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Is the Tech Media Afraid of Microsoft?

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.