SLAMMING GATES: Is Microsoft-bashing good for you?

John R Chang (JRChang+@CMU.EDU)
Sat, 21 Feb 1998 17:10:21 -0500 (EST)

The New Republic

January 26, 1998


By David Shenk

Is Microsoft-bashing good for you?

It's kind of funny that Bill Gates has embraced the World Wide Web
with so much enthusiasm and investment capital lately, because the Web
sure doesn't seem to like him. Try an online search for "Microsoft
sucks," and you'll find websites that depict Gate being shot
repeatedly, poked in the face with darts, and revealed to be the
devil. Offline, Gates's list of antagonists is mushrooming almost as
rapidly as his net worth, with vocal detractors in every branch of the
federal government, many state attorney-general offices, the national
media, brand-name universities, and leading consumer-action groups.
Cheering on this crusade is a sizable grassroots chorus of software
engineers, Web professionals, corporate systems managers, and
disgruntled customers.

"Whenever I write a column that is critical of Microsoft," says Paul
Gillin, editor-in-chief of Computerworld, "invariably, a half-dozen
`attaboy' letters will come out of the woodwork--`Way to go,' `Stick
it to 'em,' `Evil empire,' and `They suck.'" And when Gillin praises
Microsoft? "I get letters saying: `You're just sucking up,' `You're in
Bill Gates's back pocket,' or `You suck.'" These acidic notes, Gillin
says, do not seem to come from a short list of recycled names. "It's a
wide and diverse group." Microsoft-bashing has become so common in the
Bay Area, says writer Po Bronson, "It's like talking about the weather
in Minnesota. I literally have conversations about Microsoft with
everybody, every day, all the time. It is omnipresent."

But why? Does Gates really deserve this hostility, or is
Microsoft-bashing just a cheap new common currency in an otherwise
hyper-fragmented society? Or, worse, are the growing number of
Gates-haters simply pawns of high-octane competitors like Lotus,
Oracle, Netscape, and Sun, for whom Microsoft-hating is an important
part of doing business? A close examination of the culture of
Microsoft-loathing reveals an eclectic variety of denunciations--some
sound, others specious. Accusations vary wildly in levels of
intelligence, maturity, and credibility. Critics are by no means
coordinated in their criticism, nor are they always necessarily
conscious of the real reasons behind their antipathy. All of which
would be merely amusing, if it weren't so consequential. There's a
serious case to be made for containing the Microsoft behemoth, but
it's getting lost amid the name-calling, corporate rivalry, and
not-so-petty jealousy.

The simplest--and perhaps the soundest--critique of Microsoft is the
one that preoccupies the Justice Department and is the subject of this
week's hearings in federal court: namely, that the company engaged in
anticompetitive tactics to establish what amounts to a monopoly over
various sectors of the software industry. Microsoft was able to
establish MS-DOS and subsequently Windows as the standard PC operating
system by exacting a royalty for every PC sold regardless of whether
its operating system was installed. Then the company leveraged its
ubiquity and deep pockets to push products like Office, Encarta, and
Internet Explorer, thus securing market share for products that surely
would not have sold as well on merit alone.

Although Microsoft likes to portray all critics as ambitious corporate
rivals or failed competitors, the apparent unfairness of Microsoft's
rise has inspired an awful lot of sincere criticism. And the gripes
are not all ancient computing history. "To me, there is a difference
between competition and what they do," says Mitch Stone, a consumer
with no ties to the industry, who created the "Boycott Microsoft"
website. "In August 1996, Microsoft began aggressively distributing
Explorer 3.0 for free. That seemed unfair to me, a pretty deliberate
effort to destroy a much smaller competitor. As a consumer, I couldn't
see how that benefited me any, or anyone else either.... There is such
a thing as being a good corporate citizen, and deliberate efforts to
remove competitors from the marketplace--that's an ethical violation."
This is not just Stone's conjecture about Microsoft's intent, mind
you: Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's executive vice president of sales and
support, confirmed such suspicions in January 1997 when he told
Forbes, "We're giving away a pretty good browser as part of the
operating system. How long can they survive selling it?"

