THE PROUDEST OF THEM ALL (column) - Microsoft getting arrogant

Written by David Tebbutt, Computer Buyer 02/92 - scanned

Pride comes before a fall, as they say, and like IBM, Compaq and Apple before it, it's now Microsoft's turn to get up off its laurels and start considering the user. Have you noticed that when companies become very successful, people start knocking them? This seems to be a peculiarly British phenomenon, probably linked to our traditional fondness for the underdog. Or maybe we're just not as dazzled by success and can see right through the glow to the underlying reality.

Look at the way that IBM, Apple and Compaq had their glory days. For a while, each company thought it had hit upon the formula for everlasting success. For years, they gloried in their quarterly reports. And each company, so accustomed as it was to success, was slow to respond to the changing marketplace. As buyers demanded open systems, IBM persisted with its closed architectures. As people demanded lower prices, Compaq continued to charge premium rates. Apple managed to be both proprietary and high priced but it eventually bowed to pressure in the form of better connectivity and lower prices.

These are just three companies which have recently been forced to respond to the changing needs of their customers. In each case, the arrogance which appeared to develop in line with profitability evaporated, and each company has become more human in its effort to identify and then satisfy the genuine needs of its users.

That leaves Microsoft. Right now, insiders and many outsiders believe the company to be invincible. The success of MS DOS has been astonishing. Something like 70 million copies are in use around the world, a figure that grows daily. It's ironic that Microsoft didn't even write the first release of MS DOS. Microsoft bought the rights from its authors, Seattle Computer Products, and then, with more than a little help from IBM, it became a world computing standard. To give the company credit for the subsequent improvements, MS DOS 5.0 is a very good product, and sales of the new upgrade will undoubtedly provide Microsoft with yet another fortune.

Windows is selling by the million but, as any Macintosh user will tell you, it is not as good as the Apple front-end. I've had a lot of trouble with Windows and, listening to the dozens of people from whom I've sought help, I'm not alone. Perhaps version 3.1 will be OK.

For its part, IBM is working hard on a new operating system which it claims `will run DOS better than DOS and Windows better than Windows'. If that's true, it will be a welcome move. I understand the company is considering a 'no brain' price for it as well - something less than DOS and Windows combined. It will be interesting to watch the inevitable operating system price war as each company seeks dominance. Apple, through its alliance with IBM, must have a vested interest in a Microsoft defeat in this particular contest.

Microsoft has got fingers in lots of other pies, including both PC and Macintosh application packages, networking systems, books and, more recently, it has started buying the rights to film and recorded material for use in future multimedia products. The boy wonder, Bill Gates, has certainly got his bases covered. I often hear stories, usually second-hand, but which follow the pattern of `several Microsoft wizards work for ages to create a new technology; Gates takes one look and points out not only the fundamental flaw but, in the next breath, how it can be overcome; gasps of amazement and admiration all round'.

Microsoft reminds me very much of Apple before its fall from grace, and of IBM in its heyday. Without some sort of a rude awakening, I fear that Microsoft will believe itself to be more and more correct, while veering off on a course which takes it further and further away from potential customers. Apple and

IBM must suspect that this is what will happen and have very little interest in bringing the matter to Microsoft's attention.

A resolution of the famous long-running Apple/Microsoft court case is finally due later this month. At first glance, a sudden Microsoft defeat would be really good news for Apple. But it would be very bad news for Apple and IBM if the resulting prod goaded Microsoft into being an even more effective competitor. A win by Microsoft will make the company even more arrogant, which might be better for the other two.

Some aspects of Microsoft's behaviour make me wonder whether it really cares about the users very much. Its manuals, at least the ones that I've seen, are terrifyingly huge. Its indexes and help screens, while welcome, still make it difficult to find what you want. Everything seems to be written from the point of view of the developers rather than from that of the users. Perhaps this is why there's such a large after-market in those `how to' books. Given the existence of Microsoft Press, perhaps it's deliberate.

Microsoft is so wrapped up in its own wonderfulness that it is insensitive to the outside world. Here's an example: Microsoft has just decided that `usability'' is an important feature of its software. Recently it shoved out a press release saying that it no longer adds features on an ad hoc basis.

Well, thank goodness for that. Unfortunately, the same press release also states that `Microsoft's commitment and focus on usability is unique in the software industry.' What complete and utter tosh. Can you really believe that no other software publisher, especially the Apple ones, is committed to usability?

If Microsoft were a human being, I'd remind it of the old proverb: `Pride always comes before a fall'.