Microsoft, the big, bad Wolf?
A Conversation with Tony Bove

Tony Bove’s new book on beating the Microsoft addiction — Just say no to Microsoft — is reviewed elsewhere on the Applelust web site this week. For anyone who feels trapped by their computer instead of empowered by it, his book is a stimulating and liberating read.

Nonetheless, it’s a very partial piece of work, a one-sided attack on Microsoft and its products, and designed squarely to attract computer users over to the Macintosh or Linux camps. Regular AppleLust readers will know that I don’t necessarily see Microsoft as the big, bad wolf, so I was pleased when Bove took time out to debate his thesis with me.

Neale Monks: Microsoft is often portrayed as the bully in the computing industry playground. But I wonder how much of that is jealousy. Would Adobe, Apple, or Quark be any more benevolent if they controlled the lion’s share of the computer market?

Tony Bove: Just because there is jealousy doesn’t make it any less true: Microsoft is a bully. Would Adobe, Apple, or Quark be bullies if they could? Actually, they are. They just don’t have the power to run everyone else out of the playground.

Some describe it as “human nature” but the reality is that our economic system encourages this kind of aggressive behavior (not to mention our culture). That’s why we have regulations for companies to follow (including stricter regulations for monopolies), and consumer groups to fight back. That’s why I wrote my book, “Just Say No to Microsoft”.

NM: The other angle of attack for Microsoft critics is that it produces inferior products, with many people pointing to the security flaws of the Windows operating system as classic examples of this. Do you think this vulnerability of the Windows OS a symptom of its ubiquity (making it a tempting target for virus-creators and other malefactors) or is there a fundamental problem with the way Microsoft creates operating systems?

TR: There is a fundamental problem: Microsoft is trying to continue its monopoly by implementing an architecture that allows extensive customization (with hardware drivers) and choice among hardware products. If Microsoft would start from scratch with a new system, it would be less vulnerable, but Microsoft would immediately lose market share. On the other hand, if Microsoft divested itself of Windows and made the source code available, there would be many different “flavors” of open-Windows that would make it harder for virus exploits, but again, Microsoft would lose its domination of the system “market”. The only solution is for Microsoft to take the hit — either by re-architecting, or by divesting — and move on with decent software products.

NM: For legislators, the issue with Microsoft is that while it may have broken a few laws here and there — and what big company hasn’t? — its success has been otherwise entirely within the framework of free-market economy. Surely Microsoft is just a good example of a company that starts from nowhere, sells things people want, and manages its resources and intellectual property carefully?

TR: What rubbish! Microsoft started several decades ago but managed to lock every other system vendor out. Today it is an example of a sluggish, unresponsive monopoly. It is a company that holds back innovation. Most people I know didn’t “want” the Windows experience they have today; they wanted something better.

NM: One thing that always amuses me about the whole Microsoft thing is the demonisation of Bill Gates, in contrast with the canonisation of Steve Jobs. And yet, Gates’ humanitarian and philanthropic activities are simply vast, and he has probably done more ‘good works’ than any other business leader in the computing industry. So why is he still seen as being so completely and irredeemably evil?

TR: Oh give me a break. It’s a lot easier to be a philanthropist when you’re richer beyond your wildest dreams. I don’t know the percent of Gates’ net worth that goes to charity, but I know that if I had $10 million, I could easily part with 2 or 3 million for charity; but if I have only $100,000, I can’t afford $20,000 for charity. Gates could put half his net worth (or more) into charity and still have enough left over to buy some small country. It’s ridiculous that we live in an age in which the largest concentration of wealth on this planet is controlled by a few, while the vast majority of the world suffers in poverty. I have no beef with Gates’ charitable contributions, but lets put them into perspective. Do these contributions change the world? Or do they indirectly help advance American foreign policy? These are questions that should be addressed by political scientists.

Media folks love to demonize and canonize. There’s no end to this because we like to be entertained by the media, but most of us computer customers ignore this when we purchase computers and software.

NM: Focusing on the Mac for a moment, do you think it’s fare to say that Microsoft threw Apple a lifeline back in the late 90s, by securing development of MS Office for 5 years? If they’d pulled the plug, would Apple still be here?