Microsoft has also perfected the use of "vaporware"--the strategy of
quelling interest in a competitor's product through the use of
tantalizing press releases. "In their typical vaporware act," says
Audrie Krause, editor of the watchdog newsletter The Microsoft
Monitor, "they say, `We have this product that will soon be ready.'"
This convinces many prospective purchasers to put on the brakes, she
says. "It makes people say, `Well, I guess we'll wait and see.'
They've done this repeatedly over the years, and sometimes they don't
even ever bring out the product. But they kill the market for another
product by announcing way ahead of time that they're coming out with
something competitive." Noted examples include Internet Explorer 3.0
for Unix, announced to ward off major purchases of Netscape but never
actually released, and Microsoft Exchange, which the company promised
would match Lotus Notes, feature for feature, years before it reached
that level of functionality.

In a properly functioning competitive environment, rivals who create
better products could withstand such pressure. But when Gates is faced
with a competitor he can't easily beat, critics say, he either crushes
or purchases it--thus eliminating the competition. "Theirs is a
praying-mantis business model: they have sex with you, and then they
eat you," says Gary Reback, the well-known Silicon Valley attorney
representing a number of Microsoft's competitors, citing a familiar
refrain. Such brute force combined with such wealth has transformed
arguably the most innovative industry in history into a tightly
controlled empire. "The basic model in the industry today is to be
bought by Microsoft or to go out of business," observes Andrew
Shapiro, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Center for Internet &
Society. "Isn't that amazing? There's very little hope of independent
success." Software entrepreneurs are in the strange and uncomfortable
position, in other words, of having to answer to Microsoft in much the
same way that a local factory apparatchik in the Soviet Union had to
answer to the regional party boss.

One could make similar analogies about the way Microsoft has attempted
to broaden its reach: "It goes beyond high-tech companies," says Bob
Ingle, vice president of New Media of Knight-Ridder. "I think a fair
chunk of corporate America is terrified of Microsoft, and they want an
alternative." During the last dozen years, Gates's Microsoft has
purchased a handful of promising software outfits, hired thousands of
star programmers and researchers, co- founded a new cable network
(MSNBC), snapped up the digital rights to the Bettman archive of still
images, and invested heavily in cable TV (Comcast), satellites
(Teledesic), network computing (Web-TV), and other Internet-related
resources. "They are obviously going after the means to control all
ways of accessing the Internet," says Microsoft Monitor's Krause.

As important as serious Microsoft monitoring is, though, Gates-bashing
is too widespread--and too visceral--to be a fuss over something as
nuanced and arcane as antitrust law. Another agenda must be at work,
and one need look no further than Microsoft's competitors to find it.

"If you want your company to get some attention," complains Microsoft
spokesman Greg Shaw, "you say, `Hmmm, how might I get my company
covered? I think I'll come down on Microsoft.'" He's dead right, of
course, and no one has done more to whip up the hostility than
Netscape, Microsoft's archrival in the Web browser business. Marc
Andreessen, Netscape's co-founder, has publicly compared Microsoft to
the Mafia, boasting that his company refused what was supposed to be
Microsoft's unrefusable offer to buy them out. "No horse heads in the
bed yet," Andreessen said smugly. He also characterized the current
Netscape-Microsoft browser contest as Bambi vs. Godzilla, portraying
his company as not only the underdog, but also the ethically pure
protagonist. Condemning Gates not only helps companies gain the
visibility and public admiration that firms crave; it also serves as
ideal internal propaganda. Software is a quixotic and ruthless
business. Vast fortunes are made and lost in very short order, and
hard-working employees of ambitious companies easily slip into a
bunker mentality. For those tens of thousands of people working off of
little more than dark-roasted coffee fumes and stock options, Gates is
not just a formidable competitor. He is also the ideal motivational
device--a marionette of hate that CEOs like Oracle's Larry Ellison, or
Sun's Scott McNeally and Lotus's Jeffrey Papows, love to yank.
(McNeally and Papows, according to the latter, are "co-captains of the
I-hate-Bill-Gates fan club. We just couldn't decide which of us hates
him more.") Many thousands of industry laborers hate Microsoft
primarily because they are trained to; for example, Ellison recently
rallied his troops by displaying a giant computer- generated image of
Gates giving Oracle employees the finger.

