Microsoft’s delay in providing Windows Vista to the general marketplace has sparked all manner of criticism and analysis. I’ve addressed a number of questions from reporters and journalists and gathered them here, with paraphrased questions and my responses.
Q. People have the opinion that Microsoft is either being (a) simply dominant or (b) actively harmful to the computing community.
I think both (a) and (b) are true. In the case of Microsoft Office and applications, (a) is true — Microsoft is simply dominant, and the competition has trouble getting a foothold or establishing standards that help to level the playing field. But in the case of Windows, Microsoft is (b) actively harmful by protecting its asset and holding back innovation, not to mention failing to ensure security.
Microsoft might better serve its customers, and even its stockholders, by completely opening up Windows (and Vista) source code, and redirecting its energy into Web services that at first put Office itself out of business but shores up Microsoft as a company that delivers the best, most innovative solutions (hah!). Fat chance any of this will happen, though.
Q. Microsoft is often portrayed as the bully in the computing industry playground. But how much of that is jealousy? Would Adobe, Apple, or Quark be any more benevolent if they controlled the lion’s share of the computer market?
Just because there is jealousy doesn’t make it any less true: Microsoft is a bully. Would Adobe, Apple, or Quark be bullies if they could? Actually, they are. They just don’t have the power to run everyone else out of the playground.
Some describe it as “human nature” but the reality is that our economic system encourages this kind of aggressive behavior (not to mention our culture). That’s why we have regulations for companies to follow (including stricter regulations for monopolies), and consumer groups to fight back.
Q. The other angle of attack for Microsoft critics is that it produces inferior products, with many people pointing to the security flaws of the Windows operating system as classic examples of this. Do you think this vulnerability of the Windows OS a symptom of its ubiquity (making it a tempting target) or is there a fundamental problem with the way Microsoft creates operating systems?
There is a fundamental problem: Microsoft is trying to continue its monopoly by implementing an architecture that allows extensive customization (with hardware drivers) and choice among hardware products. If Microsoft would start from scratch with a new system, it would be less vulnerable, but Microsoft would immediately lose market share. On the other hand, if Microsoft divested itself of Windows and made the source code available, there would be many different “flavors” of open-Windows that would make it harder for virus exploits, but again, Microsoft would lose its domination of the system “market”. The only solution is for Microsoft to take the hit — either by re-architecting, or by divesting — and move on with decent software products.
Q. Is MS Office really so bad that you think people should ditch it in favor of commercial and open source alternatives?
What’s bad is the Word document format addiction. Microsoft shamelessly proposes its own format as a standard, when it is clearly not an open standard. Word doc files produced a new version of Word might not be readable by older versions — forcing people to upgrade. Office is not totally bad, but having no choice is bad. OpenOffice (and its cousin, NeoOffice), AbiWord, and other open-source programs are free to use and free to upgrade. That’s reason enough; but these programs are also as robust (or even more robust) than Office. On a level playing field — if all these programs were free, including Office, and if people standardized on using the OpenDocument format — I believe NeoOffice would triumph over Office on the Mac because it is more stable. Not only that, but people using other programs could read your files without changing their software.
Q. A persistent irritant is arriving at web sites designed for Internet Explorer, and only viewable with Internet Explorer. Do you think Microsoft deliberately sets out to implement things like web page standards that only their own software can handle correctly?
Of course Microsoft deliberately implements technology that locks people into its software; how else do you explain ActiveX controls, which are dangerous? There are other examples of Microsoft doing this, specifically with regard to cutting off Netscape and competitors to Media Player.
It will take time, but sites designed for IE will change because they are too dangerous to use, and IE is too vulnerable.
Q. The antidote to Microsoft’s dominance is often said to be open source software. Is this realistic? While Linux has certainly made some headway in some markets, it’s still far from being recognized by the average PC user (and buyer). How far are we from the point where PCs with Linux operating systems could be sold in retail stores?
Linux was not originally designed to replace Windows — it is at its best when it’s used for servers. Mac OS X, on the other hand, does a fine job of replacing Windows. The role of open source in OS X is well documented. Apple didn’t need to open the entire source code for OS X; all it had to do was act like a good citizen in the open source community, support open-source standards, and use open source code in its products. This is an excellent antidote to Microsoft’s dominance. Some day (soon) we will all see how successful this strategy has become.