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January 28, 2005

Thoughts on "Microsoft Goodness"

I received a long email about my Microsoft Goodness post (which the Mighty Mini was kind enough to link to). The author said he was having trouble formatting it and it was kind of long for a comment. So I will post it here without naming the author (hope that is OK), but he can pipe up if he wishes:

In my darkest hour of dislike of Microsoft, I don't think I've ever thought of them as an EVIL company, merely misled. (There may be evidence out there that proves me wrong, I admit...I was young and more brash with my words, once...) I've rarely thought of them as a GOOD company, though. I have feared them many times, with many different companies, sometimes with very good reason. (And I, like everyone, occasionally curse 'Microsoft', as a catch-all for whoever bungled a particular feature in a particular Microsoft app or driver or library...)

On the flip side, I have found several underlying common mistakes in disparate generations and types of Microsoft software which lead me to believe there are several engineering misunderstanding that are carried via oral, product, or mentoring tradition between groups.

There is, however, high-mojo kool-aid inside the company, and it wraps the employees in a joyful world of Microsoft goodness from the 'swank hotel with expenses paid' interview on, then reinforces that belief via corporate communication, and builds a powerful immunity to the idea that Microsoft does anything long-term wrong.

If you ask someone (as I have occasionally) who works for Microsoft, 'But don't you realize that no other platform can keep up with Microsoft's changes, because they're not public until they're done, and then sometimes under patent restrictions, so your new incredible feature, while technically brilliant, simply locks people into the Microsoft platform?' The invariable response is basically that it's a darn good platform to be locked into. They believe, completely, in the platform, and therefore have no qualms about locking people into it, because it's so darn good, especially with their new feature. It's completely honest, completely innocent, and completely heartfelt. And that's what makes it so scary (to me); it's like a religious conversation. 'If you want to marry this wonderful woman you've grown to love, you have to join our religion. But that's okay, because it's better for your soul to do that anyway!'

Microsoft is not a devil or demon, nor an angel or savior. It's just a company, with people who love it and hate it, and sometimes both. Sometimes with reason, sometimes for no good reason. And with some people inside and outside who believe in the company or refuse to believe in the company, sometimes beyond the bounds of 'right or wrong'. It becomes religious, and no longer amenable to reasonable conversation.

I also don't think Microsoft's executives have a tradition of 'the right thing' to fall back on either; it's not ingrained in the company culture. There was a time when Microsoft had to be scrappy, forceful, competetive, persuasive, better than anyone else at both execution and marketing, and had to MAKE the standards, not follow them. That's not saying they now do the wrong thing on purpose, but there is a competitive beast lying in the heart of Microsoft. Usually dormant, it yearns to strike out, dominate, and win battles and wars (and perhaps the love of the fair stockholder). But when a company gets to be Microsoft's size, much like a country that has grown into being a major world power, it needs to negotiate, make concessions, and strike bargains, follow international standards, and generally 'play well with others' to not be seen as a bully. (Perhaps my politics are showing on my sleeve, but I still feel the analogy holds up...) You can be a bully and end up doing good things for people, but it always leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those bullied.

In all visible areas but competition, Microsoft is the model of a good company. They contribute to charities, they care about (and take damn good care of, evidently) their employees, they encourage blogging, and they manage to take care of their shareholders. (Microsoft makes a killer stock to sell straddles on, btw., but I imagine that's not a plus, in the minds of management.)

In competition, though... There's a temper there. Threaten to change the rules, or undermine a key product, or anything like that, and the company lashes out. It's understandable, it's survivalist, and it's probably good for the shareholders, but it makes much of the engineering world leery of them. That's because the resources that can be brought to bear on an unsuspecting (or unwary) competitor are roughly equivalent to the army of a medium-sized country marching on your offices. Fear doesn't generally breed popularity, or praise from the fearful.

If you want a little blog-love and reassurance, remember this: there were roughly 169Million PCs sold worldwide in 2003 (the last year I have numbers for). 164Million of those are probably running Microsoft products. The users of probably 163 Million of them honestly and seriously feel that their lives are better for those Microsoft products.

That's not a bad deal, all told. I know I'll rarely have that kind of effect.

Some thoughts on your corporate masters, who but for a few life decisions could easily have been mine.

Posted by AdamBa at January 28, 2005 11:21 PM

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