Confessions of A Former Microsoft Fan
By Gerry Patterson
This third essay on Open Source Advocacy, examines the question of loyalty
in general and brand loyalty to Microsoft products in particular.
Loyalty can cause a scientist to cling too long to a discredited theory,
even though one of Karl Poppa's "black swans", has come home to roost on it.
It can cause a consumer to keep buying a particular brand even though a
cheaper and superior product sits on the very same shelf. Loyalty can cause a
voter to persistently vote for the same political party without critical
analysis. It can also inspire a soldier to risk or forfeit his life in battle
and it can bind together families and society. It is an irrational emotion and
an essential human ingredient which helps define us, and our place in
society. I can only effectively discuss it from a personal perspective.
In this article I abandon objectivity and ask why does loyalty often seem
to turn a complete one hundred and eighty degrees? Such switches in loyalty
can be most unreasonable and unyielding when we suspect that it is misplaced
or worst of all betrayed.
1970: Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum.
Ok, I'm going to start with a confession. When I first went to University in 1969, I was pro-war. That is to say I supported Australia's involvement in the Viet Nam War. Most people who met me post-1970 would probably say, You used to be WHAT!? So what happened?
Well a lot of things happened. Perhaps I should start at the beginning. I was born in Western Australia, and our family moved around various remote areas in Australia, usually associated with Exploration Geology. I went to school in Western Australia, while my family lived in Darwin. Many of the kids who also boarded at the school came from rural regions in Western Australia. So I had a lot of contact with the rural and mining sections of our society in some of the less populous areas of a very big country. These regions were politically conservative during the sixties and most remain so to this day. My opinions reflected my background.
In 1969 I started my studies at Monash University, notorious as a hotbed of student radicalism. This University is in Melbourne, a large urban metropolis which was at the other end of Australia, geographically and politically. This exposure to new political viewpoints did not make me change my own views. The need for consistency over-rid any considerations of fashion. It was a matter of loyalty. I had made up my mind on the issue and I stuck to my guns. If you'll pardon the heavy-handed metaphor. I had many heated debates on the topic, in which I expressed the view that we should help our big powerful uncle rid the world of the communist menace. My enthusiasism waned a little as it became apparent that I had very little in common with the other folk who supported the war. Also those who opposed the war had the best music. There was no question about that.
In May 1970, I watched a man on the gritty old television screen in the student union lounge. The same screen upon which the image of another man making a small step for a man had held me riveted only ten months earlier. This man did not take any steps. He stood still, wept bitterly, and sobbed a question to the cameras. A question for the President and Congress of the United States. He wanted to know why his little girl had to die. The man whose name (1) has faded from my memory, was weeping for his daughter who had just been shot to death by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio, USA. Actually mate, I thought as I watched this older man's distress, that's a bloody good question. There were some questions forming in my own mind. What manner of soldiers were these from Ohio, who were so resolute in the face of imminent harm from unarmed girls? Of course some would say that the National Guard were not real soldiers. That may have been so. But the bullets had been real. And where was this war going now, in the light of America's determination to shoot her own children in order to save them from communism? That winter in Melbourne, a new song started to get airplay on metropolitan pop radio stations, and was soon blasting out from radios all around the country. An American band called Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had taken questions like these and rolled them into a raw, driving folk-rock anthem:
Gotta get down to it.The last line repeated incessantly while fading from the ears but not the mind, leaving an impression of a bell tolling to wake up the sixties' youth in America. Beating like a drum to get them marching into a new decade. And for me, pounding like a hammer driving its' nails into the coffin of my old political allegiances. Many, including our own parents, were asking similar questions as the US President conveyed his intent to take the war to a new battlefield. The streets and campuses of his own country. And it was on this battlefield that the world's mightiest military power would suffer a significant and decisive defeat.
Soldiers are cutting us down.
Should have been done long ago!
What if you knew her?
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio!
(Four dead in Ohio!) ...
The defeat can be attributed to the efficiency and marketing power of the American Pop Culture Media Machine which, even then, rivaled the military machine in dollar terms alone. I had been exposed to so much American pop culture and propaganda that I identified more readily with the four murdered students in Ohio than the many thousands of unfortunate Vietnamese and Cambodians, who had paid the ultimate price for America's war on communism, not to mention the hundreds of Australian diggers who had also lost their lives. And with my number coming out of the barrel I had, a year previously, been willing to risk joining them. Today, as a parent myself, I can appreciate more readily the emotions felt by those parents when pretend soldiers opened fire on their children with real bullets.
