You can’t be serious, can you? Microsoft single-handedly reponsible for computers costing what they do today, and having the features they do today?
Surely, on the contrary. Look at the price of Office today and compare it to the price 10 years ago. Then do the same with the hardware it runs on.
Computing has changed so much because of massive competition in all areas of it. Where it hasn’t changed as much as it should is where there hasn’t been competition.
BillCo is not responsible for Dells costing what they do. It is massive competition in that market – Dell beating the crap out of Compaq, IBM, etc. And now somebody (Lenovo?) beating the crap out of Dell. BillCo is not responsible in anyway for the massive increases in chip performance, memory, and hard disk. And it is an insult to those involved in those advances to suggest so. Intel has made massive advances, spurred on my AMD’s nippier innovation (and threats from Transmeta, ARM, PowerPC, etc). Hard disk increases have happened through very stiff competition between Seagate, Western Digital, IBM/Hitachi etc.
On the OS front, where would MS be today with Apple at it’s heels and Linux threatening? Microsoft’s least innovative years have been when it didn’t have ANY decent competition in the enterprise space – that’s why their stuff is late and it’s also why it’s so complacent against security. In fact if it wasn’t for Apple 20 years ago, wouldn’t MS still be selling us a command line OS?
Microsoft’s success has been through brilliant business acumen – how to make yourself a de facto standard through “good enough” innovation/copying (depending upon point of view) and the world’s best lawyers to ensure that everything else is driven out of existence. Once you are that standard, you exploit it. It is textbook monopolistic behaviour.
Microsoft’s approach to DRM (eg the HMV store T’s&C’s you’ve quoted) is an excellent example of their customer-oriented approach. It basically does a deal with the big studios to give them what they want and then gives that to the customer. The status quo is preserved. Big business is happy. But the consumer gets stuffed. The disruptive technology that SHOULD come along to usher in a new era is stifled. And it’s not just DRM. It’s happened in all sorts of areas. Should we have had to put up with IE? Consumers benefit from disruptive technology changes. Big business doesn’t (usually). Which side do you think Microsoft is on? And which companies does it do alliances with?
The only reason MS is now waking up is:
1. The internet is now changing the ground rules and allowing disruptive forces to become significant (eg Google, Open software).
2. The competition authorities, although comparatively toothless, are enough THREAT to MS that it no longer rides roughshod over it’s competition.
I consider the complete reverse of the author’s article to be true. If you had a MS in every area of IT, we would have a complete mess. We are where we are today through the efforts of a massive number of unsung heroes (and a few sung ones). This includes people who made the web happen/Netscape/XML/Java/Shareware/Freeware/OpenSource/GPL on the software side to name just a few technologies, as well as the great chip designers and physicists who have advanced the hardware cause. It’s about business people who have kept their heads above water and managed to provide SOME competition to MS.
I would say the same about Apple if/when it’s iPod dominance becomes all-encompassing (eg see today’s news about iPod tax charged on vendors connecting to the Dock!).
The lack of competition that MS has had has been detrimental for business and the consumer. We are not better off for it. We are worse off. The only good thing from it is that Bill Gates has got such a truly amazing bundle of cash that he has deigned to spend it on many good causes. In that way it runs like a middling government – poor service, tax the citizens heavily, with spending that ranges between good and effective to poor and corrupt.
I truly hope history will see things differently. The article you posted, while amusing, is truly insulting to those who have made a positive difference to our lives, many of whom have not profited at all or to the extent of even junior MS staffers.
Oh dear, I’ve fallen for the bait!
Comment by Ian Hobson — Tuesday 11 October 2005 @ 12:11 pm
You miss the point, Ian. The reason why there’s so much competition is that there’s effectively only one OS. The internet would have been a complete nothing if Microsoft hadn’t built in support to Windows95 (only just, but there you are). Dell is able to compete like mad because it doesn’t have to worry about the cost of conversion from a rival operating system. If it’s replacing HP in a deal, there’s no quibbling over what OS they’ll use.
Microsoft *is* in every area of IT. It’s just that it’s much less successful in some than others. It’s even got CRM – just not very well done.
The chip performance etc might have happened, but that requires volume to occur, to generate the profits to build the plant. Without a single OS, you’d not get that. IBM would have kept the OS tied to its mainframe side, for sure; and that wasn’t hurrying to a GUI.
Comment by Charles — Tuesday 11 October 2005 @ 1:04 pm
Nope, I can’t accept that. Would the situation have been even better if MS had had 100% of the OS market? The answer is, surely, no. So what was the right level of monpoly (50%, 80%, 90%, 95%)? For the author to say that the status quo would have remained (with slow consolidation like HP buying Commodore) is just bunkum. The world would be a different place indeed, but it wouldn’t necessarily be worse. And it could very well have been better.
We can have compatibility without a monopoly. GSM (as in mobile telephony) is a great example of that. The television, and the car are other examples.
Monopolies are just bad. Full stop. Period. And MS is/was an effective monopoly. Sure, just like in the Soviet era, some things work ok. But in the end people are so ground down they just accept what they get (cf Windows security which is a disgrace). Then one day they wake up and realise what a load of crap they have and how the bureaucrats have all done very nicely out of their mediocrity (at best). Then revolution…
As I said, to somehow imagine where we are is some kind of nirvana and that without MS it would have been hell is just ludicrous. How could we know what it would have been like? All I know (and I am not a rabid Thatcher-supporter, believe me) is that monopolies/oligopolies/cartels are bad, bad, bad. We can list them here (BOAC/BEA, British Telecom as was – look how long that took to sort-of fix, British Rail – still suffering from that). In IT, IBM had a similar hold in the late 70’s, early 80’s which was ended by a similar combination of events to MS (regulatory investigations, technology change, and organisational sclerosis). The AT&T phone company had a similar hold (and I think the oil companies back at the turn of the century were also similar). All of those companies started out well and offered the consumer a lot, before essentially turning the same way they all do.
