Web Informant #142, 16 February 1999:
Sympathy for the devil (Public humiliation for Microsoft is plenty of punishment)


I have a newfound sense of sympathy for Microsoft as of late. And no one is more surprised than I.

I’ve been writing about technology for over a decade, and during that time I have been neither a friend nor a foe of Microsoft. My credo is to call them as I see them, for better or worse. I have written many critical articles about Microsoft to be sure, but there have been others that have praised the company's products as well.

This sympathy comes from watching the government's antitrust trial against Microsoft for a few hours firsthand, on my last trip to Washington several weeks ago. Imagine being questioned under the following circumstances. Over a year ago, their corporate honchos had to give their depositions, answering a long and drawn out series of questions about business practices, technologies, and what they thought were private email correspondence. Now, the day before they testify, transcripts are circulated to the press and posted on the web.

In the meantime, they have forgotten what was said or perhaps the industry has changed so much in the past year that what they said no longer is relevant. To make matters worse, the government's lawyers, who Microsoft initially assumed were digital dolts, are actually sharp enough to poke holes in many of their videotaped demonstrations, sending them to scurry off to CompUSA late in the day to buy some fresh laptops to recreate the demos.

Those of us who have ever had to give a demo in front of an audience know how easy it is for things to go wrong under the best of circumstances. But that isn't really my source of sympathy for Microsoft.

I estimate that about 200 people have been working on this trial for over a year full time -- that is a lot of folks. It is a larger workforce than about 80 percent of the Internet software companies currently in business. (Not that the assembled multitude has the right skill set to run a software company, but just to put things in perspective here.)

What got me, observing the trial for just a few hours, was how difficult it would be for any business executive to stay calm and collected. Certainly, David Boies and his team of lawyers is doing a terrific job uncovering the doublespeak and nonsense contained in the depositions and testimony. And often times he cuts right to the heart of the matter with humor and grace. Perhaps Microsoft’s arrogance in underestimating the government has come back to bite them.

This arrogance really seems to be the problem, and ironically is the real source of my sympathy.

Microsoft is on trial not because they are a desktop operating system monopolist. They aren't on trial because they bundle a browser with Windows and that prevents competition. And they aren't on trial because their business practices are putting a squeeze on consumers. Even though these things are certainly true, that isn't why we are continuing the trial.

No, Microsoft is on trial now because they are hard negotiators and have Attitude. And the punishment for such hubris is simple: public humiliation. All that remains is to decided whether the latest missteps over the videotaped demos these past few weeks is enough humiliation.

Sure, having the vast majority of desktops running Windows limits consumer choices, but prices have come down over the past few years to the point now where the monitor can cost as much if not more than the remainder of the computer.

Microsoft has done a tremendous job integrating the Internet into desktop computing, perhaps more than any single vendor. They deserve praise for this.

Curiously, this praise hasn't been forthcoming from the one quarter you'd expect it, the Internet community. Yes, Microsoft is fond of hijacking the standards process to suit its own means. And yes, open standards to Microsoft means any Windows (now or future) interface. And yes, Microsoft's notion of running cross-platform applications, Java-based or otherwise, is restricted to all operating systems beginning with the letter W. But on balance, Microsoft has done lots more good than harm in making the Internet easier to use for the average computer user. It is time we recognized this.

Over the past year, whenever I have met up in person with an Old Internet Hand (someone who has been involved in the Internet since Before Netscape), I have asked a single question: is the average end user's Internet experience better off today with Microsoft products? Almost everyone eventually answers yes, some reluctantly, some only after much soul-searching.

This soul-searching is justified, because we all can recall moments of Microsoft madness in our computing lives. I just had one earlier today, when I had to spend the better part of an hour tracking down some errant DLL that mistakenly got deleted from my operating system because I tried to uninstall some (non-Microsoft) application. And the number of times that I have to reboot my Windows machine borders on distraction. I know many companies that have a regular reboot schedule for their supposedly "stable" and "production" NT servers. These same companies can't even remember the last time they rebooted their Unix servers.

Surely, the frustrations with these regular crashes and other hiccups can bring out our vengeful side. We want Microsoft punished! But should they be broken apart, either into separate business units or replicated copies (as Robert Bork is suggesting)? Nope, that doesn't help the consumer, the industry, or the Internet community. Perhaps levy a big fine? While satisfying for the government's lawyers, I don't think it much matters to Microsoft, given the size of their cash war chest.

This is where my sympathetic side comes in. Let's finish off this long-standing trial and move on. Both Microsoft and the computing public have suffered enough. Perhaps if Microsoft spent one-tenth as much energy polishing their software as they did in the past year defending their business, we would have a better place to do our jobs and use computers the way they were intended. And perhaps experience fewer crashes and reboots. I know, I may be dreaming.

After all, the Stones said it best, back in 1968 I believe:

'Cause I'm in need of some restraint
So if you meet me, have some courtesy
Have some sympathy and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse
Or I'll lay your soul to waste.

Self-promotions dep't

Two of my articles were published this week. Hold the phone (line), a review of three different wireless email technologies (CDPD, Metricom, and analog cellular), was published in this week's Computerworld.

Not Ready for Prime Time, six reasons why web-based conferencing is only half-baked, a review published in the March 1999 Small Business Computing and Communications magazine.

David Strom
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