How Long Does Microsoft Get Away with Almost Good Enough?

September 3rd, 2009

Some media pundits biggest difference between Apple and Microsoft is the fact that the former is engineering-oriented and the latter is sales-oriented. But such black and white distinctions don’t really apply. How could they? After all, one of the reasons Apple has gotten where it is today is brilliant marketing, but they also have products that, in large part, fulfill the claims made for them.

To get a sense of where Microsoft is, go ahead and do a Google — or even a Bing! — search for benchmarks comparing all the major browsers on the Windows platform. Check the rendering accuracy and performance ratings for Internet Explorer 8, and compare it to Safari 4, Firefox 3.5, the latest Google Chrome app, and, of course, Opera 10.

Be fair now. Look at the reviews from different sources so you’re absolutely certain you have a fair picture of how well they do. Now it’ll be revealed to everyone, and that’s Microsoft’s total inability to have a best-of-breed product!

Indeed, Internet Explorer is, in nearly every case, dead last in terms of the ability to render pages accurately and rapidly. Yet it’s still the number one browser on the planet, and clearly not because of its quality.

Of course, it’s also true that Microsoft dominates the operating system wars, and Internet Explorer is preloaded on Windows PCs. That doesn’t mean PC makers don’t offer alternatives, and in response to an edict from the European Union, folks on that continent will likely have a choice of which default browser they want to install when they set up a new Windows box.

However, Internet Explorer isn’t the only instance where Microsoft builds an inferior product.

Certainly, just about every fair reviewer these days will rate Mac OS X as superior in almost every respect, although you have more options to configure Windows. However, too much of a good thing usually causes endless confusion if you’re not a Windows power user. Few are suggesting that Windows — any version — is more reliable that the Mac OS of any particular era, although the stuff that Apple produced in the mid-1990s was, at the time, correctly described as basically sucking less.

When it comes to digital music players, Microsoft got tired of sitting on the sidelines and watching its PlaysForSure partners lose the ballgame, so they tried to ape Apple and deliver an integrated product, the Zune. However, they again came up with an imitation of the real thing. Not just that, but they tried to ape the real thing of a year or two earlier. It seems as if Microsoft is perennially behind the curve on most of what they produce.

Now it’s fair to say that Microsoft has almost always been that way. The original MS-DOS operating system was something Bill Gates and crew bought from another company, renamed, and licensed to IBM. Yes, when it comes to changing names, Microsoft must be good at it, since they do it so often.

In the early 1980s, few computer experts were suggesting that MS-DOS was far and away superior  to all the rest of the text-based operating systems of the time. I won’t even get into the known similarities between Microsoft’s system and the competition. That was long ago and far away, but this sort of thing has been part and parcel of the company’s DNA since the beginning.

Yes, Microsoft will acquire intellectual property, and they’ll attempt to imitate what’s already available from other companies. They’ll also promise to do better, but seldom manage to get anything more than a pale imitation of the product out the door.

This doesn’t mean that all Microsoft products are necessarily bad. The early reviews indicate, for example, that Windows 7 is way better than its predecessor, the failed Windows Vista. Performance and reliability are evidently improved significantly, and it’s evidently quite a usable system.

But it all comes down to this: Microsoft has never, ever, hit the top of the heap as the result of fair competition, and by delivering a best of breed product. With some 90,000 employees and billions of dollars in spare cash in the bank, you’d think they certainly have the resources to do better. I’m quite sure, in fact, that many of Microsoft’s employees are as smart and innovative as the ones at Apple, but they don’t excel at their tasks because of poor leadership in the executive suites.

This appears to be one of the unfortunate side effects of taking a technology company and making it top-heavy with salespeople. Sure, they know how to sell product, but that doesn’t guarantee excellence.

But it’s not just Microsoft that has suffered from a lack of true innovation because they had the wrong team at the top. Remember the problems Apple encountered when they made a former soft drink executive CEO, and it took them years to live that down, before it nearly destroyed the company.

