Software giant Microsoft was planning to have a good week ending October 26, when it expected to wow the world with a brand new operating system, Windows 8. It hoped to finally put to bed the epic disaster that was the Windows Vista operating system, and its more successful but no less clunky successor, Windows 7.
As with all carefully planned coups, this one met with some surprising twists, both from old foes of Microsoft. First came bete noire Apple, which suddenly announced a media event on October 23. On the very next day, the European Union announced that it was miffed after its initial review of the upcoming Windows 8 software (no word on how they got hold of a copy; maybe someone shipped in a bootleg from Shenzhen) showed that Microsoft had failed to provide a browser choice; an old battleground between the EU anti-trust folks and Microsoft.
Before jumping any further into this story, I should clarify here that I am an avowed Apple devotee with a visceral, gut-clenching hatred for everything that Microsoft produces, except perhaps its amazing ergonomic keyboard.
Still, I was more than puzzled by the EU action. Since the time of their last moves back in 2009 – I mean, a time when every country in core Europe was rated triple-A – the world has changed a lot. Specifically, the part of the world that Microsoft lives in has changed almost inexorably.
Back in 2009, you could have picked up Apple shares for a fraction of their current, stratospheric price. Google, which was merely a search engine residing in other people’s browsers, had just debuted its own browser to compete with Microsoft Internet Explorer; and in a superbly strange twist that typified the ways of the technology world, built an operating system out of its browser.
Computers came equipped with the Chrome o/s, bereft of any function until and unless connected to the Internet. Once in the machine, you were taken to your Google drive, encouraged to launch your Google docs, and all the time monitor your email and calendar with Gmail. Talk about lack of choice.
On the other end of the spectrum, Apple started with some superbly smart and cute devices but ensured complete dominance of the operating system as well as application software. The last time I checked (earlier today) the only way to access the iPad, iPhone and i-Whatever-Next was the iTunes software and the only place to buy stuff to use on these machines was the (Apple) App Store. Talk again about lack of choice.
Microsoft itself has had a bad few years meanwhile. The Vista disaster from 2005 when, thanks to changes in its operating libraries and the absence of pre-information to hardware suppliers, users actually ended up with less capabilities after an “upgrade” proved a turning point for both Microsoft and Apple (not to mention Google). Many people including your author chose to downgrade from Vista back to Windows XP which, while basic, at least didn’t crash as often and didn’t try to offer any clever suggestions either.
The attempt at a version two – R2 in Microsoft speak – was rebranded Windows 7, that’s how bad the public perception of Windows Vista was. The damage had been done though – with the door to the consumer market wide open, both Apple and Google jumped straight in and took over significant market share from disaffected Microsoft users.
As all this was unfolding, antitrust folks in both the US and Europe were still hearing cases against Microsoft, initially brought about by Sun and later on by other plaintiffs. In one of those ironical developments that can only ever be conjured up by committee, a whole bunch of fines was imposed on the hapless Microsoft pretty much simultaneously with its self-created woes. The look on the faces of key Microsoft employees was priceless – a bit like someone being handed a speeding ticket after they had been hit by (not driving) a speeding car.
Whilst those fines are still acceptable from the point of due process, it is the subsequent actions of regulators – particularly in the EU – that appears gallingly clueless to say the least. Only someone who has been hiding under a rock for the past five years would even contemplate the words “monopoly” and “Microsoft” in the same sentence.
The company is a has-been, it has kicked the bucket, has left its mortal coil and all the other stuff that John Cleese raves about in the Monty Python sketch.
Why then do regulators not comprehend that? Quite simply, because they don’t get out much. The job of regulators is to implement the laws of their land, focusing on the letter but not the spirit of the legislation. So technically, they are right in the new Microsoft complaint as well – the company still dominates a particular industry – PCs – and often does fail to provide a choice in various applications.
The “spirit” of the law though will inform the EU regulators that nothing Microsoft does matters to anyone anymore. Don’t give me a browser choice? No worries, I can download Firefox, Chrome or Safari freely and almost immediately when connected to the Internet. What’s more, each of these pieces of software installs itself as the “default” browser.
Don’t give me a choice for “office” software? No worries, I have many others to choose from, most of which are free, and some are available on an “as used” basis. Plus no one tells me I have to bundle “Access” in order to have “Powerpoint” in my “Office” pack. Ask today’s kids what those things are and you’d get a very blank look indeed.
That is why markets are superior to governments. When a previously competent supplier of a product or service stumbles either by delivering substandard products or overpriced services, markets create a competing product or service.
In contrast, governments rarely fix problems but have an uncanny ability to make things worse. Faced with banks that were imploding back in 2008, EU regulators did not just step away from the falling objects; instead, they attempted to save the banks and in the process destroyed their economies by disallowing the elimination of overcapacity.
There is an old joke from before the dotcom bubble burst, about a Microsoft engineer making fun of the automobile industry for its relative lack of progress compared to the technology space:
“If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.”
In response, the GM executive said:
“If GM had developed technology like Microsoft, we would all be driving cars with the following characteristics:
1. For no reason whatsoever your car would crash twice daily.
2. Every time they repainted the lines on the road, you would have to buy a new car.
3. Occasionally, executing a maneuver, such as a left turn, would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, in which case you would have to reinstall the engine.
4. Only one person at a time could use the car, unless you bought “Car95” or “CarNT”. But then you would have to buy more seats.
5. Macintosh would make a car that was powered by the sun, reliable, five times as fast and twice as easy to drive and yet no one would buy them.
6. The oil, water temperature and alternator warning lights would be replaced by one “general car default” warning light.
7. New seats would force everyone to have the same size bottom.
8. The airbag system would ask “Are you sure?” before going off.
9. Occasionally, for no reason whatsoever, your car would lock you out and refuse to let you in until you simultaneously lifted the door handle, turned the key, and grabbed hold of the radio antenna.
10. GM would require all car buyers to also purchase a deluxe set of Rand McNally road maps (now a GM subsidiary), even though they neither needed nor wanted them. Attempting to delete this option would immediately cause the car`s performance to diminish by 50% or more. Moreover, GM would become a target for investigation by the Justice Department.
11. Every time GM introduced a new model car, buyers would have to learn to drive all over again because none of the controls would operate in the same manner as the old car.
12. You`d press the “start” button to shut off the engine.”
Replace “GM” with “Microsoft” and “Microsoft” with “government” (with sundry adjustments for product names and so on) and you suddenly have a revised dynamic of how the world works today. I would like to write more on the subject, but my Windows PC has just informed me that my quota of anti-government writing is up for this week due to the company’s previous settlement with the Justice Department.