These days a PR disaster like the Kent State massacre would be managed by slick spin doctors, who would attempt to point out that the deaths of four young people, although serious, was less significant in the big picture of world affairs. However in the face of such obvious culpability, it would be impossible to hose down, unless the murderers were swiftly brought to trial. In the Real Politik of today this probably would occur and the executive arm of government would make sure that there was plenty of terrain between them and the perpetrators.
In 1970, however, the US military complex which had never known defeat, and the administration that represented them was blinded with arrogance as a result of past successes. The mere declaration of war was sufficient to ensure victory. Or so they thought. In fact they had been so confident, they had not even bothered to officially declare war. The administration, armed as they were with the very best that military technology could offer, thought that all opposition would be swept before them. The important lesson, which the US military seems to have since learned, is that loyalty is something that is best not taken for granted. Citizens of the new consumer culture are less inclined to be loyal to an entity that takes them for granted, and treats them with contempt. Modern economics, the mass media, entertainment, pop culture and the Fourth Estate outweigh patriotism.
The final result was almost a foregone conclusion. A new paradigm was demonstrated by America's defeat in Viet Nam. The success of the economic model has reduced political and emotional ties to mere transactions. It is now more important to win the war for hearts and minds than to prevail on the battlefield. This applies to loyalty not only in politics and warfare but to commerce, love and football. Of course loyalty in football and politics may run deeper, but not as deep as it used to.
1993: Dirty Tricks and Rat Cunning.
Consumer loyalty or brand loyalty can be even more fickle. It can turn as decisively as other allegiances. Often it is a complex mix of reasons which triggers the switch, but in hindsight it is that one little thing which is singled out as the straw that breaks the camel's back. So, while I am making confessions, I might as well admit that I used to be a big Microsoft fan. Most people who met me post-1993 will probably say, you were WHAT!? Or at least they would if I hadn't already given it away in the title.
So let me, once again, backtrack a little. I left Melbourne eventually, and followed a career that was mainly involved in science and technology. Although at some stage I did veer off the path a little and spent some time playing piano in bars and in various blues bands, and did some part time work tuning pianos. Then in an attempt to get back into the real work-force in the eighties, I got a job as a PC-support analyst (But don't tell anyone ok? -- I will be happy to never see the insides of another PC). In the early stage of this new career, I championed the Microsoft cause. In the cubicles and open plan partitions adjoining the corporate corridors of power, I nagged senior management about the inadequacies of Lotus-123 and WordPerfect. Outside, in the small business sector, I advocated the implementation of an all-Microsoft shop.
My reasons for promoting Microsoft software were not pecuniary. I genuinely believed that the Microsoft products were superior. It seemed to me that Microsoft software loaded faster, ran faster, and was easier to use than products from other vendors. It was also cheaper. Many people heeded my advice. I like to think that this was because I was building a reputation for being knowledgeable and objective, but I have to admit the clincher was often the bottom-line argument. Microsoft consistently undercut Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland and others and offered additional savings by bundling the application software with the operating system. Towards the end of the eighties I must confess to feeling some unease about Microsoft. But I suppressed these doubts and carried on the good fight. Ok, you may have guessed by now, that I don't just go and run up new colours on the mast the first time the wind changes.
Or maybe it was just brand loyalty.
My road to Damascus started with a new decade. By the time the nineties arrived the personal computer was more than a novelty and I was still exploring its' possibilities. I experimented with various operating systems and programs. One of the operating systems I tested was DR-DOS, which was a re-write of Microsoft's MS-DOS. It had been created by a firm called Digital Research. The kernel was smaller, which was important back in the days of DOS on 386 and 486 platforms. It was also cheaper, faster and had enhanced features. There is no point going into what those features were. Interested readers can download a version of what is now called Caldera DR-DOS from the web. Not that it really matters. Today DR-DOS is merely a curiosity which may interest computer historians. It may have a place as a specimen in a software museum, but is unlikely to find a niche in the modern computing ecology. Last century, however it had features that could have been relevant and the results of my testing showed that DR-DOS was superior to MS-DOS. And significantly cheaper. Every program I tested with the DR-DOS operating system checked out ok.