In Microsoft’s case, few will suggest that they’re going out of business in the foreseeable future. But unless they change their ways soon, there will be a long slow decline. Consider the biggest tech companies of the 1980s, for example. How many of them are still around? I’m just asking.

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13 Responses to “How Long Does Microsoft Get Away with Almost Good Enough?”

  1. Andrew says:

    Microsoft HAS had best-of-breed products. Word 5.1 for Macintosh was about the best word processor of its era. Internet Explorer back in the 2.0 days was way ahead of Netscape Navigator, and Windows 2000 was in most ways superior to OS 9.

    They’ve had many misses, but they’ve had a few hits as well. Windows 2000 was so good for its time that many businesses still use it.

    • Tom B says:


      IE 3 for Mac definitely was top-notch for its time; it was the high-water mark for IE and possibly the best MSFT product of all time (I liked WordPerfect for Mac). MSFT lost interest in browsers after Netscape, Inc self-destructed.

      I’ve used OS 9 and Win 2000 both, extensively. The best thing I can say about Win 2000 is that it was better than Win 95. It wasn’t until Win XP that MSFT started to achieve decent up-time, in my experience. And they still haven’t achieved a quality UI. Your mileage may vary.

      Don’t forget the XBox. Though the XBox has some decent games (thanks to Bungie), the division is a money pit, close to 20 billion in the hole, and the units have a failure rate perhaps in the 30% range.

  2. Windows 2000 was certainly a decent OS. Best of breed? Maybe not, but certainly Windows XP owed a lot to 2000, and it works reasonably well too.

    I had a love/hate relationship with Word 5.1. It was decent and all, but was still frustrating in its lack of certain basic word processing features, such as zooming the page.


  3. Al says:

    Speaking of WYSIWYG word processors, I remember AmiPro which was bought by Lotus and that was better than MS Word at the time. But I can only speak of the Windows version. I was still in my feral, ignorant computing state at the time.

    Also “there will be a long slow decline” is being charitable. Microsoft is already in a long slow decline. I would gauge their situation right now as similar to that of GM in the late 70s, early 80s when they sat on their butts and either failed or refused to innovate and compete against the Honda-Toyota onslaught. Instead of pouring their resources into adopting leading edge automotive technologies, and building better, more reliable products, they revved up their marketing to sell the same tired old ground meat in a new sausage casing.

  4. Gary says:

    What has fascinated me from the beginning has been the general American corporate ethos that has permitted a second-rate company like Microsoft to dominate the business world. Originally, going into the 1980s, there was an IT saying to the effect that “Nobody ever got fired for buying from IBM.” That was why they waited until deep into the personal computer revolution (1981) for purchasing pcs at all, and then continued to pay high premiums for mediocre computers for years after that. Somewhere along the line, that “safety in mediocrity” mantra got transferred to Microsoft, and has never been abandoned. You do not get ahead in most of the corporate world by making bold decisions, in this area at least; and I think that has reinforced the worst habits in Microsoft corporate culture.

  5. Dave Barnes says:


    You need to get out more.
    Paul Thurrott ( ) loves Windows 7 and thinks Snow Leopard “is sort of a letdown”.


    • @Dave Barnes, I understand that Thurrott can get treatment for that if he will accept that he has a problem. 🙂


    • Jesse says:

      @Dave Barnes, Paul is as big of a zealot as you can get. You might as well ask Balmer which os is better. Or Woz.

      Windows 7 also didn’t have to live up to much, where as 10.5 was a good OS, and honestly 10.6 is really good too. And about 12 gigs smaller, and at least 100 dollars cheaper.

      Funnily, my HP Mini 1000 runs 10.5 better than 7, and the hacked version of os x also supports more of the mini’s hardware.

      /writing from 10.6 macbook pro

  6. Dave Barnes says:

    “This email is sended by blog system automatically, don’t reply this mail please.”

