I don't think I've read a better analysis of Microsoft in years ["Microsoft's Sacred Cash Cow," June 2]. I'm amazed and disappointed that such a huge entity of smart people, with all the resources a company could wish for, produces such mediocre products.
It's important that the industry keep moving forward, with as many visionaries pushing the limits of innovation as possible. Microsoft stifles the industry instead of leading it in new directions. On paper, their potential seems endless. But their passion to change the world is apparently not as strong as their passion for the bottom line.
The difference can be summed up by comparing the founders of Microsoft and Apple. When I use Apple products, a deep, satisfying passion is stirred and I feel as though they're trying to change the world. Jeff Reifman sums up most people's response when using Microsoft products: a lack of passion, disinterest, and often frustration. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates leave undeniable stamps on their products that reflect who they are and their true vision (or lack thereof).
Microsoft is not taking advantage of its fortune to harness its limitless resources and help propel this industry aggressively into the future. I often imagine what the world would have been like if the Steve Jobses of the world had enjoyed such success and parlayed their fortune as per their vision.
Don't Call it 'Innovation'
Jeff Reifman makes many good points ["Microsoft's Sacred Cash Cow," June 2]. One can tell he worked at Microsoft, though, by the way he misuses the word "innovate" and its derivatives. An innovation is a new idea. He uses "innovate" when he should use words like "improve" or "enhance," or sometimes even "imitate" or "emulate."
It's clear to me that Microsoft's lack of ability to excite the author (and others) is primarily due to the fact that its focus is squarely on its competitors. Its customers are only visible in its periphery. They are seen only as a revenue stream to be herded and milked like livestock in an agrarian economic model (now that the Viking economic model has played out). Microsoft's products are conceived and developed as weapons to be used against competitors rather than effective tools for customers. Once competing corporations are eliminated, though, how long can Microsoft keep the herd fenced in when they see that lush, green open-source grass just beyond the fence?
South Charleston, WV
Game, Set, match
Jeff Reifman states, "Microsoft doesn't evoke passion in me anymore" ["Microsoft's Sacred Cash Cow," June 2]. Microsoft has evoked passion in me for years: My passion has been and remains utter contempt and disgust for a firm that has devoted its energy to squashing competition by theft, intimidation, and bullying, then sitting on markets with second-grade products at monopoly prices.
I'm not surprised to hear about Bill Gates' put-down of Reifman. If true, it provides an ugly example of Gates' reputed need to dominate and win every pursuit, however trivial or ill-conceived. But innovators quickly move on when they are not received kindly. I guess Reifman is a case in point.
As for his predictions of a Microsoft comeuppance, these are unlikely to come about anytime soon. Microsoft is not only financially powerful but exceedingly influential over the millions of IT people who derive job and retirement security from the Windows world. These people have a stake in not challenging the status quo. As most have spent their careers supporting first DOS and then Windows products, they simply don't know or care about alternatives. Most are dependent on the high degree of job demand generated by Microsoft's second-rate products and are too intimidated by the better but unfamiliar alternatives to take the leap. To them, processors are made by Intel and operating systems by Microsoft. That is Microsoft's insurance policy for continuing hegemony. Game, set, and match. I hope Reifman is right and I am wrong. I suspect that Ballmer, Allchin, Gates & Co. are not as nervous as he'd like them to be.
More on Microsoft
We received a large number of letters about Jeff Reifman's June 2 cover story, "Microsoft's Sacred Cash Cow." Below are several that did not appear in this week's print edition. To read Reifman's response to the feedback on his article, visit his blog, www.idealog.us.
Great feature. Jeff Reifman is absolutely right on so many things. I'm not as privy to the Microsoft inside as he is, but I think somewhere along the line, when they saw the margins and revenues rolling in Office, operating system, and server upgrades, that became the corporate mantra. They are so caught up in only developing products that can produce a monthly revenue stream that they've pretty much lost purpose as to why they are around.
Look at the MS wristwatch fiasco: Here is a company that is supposed to be on the cutting edge and what do they devote resources to? Wristwatch OS? Really? And they are not even cool looking. They look like a watch a 6-year-old kid might buy that has candy inside. And what does this clunky beast have? Not even candy. It can tell you the weather and the time. Well, I can buy a $3 watch that will tell me the time, and if I look up from the watch, I can tell what the weather is for free.