In fairness, Gates rivals like Ellison would never make headway if
their claims didn't resonate with so many software engineers and
computer users. MS "crapware," as some call it, is widely disparaged
as inelegant and buggy. (Joke precis: Bill Gates dies and gets to
choose between heaven and hell. On his tour of hell, it looks like a
beach party, in contrast to heaven's park- bench serenity. After he
chooses hell, though, it turns out to be a torturous, skin-flaying pit
of despair. Gates asks St. Peter, "What happened to the hell you
showed me before?" St. Peter looks down--from his Macintosh--and says:
"Oh, that was just the demo.") The complaints are just too numerous
and plainspoken to be mere rival propaganda. Says one
information-systems manager, "I hate Microsoft because I am frequently
put in a position of solving problems that would not have come up if
my customer had bought software from another vendor." Another software
professional (both insist on anonymity for reasons of job security)
echoes this complaint, denouncing "their dominance of the software
industry with crap."

Sentiments such as these have spawned hundreds of Web pages that
protest Microsoft's allegedly inferior products. On the Net, there are
endless how- many-Microsofties-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-lightbulb
jokes, Gates-bought- what? spoofs, and I-hate-Bill-because quips.
There is also a deluge of adolescent puns (Microsnot, Microshaft,
Microsuck, etc.), a Usenet conference called,
and enough gratuitous violence to fill a Tarantino script. ("Kill Bill
Gates" appears twice as often as "Kill Bill Clinton.") An alien
logging on from its own planet might wonder if Gates had killed more
people than Adolf Hitler, or slightly fewer.

"It started when I saw my dad using Windows and it crashed every five
minutes," says Chris Mutter, the 24-year-old Austrian creator of what
he claims was the very first anti-Microsoft "Hate
Page" went online in 1994. "I was just angry
because here was a company who is the leader in the PC software market
and ships its products with that many bugs and limitations.", a member of something called the International Anti-MS
Network, features many of the classics in the Bill-hating genre--the
"Internet Exploder" and "WinBlows" parody icons, the depiction of
Gates with horns and glowing red eyes, the gun to Gates's exploding
head, and so on, much of it clearly the work of adolescent lampooners
reacting instinctively to a corporate behemoth. "YOU have been part of
a force that has done everything humanly possible to ensure that using
a computer ... is a living hell for any person without a legal
education," writes contributor Rune Jacobsen to MS employees
who might be visiting the site. "You therefore have to accept that you
are a subject of hate from computer users all over the world, and this
is our only way to get back at you."

But if Microsoft software is so inferior and the company treats
customers that badly, how does the company continue to prevail in the
free market? Ruthlessness and deep pockets are not enough to keep any
suite of products so astoundingly popular on the consumer and
corporate level. Contrary to the stereotype of a company that
possesses a monopoly, Microsoft uses its wealth to improve its
products, even if they still remain inferior to some rivals. "This
time," Apple co-founder Steve Jobs told Fortune in 1996, "Microsoft
has the technology to compete on quality." Far from succumbing to the
pride of success and indolence that can come with immense wealth
(thousands of current and former Microsoft employees are stock-options
millionaires), the company is plowing an extraordinary amount of money
into increasing the quality of its software. In many cases, Microsoft
is bankrolling several competing internal software teams.

