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Dispelling Misconceptions About Microsoft

By Rob Enderle
May 24, 2004 6:00 AM PT

I was chatting with a journalist a couple of days ago to help with background on a story on Microsoft designed to debunk one of the most common misconceptions surrounding the company. I started to realize there were a lot of them -- some I actually held myself -- that either were no longer true or never had been.

Dispelling Misconceptions About Microsoft

This came to a head the other day when an Apple advocate wrote to me that he would rather give his money to Apple than to Bill Gates. I spent some time pointing out that Steve Jobs is on the overpaid CEO list and Bill isn't. I also pointed out that, as an engineer, he would likely better identify with Bill, who lives and breathes technology, than with Steve, whose strength is more in creative marketing, particularly after his recent executive changes that clearly favored the iPod over the Mac.

This got me to thinking that maybe it is time to look at some of these misperceptions, both recent and long-term, and put them back in perspective.

Microsoft Is Behind Every Attack on Linux

Microsoft actually does learn from its mistakes, and the Netscape mistake was a huge learning experience. Microsoft learned that it really doesn't do subtle well, and that virtually any memo can, and likely will, be leaked to the press. As a result, while the company will attack Linux and open source directly from time to time, it actually can't -- and really has never been able to -- make the subtle moves that are being attributed to it.

Microsoft might fund organizations that agree with positions it holds, but those positions often come in advance of the funding. The company does not direct report output any more than IBM directs Groklaw. There are a lot of companies and organizations in the software business that are scared of Linux and open source and feel the way Microsoft does about the related platforms.

A case in point is the recent report by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute. It argues that Linus Torvalds is not the father of Linux -- something Linus himself apparently agrees with -- and it also argues that Linus borrowed heavily from Minix to write Linux, which Linus violently disagrees with.

However, the cry that went up when this report was made public was that Microsoft funded it, even though it isn't clear why they would. To make this report damaging to Linux, it would need to answer the question, "So what?" and it apparently doesn't. In looking at the site and what is published, these folks are very pro-IP ownership, which means they probably don't like the GPL much. In fact, it looks as if they are perfectly capable of coming up with a study like this on their own and would relish the publicity it would bring to their initiatives and views.

There is no actual evidence that Microsoft is driving any of this activity. Granted, Microsoft might benefit somewhat from it, but if the parties involved likely would do this anyway, I think you have to conclude that they are actually doing this stuff on their own. Just because you like open source doesn't mean those who don't are bought by Microsoft. I just came back from moderating much of the recent SIIA conference. Trust me when I say there are a lot of folks there who don't like open source or Linux much, and these same folks don't really like Microsoft that much either.

Tablet PC Is Dead

This one caught me by absolute surprise. Here is the background. For some time now, I and several other analysts and IT managers have been telling Microsoft that the separate Tablet PC edition idea was a bad one. This is because the last thing IT wants is another operating system to manage. After lots of pounding, Microsoft agreed to look at this issue. In two presentations at WinHEC -- Microsoft's recent hardware conference for developers -- Matti Suokko, the Mobile Platforms Division manager, and Darin Fish, the Business Development manager for the Mobile Platforms Division at Microsoft, both indicated Microsoft is considering a new direction.

You would think the result would be a sigh of relief from analysts and media. Instead, the articles that resulted generally concluded that the Tablet PC is dead. Folks got to this opinion by taking the obvious shortcut of tying the platform to the unique OS and concluding that if the unique OS is gone, so is the platform -- despite the fact that pictures of tablet computers were liberally sprinkled through both presentations, including the future road map sections.

The other product we have been asking Microsoft to lose is the Home Edition of Windows XP. However, it scares me to think that were Microsoft to ditch that version, the media would conclude that the company was abandoning the entire consumer segment of the market.

Apple Is Better Than Microsoft at Usability

Okay, even I say this often. Historically, I believe, it has been true. However, recently, as part of a project designed to pick the best online photo-publishing sites -- Photoworks won, by the way -- I also looked at photo-editing software. What first jumped out at me was that Microsoft's premier product, called Digital Image Suite, doesn't show up in any of the competitive comparisons from rival vendors. Not even Adobe, whose Photoshop Elements generally wins the class, seems to consider the Microsoft offering a competitor. That just seems weird, particularly given that Digital Image Suite seems to be doing well, according to NPD Intellect.

I then looked at the May edition of Consumer Reports, and both of Microsoft's offerings (Picture IT at the low end) came in first in their respective classes. What was particularly interesting was that Apple's offering, iPhoto, came in third out of four. What also surprised me was that the product I typically favor, Jasc Paint Shop Pro, came in last.

Now, this is just one application, but it is the most recent comparison by a body that -- by most measures -- is truly vendor independent. Looking back, I recall that in the last PC hardware test, even though Consumer Reports puts Apple products in a different category, if you look at the scores, Apple PCs either come in last (iMac) or in the middle of the pack (G5) in their respective categories.

This suggests Apple is slipping, Microsoft is getting better, or Consumer Reports has suddenly broken with tradition and become biased. For Apple users, only the last makes sense, but vendors have been calling Consumer Reports biased for years. Even with impressive legal teams, nobody has ever been able to prove a bias. Personally, I think of Consumer Reports as one of the most ethical reviewers in the industry. While I can question its methods, I have never had cause to question its integrity.

This means that while some -- if not most -- Apple products still might be better in terms of usability, some probably aren't. Maybe we all need to look objectively at these offerings once again and form our own opinions, because the generic "Apple is better" argument is, apparently, no longer true.

Microsoft Uses Monopoly Power To Kill Competitors

This issue is the one that started me out and, unfortunately, we are nearly out of space. But consider this: Netscape was actually killed by a horrible management team, and Apple's slide can be tracked back to a series of Apple blunders. Novell is still around, despite SuperNOS and UnixWare disasters. Stacker was actually saved by Microsoft. The disk-compression market collapsed with low-cost hard drives, and Stacker used the money from Microsoft to change businesses. Sun is being killed by Linux, and IBM almost went under because of executive mistakes.

Steve Case argued that Microsoft would kill him in 1996; however, AOL was hurt more by the Time Warner merger and remains larger than MSN. RealNetworks is screaming that it is being killed, while similar services iTunes and MusicMatch are doing just fine. Both Logitech and Adobe hold stronger relative positions to Microsoft and have for years in their respective markets. Maybe it is more bad management than Microsoft that is the true cause of company problems, and, because managers will never blame themselves, Microsoft simply becomes a convenient explanation for blunders more accurately attributed to management.

I wonder how many perceptions we all hold that have little foundation in reality. I often find that the angrier something makes me, the more likely it is that the perception being challenged is actually wrong.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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