Praising Microsoft - and attacked by wolves
... Wherein I attempt to explain why I had the nerve to say that Microsoft should get much credit for both the PC and Internet revolutions.
NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In a recent column (Will Microsoft's new principles be its undoing?), I had the temerity to write: "I have consistently believed that [Microsoft's] virtues far outweighed its faults. Without it, we would not have had a personal-computing revolution or, accordingly, an Internet one. By having the technology and marketing smarts to place 'a computer on every desk and in every home' as the company's founding mantra so presciently put it, Microsoft changed the world."
The comment was almost an aside in a musing essay that examined the consequences as Microsoft (Charts) seeks once and for all to get the U.S. and European antitrust agencies off its back. But it was this short passage that stuck in the craw of a number of technologists who really seem to hate Microsoft.
When you say nice things about the software giant you have to brace yourself for the blowback. To wit:
"That you can use the word 'virtue' in the same sentence as 'Microsoft' is clear indication that you haven't a clue. Then again, you do write for Fortune, so your alliance no doubt leans toward corporations and shareholders rather than users," wrote Walter Bazzini, whose Web site, perhaps revealingly, is entitled "Misanthrope Manor."
"You sound as if you're suffering from 'Stockholm Syndrome,'" wrote Ken Davies. "Microsoft has actually set all of us back by years and possibly by decades."
"Your painfully revisionist history makes you sound like one of the 20-something journalists who wasn't actually around since the 80s," wrote Norman Gilmore, who really knows how to hurt a guy.
Some of the letters were not only passionate but extremely well written and thoughtful. Here's more, for example, from Gilmore, who neatly summarizes the objections of quite a few writers:
"Gee, I thought ARPA funded the research leading to TCP/IP, Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web, and Marc Andreessen led the creation of the graphical browser at [the University of Illinois]. I thought Apple started the personal computing revolution, Xerox invented graphical interfaces and IBM invented the PC. Microsoft BASIC - oh yeah, a language invented at Dartmouth by Kemeny and Kurtz. MS-DOS? Tim Patterson wrote what became MS-DOS, itself a CP/M clone.
"And THEN Bill Gates wrote his famous memo, which summarized as - 'WHOOPS - THE INTERNET - OH NO! WE'RE BEHIND!' "
More than one writer pointed out that Bill Gates, in his 1994 book "The Road Ahead," barely acknowledged the Internet, which was about to change everything. Those same writers both smugly pointed out that Gates shortly thereafter published another edition "without the glaring incompetency," as James Taylor of Greenville, Texas, nicely puts it.
OK, these people are all, in their ways, correct. The inventions that enabled the PC revolution and the Internet did not, mostly, come from Microsoft.
But I'll stick to my argument in spite of these compelling letters because Microsoft by my analysis is the company that more than any other got all that technology into the hands of real people.
Good technology needs good marketing
Technology that doesn't get used isn't of much value. Xerox (Charts), which Gilmore mentions, knows that too painfully well since it hardly commercialized any of the early PC innovations from Xerox PARC.
In the reviled passage from my column, I put "technology" and "marketing smarts" on a par. So, in my mind, must they always be when we are examining technology's impact. It was Bill Gates's vision of computers everywhere and his tenacity to pursue it endlessly that set him apart from the scores of other early PC software CEOs.
And let's not forget that Gates was, more than almost anyone, the guy who convinced the PC software industry that PC software ought to be a business at all. It's a business that today's Linux partisans, several of whom were among my most vehement correspondents, are seeking to prove a historical artifact.
More power to them. But I don't think, looking back at the genesis of the computing era we still live in, any of them can explain why, for instance, every major company on the planet standardized on Windows.
I can assure you it wasn't because Microsoft strong-armed all those CIOs in some perfidiously evil way. It was because Windows was the first product that came along that was easy enough to use, and had good enough support, to transform how corporations worked. It certainly wasn't perfect, but it was good enough, and that was saying something. And, OK, Intel (Charts) gets some credit, too.
As for Microsoft's role in the Internet, I didn't mean to say Gates invented it. I only meant to underscore that if PCs hadn't been ubiquitous by the mid-90s the Internet wouldn't have had much meaning, nor would it have had its society-altering impact. There were numerous other forces behind the success of the net, but without all those PCs they wouldn't have mattered very much.