strategy, and there are too many voices on the connection to allow for any reasonable number of follow-up queries.

Sure, there have been times when the likes of Steve Jobs, Tim Cook and Phil Schiller have had limited press availabilities. But asking any of them a loaded question is near impossible. The ever-irascible Jobs has been known to shout down reporters when they say something that requires an off-message response.

I remember, for example, the heyday of the famous Apple Cube. Rumors had arisen that it was going to be phased out. When a reporter asked that very question of Jobs, he responded angrily, “you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

A few weeks later, the Cube entered personal computer history.

Yes, it is highly unfortunate that Apple Inc. doesn’t want to provide any information unless it’s strictly on their own limited terms. They are far worse than almost any other multinational corporation when it comes to providing information that takes you beyond the press releases and product fact sheets.

That doesn’t mean that reporters shouldn’t try to ask meaningful questions when they approach Apple executives. They can’t hide forever, and when it comes to Microsoft, so long as Ballmer wants to open his big mouth, he deserves — indeed demands — being treated with skepticism when he spews forth more of his silly nonsense.

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8 Responses to “Is the Tech Media Afraid of Microsoft?”

  1. dfs says:

    Is Apple’s almost pathological secrecy a Good Thing or a Bad Thing? It’s a very good thing indeed in that it has repeatedly allowed Apple to “get there firstest with the mostest” and take the lead in developing some new technology or entering some new market. It has left the competition scrambling to play catch-up and, given them a window of a year or two when they had virtually no competition. A lot of Apple’s fantastic recent success derives from this single thing. At times, though, it is silly or self-defeating, and Apple sometimes manages to give itself a black eye. Maybe someday it will land them in some serious legal trouble Their silence and then misinformation about Steve’s recent liver transplant made them look bad and, if it could be proven that corporate spokesmen knowingly misrepresented the facts of his illness, would be in violation of the law (a corporation that trades publicly is required to disclose all “material facts” that affects the value of its stock). Their almost pathological reluctance to explain why they bar certain apps from the App Store also gets bad press, unnecessarily alienates developers, and in one case is evidently the subject of a current DOJ investigation for possible collusion with AT&T. And at times I think you could make a case that their secrecy militates against the best interests of consumers and stockholders. Yes, Apple needs secrecy. But maybe it also needs a reality check about when to apply this policy and when transparency would be better. After all, one of the few times they have discarded this policy, when they opensourced Webkit, it made them look terrific and won them a lot of friends, and it hasn’t hurt their business one bit.

  2. Blad_Rnr says:

    I want to honestly say, you are one of the true voices of reason within the tech blogosphere. You are never rude, you don’t resort to name calling, you present the facts, and you try your best to present your opinions as best as you can with reason and not a grudge. And this is just another great example. We need more people like you writing on the Internet. I tire so easily of the childish rants and favoritism so quickly given to whoever will line blogger’s wallets. Even those who comment on your articles are truthful and polite for the most part. That says a lot about why I come here almost every day.


  3. @ Blad_Rnr: Thank you my friend, and don’t hesitate to spread the word. 🙂


  4. Phil says:

    When it comes to Ballmer, couldn’t agree more. Not sure why shareholders even put up with him. As for Apple, agree, but I think their situation is somewhat borne out of the history of Wall Street/Stock Market reaction to everything they do and they’ve found that tight reigns on info keeps a more steady stock price–all unfortunate.

  5. Jon T says:

    In defence of Apple, they have had to deal with being on the wrong end of the press’s love affair with Microsoft over twenty years..

    I think that would be quite enough to justify their paranoia about allowing the enemy into the camp. For so long, Apple’s only friends were its users.

  6. MT says:

    I think if you counted the number of times that MSNBC (or any other news outlet besides Fox) used the adjective “liberal” “far-left” or “leftist” as an adjectival shorthand in a news piece, you would have your answer. (The media always identifies the out group and leaves what is considered normal without any adjectives. Only unbiased sources either apply adjectives to both sides of issues or leave them out completely by identifying positions or parties instead.)

    Reporters suck and don’t ask hard questions not because they’re afraid of Microsoft, but because they want to maintain their access. Just ask Mr. Jordan, who used to run CNN’s foreign bureau. He recycled Saddam Hussein’s talking points as fact for years to maintain that access. He admitted this right before the war. Tech reporters do the same things because integrity is just a word they remember faintly, not something they practice.

    With that said, most tech reporting is meaningless. So they asked Steve a question about the Cube and Steve shouted them down. So? We pay the government’s salary and our representatives owe us answers because we elected them. Apple doesn’t owe anyone anything except for their stockholders. They can publicly defecate on reporters for all I care.

  7. Tired of MS says:

    Apple needs the secrecy. Ask Go Corporation what happens when you announce your intensions. We’ve all heard Bill Gates yammer on about PenWindows for the last 18 years. Where the hell is it?

    You know that mysterious cloud in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles for the GameCube. SquareEnix got the idea from MS. A mysterious vapor that kills everything it touches.

    As mentioned, “journalists” want access. So, they drink up everything that MS squirts out. MS gets great press.

    So, even though they’re an 800 pound, homicidal, gorilla that likes to kill anything that even faintly glances at a banana, they’re thought of — by almost all people — as the weakling underdog. Down is up. War is peace. Monopoly is freedom of choice.

    IMHO, if any ‘office’ package, on any OS, could actually challenge MS Office, then Windows would be damaged.

  8. MichaelT says:

    @tired, you forgot: Imitation is innovation.

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