Instead of filling a need, Microsoft just seems to be looking at what they can produce that produces a monthly revenue source.
While the Xbox has a better potential than the wristwatch, who else sells something that they lose $100 to $150 dollars on? Is it any better than GameCube or PlayStation 2? No, and if Halo weren't around, we'd see how well it would be doing in Japan.
Same with all the other stuff Microsoft is working on. After nine tries, they still have not produced a video/audio (WMP) that fast forwards correctly, but hey, who cares about the end user when you have servers and encoders and patents that can produce money monthly?
Same with the cable-TV stuff and, scariest of all, the car operating systems . . . yes, I really want Windows CE running my car.
As Reifman rightly points out, how freaking long does an OS really take? What are those tens of thousands of employees doing? Are there more or less people working on Linux, which was built from semiscratch, never mind OS X?
It's amazing how "esteemed" they are—or "admired" (as measured in Fortune). I have no problem with Bill Gates going from rich kid to megabazillionaire, but it is time to call a fat lazy cow (even a cash one) a fat lazy cow.
Many Microsoft product consumers seem a bit bewildered by the fact that Microsoft is flush with cash and their products are still a little rough around the edges.
Maybe I can help clear up the mystery. People continue to purchase Microsoft products anyway. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer aren't evil. They're just a couple of guys who are smart enough to hold the bag open while most of the world's computer users insist on hurling vast amounts of money at them regardless of the quality of the products they produce.
Unconditional loyalty is more appropriately exercised with friends and families rather than with corporations. Not only would the world be a better place, but we'd be getting better products.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Jeff Reifman states that Microsoft desktop operating systems, namely XP, do not cause people to grow attached to them and are not innovative. I think quite the opposite. My relationship to my latest XP installation has been quite paternal. I started out not feeling much for it . . . it was just another installation of Windows, right? But then I changed the desktop to my family's crest. I changed the toolbar to my favorite theme (silver). Toolbars, colors, applications, menus—all configured to fit my unique computing styles and desires. Windows XP starts out generic and then turns into something you love after using it for a while. Shortcut keys, scriptlets, being able to do image editing from the command line (my latest fascination) . . . the list goes on. Mac OS X, instead, starts out interesting, but then you lose connection with it; it becomes just another operating system.
Thank you for Jeff Reifman's great article. It's a wonderful thing to see a former acolyte become an apostate.
Having spent 20 years using some variant of Unix, I've known all along that Microsoft's "superior" technology wasn't. I've also known that Microsoft's alleged dedication to innovation went only so far as they had to to protect their turf. What has been superior for Microsoft has been their marketing strategy. They've clung to the mantra "If you tell the same lie over and over again, it'll transmogrify itself into the truth."
Bill Gates' greed, hypercompetitiveness, and lack of sportsmanship may have put Microsoft into a position of domination in the software industry for a short time, but ultimately it is working out to be its own undoing. As Princess Leia says to Governor Tarkin in Star Wars, "The more you tighten your grip, the more systems slip through your fingers."
In his lust to dominate the browser market and bring down Netscape, Bill and his cronies decided to give Internet Explorer away for free. They succeeded in undermining Netscape and getting the lion's share of the browser market, but in the process they got an entire generation of users hooked on getting stuff for free. Once users get a taste of free, getting them to pay for stuff becomes difficult or impossible. Why pay for a browser when I can get it for free? Why pay for an operating system when I can get it for free? Why pay for software when I can get it for free? Why pay for music when I can get it for free? Why pay for movies when I can get them for free? In the end, it isn't just Microsoft that's hurt by this.
It's nice to go from a position of being a lone voice crying in the wilderness to a position on the sidelines of the parade where everyone else is starting to see that the emperor has no clothes on.
I didn't like Jeff Reifman's shallow article for many reasons:
1. Reifman seems pretty ungrateful to a company that gave him a head start in the technical world. He is where he is today because of Microsoft (and probably very wealthy, too). Yet he is quick to kick dirt on them by making rash generalizations.
