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March 26, 2005

Disliking Microsoft

In an early version of chapter 2 of their blogging book, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel wrote, "Since the late 1970s, Microsoft has been perceived as a company at war with competitors and governments, whose products have been scorned almost as universally as they have been adopted."

I don't think this is true. Consider the beginning of the year 1990. Windows 3.0 had not shipped; Microsoft was selling DOS and working on the next version of OS/2 with IBM. In word processing, spreadsheets, database, and networking, it was far behind an entrenched competitor. Visual Basic had not shipped, and its development tools were weak. Microsoft was being sued by Apple over the "look and feel" of Windows, but the case involved the extent of a license that Microsoft had signed with Apple, not accusations of out-and-out theft (and Apple at the time was also a much larger company than Microsoft). The US Federal Trade Commission was also investigating Microsoft over allegations that it had conspired with IBM to limit features in Windows in favor of OS/2, but that wasn't yet public knowledge.

So I think it is safe to say that in early 1990, Microsoft was not seen as being at war with competitors (and certainly not at war with the government), and its products were considered adequate in some areas and deficient in others, but were not "scorned" on general principle. In addition, Microsoft was seen as a "cool" company among college seniors.

Jumping ahead to the end of the decade, on November 5, 1999, after a very long, very public trial, Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that Microsoft was a monopoly, a ruling greeted with much rejoicing in the software industry.

So Microsoft's reputation went south somewhere in the 1990s. But when, exactly?

Let's review some of the legal timeline:

  • 1988 - Apple sues Microsoft over Windows "look and feel".
  • March 1991 - FTC investigation of Microsoft becomes public.
  • April 1992 - Apple lawsuit ruling in favor of Microsoft.
  • Jan. 1993 - Stac Electronics sues Microsoft, claiming planned disk compression software in DOS 6.0 infringes on its patents.
  • February 1993 - FTC, on a 2-2 vote, takes no action in Microsoft investigation.
  • August 1993 - US Department of Justice takes over the FTC investigation, looking into OEM licensing of Windows.
  • February 1994 - Microsoft ordered to remove disk compression software from DOS 6.0.
  • June 1994 - Microsoft settles with Stac for $83 million.
  • July 1994 - Microsoft signs consent decree with Department of Justice.
  • February 1995 - consent decree thrown out by Judge Stanley Sporkin.
  • August 1995 - Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson re-approves the consent decree.
  • July 1996 - Caldera sues Microsoft, claiming it used Windows to thwart DR-DOS.
  • September 1996 - Department of Justice begins investigating Microsoft for unfair competition with Netscape.
  • October 1997 - Department of Justice sues Microsoft for violating the consent decree by bundling Internet Explorer with Windows.
  • May 1998 - Department of Justice and 20 states file antitrust suit against Microsoft.

I'll stop there; there was various legal maneuvering, from the Department of Justice, some states, and Sun, trying to get injunctions to prevent the shipment of Windows 98. The DOJ case continued on (here's a timeline up to the November 1999 ruling; I also discuss this in some more detail in chapter 13 of Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters). In April 2000 Judge Jackson ruled that Microsoft had violated antitrust laws, and 2 months later announced he was splitting up the company, etc. Somewhat unnoticed in there was Microsoft settling the Caldera lawsuit in January 2000. But anyway, it's obvious that by 1998 a lot of people hated us and thought we were forcing crappy software on unwilling consumers.

Of course, Microsoft had been disgruntling various constituencies throughout the years. The divorce with IBM over OS/2 (in September 1990) annoyed a lot of software developers who had invested in OS/2, and the subsequent push that Windows 3.0 gave to Microsoft applications created a legion of conspiracy theorists. Related to this were the "OS/2 vs. Windows" arguments after IBM took over OS/2 and improved it significantly.

But looking at the timeline, 1994 stands out as the year that things went south for Microsoft. The Apple lawsuit was a licensing issue, the FTC investigation looked laughable by the time it became public (since by that point Microsoft and IBM had split up over OS/2), the initial DOJ investigation into OEM licensing seemed somewhat esoteric, and just the fact of Stac suing us was not such an image hit (little companies sued big companies all the time).

In 1994 the rulings started to go against Microsoft: the Stac judgement created the public perception that Microsoft was stealing from others (and the fact that we later settled just made us look more guilty), and then signing the consent decree with the government again created a "where there's smoke, there's fire" impression.

Here's another angle: In January 1994 the cover of Wired was Douglas Coupland's short story "Microserfs" (which later became a book of the same name), which presented a sunny, happy view of Microsoft. Three months later the cover story was "Oh No, Mr. Bill" (which later became part of the book The Microsoft File), which talked about Microsoft's antitrust struggles (and the book was even more negative). At the end of 1994, a recent Microsoft college hire named Hadi Partovi sent email to Steve Ballmer, detailing the negative impression that most of his classmates had of Microsoft, and how this was hurting recruiting.

So it looks like the spring of 1994 was when the worm turned.

Posted by AdamBa at March 26, 2005 09:20 PM

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Oops, I accidentally nuked a comment when cleaning up spam. I backed up the site yesterday but it was posted today, so I don't have the text. Sorry!

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at March 29, 2005 05:52 PM

I'm afraid that Adam gets it wrong when he disagrees with Scoble and Israel... [Click "Danny" link for the rest of the response.]

Posted by: Danny at March 30, 2005 11:36 AM

Danny, I disagree with your disagreement on my disagreement...I'll post a comment on your blog.

- adam

Posted by: Adam Barr at March 30, 2005 09:48 PM