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The Microsoft Effect

MicrosoftIt began so well. Microsoft wrote DOS. They started small and they created an operating system for the IBM PC that opened up a new world for the common, everyday programmer. DOS was sometimes a bit tricky. I recall issues with getting printers and modems to work. There was no graphic user interfaces. There was no multitasking. You ran a program. You finished and you ran a different program. Looking back, it was quite primitive. But, remarkably, the industry thrived throughout the 80s.

Why?

Why would an archaic, character-based, non-multitasking computer thrive? Meanwhile, today’s PC has 1000 times more power, RAM and data capacities and yet most users are loathe to use them. We are showing a dramatic preference for tablets and smartphones. We are back to non-multi-tasking devices! And Windows 8 is not helping at all. It is being panned as clumsy, poorly designed and packed with unnecessary features. Sound familiar? Of course it does because it is the same pattern repeated since Windows 1.0. Microsoft introduces a new OS, it is horrible, they fix it and then just as everyone is adapting to it, Microsoft introduces a new, poorly designed replacement.

DOS thrived because back in the 1980s and early 1990s Microsoft was only concerned with making DOS better at serving as the foundation for computer applications. They made it possible to develop applications and drivers so that we could get things done, print, use our modems and disk drives. This was before the mouse. Everything was keyboard driven. But what was really remarkable was that programmers were developing an enormous number of programs. It was easy. You simply bought a copy of dBaseIII Plus or Basic and you sat at home and you wrote a program. I worked on developing a program to handle drycleaning tickets for my Dad’s shop in DC. It never became a marketable product but my Dad was supportive and I was able to get it to work.

Then Microsoft decided that they wanted more of the market. So, they came out with Windows for Workgroups. Windows for Workgroups added peer-to-peer networking to Windows. Then they began developing applications. They bought up application developers and built a suite of applications to compete against products like WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3. They got heavily into networking by creating Windows NT Server. The Server market is still healthy because Linux is very popular among web hosting companies. But the impact on desktop applications has been devastating. The best analogy is to compare the smartphone and tablet marketplace to the desktop PC marketplace. Apple has a small percentage of market share on the business desktop. But within the PC market, there is little or no competition with Microsoft. They dominate the apps. If you use a PC, you probably are running Windows and using Microsoft applications (ie. Word, Excel, Powerpoint). If you are not using desktop apps, you might be using Google apps. But on the desktop, there are very choices beyond Microsoft.

Compare that to the smartphone market. Smartphones have multiple hardware manufacturers (Apple, Samsung, LG, etc.), multiple operating systems (iOS, Android, Web OS, etc.), multiple carriers and hundreds of thousands of amazing apps. I have apps on my iPhone that simply do not exist on my PC. Send me a PDF to sign. I can do it on my iPhone. I can’t do it on my PC. On my PC I can only drop a generic signature onto the document. It is not my real signature. And the app that enables me to sign and fill out documents is free!

Test yourself. Who is the number two desktop application competitor to Microsoft? Give up? Remember Corel? Well, they are still around but they have a tiny piece of the PC application market. They are literally 1/1000th the size of Microsoft. Imagine any other industry where the number two competitor is 1/1000th the size of the number one company.

But Microsoft’s destructive reach goes well beyond the desktop. Hardware manufacturers have to suffer with ongoing operating system upgrades. If you have an older, reliable LaserJet printer, it will quite likely have an obsolete driver issue before it physically breaks. HP is constantly coming out with new, better, faster and more capable printers. And if you have an older model, the newest operating system might mean that you will need a new driver. HP will not indefinitely develop new drivers on older, obsolete printers. And this is true of every hardware manufacturer. At some point, they will abandon their older products. But Microsoft doesn’t care. They will continue to come out with new operating systems whether you need it or not.

Another example of an industry that is drastically affected by Microsoft is cabling. Network cabling is the data backbone to all of the communications that occur in the office and also quite often in lots of homes. Offices can’t run wirelessly at the desktop. Database applications will almost always get corrupted on a wireless network. So, hard wiring is mandatory. Almost all cabling for the last 20 years has been Cat5 100mb cable. Cat6 is available and it runs at 1gb. But 1gb is not rarely needed at the desktop. In a competitive, innovative market I believe that 1gb Cat6 cabling would have been the standard long ago. But without innovation there has been little demand for more speed. Fortunately, this might change as 1gb Internet becomes available and as cloud computing becomes more practical and popular.

How did this happen? Could it have been different? The answer is “Yes!” Microsoft was being prosecuted in the mid and late 90s for unfairly and illegally competing against Netscape, Sun and many other firms. They were bundling Interent Explorer for free. That seems like a good deal for the consumer but it was unfair because Netscape had only one product, Netscape Navigator. So, Microsoft wiped out Netscape. And they did it by giving away a product because they have hundreds of products.

In 1999, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson issued his findings of fact, which stated that Microsoft’s dominance of the x86-based personal computer operating systems market constituted a monopoly, and that Microsoft had taken actions to crush threats to that monopoly. Apple, Java, Netscape, Lotus Notes, RealNetworks, Linux, and others were the victims.  Judgment was split in two parts. On April 3, 2000, he issued his conclusions of law, according to which Microsoft had committed monopolization, attempted monopolization, and violations of Sections 1 and 2 of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Microsoft immediately appealed the decision. On June 7, 2000, the court ordered a breakup of Microsoft as its “remedy”. According to that judgment, Microsoft would have to be broken into two separate units, one to produce the operating system, and one to produce other software components.

There were numerous appeals but the case ended. Janet Reno was out and John Ashcroft was in. The US Government decided to let Microsoft win. That was the last opportunity to fix this problem. And since then, nothing much has been done. Microsoft still dominates the PC market, they have no competition and consumers and businesses suffer for lack of innovation.

But there is hope. Microsoft is up against new market forces that they cannot stifle. Cloud computing is moving applications to the browser and tablets have created a new platform for app development that is reminiscent of the heady DOS days. What else do we all need? Faster internet speeds and better browser-based programming tools would be a huge boost to this shift. What we don’t need is a new, clunky, buggy operating system from Microsoft. That must end. Microsoft must end. And, for me, the end can’t come soon enough.

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