July 5, 2002

Sympathy for Microsoft

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Sometimes you need to open your heart and let the love flow, even toward those you do not naturally like. Indeed, many religions claim this is a great way to achieve satori or sainthood or whatever state they consider to be the highest one a living being can achieve. So, what with wIndependence Day now being behind us, I think it is time for us to think kind thoughts about Microsoft and Microsoft employees. Their best times are behind them. They have nowhere to go but down. They have every right to be upset about this. And Linux users should be there to comfort them in their hour of need.
Let's start by saying we here at NewsForge were flat-out jealous of DesktopLinux.com's wIndependence Day idea. We wish we'd thought of it first. Kudos to LinuxDesktop.com for doing something truly excellent.

Now let's look at this from Microsoft's point of view. The idea of people competing for prizes by writing "500-1000 word accounts of how they have 'kicked the Windows habit' or implemented Linux as a Windows-alternative in their company or organization" is downright depressing, because it sounds like Windows is some sort of awful drug, not a computer operating system, and throws Microsoft into the role of a law-breaker instead of portraying the company as an all-American icon of ingenuity and inventiveness, one that sponsors something called the Freedom to Innovate Network, which is self-described as "a non-partisan, grassroots network of citizens and businesses who have a stake in the success of Microsoft and the high-tech industry."

But no matter how many Freedoms to Innovate Microsoft pushes, the company is not going to increase its share of the desktop computer market. It is already at the top. It is standing on the very crown of the peak of the mountain range of desktop operating systems, Web browsers, and office suites, looking down on all others from such a height that it needs a powerful telescope to even notice its competitors' combined market share. Microsoft is so far above the competition here that even if every other "consumer" operating system and office software suite doubled its sales overnight, Microsoft would still be the dominant player in both marketplaces by a major percentage.

When you're on top, there's only one way to go

When you're already heavyweight champion of the world, you can either retire while you're on top or keep fighting until, eventually, you lose the title. There is no other alternative. All champions eventually fall. Smart sports stars prepare for their futures by diversifying while they're still famous; by opening businesses like car dealerships, insurance agencies, restaurants or gyms. Some become TV announcers, actors or politicians. But it is a sure sign that an athlete knows he or she is going to be over the hill soon when you see businesses popping up with his or her name on them.

Think about XBox. Think about Microsoft's attempts to penetrate the cell phone operating system marketplace. Look at all the other "side" products Microsoft has come up with in the last few years, including keyboards, mice and accounting software. Some of these products are excellent and some are not very good, but it is doubtful that any of them will ever dominate a product niche the way Windows, MSIE, and MS Office have dominated theirs. Suddenly Microsoft starts to look like an aging football quarterback who opens a Cadillac dealership and a liquor store, and starts accumulating corporate directorships. The days of being The Champ never last, but an athlete who prepares for retirement gracefully can often manage to put together a portfolio of other businesses and activities that make more money, added together, than it was ever possible to earn playing The Game.

The alternative to this sort of graceful, quiet, profitable retirement from glory is the gutter. We have all seen more human interest stories than we can count about former boxing champions and other sports greats who are found dead, years later, in roach-infested furnished rooms with bottles or needles by their sides, their fortunes gone, their families forgotten. Even the most zealous Microsoft hater would feel pity for Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates if they were reduced to alcoholism or drug-induced penury, forced to sleep under highway overpasses on cold nights, barely able to stagger out from their meager accommodations to panhandle enough change to buy a bottle or a fix as they wheeze their way through the last few years of their broken lives.

The smell of desperation

Much has been made of Microsoft's plans to exhibit at LinuxWorld. Establishing a dialog with Linux users and showing off embedded products are the stated reasons for this presence. I doubt that anyone attending LinuxWorld is going to be impressed with Microsoft's embedded products. That's a marketplace where the ability to change source code to fit hardware requirements is almost a necessity, and Microsoft doesn't like to play that game. Maybe they have some sort of Open Source (as opposed to that stupid shared source nonsense they tried to pull) surprise in store for us. If so, that means Microsoft's core business model is on the way out; that the company's managers realize proprietary software is on the decline except in highly specialized areas, and that Open Source is the future. Or maybe Microsoft is going to offer millions of dollars to fund a Linux usability development team.

We'll be sure to stop by their booth and let you know what we find there. Meanwhile, guessing is fun, although chances are there won't be anything truly original to see, just more well-packaged, marketing department demos of Windows and Windows-related stuff, with a sop or two toward interoperability, which is not necessarily defined the same way by Microsoft as it is by the rest of the computing world.

