Anniversary Post: Microsoft Starts to Suck

MicrosoftOn this day in 1975, Microsoft was formed by two computer mediocrities Paul Allen and Bill Gates. Thanks to them, the personal computer was held back for years. But they were successful as a company because they were ruthless. But let’s remember what these guys did. They wrote a BASIC interpreter in Intel 8080 assembly language. And I know that sounds impressive. But let me set you straight.

When I was in graduate school, I wrote my own text editor in 8086 assembly language. It didn’t take that long. And it was really fun to do. A BASIC interpreter is more work, but it isn’t that big a deal. But here’s the thing: I did that on my own, in addition to, you know, taking classes and trying to figure out how permafrost worked. But I had never taken a computer programming class. I didn’t and do not (despite having created huge and amazing software creations) think of myself as a computer programmer.

So I just don’t think much of people like Allen and Gates — or for that matter, Steve Wozniak, although being more of a hardware guy I give him some credit. And you know you don’t want to get me started on Steve Jobs. But the truth is that even most people who consider themselves technically minded get fooled about this kind of stuff. So what follows is the truth.

There are lots of brilliant programmers and computer scientists around and there have been since the 1950s. Even I could have been one if I had been so inclined (but I’m not ever interested in anything for that long). So the people who we hold up as masters of technology are almost always just technically oriented people who got rich. And that’s exclusively about ruthlessness and luck.

So what would have happened if Bill Gates and Paul Allen had never been born and there had not been a Microsoft? Well, IBM would have hired someone else to provide the operating system for their personal computer. (Note that I said “provide” given that Microsoft wrote almost none of it.) Would things have been better or worse? We can’t say, but I assume better, because I really think Microsoft held things back. Then again, maybe Apple would have been more successful and that would have been a similar catastrophe.

17 thoughts on “Anniversary Post: Microsoft Starts to Suck

  1. Hi Frank,

    This has little to do with the above post, but reading about corporate ruthlessness reminded me to ask you about something. Have you read or heard about the Panama Papers leak? It’s one of the largest corporate banking malfeasance scandals ever, and not surprisingly it hasn’t even been mentioned on the TV news media.

    It’s particularly interesting because while no one involved will face any serious charges, a man in Louisiana is facing a life sentence for $30 worth of petty theft. A classic example of our two-tiered justice system.

    • I have been following the Panama Papers closely. It’s an outrage in a world of outrages.

      I used to know a guy (passed away), who the state of California tried to put away for life for stealing $12 in batteries. It was the 3-strikes law. The only reason he got off was because law hadn’t passed when he was arrested. But the state still fought very hard to apply the law that wasn’t in effect. Of course, if it had happened a month earlier, he would have gone away for life. And interestingly, it was after that that he got his life relatively together.

      But I’m sure all these rich people who are involved in major theft think they’ve done nothing wrong. It amazes me that people think not paying their taxes is not theft. It’s like the mortgage interest deduction: people don’t think it is welfare. But we all pay taxes to live in a civilized society. We are paying for a good. Not paying your taxes is as much theft as stealing $12 in batteries — but generally on a much bigger scale.

  2. As someone who usually responds to computer problems with the suggestion “hit it with a stick,” the one thing Microsoft did was make it simple for idiots like me to use.

    I am not my mom who is even worse than I am but even if the back end is terrible, the front end works for me and that is what I need.

    • The issue isn’t Windows. The issue that Microsoft didn’t invest in the human resources to move in that direction earlier. There are other issue too, but I won’t go into them now.

      • I am aware of how horrible Microsoft is in almost every single aspect of how they do business. It was just my view on the one thing they did that I like.

        And I don’t know much about computer stuff. I try to learn but it slips out of my head like the water out of my hair after a shower.

        • Microsoft isn’t all bad. They embraced open source software early. I find them decidedly less evil than Apple.

          And when Microsoft came out with Windows 5 (AKA: 2000), I was blown away. At last, Microsoft had created a great operating system.

            • I worked for Microsoft for a while. It was glorious. But I was a temp. So I was paid really well. From what I heard, the regular employees weren’t paid that well. But Microsoft was paying me about $100K per year (not that I worked for a year) and that was in 1995. I have a friend who works at Apple down in Cupertino. He seems happy. Then again, he always does. He is far more accepting of corporate BS than I am. But most of Apple’s “employees” work for Chinese sweat shops. I always wonder about Apple fans: are you really not willing to pay five bucks more for your phone so these people can have a decent life? But not one cares. Oh! Look: it’s white!

              • Was it here I first saw the links to training tips given to employees at Apple stores? Of course, it’s not a sweat shop, but it still sounds like a nightmare workplace mentally/emotionally.

                    • It’s interesting. What it makes me think is that if corporations were, in fact, people, they would be psychopaths. Even a style guide is, at base, a psychopathic document, because it it singularly focused on presenting a single idea of the company. I love style books, of course.

                    • At least something like MLA controls only format, not content. Although I think breaking away from conventional footnotes and numbered endnotes (instead using “Pages 99-101: The passage ‘his golf game was bad’ is taken from such-and-such a source”) makes people more interested in the sources and the idea of references less restricted to academics only.

                      Largely this shit is creepy. I’ve had the misfortune to be stuck doing shredding in my company’s main office for six weeks, and as people whisper around me (unaware I have astounding hearing) they are merely repeating the same “how do we homogenize the product” dingbat speak.

                      As if you could homogenize caregiving! But they’ve cut pay for years, they’re getting less creative employees because of it, and everyone’s bending over backwards to come up with an explanation besides “we pay our employees too little and have utter contempt for their work.”

                      You’ll like this. I had to transcribe from a big white poster-sized-paperboard (the kind you use in strategy brainstorming sessions, and flip to the next page when it fills up) some brilliant notions about making workers better. Most was forgettable rubbish. But somebody’d brought their book of Famous Rich Thoughts and quoted some line about ‘brains, like hearts, go where they’re most appreciated” or thereabouts.

                      The author was even quoted — he was cited by name and credentialed as “former president of the Ford Motor Company.” Robert McNamara. I shit thee not — these psychos were citing Mr. “winning hearts and minds” himself.

                      Madness!

  3. GeoWorks for the win!

    What Microsoft was really good at was buying up other people’s work. Otherwise, they’ve been trying for years to convert their software sales to a subscription model and to monetize their user base by means of “push” updates (think broadcasting). With Win10 it looks as if they are finally getting there. Damn it.

    • In the early 1990s, Microsoft did finally start hiring some good people for the NT 3.1 project. Before that, it was amateur hour. But the company has never been tech-led; it’s always been profit-led. I understand that all companies are trying to make as much money as possible. But I think Google understands that if they just keep pushing the tech, the profits will come. To use the Apple phrase, Microsoft really does think different.

      I’m in the process of converting everything to Linux. It isn’t that I think Win 10 is terrible. It’s just that I don’t like change. Win 10 might be great for the way most people use a computer, but it isn’t for the way I do.

  4. I’m also dabbling with Linux. Among other things, it still allows the user customization which I felt was the saving grace of Windows and which MS now seems to have abandoned. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s wasting so much time and effort keeping up with the constant churn of forced obsolescence and hoping some “improvement” doesn’t break my setup. That’s fine for a hobbyist, but at this point I mostly just want to get things done. And done my way, if you please.

    • Right. I still use vi as my editor, as I have since the 1980s. It has far more power than most people ever use in their Word Processors. But I’m willing to admit that Emacs is probably a better editor, but I don’t see any reason to change, given that I’m a wizard with vi. But in Gnu world, you get to choose; in Windows and Mac world, you don’t. But this is damned amusing:

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