MS was allowed to build up its monopoly by fair(ish) means – basically the incompetence of its competitors (including Apple and IBM for instance) – especially their lawyers and their executives. But it has abused that position pretty much since Windows95 to the detriment of most computer users – especially their own customers (but also those that have tried to do their bit to avoid it becoming 100% dominant).
Interoperability is great and necessary, and I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. But that hasn’t come about because of MS, it’s come about in spite of them. It’s everyone around that company (well a few exceptions) that we have to thank. Otherwise, we’d be living in an IT world every bit as inviting, pleasant and fun as that created by a Nazi or Soviet regime’s Department for Computer Affairs. You may consider that comparison somewhat hyperbole, but I use it with due respect to the ruthlessness of the MS business mantra!
Perhaps you could make an argument that if the competitors hadn’t been so innovative and nipped at the heels until they could make a bit of a dent, that it might all have ended sooner; the competition authorities would have intervened and broken it all up, and we’d have got competition that way having built a common infrastructure (circa Win95+?) – a bit like having the railways all built. But then we all know what a hash of things the competition authorities make.
Comment by Ian Hobson — Tuesday 11 October 2005 @ 2:25 pm
Well… Back in the days of hopeless balkanisation, in 1982, I spent a whole £129.95 for my first computer. Over the next few years the price points for increasingly capable ‘home’ computers ran something like £199 (sweet spot for the mass market), £299, £399. By 85 you could something with the capabilities of an ST or an Amiga for £399-ish. During this period, up until the point where the sky fell in on both the mag and the business in 85, I was custodian of the office IBM PC, which was a benighted piece of crippleware with laughable graphics and capabilities substantially behind even some of the more demented home computers that’d been coming out. Some of you may recall Amstrad’s PC ‘revolution’ taking the entry cost down to £499 around then, i.e. still more than an ST for something that didn’t have a hard disk and whose graphics were still grotty.
Personally I’m beyond caring about who to blame. It’s IBM’s fault for turning a box of barf into an industry standard, but they didn’t really mean to do that, and they eventually dropped the ball anyway. It’s Compaq’s fault for the efforts it put into getting IBM to drop the ball, and for leaving us with an ‘open’ standard where quality control usually goes out the window. And it’s Microsoft’s fault (a beginning that always cheers me up) for perpetuating a loose standard which allows the contents of the box to consist of miscellaneous loose crud. This has been in Microsoft’s interest because the more suckers who knock these things out, competing on price at murderously low margins, the more licences Microsoft ships, and in recent years although PC prices have gone way, way down, Microsoft’s per-PC take has gone up. Substantially, from the days when it only got a little bit of a tithe for MS-DOS.
Intel should cop some blame in there as well, but I can’t be bothered. Had Bill received the just deserts of people who drive Porsches recklessly, then it wouldn’t have happened quite like that. IBM would still have established the standard, and then would still probably have lost control of it, and the competition would still have gone out of business through a combination of being engulfed by the standard and their own inherent uselessness. But it’s possibly that the absence of Bill would have meant the absence of Microsoft’s profoundly negative influence from about 1990 on, and that the industry might have had a better shot at establishing coherent standards that work. In that case we’d maybe be running computers that didn’t break virtually as soon as you pressed the on switch, and that didn’t collapse into a heap of untrackable errors over the first six months of use. Maybe they’d be robust, reliable tools that allowed you to do your job without it being necessary to worry too much about THEM. And they’d cost a bit more, but it’d be worth it for the lower support costs and the increased productivity. They’d maybe have been called Macs, I reckon.
It wasn’t Bill Gates that did it. It was IBM, which at the time was the only company that could have created an industry standard. Gates ran with it, certainly. But that wouldn’t have mattered if IBM hadn’t made the licensing terms for its architecture attractive.
Comment by wg — Thursday 13 October 2005 @ 1:38 pm
Um, “scarily fragmented”? What about open source?
Comment by Chuck Art — Saturday 15 October 2005 @ 1:21 am
what’s not scarily fragmented about open source? Hell, they can’t even agree what licences to write the stuff under.
John: always good to see a mention of the Spectrum (looks like you stumped up the extra for the 48K version) and the Amiga…
but you remembered a few facts wrong, and I’m feeling particularly nerdy right now. In 1985 you couldn’t buy an ST or an Amiga for anywhere near £399. The A500 – the one that sold as a home computer shipped in 1987 and was £499 I think. The original ST was more like £700-800 but came with a mono monitor; by 1987 you could get an ST that could plug into a TV for £399. The Amiga did eventually come down in price of course. Neither machine came as standard with a hard drive. The A500 didn’t even have room for one inside. But yes, it was light years ahead of the PC both in terms of hardware and software. My Amiga came with what I think was the only software Microsoft ever produced for the Amiga – Basic! That may make it the first Microsoft app to support proper pre-emptive multitasking, which didn’t come to the Windows until NT, I believe.
Comment by Aitor — Saturday 17 June 2006 @ 2:45 am
[…] We all know by now that Bill will be moving on and focus on his charity work. The stock market was indifferent as the Microsoft stock went neither up or down in a serious manner. And comments from the industry have been muted. However, some bloggers, Slashdot, and digg.com have been a bit more vocal (1, 2). […]
[…] We’ll simply point to another awkward matter of fact, as explained by John Lettice of this parish here. Twenty years ago the personal computer in most people’s homes connected to the TV, could multitask, do colour and multimedia, and cost around $400. It’s taken Wintel twenty years to reach this price point. […]