Microsoft must say bye bye to American pie

Those who want to woo the world must learn to speak its languages

In a recent interview, Red Hat's chief executive Matthew Szulik was questioned on whether his company owes a certain amount of its success to a wave of anti-American feeling exacerbated by the US invasion of Iraq.

Although Szulik deftly side-stepped the question, citing "choice" and "flexibility" as more important motivators, the anti-Americanism card is certainly a factor when it comes to the rise and rise of Linux. While its aggressively capitalist behaviour inextricably marks Microsoft as an American business icon, Red Hat and other open-source firms are freed from similar national associations by their mantra of freedom and altruism. Having a Finnish poster-boy inventor doesn't hurt.

The alleged financial savings from open source have certainly played a significant part in the adoption of Linux by European and Asian governments but Microsoft's Americanism can't be ignored. Monopolistic practices aside, Gates et al haven't done much to impress foreign governments of their international credentials. Speaking at the International Geographical Union congress in Glasgow yesterday, Tom Edwards, Microsoft's top man in its Geopolitical Product Strategy team, confessed to a litany of cultural gaffs that have cost the software giant literally millions of dollars over the years.

One gem occurred when Microsoft designers were colouring in 800,000 pixels on a map of India, and filled eight of them a different shade of green to represent the disputed Kashmiri territory. The difference in greens meant Kashmir was shown as non-Indian and the product was promptly banned in India. Redmond was left to recall all 200,000 copies of the offending Windows 95 software to try and heal the diplomatic wounds. Another gaff saw the Spanish language version of Windows XP, destined for Latin American markets, give users an option to select their gender from not specified, male or "bitch", due to an unfortunate error in translation.

While these foul-ups might appear amusing and inconsequential, they smack of the US isolationism typified by George Bush's down-home folksiness that sits well with home-voters but has left a sour taste in the mouths of the international community. With local software markets saturated, foreign opportunities are vital to Microsoft's continued growth. China's IT sector remains one of the world's bright spots, growing by 20 percent a year. Software sales should hit $30.5bn by 2005, according to IDC. If Microsoft wants a decent slice of this pie, they are going to have to work harder at uncoupling from their US roots or pray hard for a change of administration in November.

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