2. Office and the operating system are Microsoft's strengths. What has hurt Microsoft is overdiversification into the Xbox, WebTV, and wireless home networking hardware markets. They should turn their focus back on their core products, which made them great.
3. This guy isn't a technical expert if he can't turn off bulleting in Word.
4. His list of missed opportunities is full of misstated facts. Outlook already shares calendars, but since he hasn't figured out bulleting in Word, I'm not surprised he wasn't aware of this.
5. Apple is a hypocrite. They modify BSD open-source code and incorporate it into their OS, then turn around and make it closed source and sell it for a lot more than Microsoft does for its products! To me, this violates the main tenet of the open-source heritage. At least Microsoft is honest in designing and keeping their entire code base closed.
6. Many of us forget that we owe Microsoft a debt of gratitude. Part of the reason most people have a PC in their homes today is because Microsoft made them a lot more affordable in the late '80s and early '90s. They did this by moving computing away from universities and government to a cheaper Intel-based architecture. How come Reifman doesn't point this out?
7. He is incorrect in stating that Linux is Unix-based. Linux owes its heritage to Unix lore, but it isn't the same under the covers. It is not completely Unix-based, as he makes it sound. It has BSD in it, but mostly it has been from the ground up—much like Windows, but with a different approach.
8. Five years between an upgrade of an operating system is not a major lapse. To me, taking the time to secure and stabilize Longhorn is a good thing. Don't bash a company for paying attention to detail. Meantime, Windows 2000 and Windows XP are perfectly fine and secure. One thing I would like to see Microsoft do is pare down the amount of superfluous features. But XP is extremely stable. I don't know what kind of applications Reifman was running on his Windows machines—Bonzai Buddy? Kazaa?
9. Microsoft is for the masses; Apple and Linux are geek/trendy niche systems. You can't expect John Q. Public to update but once every few years, or "modularly," as Reifman puts it.
Jeff Reifman responds:
My problem with bullets in Word was not that I couldn't turn it off but that attempting to bullet one paragraph caused bullets to appear on all paragraphs. Microsoft's Mike Alexander was nice enough to provide this link to address the problem: word.mvps.org/FAQs/Formatting/WholeDocumentReformatted.htm.
If you have Microsoft Exchange Server, you can share calendars on a network with Microsoft Outlook but not over the Internet. To share calendar information over the Internet, you need to follow the very complex steps listed at support.microsoft.com/?kbid=291621. I do not believe that this is an easy-to-use or adequate calendar sharing solution for most users.
The issue of corporations co-opting the open-source movement is an excellent one. There was not enough room to address this issue in the article. However, Apple does post the final code used in OS X for the open-source components that they use. See www.opensource.apple.com/darwinsource/index.html.
Linux and BSD are distinct implementations of Unix standards. There is no BSD in Linux. BSD source can be traced back to original UNIX of the 1980s (shearer.org/en/writing/whatarelinuxbsd.html), whereas Linux is a clean room implementation of most of the POSIX standard.
I did a scan of my troublesome Windows PC that I use at work. There were no spyware applications, Bonzai Buddy, or Kazaa installed.
Jeff Reifman's article reads like a post-conversion piece: Everywhere he looks, Microsoft falls short. Yet some of the arguments seem inconsistent. He complains about Windows security and, with almost the next breath, asks for easier access to his local hard drive for Internet services and one password to log in to every Web site. He is dissatisfied with the quality and servicing of XP but wants the next major release of Windows to ship faster. He decries the company's level of innovation but describes updates of existing Windows components (just not the ones he cares about?) and how the upcoming operating system release is being built from the ground up.
The article also contains a few comments that seem almost deliberately obtuse. An eight-year alum of Microsoft program management must have a high degree of technical facility, yet he is stumped by Word's automatic bulleting and suggests via an undisputed third-party quote that Windows 98 is more stable than Window XP. Wow. Also dubious: the implication that it would be a change of current business practices to distribute the upcoming security update at no charge. He could have navigated to windowsupdate.microsoft.com on an original install of Windows XP to see what is freely available there. (Answer: Service Pack 1—the prior security update for XP and the building block for the upcoming release.) But then, I suppose a Mac-based writer whose company has "made a commitment to move all of our new development to open-source systems" has little inclination to dig deeper into Microsoft's ongoing customer support.
