Commentary: Am I a Microsoft lackey or what?

The great thing about writing about Microsoft is that either way, you get killed. Write a favorable piece, and you're hammered by Microsoft haters. Write a negative piece and you learn that most of your readers really do like Microsoft.

COMMENTARY--The great thing about writing about Microsoft is that either way, you get killed. Write a favorable piece, and you're hammered by Microsoft haters, who take it all quite personally. Write a negative piece, add a QuickPoll, and you learn that most of your readers really do like Microsoft.

This column is a response to my detractors--amply represented in the TalkBack forum--who take the position that anything bad for Microsoft is good for computing. My responsibility, according to them, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable--beat up on Microsoft and laud competitors, whether their products are better or not.

That is a lofty journalistic idea, but I also give Microsoft credit when I feel it's due, and that upsets some people. I'm not pro-Microsoft nearly as much as I'm pro-user. And Microsoft--if only by its sheer size and dominance--has made life easier for users.

Remember when the productivity suite companies--Lotus, WordPerfect, and Microsoft--were spending their time building file formats and user interfaces so different from one another that you couldn't easily swap files or go to a friend's computer and use the software on it? That was certainly competitive--hypercompetitive, even. But did it serve customers?

About the same time, the idiots in your federal government missed the opportunity to break Microsoft into an OS/tools company and an applications company when it still would have done some good.

Despite all my (and others') words of warning, nothing was done, and customers quickly standardized on MS apps. Why? Because with control of the operating system and the money it generated, Microsoft built a very nice, integrated set of applications.

Microsoft also made some smart bets. Windows was one, and it was a bet-the-company wager. I still remember other applications-software companies publicly debating whether to build Windows versions of things like WordPerfect. What they were hoping, of course, is that their users would stay on the DOS products and Microsoft would be forced to bail out of the apps business. Or just plain die.

Instead, customers voted for Windows with their dollars, buying the OS, new machines running it, and applications--mostly from Microsoft--that supported it. Apple could have changed this, but chose a high-margin route that priced the Macintosh right out of the market.

Has Microsoft broken the law along the way? I'm sure of it. Did breaking the law make Microsoft more successful than it would have been anyway? Perhaps by 15 percent. Does Bill Gates advocate breaking the law? I don't think so, though he certainly pushes its boundaries. Can he--and the Microsoft he created--be arrogant? Of course. But you'll find as much arrogance at Sun and Apple if you go looking for it.

When Microsoft wasn't broken up early--while there were still real competitors to benefit--the process of Microsoft dominance was put into motion. After that, it was a forgone conclusion. Corporate customers, who quickly standardized on all things Microsoft, were willing, and mostly happy, co-conspirators.

Microsoft would, of course, say this is how a free market is supposed to work, and some economists would agree. But I'd have broken them up to give the competition a greater chance to succeed.

When the Feds finally got involved, the game was over. I no longer see great value in breaking up Microsoft, except as punishment. But it would be a punishment for users, and the industry, and even the economy, more than for Microsoft itself.

Microsoft has already won all it's going to win without going head-to-head with some big competition. And we are entering a phase in which everything really does need to connect to everything else--a problem that unfettered competition isn't good at addressing but Microsoft has been.

One other thing: Much of this has happened because computers are inherently complex, and an important goal has been making them simpler. If people felt they really understood computers and were comfortable with them, Microsoft wouldn't be the dominant force it is today. You can read this in the TalkBacks. The biggest critics are also the people who need Microsoft least because of their own expertise.

The biggest barriers to Microsoft today are Oracle, IBM, AOL Time Warner, Sony, the entertainment industry, and the wireless industry--not to mention a general slowdown caused by a maturation of the marketplace and increasing complexity of new technology. And we can't leave out Microsoft itself, which has amply proven how it can be its own worst enemy.

Each of these poses a big enough threat to keep people in Redmond working nights and weekends.

When Microsoft goofs, I write about it--and beat up the offenders in person sometimes. This includes Bill and his direct reports. Windows ME is a joke, at least as an upgrade. .Net security--or lack of same--scares me to death. I have questions about software subscriptions. (And writing about the "white lie" that could help individuals get past it didn't improve my popularity in Redmond one bit.)

When Microsoft does good things, I write about them. Sorry if the fact that Microsoft actually builds great applications and works really hard to make customers happy is a problem for you.

Being fair with Microsoft is the best approach. Sure, I could make a bigger reputation for myself by trashing the company regardless. And some people do. But if Microsoft isn't going away--and it isn't--what's the use of being pissy just for pissiness' sake? Microsoft knows when they screw up, and if you're fair to them, they're responsive in return.

By the way, and for the record, no money changes hands between Microsoft and me.

Do they buy meals sometimes? Yes--generally in large group situations. I try to buy for Microsoft people (and its PR firm) as often as I can. Microsoft does not provide me with travel or other considerations. But, no, I don't pay for software that I use in my work or reviews, and they do very occasionally provide loaner hardware. But so do lots of other companies.

So, am I a lackey? No, but I am not a Microsoft-hater, either. You, the customer, have voted for Microsoft with your dollars, and in the process killed most of the competition. That bothers me sometimes, but I also understand why people would want a single company creating their operating system and key applications.

My goal isn't to be for or against any particular company. Instead, it's simply this: To be pro-consumer and pro-reader. Microsoft isn't my constituency. You are.

Has this helped clarify my stance regarding Microsoft? TalkBack to me below.