Our love/hate relationship with Microsoft: What happens now?

Over the years, Microsoft has been vilified for more reasons than you can shake a memory stick at. But the world is bigger than Microsoft; and if we're going to take the time and effort to hate something, it makes more sense for it to be something deserving of hate -- like government corruption, unsanctioned access by certain countries to nuclear missiles, and diseases that evolve faster than our ability to comprehend them. Tossing bile at a mere software company would be too easy if it weren't so pointless.

As Microsoft releases Windows 7 unto a world that has been well-trained to be suspicious of such events, now is a pretty good time to reconsider why so many people have for so long held a special degree of contempt for the company. It's also an ideal time to question why this has been the case in the first place, and figure out what our attitudes should be from this point forward.

Microsoft's failures have always led to success

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There's a reason Ford never followed up the Edsel with another car called "Edsel:" Some brands just deserve to die. (It's a good thing "Vista" wasn't a Microsoft executive's first name.)

Carmi Levy: Wide Angle Zoom (200 px)Most recently, Vista's been the lazy person's target for vilification and vitriol. When it was released, it was big and buggy, and although Microsoft eventually fixed most of the countless niggling problems with its flagship OS product, it couldn't repair the damage to the Vista brand.

Vista is only the latest in a long line of Microsoft missteps. Whether it's on account of the Xbox red circle of death, XP's sieve-like (in-) security, Windows ME's general crumminess, or Bob's absolute disconnection from reality, Microsoft has had to survive a number of high-profile failures.

But the company that's never failed hasn't been invented yet. (Sorry, Google.) Failure is what teaches great companies -- and people -- to achieve greater success the next time out. And in Microsoft's case, its successes far outweigh its failures. For better or worse, Microsoft's influence on a wide range of markets has forged consistency and purpose in those markets, when no one else was willing or able to step up to the plate and take the lead. To wit:

  • Desktop operating systems. While some folks have valid reasons for disliking Windows, there's got to be at least some good baked into it to explain the basic fact that 90% of the computing world runs it. Since Windows 3.0 first transitioned Microsoft's GUI-based OS from curious plaything to serious competitor, the franchise has been the centerpiece of an ever-growing ecosystem of developers, vendors and users, all of whom have built careers and businesses around this now-ubiquitous OS. Mass adoption in various markets often seems to be accompanied by a certain degree of contempt: We all may despise Toyotas for being boring, soulless transportation appliances, but we buy them by the boatload because they get the job done.
  • Applications. I still get e-mails from frustrated WordPerfect for DOS users who claim writing just hasn't been the same since Microsoft's Word vanquished WordPerfect's offering -- and, rather starkly, WordPerfect Corporation itself. Whatever. I still have nightmares when I remember trying to move data between Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect. Microsoft's Office paradigm redefined how we got work done, and its market dominance made it easy for me to share my work with virtually anyone else who mattered.
  • Development. The catch-as-you-can state of programming languages before Windows-based machines took over forced developers to either invest significant time in learning multiple languages, or risk backing the wrong horse by choosing the wrong one to learn. Products like Visual Basic opened up development paths to more users and broadened the landscape for consumers and businesses alike. Suddenly, programming wasn't so arcane.
  • Networking. While Novell rightly gets credit for defining and popularizing the modern Local Area Network, Microsoft's Windows NT Server assumed the mantle and drove the concept into the heart of corporate IT. It certainly wasn't always pretty, especially if you were responsible for patching and securing it, but it was a good enough, familiar enough product family for most organizations.

A kinder, gentler Microsoft

As it brings Windows 7 to market, Microsoft is showing signs of greying around the temples. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the evolution of its CEO, Steve Ballmer. Long known for being an exuberant -- sometimes overly so -- Microsoft booster, Mr. Ballmer's antics, from throwing chairs to cheerleading during keynotes, are near-legendary. But somewhat uncharacteristically, his behavior during the Windows 7 launch has been nothing short of reserved and reflective.

Through Ballmer, we see a Microsoft that isn't so much monolithically monopolistic as it is customer-centered and, dare I say it, soft around the middle. Could this be a kinder, gentler Microsoft? Perhaps. The company makes it clear that consumer feedback to Vista's failings guided its Windows 7 development effort. And as new software delivery paradigms threaten its OS and productivity software dominance as never before, its efforts to build businesses in previously non-core sectors (Windows Azure Platform, anyone?) provide glimpses into a company that has come to terms with being merely mortal.

What's left to hate?

So this clearly isn't your father's Microsoft. But is that a good or a bad thing? Is a post-antitrust, post-king-of-the-world, post-desktop company that doesn't rampage through its markets as much as it carefully steps through them necessarily a good thing for the broader tech market?

Perhaps so. The tech landscape already has an heir apparent in Google, which now finds itself in the similarly unenviable position of lightning rod for those who seem to always need a lightning rod. By virtue of its size and perception as a monopolistic player, Google now falls under the same harsh criticism that had defined Microsoft for the better part of a generation.

Which leaves Microsoft to define a new path for itself, unencumbered by the weight of the constant attention typically afforded a singular leviathan of a given industry. It also leaves those of us who habitually cast an evil eye on this or any company, to wonder whether doing so serves any real purpose at all. Anyone who flogged Microsoft for the sins of its most recent Windows products, lost any significant reason this week to go on doing so. Sometimes, it just pays to be nice.


Carmi Levy is a Canadian-based independent technology analyst and journalist still trying to live down his past life leading help desks and managing projects for large financial services organizations. He comments extensively in a wide range of media, and works closely with clients to help them leverage technology and social media tools and processes to drive their business.

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