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Not sad at all

Posted by Ricardo Bánffy at Feb 05, 2010 11:40 PM |

Antony Satyadas, on a blog entry at developerWorks, said something that I find interesting.

It's interesting because it reflects a pervasive, and incorrect, point of view regarding past performance of Microsoft.

The entry is here and refers to two other articles with the second one creating somewhat of a stir among those interested in our craft. I won't quote much (because there isn't), but I'll comment on a few of his quotes:

"The future of America is presently in peril, not just because of the shadowy ways of the "banksters," but because of a sputtering innovation engine that's had the fuel choked off"
Gordon T. Long, former IBM and Motorola exec

I am not surprised, and I kind of agree with his point. Far too much is made elsewhere and the knowledge to design stuff is not that much important (or relevant) if you lose the capacity to build the stuff you design. Manufacturing capacity is not something you rebuild overnight. Although it seems true the US has a serious problem at hand, that's not my point (I don't even live in the US, I just like you guys and wish you the best). My point is far less important, but, I hope, much more interesting.

"But the much more important question is why Microsoft, America’s most famous and prosperous technology company, no longer brings us the future"
Dick Brass, former Microsoft VP

I am not shocked Dick Brass thinks Microsoft used to bring "us" the future. He worked there after all bringing whatever passed for the future to whoever passed for customers. What I am surprised is how easily one forgets the past. Microsoft's first product was a version of the BASIC programming language (something that already existed) for 8-bit microcomputers (something someone else built). Mind you - the only future they were bringing was a smaller, less capable version of something mini-computer owners already had. For a couple years.

Microsoft's only true paradigm-shifting early moment I can remember is Bill Gates' "open letter to hobbyists" that complained about people sharing software (some of it copyrighted and not targeted for sharing, but for selling). While he was right people should not pirate the software he wanted to sell, I like when people share what they do. Actually, I am using the end result of such sharing right now. And, if you are reading this, so are you.

One could think of the Z-80 SoftCard (I have two of them in working condition) as innovative, because it allowed an Apple II to run CP/M software (the OS that ran most of Microsoft's offerings). It was good, but was it "innovative"? Remember: at that time, computing was much more diverse (less boring) and machines with more than one processor, if not the majority, were not uncommon.

Then one could think of MS-DOS, except for the fact that it was not created by Microsoft. And, while we are at it, it's more or less a CP/M knock-off written for 8086 processors. It was also horrible to use (but, in that regard, CP/M was not very impressive either). Even at that early age, mostly silent Apple IIs humiliated bulky and noisy PCs in terms of ease of use. Apple's DOS 3.3 had long (33 character) file names. In 1978, IIRC. PC users had to persevere until the early 90's to finally have them.

MS-DOS beget Windows, which was more or less a cheap knock of of various concepts (the Xerox Alto family, the PERQ, the Lisa and the Macintosh) that ran on lesser computers. If a PC was "legacy" in 1984 (Windows was eventually a hit because it ran on computers people already had), the fact I am writing this on one (even if it's a multiprocessor sub-notebook running Unix) is inexcusable. This legacy held back progress in ways far too disgusting for me to properly discuss here.

"Microsoft has become a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator. Its products are lampooned, often unfairly but sometimes with good reason."

Sorry. It never was anything but clumsy and uncompetitive. Their first market breakthrough, with MITS BASIC, was achieved through bundling a copy of BASIC with every MITS computer. They made one sale: to Ed Roberts. Their next one, was with MS-DOS coming bundled with IBM PCs. They achieved market dominance through deals with manufacturers, not by providing superior value to customers (although they do provide some value - mostly comedic, IMHO). Microsoft has always followed the safe path first traversed by others and then taking the easy short-cut, usually through the boardroom.

"Microsoft is no longer considered the cool or cutting-edge place to work. There has been a steady exit of its best and brightest."

I am embarrassed I did, in the late 80's and 90's, entertain such fantasies. I really thought Windows was cool. That NT was cutting edge (it was, after all, one of the first products to announce - but, IIRC - not to deliver - multi-processor support with multi-threading) and that Microsoft could be the right place for me. But at that very same time, I was getting enlightened. I saw Alto (in BYTE issues, at leat), Smalltalk (I bought the blue book), Lisp (it felt funny at first), and various unixes, from AIX to Solaris. How liberating for a computer guy to arrive at the simple idea that something is ready not when there is nothing more to be added, but when there is nothing more to be removed. Form and function in perfect elegance.

Because Microsoft is seen as a successful company, many people feel compelled to revise the past (to be fair, not everybody has been hanging around since the mid 70's) to make it more brilliant than it was. They were good. Not, perhaps, as good as the Bell Labs folks. Not nearly as good as Xerox. Certainly not Jobs-and-Wozniak good. But good does not translate into dominating the market and dominate the market they do. You don't have to be that good. Being clever and relentless and adequately connected will, eventually, be enough.

And so, I am not surprised Microsoft is now perceived un-cool and un-innovative. Like its products, it has become bloated and slow, as any monopolist is, and even more reluctant to innovate than it ever was, as any monopolist is expected to be. When your strategy is winning, you don't change it on a whim.

This will, eventually, bring its demise, as it brought it to IBM before (by the hands of none other than Microsoft - oh the irony).

In the meantime, I have popcorn and I am watching.