Linux people are used to being the orphans in the corner at Windows-dominated shows. They are used to being run off at Microsoft's request when they try to distribute free software in front of the exhibition hall. It is going to be interesting, seeing how Microsoft marketing people feel when the shoe is on the other foot; when they are in a position roughly comparable to Seventh Day Adventist missionaries at a Scientology convention -- or vice versa. I hope everyone treats the Microsoft booth people graciously, at least until or unless they try to hand out proprietary software CDs. If they do that, we need to call security and the cops, because turnabout is fair play.

Now let's look at the fact that Microsoft is crawling into the Linux den from the other side. Suddenly Linux is too important to ignore or yell at in hopes that it will just go away. In order to preserve their server business, Microsoft has no choice but to work with those horrid, cancer-ridden, virus-like Linux people. Ewwww.

The next thing you know, we'll see Microsoft boasting about desktop software interoperability. It may take some severe nose-holding in Redmond for this to happen, but paperclips (talking or otherwise) are not expensive, and can easily be converted into proboscis-closing accessories.

Microsoft must learn to settle for stability

Microsoft is like a great white shark getting nibbled by baby piranhas. No one of the little fish can make much difference, but there are thousands and thousands of them, all circling the monster, each one taking a tiny nip. After a while, the shark gets tired. The baby piranhas grow. The shark also must constantly watch out for nets cast by (government trustbuster) fishermen that don't bother smaller fish.

The shark must keep swimming or die, and it must keep finding new sources of food in an (IT-buying) ocean that seems increasingly devoid of life. It tries to grab larger hunks out of each piece of prey (by moving toward "rental" software licensing programs), but this effort makes it easier for the prey to escape from the shark's jaws, and leaves more prey for the baby piranhas and other small fish that follow the shark, look for its leavings. The shark tries to back off, to take smaller hunks, but the damage is already done. Many tasty fish leave the shark's home waters, stunned by its greed. Others tantalize the shark, staying just beyond its reach, so all the shark can do is watch with pained, unblinking eyes as the baby piranha each nip in and take a tiny bite out of what the shark hoped would be its supper.

Finally the shark realizes that it must give up on being the only predator in the ocean. It learns, after a series of increasingly bitter experiences, and after seeing prey species as big as India and China slip away despite all it can do to lure them, that sometimes it is necessary to accept being one of four or five big predator fish. It learns that it must share the ocean with at least a few other big fish and many small fish if it is going to survive at all. It learns to accept the fact that it may not get all of every large prey it encounters, but may need to be content, with some species, grabbing a fin here or a tail there, while other sharks like Sony and and Nintendo continue to grab the majority of the tasty game fish, and Intuit sharks keep eating a majority of the fish in their part of the ocean while Microsoft only gets enough from that area to keep it interested, but never enough to dominate.

It's never easy to change a company's habits

Microsoft is growing up, but slowly. It is one of the few giant companies in the world that is still being run by entrepreneurs who started a small company and made it big -- and still have the attitude and outlook of hungry, small-time hustlers. The days of Microsoft delivering 20% or 30% annual growth are over. It needs a new generation of management, one that can operate a mature company, that can manage rather than constantly claw and fight.

The transition from scrappy entrepreneurialism to stability is not easy. It is much harder than moving from an add-a-feature coding style to an emphasis on security. Indeed, making this change in corporate culture is the hardest thing Microsoft has ever done, but if the company is going to survive it is an absolutely necessary change.

Change hurts. Microsoft managers are being forced to change in very big ways, so they must be hurting very badly right now.

We should be nice to Microsoft people. In their own way, without knowing how to do it, they are trying to reach out to the rest of the world. They are coming to grips with a reality that has changed; learning to live in a world and an IT landscape that is not as it was only a few years ago, and is likely to change even more (in part because of increased Open Source and Linux use) over the next decade.

The time for hating Microsoft is over. The revolution is over. We have won. It is time for us to be gracious winners. We need to give Microsoft employees help and support, not sneers. It is time to pity Microsoft, not loathe it. And I think most Linux and Open Source users and developers have big enough hearts to do this, and I suspect that we can change our attitude at least as fast as Microsoft can change its corporate culture.

So welcome to the world of cooperative computing, my Microsoft brothers and sisters. It'll be nice to see you at LinuxWorld, and everywhere else. I look forward to learning your names, finding what makes you tick, even to helping you get started with Linux ...

Note: This story was up earlier. I "went into it" to correct a minor typo I noticed, and at exactly at the moment I hit "update" my (Comcast) cable modem (and cable TV service) went out, and the story disappeared. Sorry about the lost comments. Not censorship, just a stupid technical glitch. - RM

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