Frankensoft: The monster we made

Microsoft has bent the rules of business, but we must be realistic: We created the monster.

"We must also work to change a number of customer perceptions, including the views that older versions of Office and Windows are good enough, and that Microsoft is not sufficiently focused on security." - Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in a July 6 company-wide e-mail.

Ballmer's words are hard to take without being cynical. As Owen Thomas quipped in a recent issue of his Ditherati newsletter, this was "Ballmer, addressing employees on the urgent need to deceive customers more aggressively."

Microsoft has bent the rules of business, but we must be realistic: We created the monster.


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We wanted inexpensive software and there was Microsoft - the right company with the right products at the right time. We let ourselves be sold on its "vision" and its story. Of course its rose-colored glasses filtered its vision but it never actually fooled us, it just sold us the products and the stories we wanted.

Microsoft continues to take advantage of its opportunities in ways that have been judged illegal and in other ways that are unethical but not unlawful.

When I say unethical, I mean that Microsoft intentionally created software to "lock" customers into its way of doing things despite the consequences.

These consequences appeared in the form of instability and poor supportability. You can trace that back to the monolithic and clumsy architecture of Windows, compromised by allowances for its own applications, and to the embedding of applications such as browsing and multimedia rendering as core operating system functionality.

Who could defend Microsoft pushing its "standards" in preference to established de jure standards? Or what about where it's had to implement de jure standards and done a horrible job of it - for example, Outlook's appalling IMAP support.

We all bought into its "innovative" products because we had business problems that had to be solved now, and Microsoft had the solutions. Unfortunately, neither Microsoft nor the best and brightest in the IT industry ever foresaw where we would wind up.

So as much as we should like to be understanding and constructive with regard to the monster we made, that isn't possible because the monster hasn't matured, and we can't (and can't afford to) kill it off. Alas, it is still clumping around the countryside, grasping arms to the fore, dead-fish gaze seeing only what it wants to see, leaving chaos in its wake.

The worst chaos comes from security issues. While this has been historically centered on Windows, now the largest-scale problems are in Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer.

We're at what should be the tipping point, the critical moment where something should be done, has to be done - where we should all admit that for all sorts of good reasons we backed the wrong horse.

But can Microsoft fix the problems with Internet Explorer? Some people contend that Explorer's architecture is fundamentally flawed and therefore can't be fixed. Others contend the layering of patches on patches can never produce a stable result. Whichever way you look at it, you have to ask, can we afford to continue using Explorer?

We have a good idea of what it would cost to migrate from Explorer to something else (say Opera or Firefox), and it isn't trivial. How could we encourage a mass consumer migration?

Yet if we don't do something about our reliance on Internet Explorer we risk e-commerce becoming a mess and corporate Explorer-based systems going into meltdown. IT will be left to clear a disaster that could have been avoided for much less cost if we had done something before it got out of hand.

Yes, we got what we asked for and as a consequence created a monster. If we can't kill it do we have the nerve to do something about its spawn?

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Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.