    Three grammar errors in one sentence. Awesome.

  7. Sean says:

    I can give one perfect example of Microsoft’s failure to innovate. I just installed Snow Leopard and it had 1 splash screen during installation. It took all of 2 clicks to install. Very simple, very clean, very intuitive.

    When I installed Windows 7 it ran through 7 splash screens that I could count. And at each screen there is no indication that anything is actually happening. At several points it jumps into DOS mode and back out again as well. Once all the jumping around was finished it reboots into DOS again looking for SCSI devices of all things, just like XP and Vista does, then it loads into the UI. What is up with that? Is there some reason Microsoft can’t hide all the DOS underpinnings and splash screens? Why so convoluted and archaic?

    Snow Leopard: 1 Splash screen.

    Windows 7: 7 Splash screens at least, multiple DOS reboots, and still can’t hide the DOS boot-up splash screen.

    And don’t even get me started on that monstrosity at the bottom of the screen they call a taskbar. I just don’t get it, why do people put up with this stuff from Microsoft and turn around and defend it in the same breath?

  8. Bo says:

    I have to know Windows and MS Office, since I teach those beasts since the win3.11/Office 4.3 era. I still wait for a descent version.

    Office applications, well, all they do is “information overload” trying so hard to be the be-it-all-end-it-all to every user that almost no one has any need for at least 80% of what they offer (when you work around all the bugs that is).

    Windows, well, Win2K was fairly good, but I’ve never liked XP, never ever – it works sort of, but it is clunky to the point where you loose your temper. Vista started as a mess nearly three years ago, but it works, sort of descently, today with SP2. Windows 7? Better? Not by much. It’s still a mess, but it has got translucent window borders.

    Office 2007 with its ribbon interface is fairly good, better than I ever thought I would think when I saw it for the first time, but I still have to hunt for commands – meaning it’s not all that intuitive.

    But, at the end of the day, when I get home, I sigh of relief when I look at my Macs. Gimme OS X any day and in any situation. I know Windows by heart. Therefore I also know why I despise it…

  9. dfs says:

    Well, why shouldn’t a lot of computer users consider “almost good enough” acceptable when it comes to computers? Isn’t it the same with cars, airlines, and a lot of other products and services people use? They do it either because they don’t know any better or because in some way or other it’s the line of least resistance. Or maybe just bcause plenty of folks are reasonably satisfied just as long as they get the job done. Of these possibilities, I think “they don’t know any better” tops the list. If, for example, Americans knew how much better and faster broadband is in some other countries, say Japan, they’d be going after our ISP services with pitchforks and torches. But they don’t know, so they they think what they get is the best available and meekly put up with what they have. Apple’s advertising is up to a point effective, but I wish it would provide more details and specific examples of the Mac’s superiority. Maybe, for ex., have a split screen showing the same operation being performed on OSX and Windows that would dramatically bring home how easier and faster the Mac does its job.

  10. Richard says:

    “While Apple sleeps.”

    Oh come on, Gene. This is the same old question. The answer is that Microsoft Windows _____ is superior to OS X on a PC because there is no OS X on a PC. OS X does not directly compete with Microsoft Windows. Apple competes with ALL of the hardware vendors who install Microsoft Windows. Unless and until Apple offers OS X for installation on other vendors’ hardware there will be no direct comparison.

    The real question is whether there will be a truly competitive OS which emerges to take on Microsoft. The answer to that lies with the application software vendors. Should there be commercial applications from most of the major software vendors which operate on, for example, Ubuntu, Solaris or something else which is developed in a focused manner then and only then will Windows face a true challenge.

    Microsoft is grateful that Apple continues to exist as it helps keep the DOJ off their back as the monopolist they continue to be.

    Perhaps Oracle will pick up the challenge and evangelize Solaris. Hello! Larry! Here is a challenge. Take on Bill and win!

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