NS Internet column
Written : why hate Microsoft? for the New Statesman
Why does everyone hate Bill Gates so? I'm as guilty of it as anybody. I mean, I have no personal feelings about the man at all, except a bewildered admiration that he once answered an email of mine within six hours when I was reviewing one of his books. But I hate Microsoft, and I can't think why. The company's software mostly works. I has been a long time since I lost any large quantities of work because of anything Word or even Windows did. It does some things elegantly, like font support, and one or two of their programs are just about perfect of their sort. Their marketing is crass and dishonest, certainly, but no more crass or dishonest than Apple's odious "think Different" campaign, in which the Dalai Lama appeared to endorse their hardware, except in China, where the virtues of thinking the same as the Chinese government suddenly became apparent to the Apple management. Anyone who cares about truth or language had best spend his life a long way from computer advertisements; but there is no reason to hate Microsoft especially for theirs.
If I ran a company I would dislike MS intensely, because they have led many companies up a nasty creek, where everything runs on interdependent Microsoft programs, and all of them are vulnerable to a shoal of extremely nasty viruses, carried by email, and spreading incredibly fast across a software monoculture: they are the digital equivalent of potato blight; and if your company is as dependent on MS software as the Irish were on the potato, they must be very frightening, even though data is rather easier to back up and restore than people.
The rivals, or former rivals of Microsoft hate it with a deep and justified passion. The attitudes and practices revealed in the two trial Microsoft is currently fighting in the USA are indeed repulsive. The main trial, the anti-trust suit brought by the Department of Justice, has thrown a consistent pattern of arrogant lying. The discovery that one of the company's expert economist witnesses was charging $800 an hour to give his opinion that they it was not a monopoly shocked me rigid, but is apparently normal in the American legal system where, if you want the best impartial opinion, you must pay top dollar for it. The company's attempt to pretend that Internet Explorer is an integral part of Windows have been repeatedly disproved by dedicated hackers who have produced programs to strip out IE and leave only the useful bits of Windows 98; the fact that they were caught faking a videotaped demonstration that was meant to disprove this doesn't really increase confidence in their testimony. The testimony has revealed an uninterrupted pattern of bullying and favouritism designed to penalise companies which shipped non-Microsoft programs with their Windows PCs.
Even more damaging evidence is emerging form a second trial in Utah, where Microsoft is being sued by the man who brought one of their failed competitors, who made a compatible, though slightly better version of MS-Dos, called DR-Dos. The first thing that Microsoft did was to rig early models of Windows so that if they detected that they were running on top of DR-dos instead of MS-dos, they would put up a threatening error message, though DR-dos would in fact work perfectly well. The internal emails of the company expose a brutal and predatory arrogance, in which the goal is simply to overwhelm and crush the competition by whatever combination of force and fraud towards the customer seems necessary.
All this is true, and yet it's not particularly true of Microsoft. Netscape, when it was powerful, behaved in much the same way. AOL, which now owns Netscape, is not a nice company to do business with. Apple has been as greedy and treacherous as the best of them. The whole culture of American capitalism is based on giving people what they want, and this is best accomplished by persuading them to want what you have given them. The difference between Microsoft and its competitors is simply success. It gets away with more than they do not so much because it can but because they can't. Conversely, the most disreputable reason for hating Microsoft is probably the most widespread: this is the belief that by using other people's software, we are showing ourselves to be different, distinctive, wiser, and a cut above the herd; and this, of course, is as ridiculous as anything in Apple's marketing. The truly horrible thing about capitalism is that it often delivers exactly what we deserve. No wonder we hate Microsoft.