Gates often answers critics by arguing that, when it comes to
information technology, it's impossible to have a true monopoly. "In a
field like ours," Gates told NBC a few years ago, "there isn't much in
the way of power." That's a little bit like Paul McCartney saying
there isn't very much money to be made in the music business. Gates's
pretense of meekness is outrageous and patently dishonest, but his
claim does speak to the industry's peculiar power dynamics. In a
business built on speedy innovation, even a powerhouse like Microsoft
is not assured future dominance, or even future success. Though the
Windows operating system currently dominates the personal-computer
market, it is entirely conceivable that Sun's Java technology, for
example, in combination with a future generation Web browser, could
soon render exclusive operating systems such as Mac OS and Windows
obsolete. Would you feel self-assured as the leader in the telegraph
business if you had an inkling that the telephone was about to be
invented--by someone else?

From this angle, Microsoft starts to look like the all-American
quarterback who is in his prime and knows it. And the bashers? They
begin to look like malcontents who kvetch about the weather so much
that they don't notice the sun coming out. In the acrid digital space
of the most vociferous Microsoft haters, truth and innuendo merge to
form a preposterous case against the company and its leader.
"Microsoft is in a bind," says Boston Globe technology columnist
Simson Garfinkel. "If they put out bad software, people criticize them
for putting out bad software, and if they put out good software,
people criticize them for dominating the industry."

If the software isn't that bad, and is getting much better, why do we
love to hate Microsoft so? Why have I, for example, casually bashed
Microsoft in conversation and in prose (written using Microsoft Word),
or referred to the software-media giant as the "evil empire" plenty of
times (before and after cashing Microsoft checks for an online
commentary I wrote for the Microsoft Network)? Why does the acrimony
feel as prevalent in New York as Po Bronson says it is in California?

One spur, clearly, is Gates's wealth. When he was worth just three or
four billion dollars, it was heady-- the unlikely triumph of a
computer geek. Forty billion, though, engenders in many of us a vague
sense of unease, compounded by the fact that it comes from the sales
of hundreds of millions of products that, stacked together, wouldn't
stretch to the end of your driveway, or even to the end of your hand.
Microsoft, by some accounts, the second most capitalized company on
the planet, is the only corporate colossus in history whose entire
product line could be eliminated with a giant magnet.

The more powerful reason, though, is techno-angst. The current phase
of the information revolution has been a psychic whirlwind, for good
and for ill. Software--especially Microsoft software--has become such
an integral part of our culture that it is almost impossible to
imagine life without it. (If forced to give up either your personal
computer or one finger for the rest of your life, which would you
choose? One in three would give up the digit, according to Philip
Nicholson, one expert on "technostress.") The remarkable velocity of
information and increased demand on consumer attention can also
produce significant stress and distraction. Our emerging "attention
economy," whereby profits flow from grabbing the consumer's attention,
however fleetingly, inevitably yields a noisier, more vulgar society.

In venting our techno-angst, we instinctively take aim at its most
visible emblem. Some of us do so harmlessly under our breath, others
turn it into a showcase of juvenescence. With the spectacular success
of Microsoft, with the understandable fixation on Gates's personal
fortune, and with his conspicuous efforts to establish himself as the
leading visionary of the personal- computing revolution, Gates has
been transformed into a potent cultural icon. He isn't just very rich
and very famous. Like all dominant icons (Monroe, Reagan, Sinatra,
etc.), he embodies an arresting social transformation. We look at him
and see our technological future, warts and all. As the upstart
personal-computing industry has blossomed into a
computing-communications juggernaut, becoming--as of late 1997--the
largest industry in the nation, we project onto Gates our hopes,
fears, dark suspicions--but mostly our (understandable) ignorance. We
suddenly find ourselves fastened to an industry that few truly
comprehend, but that rockets ahead regardless.