Jeff Reifman responds:
See my response to the previous letter on Word's bulleting.
Windows XP SP2 is broader and deeper than any service pack Microsoft's released before. From what I've heard, it provides fundamental changes to the security framework and default settings for Windows XP. They've had to put a lot more effort into this service pack than others before. While it is a good thing that they are improving the security of their products and giving it away for free, the fact that they have to points to the underlying deficiency in earlier products.
Many people say one password is less secure, but I disagree. In practice, users may reuse user names and passwords across many different Web sites, and this makes their data even more vulnerable.
Jeff Reifman was spot on in identifying the current situation at Microsoft. I, too, have had a long relationship with Microsoft, first as an independent consultant and certified solutions provider for over a decade, then as an employee for five years. During that time, I found my support of Microsoft technologies and business practices diminishing to the point that I currently consider them a perfect example of just how bad a large company can become. One thing that wasn't mentioned much in the article is the increasing decline in the attitudes of Microsoft employees toward Microsoft. They say it's impossible to get a new project done. They are constantly reorganized or refocused. Microsoft has a policy of termination even when job performance meets the requirement of the jobs. I and several people I know were kicked to the curb by this policy. They also have a culture that all but guarantees a lack of life balance for most employees. And good luck if you are a female engineer or professional woman with management aspirations. It was the worst working environment for female engineers I have ever experienced. It is a culture of conflict where it is felt that every group must have a certain number of employees who don't make the grade, regardless of performance. The compensation packages continue to shrink, as evidenced by the recent reduction of benefits. Would someone explain to me why a company that has strong profits (really, they are the only company in the PC industry making any money) and billions in the bank is cutting back sharing the wealth with their only real assets, the employees?
Steve Ballmer recently said he thought software engineers in the U.S. should accept less than half of what they are currently paid. I bet he wouldn't enjoy Microsoft so much if he were stripped of his stock and current assets and asked to work there for $50,000 a year. Despite Bill Gates generous personal donations, I believe Microsoft is an evil company at heart. I know I've been looking at alternatives. Apple has done some great things that deserve a look. I think they definitely have a superior product when compared to Microsoft. I also think Linux is the thing that will BBQ Longhorn. Longhorn is too late, and it won't ship with the key features that would have made it sell, while Linux just keeps getting better. Detractors of Linux say you can't make money with free software. They miss the point. The money is in the service. If Linux had been around in its current form when I was doing consulting and system development for small businesses, I would have made a fortune with it. I certainly know any new software products I develop in the future will be on non-Microsoft platforms for both business and moral reasons. I encourage everyone to really look at alternatives to Microsoft. The lack of bugs and viruses alone will make it worth your while!
Jeff Reifman's article is passing its way through the Mac users group where I work. At one time, MITRE was one of the largest Mac sites in the company. About a year ago, MITRE pulled the corporate plug on the Macs, but there's still a loyal group of devotees. I might be elitist, but no one would ever call me a "hipster."
I think Reifman's article really nailed most of my concerns on the head. There's one other issue that I think he's missed. My perspective on the evolution of MS operating systems is, starting with WinNT,
they've moved power from the desktop to the corporate IT departments. This is a self-reinforcing complexity mechanism. IT departments have themselves grown rich and fat on the massive amounts of resources required to maintain Windows
corporate environments. This is one reason why the Redmond cash cow continues, because Microsoft serves its primary customer—not the end user, but the CIO who buys on behalf of the end user.
I've seen the Longhorn delay scenario played out before. The last time I saw it, the system delayed was called Copland/Gershwin. Macintosh System 7 was light-years ahead of Windows when it arrived, then Apple proceeded to stand still and let Windows run right over them. So, the obvious question now is, who's going to run right over Windows?
