Just a quick comment about recent developments concerning the hegemony-maintaining and borderline villainous business practices of Microsoft:

Lately, there has been some buzz through the Internet over a few things that Microsoft has been doing to promote two of their products, namely Internet Explorer (version 8 is here) and Microsoft Windows, especially with respect to the increasingly popular class of portable personal computers, netbooks.

What follows is a post that's much longer than I thought it'd be.

The picture above is the only picture in the entire post. Please enjoy and then take a deep breath.

You may have heard that Microsoft has a "get the facts" website wherein they discuss the differences between Firefox, Chrome, and IE8, and of course, why IE8 is the best of these browsers. In chart form! I don't need to explain why this is wrong. Some of you know that based on IE's history, this might be inherently wrong. Others have taken a more objective approach to the issue and have been able to show why the statements at the "get the facts" website are intentionally misleading and false. Microsoft, in a somewhat unique position for the first time in many years, is now being forced to try to compete with the open source browsers that were being developed in its shadow — browsers that have ultimately grown out of that shadow and captured significant market share as well as the favor of the web-savvy community. Oh, and word of mouth from these other browsers is really chopping away at IE's enormous install base.

Microsoft has never exactly been known as a paragon of business integrity, especially with respect to their Internet Explorer practices. See here for a long-ass video where Bill Gates, in 1998, is being interviewed for the big antitrust lawsuit of the 90s. (He kind of lies his ass off at some point, and might be construed as being intentionally difficult. there's a youtube video somewhere that focuses on that — and him rocking back and forth in his seat — but I cannot find it at the time. The point is that they were dishonest then, and now, although there is some degree of balance in the market presented by the wide variety of better products out there, they are still being dishonest, and things are not nearly as balanced as they should be at this point. If Microsoft offered a browser that was as good as any of the many other offerings available, or at least published accurate comparisons, we would not be complaining as loudly as we are. True, open source software makes me happiest, but a great closed-source product is worth praising too. Lying, however, is not worthy of praise. If you haven't been paying attention, Microsoft is lying. This is only one of many instances of Microsoft intentionally deceiving their customers in an effort to retain and bolster repeat sales and market dominance against the threat of increasingly capable and attractive alternatives.

How about Netbooks? The Netbook industry is booming right now. Once upon a time, not too long ago, it was possible to get an Asus brand netbook with Linux pre-installed on it. Today, that is not the case. I'd really like to know if there is any truth to what I've heard about Microsoft's bullying of the Netbook manufacturers, or them attempting to change the common name for this entire class of computers to "low cost small notebook pc." To me, this is an attempt to reposition this class of computers in the consumer's eyes. "Low cost small notebook pc" is a lot less catchy than netbook, and implies less value. Netbooks don't exactly do the best job with Windows Vista and Windows 7. I won't argue that these new versions of the Windows OS are more important to Microsoft's future success than IE8, but some might. If Netbooks were to continue to sell with Linux, and enough consumers use them as their primary computer, which would have been feasible (and still may be, with Intel's help especially with the promising Linux-based Moblin OS), there would be no room for Microsoft products anywhere in the increasingly large Netbook world. Unsurprisingly, it's almost impossible to get a new Netbook with Linux installed, these days — totally impossible to get them from Asus and other major Netbook manufacturers. Some of the links I've provided here should do a good job of outlining why this has happened.

In the past, when Microsoft was well known for these sorts of unscrupulous practices, it was to the tune of great financial benefit for the company. Today, it seems like they're just struggling to maintain the status quo. The money appears to be bleeding out, not coming in. Though it appears to be a struggle, my main concern is that they might win, in spite of the presence of better software from elsewhere — that these somewhat unscrupulous hegemony-maintaining practices might win out over the virtue of good software, and that market share will not continue to be gained by the best products available. Of course, "winning out" would take an incredible expenditure — but as the company is worth billions, Microsoft has that kind of money and time to spare. A larger concern is that these practices do nothing to promote fair competition in the software marketplace. Ideally, the best software would win. In Microsoft's world, it appears that the strategy is to squelch the best software and produce at one's own pace.

Of course, this isn't just between Microsoft and the open-source software community; there's also Apple to consider. I don't know what sort of a threat Microsoft considers Apple, but their approach is certainly different to how they deal with the OSS community. But, to return to the Microsoft strategy, what I said before wasn't entirely fair. If you look at other divisions in Microsoft, innovation is clearly taking place. They have interesting research going on in a variety of areas. See various projects at microsoft live labs, especially this video of a TED talk given a couple years ago. Nothing short of impressive. Further, Microsoft arguably dominates the console game market with the Xbox 360 console, and appears to be innovating, or, at least, improving upon existing technology with a recent motion control technology announcement that has garnered a lot of press from the game news sector.

The existence of productive innovation and anti-competitive bullying under the same corporate umbrella seems to point to a classic case of the condition where "one hand does not know what the other is doing" — Microsoft is company that is so large that it doesn't seem to have any unified vision to motivate any of the behaviors going on inside of it. The good is mixed with the bad, and no one knows what to do with the company as a whole. I can imagine a world that might be better if Microsoft were forced to split up into a bunch of smaller companies, but who is to say if that would really be best for the world, for competition, for innovation, and ultimately, for the consumer? I'd like to endorse this idea, but a part of me thinks that the oppressive and adverse conditions that Microsoft has created for other software developers have contributed to a spirit of perseverance and desire to continue to innovate in other software companies that might ultimately be the most important factor in what makes us love the special software that makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, no matter who might be developing it.

PS - there's a shitstorm going on in Europe over Microsoft's decision not to include any browser at all in Windows 7 after the Norwegian Opera Software Company made a complaint based on the unfair practices probed in the 1998 antitrust case prompted an investigation there.


Michael Clark said...

Your article provides very informative and in-depth knowledge about Microsoft.

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