TR: Who knows for sure? What I know is that at the time, Microsoft needed the PR, and Apple needed Office. Nobody did this for charity. Today, Microsoft needs better R&D, while Apple doesn’t need Office.

NM: Is MS Office really so bad that you think people should ditch it in favour of commercial and open source alternatives? I’ll admit parts of the Office suite aren’t great programs, but they work and Office documents can be easily exchanged with colleagues. What are the advantages for me to switch to, say, AbiWord?

TR: What’s bad is the Word document format addiction. Microsoft shamelessly proposes its own format as a standard, when it is clearly not an open standard. Word doc files produced a new version of Word might not be readable by older versions — forcing people to upgrade. Office is not totally bad, but having no choice is bad. OpenOffice (and its cousin, NeoOffice), AbiWord, and other open-source programs are free to use and free to upgrade. That’s reason enough; but these programs are also as robust (or even more robust) than Office. On a level playing field — if all these programs were free, including Office, and if people standardized on using the OpenDocument format — I believe NeoOffice would triumph over Office on the Mac because it is more stable. Not only that, but people using other programs could read your files without changing their software.

NM: A persistent irritant for Mac users is arriving at web sites designed for Internet Explorer, and only viewable with Internet Explorer. Do you think Microsoft deliberately sets out to implement things like web page standards that only their own software can handle correctly?

TR: Of course Microsoft deliberately implements technology that locks people into its software; how else do you explain ActiveX controls, which are dangerous? There are other examples of Microsoft doing this, specifically with regard to cutting off Netscape and competitors to Media Player. 

It will take time, but sites designed for IE will change because they are too dangerous to use, and IE is too vulnerable.

NM: There’s been some disparity in the way legal cases between governments and Microsoft have proceeded in the US and in Europe, with the European Union forcing Microsoft to sell its operating system with the Windows Media Player not included. Do you read anything into this? Was this the Europeans engaging in some therapeutic bashing of a big American company, or were they doing something constructive while American industry regulators merely sat on their hands?

TR: The EU is trying to do something constructive. What would be the incentive to the EU to bash an American company? Most large companies are global. Unfortunately it’s way too little, way too late. The EU should look at forcing Microsoft to divest itself of Windows or opening up the source code. Most importantly, the EU should encourage companies to come up alternatives to Windows.

NM: The antidote to Microsoft’s dominance is often said to be open source software. Is this realistic? While Linux has certainly made some headway in some markets, it’s still far from being recognised by the average PC user (and buyer). How far are we from the point where PCs with Linux operating systems could be sold in retail stores to ‘little old ladies’ and others with no interest in command lines and such?

TR: Linux was not originally designed to replace Windows — it is at its best when it’s used for servers. Mac OS X, on the other hand, does a fine job of replacing Windows. The role of open source in OS X is well documented. Apple didn’t need to open the entire source code for OS X; all it had to do was act like a good citizen in the open source community, support open-source standards, and use open source code in its products. This is an excellent antidote to Microsoft’s dominance. Some day (soon) we will all see how successful this strategy has become.

NM: Looking back on Apple’s 30 years, do you think things could have been any different? If Apple had sold their machines more cheaply, or licensed the Mac OS to third-party manufacturers, do you think the Microsoft monopoly could have been avoided?

TR: You have to go back to Microsoft DOS. Rather than encouraging a choice in computer hardware grounded in innovation, Microsoft’s DOS fostered a choice grounded in copycat engineering. DOS was closely tied to the hardware configuration, which helped to solidify the IBM PC (which was largely comprised of off-the-shelf components) as a market standard, which in turn spawned an industry of IBM PC clones. As a computer user back then, I was miserable using these clones. But I don’t think there was any way to stop Microsoft — its major competitor, Digital Research, was stomped into the dirt even though it had a better user interface (with GEM) than Windows.

The Mac was a breath of fresh air. But the Mac OS was not something Apple could easily license, for roughly the same reason: it was tied to the hardware configuration. There would have had to be Mac clones. And of course, copycat engineering is never very satisfying to those who are looking for innovation. So I’m happy that Apple chose the route it took. I’ve been a happy Apple user for all these decades despite its lack of market share.

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