Great article. I'm blown away by Jeff Reifman's honesty and humility. I am a Mac user by choice but work in a cross-platform Web/print shop. I am blown away by the amount of time my PC–using co-workers spend troubleshooting their systems, when my Dual 1 gig G4 just churns out billable hours day after day. One thing I'm amazed at is the multitasking power of OS X on a dual processor machine (or any current processor). I constantly have 12–15 "poweruser" level apps open and happily running at once, with massive workload going on in the background, like running Photoshop batch ops, ripping video, etc., and can happily continue working in the foreground with no mouse jerks or slowdowns. I never can do this on my PCs. Heck, my PCs don't like to open Illustrator and Quark at the same time— the Illustrator toolbars disappear. It's this kind of stuff that makes me truly appreciate my Mac, but it gets very little press.
I need to recommend an application that puts OS X even further ahead of any operating system running on any hardware. It's a $20 piece of shareware that is by far the best piece of software I have ever used. It's called LaunchBar. It has won everything as far as awards go. Run over to the guy's Web site (www.launchbar.com) and get the demo, and spend a week with it. It takes a bit to get it perfect for your habits, but your productivity will literally double. (No, I have no affiliation with this or any software company.) You can send e-mail from Entourage, go to Web sites, and search the Web, but most importantly, launch any app and navigate any folder on any of your drives with no mouse work; it uses a smart algorithm to figure out keystrokes. It's just too freaking much. My PC–using staff drool over the app and make remarks about how they wish it were available for WinXP. I e-mailed LaunchBar and asked why they don't make one. Apparently, XP's less-than-stellar ability to quickly search and multitask makes a version of LaunchBar for PC a nonissue. Very interesting point.
Anyway, thanks again for Reifman's great insights into his vast experience with Microsoft and his positive remarks on Apple. He's a brave soul.
What an excellent column [Mossback, "Decline to Sign," June 2]! I wholeheartedly agree with most of George Howland Jr.'s sentiments about paid signature gatherers. I think the solution is for the Legislature to ban them outright. A people's initiative should not be for sale to the highest bidder. If an issue can't amass enough volunteers to go out and gather signatures, then it clearly doesn't have enough support to end up on the ballot.
Inform the Voters
George Howland Jr. takes ballot measures to task because of the supposed role of big money and because voters are inconsistent and ill-informed [Mossback, "Decline to Sign," June 2]. What's the alternative? Oh, yeah: representative democracy, an institution often criticized for the same reasons.
Too much money in ballot measures? Try the governor's race. Voters want tax cuts and more spending? Perhaps they're trying to match the fiscal discipline shown by President Bush and the 2004 Congress. Stay on the sidelines until you've "thoroughly studied" the issue? I'd like to see him advocate that position for candidate campaigns come November. Especially judicial campaigns.
To the extent that I, for one, know anything about judicial candidates, it's because the Weekly and other papers make endorsements. Instead of making life more difficult for those of us trying to be progressive troublemakers, why not help voters out with an early round of endorsements?
In "No Moore" [Small World, June 2], Steve Wiecking says: "I'm not the first guy to suggest that [Michael] Moore is basically Rush Limbaugh for the left, and while I'm thrilled that there is one, I just can't seem to enjoy it." That's precisely the point! We have our very own annoying, opinionated loudmouth! Yay! I say, carry on, Michael Moore, because as much as he annoys many liberals, you gotta believe that he's just that much more of a thorn in the side of the far right. He's making noise. You might not like his personality or some of his antics, but he's a pretty lonely (loud) voice out there for the left and he gets a lot of press. Plus, you've got to at least admire the guy's gusto.
I am German and read Steve Wiecking's article about Michael Moore [Small World, "No Moore," June 2]. I agree the film will not sway a single American who believes in Bush to not vote for him. However, it is a very important film. Yes, Moore is polemical, and, yes, he uses the media to get his points across. After all, his aim is to make money (oh, come on). But Wiecking fails to mention the impact of such a film on the world's audiences. No, not that they will be swayed, either. The point is that the film got made. By an American. In America. This is a symbol to all those who have started to believe that the U.S. is on a path to destroying its famous civil rights. Without Moore, there would have been no voice of dissidence with Bush's politics. For us in the rest of the world, America is Bush country. Democrats seem to agree with everything he did, so this film helps us realize that there is some opposition. We need to believe that America can regain the moral high ground it so blatantly lost due to recent events. My hope is that Fahrenheit 9/11 will help toward this aim.
Hauke von Bremen
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