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Microsoft and the Battle for Civilization

© 2000 by Lawrence I. Charters

Washington Apple Pi Journal, January/February 2000, reprint information

"What to do about Microsoft" is a hot topic these days. Hype concerning the "end of the millennium" is beginning to die out (even though it doesn't actually begin until 2001). The Y2K Crisis, after hundreds of billions of dollars in repairs and updates, is considerably less threatening than it was prior to this huge effort. So, with a Presidential campaign serving as background noise, we contemplate the future of the world's most highly valued company: Microsoft.

And with it, we also contemplate the fate of civilization.

Microsoft and Y2K

What, exactly, does Microsoft mean to modern civilization? With a fairly modest number of employees, compared to other Fortune 500 companies, Microsoft emerged in 1999 as the corporation with the largest stock valuation in history. It sales were a fraction of many other companies, and the company has only modest assets of real estate, equipment, and the other usual trappings of corporate wealth. It is a manufacturing company, but the goods it manufactures are fairly modest: keyboards, mice, joysticks and other minor peripherals. Most of its wealth, and fame, and power, comes from "manufacturing" software, the curious process of storing sequences of numbers in such a way as to produce word processors, spreadsheets, games and operating systems.

What else has Microsoft done? This single company was also the largest contributor to the Y2K Crisis. While countless news stories talked about old COBOL programs that needed to be rewritten to handle dates past 1999, and embedded computer chips that might cause your VCR, thermostat, or electric toothbrush to fail, the real story was elsewhere. More people spent more time, money and effort correcting, updating or eliminating programs written by Microsoft than all other Y2K activities -- combined. Vast numbers of "Wintel" computers running various versions of MS-DOS (recall that "MS" stands for Microsoft) or Microsoft Windows were carted off to landfills (or "donated" to unsuspecting schools, churches and charities). Billions of lines of code written in various Microsoft programming languages were reviewed and revised. Tens of millions of "consumer" programs (chiefly Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Access) were upgraded and updated. And special laws were passed to protect software companies -- especially one particular software company -- from legal liabilities surrounding the "Y2K Crisis."

Microsoft's most profound accomplishment, however, has been the assault on personal computing.

Microsoft and Personal Computing

Dating the beginning of personal computing is almost as difficult as dating dinosaur bones. In the mid-1970s, most of the computers in the world were large mainframe computers, staffed by legions of specialists. Minicomputers, similar in operation but much less costly, were staging a strong challenge, but they were just as impersonal as their more massive cousins. Computers were centrally managed corporate assets, controlled by a select few who also controlled how the computers could be used.

Beginning in 1977, microcomputers began to challenge the stranglehold of the computer specialists. Radio Shack, Commodore, Atari, Apple and many other companies introduced "consumer" microcomputers, designed for use in homes and offices by people with no background or training in computer science. Control of these new "consumer" computers was not in the hands of a large team of computer operators, analysts and programmers; instead, individuals controlled microcomputers. Corporations decided what programs and tasks were suitable for the mainframes and minicomputers, but individuals made their own decisions on what to do with their microcomputers.

Initially seen as a passing fad, by 1981 even IBM had to concede that microcomputers might have some value, so the computing giant introduced the IBM PC. IBM didn't really consider this PC as a true "computer," however; the model number used -- 5150 -- was from the same block reserved for computer terminals, and these terminals were only useful when attached to mainframe computers. Since the PC, in IBM's view, wasn't much use as a stand-alone machine, IBM didn't even bother to write much software for it. The operating system (available as an extra-cost option) was purchased from Microsoft (which in turn bought the operating system from another company, Seattle Computing), and the first word processor was a somewhat rough translation of an Apple II program. Clearly, IBM didn't think too much of "personal" computing and assumed buyers would soon come to their senses and attach these things to mainframes. Some did.

Most did not, and the rest of the 1980s saw a massive migration in computing power, away from centralized corporate strongholds and onto the desks of individuals. These "personal computers" were often seen as corporate vermin: beyond centralized control, ignoring corporate standards, performing unauthorized tasks.

While the mainframes versus microcomputer wars were raging, other trends were developing. The Internet was starting to connect large government and university campuses. Local area networks were starting to bloom in small and large offices. Standards were being created for exchanging information -- text, pictures, sound, networking information -- between computers created by different vendors.

Moving in to the 1990s, the mainframes versus micro wars were forgotten. Microcomputers had grown in power and capability, and mainframes from the previous decade, purchased for millions of dollars, were sold for scrap, eclipsed by the desktop wonders. Personal computers won.