But if critics can't get over their current spate of anger, they may
ultimately be doing Microsoft a great favor. For it is precisely the
emotionalism of its competitors, says the Globe's Simson Garfinkel,
that has helped Microsoft stay on top. "Lotus did great until they
started focusing on Microsoft instead of focusing on their customers,"
says Garfinkel. "Netscape has made exactly the same mistake. Now Scott
McNeally is making this competition with Microsoft very personal,
swiping at every possible opportunity, rather than focusing on their
customers. At the big Sun Java One conference last year, McNeally's
keynote was dedicated to why Active X, Microsoft's program, is a
problem. That's really bad. You shouldn't make the keynote of your
address bashing another company. And now Oracle's Larry Ellison is
focusing on Microsoft instead of his own customers. Whenever a company
does that, they lose."

The case against Gates, if it is going to succeed, will do so on the
strength of hopes and not fears; ingenuity, not insecurity; ambition,
not envy. A more thoughtful attack on Microsoft would focus, as MIT
researcher and software designer Philip Greenspun does, on the
importance of innovation and on Microsoft's apparent stifling of it
over the last several years. Greenspun is the creator of the infamous
Bill Gates Personal Wealth Clock, possibly the deftest online jab at
Gates. Here, Gates's steroidal wealth--$41.0423 billion at the moment
this sentence was written--can be tracked minute by minute. The clock
was designed, explains Greenspun, as a swipe at the man who has the
gall "to make so much money writing software that ignores the users."
But this is also Gates's secret weapon, Greenspun argues. Truly great
software systems, he explains, perversely tend to be extremely
vulnerable to competition, because they can be broken down into
well-documented components. Thus, any individual component can be
replaced by one that is engineered to the same spec. "If you're a bad
engineer and you can't quite finish the specs and you think that the
specs aren't really needed, then you end up with a nasty pile of code
with lots of bugs, a system where the guts depend on everything else,"
where the software works only with programs created by the same sloppy

Thus, asserts Greenspun, Microsoft gets rich not despite but because
it produces inferior software. In a fairer world, he says, "companies
like Hewlett-Packard would be the winners because they make
high-quality products. It's a shame that the Gates we have is
uninterested in technology. Consumers don't know what they're
missing." According to this analysis, the real power of the
information revolution has been to spur innovation about what
technology can do for people. That inspiration has spread through the
business, which is why everyone from 16-year-old webmaster James
Baughn (author of yet another anti-MS site) to MIT's Greenspun
understands that, as spectacular as computing is right now, it would
be even more sensational if Microsoft were weaker.

This ethereal argument, repeated by Mitch Stone, Gary Reback, and most
other serious critics, is the abstract sibling of the Justice
Department critique, the vaguest and yet by far the most compelling
reason for anyone to hate and/or fear Microsoft: consider, in the
stunted software culture described by Andrew Shapiro, what we've
already missed, and what we'll miss out on tomorrow and the next day.
If there is little hope of independent success from even marvelous
innovation, innovation itself is inevitably stifled. This is It's a
Wonderful Life in reverse: without Gates, our small towns and big
cities might be so much better off.

Short of such a collective critique, it may well be Gates's game to
lose. As long as Microsoft keeps focused on its own business,
maintains that hungry feeling, and stays (more or less) within the
bounds of the law, it is bound to remain profitable even as it
inspires a continuing spiteful undercurrent. Of course, technology has
a way of turning the tables rather suddenly. Regardless of his
company's foresight, toughness, breadth of investment, and research,
Gates knows as well as anyone that his days as technology king could
come to a fairly swift end. At that point, assuming that the end of
his dominance would spur a plummet in the Microsoft stock price, he
would become an underdog and, thus, a sympathetic figure. Letters
would start pouring into editorial offices: "Stop picking on
Microsoft!" Politicians would clamor to kiss his children. The Web
would start crawling with I [heart] Bill sites. People would start
arguing about who loved Bill most.

David Shenk is the author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut
(Harper San Francisco)

(Copyright 1998, The New Republic)