The Good Old Days
There was a time in the past when Microsoft was seen as the undisputed bad guy of the technological world. There were a few key factors that netted them the illustrious title. Primarily, Microsoft's business practices rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. They were never particularly shy about them either. They were aggressively seizing as much of the expanding market as possible. This meant two things.
First, their actions drifted toward anti-competitive practices. For one example, they achieved easy dominance by throwing their weight around with manufacturers. OEMs knew that they would be at a substantial disadvantage if they didn't offer computers running Windows. Microsoft therefore was able to negotiate with signficant leverage, often requiring OEMs to pay a royalty on every unit sold, even if their operating system wasn't being used on the machine. There was also the controversial bundling of Internet Explorer with all copies of their operating system. By including a web browser on new computers, they were able to get ahead in the browsing software market, and add substantial value to their products. In a few steps, Microsoft heavily discouraged the selling of their competitors' systems and gained a significant edge until a variety of anti-trust efforts were thrown against them, beginning in 1994 and ultimately coming to a close with a settlement in 2001.
Second, they were widely seen as adopters, not innovators. A number of their key software components were merely acquired and added. Even Internet Explorer, one of their most important pieces of software, was added to the company through a simple licensing deal with an independent programmer. From a business standpoint, this makes perfect sense. It's always easier to just pick out the winners than it is to waste money on R&D in several fields. And it helped them grow and profit greatly. It just didn't do wonders for their image. People like to see the little guy win. Watching a big corporations buy up ideas and make them their own doesn't play well.
Microsoft originally had a rich history of apparent evil. They were the antithesis of the underdog. They utilized their size, power and popularity to gain incredible control over the market. At the time, that was fairly impressive. They're starting to fall behind the curve though, as new contenders rise for their title.
Recently, I put together a quiz which asked the readers to link nefarious corporate misdeeds with the appropriate company. I was quite surprised to note that Microsoft was actually left in the dust. Their old antics of anti-competitive behavior have partly fallen to the wayside, and partly become the industry norm. While they're still a large corporation with some of the usual faults, they aren't really pushing the envelope anymore.
For one thing, walking up to anyone and citing the sheer market power of Internet Explorer would probably get you laughed out of the room. Yes, it's still the leader, but the margin is so narrow that it isn't exactly a victory for them anymore. The same goes for the market as a whole. While it's still mostly a two system game, Apple's operating systems are at least making a public run at them.
It really seems like Microsoft could lose their spot at the top of the evil pyramid if they aren't planning to step things up a notch. They're certainly responsible for a few disappointments, but can you really call Vista or Kinect evil? Especially when you consider the new contenders for the crown…
Rising Star – Apple
If you're looking for evil actions, you're going to have to set your eyes to the newer players in the game. Just look at the innovation that is being brought to the field.
Apple's a good place to start, considering it's the closest competitor. While Microsoft focused on shutting down their competitors, Apple seems to be stepping up the game and trying to monopolize the actual customers. Their innovation in content management means that once you have an Apple device (let's focus on an iPhone for now), you're completely at the mercy of their programs and design. If you want applications, they have to be Apple approved. It's not that big of a deal. After all, they are perfectly willing to accept applications from competitors. Google Voice was added with ease, after the FCC threatened Apple with an anti-trust investigation.
The whole system is quite beautiful. They have a monopoly on content, getting their cut from every sale in their official store. They created a monopoly on their phones' service plans, which let them sell the rights to whichever provider has the most money to burn. And the list could just go on and on for iPods and iPads. Their computers are slightly more reasonable, with the monopoly on the OS only used to charge a whole lot of money for a pretty paint job and design. Of course with the Mac App Store, they can clamp down there as time goes on.
Of course, you can also add in their focus on privacy. Privacy is a vital concern. They want to have it. Apparently they think it's a type of "Highlander" situation, since they tried to get more privacy for themselves by killing privacy for others. The phone tracking debacle highlights that fairly well. Microsoft tried it with their phone software, but they just couldn't go all the way. They insisted on storing the information securely offsite. There's no room for half-measures in this contest. There's also the long list of freakouts over lost prototypes. Lost iPhones alone have led to police raids, threats against journalists and legally questionable searches.
Say what you want about Microsoft, but they're clearly out of their league. They let me use an iPod with Windows, and even install iTunes. Not sure how that slipped by.
Rising Star – Google
And since we're bring up privacy, Google is ready to swoop in and take the crown for that. I already covered some of Google's more unfortunate decisions in this linked article, and I don't see a reason to drag it out here. But let's take a quick look at some of their actions that stood out. They've now admitted that they allowed their Google Street View vehicles to spy on unsecure wireless networks through an unforuntate accident…that lasted for about 4 years. And there's also the Google Buzz fiasco, in which they decided to automatically put every one of their users into their budding social network. After potentially revealing vast amounts of personal information to your close friends/people who sent you an email once, they dragged their feet and reluctantly added an opt-out feature.
This shows an impressive commitment. There's an entire culture that seems to have drunk its own Kool-Aid. They genuinely felt that their users wouldn't have a problem with these invasions of privacy. That they're so trusted that it wouldn't matter. They were right too, judging by their ability to slip away from the controversy. They're avoiding major missteps at the moment, and they have some admirable programs at work.
Then again, a few people have said that these free programs are just larger scale versions of the tricks Microsoft was playing back in the 90s. That the end game is to build up massive brand trust with their free office software and wireless expansion programs. They're already acquiring online ad services and trying to gain a lion's share of that lucrative market. Once they have a monopoly easily gained through their goodwill projects, they'll be able to rake in the case.
By the way, one of the people saying this is Christine Varney, the current head of the Department of Justice's Antitrust Division.
A Few Parting Thoughts for the Old King
I know that change can be hard Microsoft. You'll need to get used to no longer having regular anger and bile throw at you if you can't find a way to be a bit more evil. You're getting left behind by the actions of the fresh faces. I know you're still trying. Trying to keep Linux down by funding a proxy war is admirable, but that's not going to make mainstream news.
What I'm saying is, it's time to roll out "Window Shopping," the exclusive dealer of Windows software and applications, including exciting new content for the Zune 2. That one's a freebie, for old time's sake.
- Vogelstein, Fred. Why Is Obama's Top Antitrust Cop Gunning for Google?. Wired Magazine.
- DoJ Index of Antitrust Cases Against Microsoft
- Image Credit: MorgueFile/Wax115