For a while. Then the Standardization Wars began. Rather than cope with the various features (personalizations) of personal computers, large organizations started decreeing "standards." The former high priests of the mainframes, in their new role as corporate network managers, information managers and "knowledge specialists," decreed that only a very select group of word processors, spreadsheets, databases and operating systems would be supported. (Does this sound familiar?)

Microsoft encouraged this, and pushed Microsoft Office -- Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint (all originally written for the Macintosh) as the "obvious" standard. Naturally, Microsoft argued, this wonderful suite of wonderful programs would work best with a wonderful Microsoft operating system -- Microsoft Windows. Organizations were encouraged to ditch their "legacy systems" and adopt a full Microsoft "solution" --everything Microsoft. No Macintosh computers. No UNIX computers. No non-Microsoft operating systems, spreadsheets, graphics packages or spreadsheets.

The personal computer was now dead, replaced by the "standard" microcomputer. A Microsoft standard.

Microsoft: The Virus

Something else happened in the late 1980s and all through the 1990s: the rise of computer viruses. Originally imagined as an intellectual exercise by computer scientists and researchers, eventually "real" computer viruses escaped out into the world. The concept of "safe computing" evolved (adopted from the anti-AIDS "safe sex" campaigns), and included scanning new floppy disks and CD-ROMs for unwelcome guests. An entire cottage industry sprang into being, creating anti-virus programs to combat this malignant digital life form.

Then Microsoft changed the rules. With the introduction of OLE, later revised and renamed as Active X, Microsoft created a way for programs to directly talk to the Windows operating system. Apple, in the Macintosh operating system, already had nice, safe ways for applications to talk to the operating system, but Microsoft didn't like Apple's solution, and insisted on introducing OLE (and Active X) to the Macintosh.

And things went downhill from there. Poorly written Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel macros, through the use of OLE and Active X, did undesirable things at the operating system level, such as deleting files. Inspired by this uncivilized behavior, vandals created the first Microsoft "Macro" viruses -- the world's first cross-platform computer viruses -- and fighting computer viruses went from being a cottage industry to a global war.

Hundreds of new Microsoft Macro viruses are discovered every month. In fact, well over 90% of all computer viruses ever discovered are Microsoft Macro viruses.

In 1999, very clever vandals decided to escalate the virus wars. Rather than limit their attention to Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, the traditional "hosts" for macro viruses, they targeted the Active X components of Microsoft's E-mail programs, Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange, and the Active X components in Microsoft Internet Explorer. Suddenly, viruses were no longer limited to documents coming in through a floppy disk or CD-ROM; Microsoft's Web browser and Microsoft's E-mail systems could attack entire Microsoft-based networks at once, from the inside and the outside.

The Dark Side of the Force

Microsoft, of course, loudly claims to be sensitive to the problems of its customers. Take, for example, the Y2K problem. Earlier this year, Microsoft's Web site posted some information on how the year 2000 might affect some Microsoft programs, and offered to send customers a free "Microsoft Year 2000 Resource CD" if they just clicked on a link.

If you clicked on the link, and were using Microsoft Internet Explorer, you were taken to a page that allowed you to enter your name and mailing address. If you used any other browser -- Netscape Navigator or Netscape Communicator, for example -- nothing happened. Microsoft, apparently, was more than willing to help their customers, provided their customers conformed to Microsoft's definition of a proper Microsoft customer.

After this was mentioned in the press, Microsoft quickly changed their Web site, allowing even users of non-Microsoft Web browsers to request the CD-ROM. Several weeks later, the "Microsoft Year 2000 Resource CD," stamped with the date "June 1999," was shipped.

And it was quite a resource. Imagine, if you will, that you are a small business owner, concerned about your network of Microsoft Windows 3.1 computers with, say, a Microsoft Windows NT 3.5 file server, and lots of slightly dated Microsoft applications. You insert the CD-ROM in a drive and see just one document, a text file called "README.TXT." You click on it and see this notice:

  • This disc contains Unicode file names and requires an operating system that supports the ISO-9660 "Joliet" CD-ROM file system specification such as Microsoft Windows 95 or Microsoft Windows NT 4.0.
  • Surprise, surprise! You were kind of hoping this free resource would help you salvage something from your rather substantial investment in Microsoft software. But -- fooled you! -- Microsoft thoughtfully encoded the information in such a way that less than current hardware and software --like yours -- can't see whatever help the disc might contain.

    Maybe the "reject all browsers but Microsoft's" incident was a mistake. Maybe shipping the CD-ROM in a form useless to most of the people who needed it was also a mistake.

