General protection violation

We don't have anything new to tell you about the Evil Empire. It's just fun to slag them off. It's also the only option we have.

It's Microsoft-hunting season, according to the wider media. Heck, it's always a good time to take a few pot shots at Microsoft, even if the shells do bounce off the thick, hairy hide of the huge beast as it blunders through the forest, clumsily squashing the smaller rodents under its massive paws and leaving great, steaming piles of "product" in its wake. All that's happened now is that, thanks to Microsoft's continued expansion into previously unconquered territories, a few journos have been forced to abandon their Macs and use Windoze machines to file their copy instead. Last year, they were still bowled over by the novelty value of Lose '95 and that nifty little "Start" button, as they eagerly used Office to write Apple obituaries. But several months on, it's slowly dawning that no matter how many times they hit the "Start" button, it never starts anything apart from another crash. Welcome to the world that the rest of us poor bastards inhabit.

S'funny, didn't Clinton announce a lot of partnerships with Microsoft to integrate their email and groupware solutions into the Whitehouse infrastructure last year too? And now the Dept of Justice is going after Bill and his mooing harem with all the zeal of French peasants yelling "Vivé la resistance!" Coincidence, or a customer complaint? At present, they're nipping around his ankles, launching minor acts of sabotage intended to check his Internet strategy. It's not a bad plan of attack because MS only have one strategy, so any opposing force only needs to develop one counter-offensive. The strategy is always to roll forward, confuse the enemy with a raft of almost-compatible perversions of existing standards, sweep them out of the way and then march into town and the welcoming arms of the oppressed customers. (Of course, it's only later that the customers realise the liberators have become dominators, the mayor is in the pay of the local commandant and the local women are all employed in servicing the soldiers.)

But the strategy has been successful too many times already, so rumour has it that the DoJ are using the current lawsuit as a smokescreen while they prepare a more wide-ranging list of charges, stopping short only of homicide and child abuse - and even those are arguable (are your kids upstairs surfing the net for porn like any healthy 14 year olds...or are they being indoctrinated by that Encarta CD you naïvely bought them?)

The company you love to loathe

What is it about Microsoft that so sticks in the craw? We can identify several contributory factors immediately:

Lousy software
Macdonalds sell shit that's bad for you, designed purely to satisfy your appetite and nothing else, but at least you can eat one of their burgers with a modicum of pleasure.
Industry dominance
...And if you don't want a burger, you can go usually walk on down the street and find an Italian, a bistro, an Indian, ...
Stifling of innovation
Once MS buy into a technology, it's game over. Another dead branch on the computing family tree, violated purely to make profits until it withers and dies, exhausted. At least the Japanese made quality improvements when they imitated others.
Anti-competitive behaviour
MS always claim to favour competition because it drives the industry forward, but no sane company really likes to fight it out with everyone else. That's rather like expecting an individual rabbit to be in favour of survival of the fittest. Any normal, self-interested bunny merely wants to lie around, get fat and still shag all the females. The difference is, MS is a fox wearing a rabbitskin.

You can find evidence for these in a hundred places on the net - and when Explorer 4 crashes midway through reading it, you'll appreciate the bit about lousy software all over again - but they're about par for the course. We've grown to accept them as a fact of life: Microsoft rules the software business, this is how they do it, and tomorrow I'll be watching my NT box crash same as ever. But there's something about MS that just itches like nettlerash. And it probably comes down to: they're as blatent in what they do as a flasher during a Test series, yet they get away with it. Only MS can act like the archetypal evil corporation in a John Grisham adaptation or an action thriller (the ones in which the poor secretary stumbles on The Truth and is coldly rubbed out for her mistake) and not end up with half the US military storming in at the climax. They sell shit; they sell upgrades to the shit; they trample all over everyone else without a thought; they prostitute the most exciting technology in the world for pure profit; and yet when someone like the DoJ turns on them, they come out with all this "Poor little us, only trying to help the little guy", big wet eyes crap (at least until they can upgrade the Department's email system).

Ol' BilGe is always keen to point out that Microsoft "grew the personal computing revolution". Uh-huh, but it was already happening anyway and would probably have gone further without their size nines stamping all over it. Any other company would have done exactly what MS did, and would sacrifice any amount of prestige to swap places with it, but it's hard to imagine anyone else doing it as badly. Except maybe IBM. This desire to beat Microsoft is what led Sun to bring a revolutionary product like Java to the market two years too early; they're now desperately trying to keep attention focused on it until they can patch up its shortcomings. Microsoft, of course, is playing its usual game - pervert the standard long enough for everyone to think they've got the ball, and then drop it when people have given up and stopped running.

Build 'em up, knock 'em down...

The mainstream press is finally starting to wake up to this charlatan. For too long now, BilGe has been the All-American Dream come true, the speccy nerd who made good with an unshaking confidence in "his" technology. Only last year, he came to Britain to meet Tony Blair, casually sew up the UK education market by promising a few free copies of whatever duff Windows upgrade isn't selling well by then, and visit Cambridge to shop for the serious recognition he so badly craves in return for a few sponsored academic posts. The British press, spun like laundry by the government's propogandists, treated Gates as a peer of the President and made it sound like the country was really going places now he was taking an interest in us. Speaking personally, I was embarrassed.

If nothing else, the DoJ action has generated negative publicity for MS and for once they've been quick to build on it, with a serious of misjudged interviews and press conferences that resulted in wide use of selected quotes highlighting their supposed arrogance. This time, BilGe has found that his words have been met with scepticism, disbelief and a lot of derision. When all your money apparently can't buy a decent haircut, you'd better avoid overusing the term "sexy".

The bigger they are, the harder they suck

The rules of computing say that no company can dominate the industry forever. Digital passed away in the arms of Compaq last week, the doctor that administered the fatal injection, a sign of how far the PC has come. But there's no believable sign of Microsoft weakening and falling victim to obsolescence yet. Of course, they haven't been around for anything like as long as IBM were when they bestrode the earth - it just feels like a long time. It's long enough for users to remember DOS 5.x and wonder why W95 isn't really any better. There is the occasional meteorite shower that everyone hopes will turn out to be an omen: the Network Computer hype (wait for Java 2.x), and more promisingly, Microsoft's disastrous forays into providing content, first with MSN and now WebTV, a really juicy Xmas turkey. Commentators note that MS can afford to make a lot of expensive mistakes until they get it right (an approach which, ironically, doesn't seem to apply to their software), but there's always the hope that BilGe will overreach himself and bet the farm on something even Rupert Murdoch wouldn't throw a stick for. His desire to penetrate and conquer this new market seems so desperate, he'll endure any amount of derision and poor ratings to make the mud stick. It could yet be his downfall. Or if he accidentally stumbles on the magic formula, it could make his software business look like a mere in-road.

Meanwhile, if you're a small software company with some hot new products and you're going to compete with Microsoft - get real. If you're lucky, they may send their accountants round to find out exactly how low the price at which you will sell out is. Otherwise, you could try the following:

Then one day, you might be as rich and successful as Microsoft...on second thoughts, do us all a favour and sell up now.

24th April 1998

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