    But there is another possible name for this: arrogance. When you are Microsoft, you don't have to bend to the needs of your customers, if you can make the customers bend to your will, instead.

    Microsoft Monopoly: More Than a Game

    In the last months of 1999, Microsoft's monopoly power emerged as a major topic of discussion, in the courtroom, in the boardroom, and in the living room. On the one hand, there is ample evidence that Microsoft has used less than savory tactics to crush any real or threatened competitors. While Microsoft once claimed that Windows was a much better choice for businesses because it offered a wider variety of software than any other operating system -- dozens of word processors, spreadsheets and database programs -- this is no longer true. Microsoft has essentially exterminated all but token resistance to Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access. The huge variety that allowed for the almost infinite personalization of the personal computer has been standardized into a gray, monolithic monopoly.

    On the other hand, Microsoft apologists insist that, monopoly aside, Microsoft has contributed greatly to the economic health of the U.S., in particular, and the world in general. True, thousands of software companies have been destroyed, but look at the benefits of corporate standardization! Instead of having to struggle with different operating systems and data formats, everything can now be handled seamlessly in an all-Microsoft world. Why, even the hackers love Microsoft, for without such standardization, they wouldn't be able to wipe out all the corporate mail servers, Web servers and file servers with such ease.

    OK, maybe that wasn't the best example. The real benefit comes from all the support industries created to handle all the Y2K and virus problems caused by such standardization. Wait, wait -- ignore that, too. The real benefit is, um...

    Microsoft has used advertising and highly publicized (and tax-deductible) donations to counter the image of Microsoft as corporate bully. Cheery, feel-good commercials show kids using Microsoft programs to learn about the universe in schools and at home. Other commercials show children with terrible illnesses, smiling and happy in their hospital beds thanks to wonderful Microsoft programs. Vast donations by Microsoft, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, have focused on the value -- in the billions of dollars -- of the donations. Usually unmentioned is the fact that these are not cash donations; with rare exceptions, Microsoft and Gates are donating Microsoft software, and the value is calculated at full retail price.

    Some apologists have gone so far as to suggest all the legal proceedings against Microsoft be thrown out. The judge in the case, they argue, is biased. He is angry with Microsoft, and it is impossible to get a fair judgement from him because of this anger. True, Microsoft officials did forge various pieces of evidence for the court, then testified that the "evidence" was not forged, and then admitted that, well, maybe their previous testimony wasn't correct. They also testified that they hadn't said various things and then, when presented with transcripts (often E-mail transcripts), either admitted that, once again, their previous testimony might not have been correct. Or -- here's an idea -- maybe the E-mail didn't really mean what it said. But in either case, is that any reason to get angry with Microsoft, and develop a bias against them?

    The world has changed. Do laws really apply to companies like Microsoft? Except, of course, such things as the law limiting Y2K software liabilities?

    What to do?

    What should we do about Microsoft? Fine them? They could pay the fine in, say, donated copies of Microsoft software. That way, in the future, poor Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson won't have to write his opinions in Corel WordPerfect (from Canada, no less), and can use some good old American software, like Microsoft Word!

    Break up the company? One suggestion is to move Windows (in all its flavors) and other operating system components to one company, and all applications (word processors, spreadsheets, database packages, etc.) to another. That way, the Windows company would have to compete on a level playing field against UNIX, Linux, Mac OS, and other operating systems. The applications company, in turn, would be free to go beyond Windows and develop programs for UNIX, Linux, Mac OS and other operating systems.

    "Open up" the Windows operating system code? This has been suggested by quite a few, but it ignores something: Windows isn't really an operating system, but a marketing term. Windows 3.1 has almost nothing in common with Windows 95, which has almost nothing in common with Windows CE, which has nothing in common with Windows 2000.

    Or perhaps we could just make Microsoft more civilized. Have the company accept their responsibility for the Y2K crisis, and fix the problems, rather than use it as an excuse to market new products. Have Microsoft accept responsibility for the rampant virus problems, and get rid of the OLE and Active X links between applications and the operating system. Have Microsoft accept and follow true cross-platform standards, and work with Java, JavaScript, HTML, QuickTime, and other standards, rather than make up their own private, incompatible, Microsoft versions.

    When raising children, parents focus on just a few skills: teaching children to accept responsibility for their own actions, teaching them to be civil and respectful of their peers, teaching them to get along. When they acquire these skills, we consider them grown up.

    It is well past time for Microsoft to grow up.

    Return to electric pi

    Revised January 9, 2000 Lawrence I. Charters
    Washington Apple Pi
    URL: http://www.wap.org/journal/