There was however, some software that did not behave well. An alarming error message flashed up on the screen, in a bright red box, whenever I started Microsoft Windows. I checked all the Windows functions and everything seem to work ok, but the error message was disturbing. About six months later I read an article in that most meritorious little computer journal Dr. Dobbs, which explained what caused the error. The author, a PC boffin whose name (2) I do not recall had spent many hours poking around inside the guts of Microsoft Windows and had found the offending code, heavily encrypted, but obviously specifically targeting the DR-DOS kernel. I was most disapproving. Non-technical friends and associates could not understand my indignation.
Microsoft had spent a good deal of money promoting themselves as an innovative, entrepreneurial company, with Bill Gates, be-spectacled happy nerd, at the helm. The message of the marketing arm of Microsoft was that all us little guys had a true friend in Microsoft, and we could all sleep easier at night with the knowledge that Bill had infiltrated the stronghold of the evil empire and was in there batting for us. Now the image had slipped a little, gone out of focus and then come back into focus to reveal Microsoft, the big fat and ugly troll, not really helping the little guy so much as sitting on the little guy like a monstrous playground bully, crushing the life out of the little guy, smothering the poor little guy with his vast, obscene bulk.
Cutting off the little guy's oxygen supply.
What really got up my nose was the rat-cunning malice of this rotten little trick. And there was no doubt that it was a low-down dirty trick. And it was a deliberate criminal act. It was in direct violation of the much stricter American equivalent of our Trade Practices Act, the famous, or some would say infamous, Sherman Act of 1890.
Microsoft have since mounted numerous arguments in an attempt to wriggle out of this blatant transgression. The fact that they went to such lengths to disguise the code, was evidence enough for me, at the time they encrypted it, that they were aware of the paper thin ethical and legal ice upon which such specious arguments might skate. It seems the legal system has struggled to come to grips with computer technology since the dawn of the Information Age. Unable to grasp concepts like copyright when it is written on new media, an American judge had delivered the extraordinary Look and Feel decision on behalf of Lotus in 1990, which lead to a spate of similar decisions on behalf of various large corporations, squatting upon certain market niches. The term Software Patent, which in my opinion was an oxymoron came into general parlance. In more recent times the term Intellectual Property has achieved an equal level of legal silliness.
Also the concepts of confidentiality, secrecy and criminal behaviour, all of which were clearly defined and understood when written on paper, seemed difficult to grasp when written on new media. Or it least it was, if lawyers were involved. I had already been forming these opinions in the late eighties, so I was not surprised that a blatant violation of the anti-trust law by a large corporation like Microsoft would go unpunished by the American Legal System.
I just muttered lawyers under my breath and that may have been when it happened ... My loyalty switched.
I began to notice other things not quite right about Microsoft. For instance, it seemed that their software was not as fast as it used to be. The OS and the applications were becoming increasingly bloated, and packed with features that I did not need. Many of these were effects of the gee-whiz variety, mere visual or audio effects rather than additional functionality. I also noticed that every new release of a Microsoft application invariably used new file formats. And yet the new features did not seem to warrant new formats. It seemed that the reason for new formats was mainly to persuade recalcitrant users to upgrade older systems. I invented a new verb. It was the verb to be gated. Needless to say, this verb usually had a passive tense. The list of vendors that have been gated has grown steadily, and includes some former giants in the IT industry. The DR-DOS case it seemed was too technical for the mainstream media and dismissed as irrelevant.
Eventually the Department of Justice moved against Microsoft. This was long overdue, since the Sherman Act was originally framed to punish a large corporation for denying potential competitors access to markets. Which precisely describes the behaviour of Microsoft Corp for the past two decades.
2001: Open Pod Bay Door Number Four, Please HAL
The Microsoft case dragged on for years and I had lost interest in Microsoft and Personal Computers, and gone in search of my mainframe roots, which took me eventually into the mid-range server sector of the IT economy, an area I had dabbled in some twenty years previous. It was in this next phase of my career that I found myself one Sunday Afternoon in a deserted office building in a new technology park, surrounded by quietly ticking, whirring computing machinery. I had just finished an excellent cappucino at a cafe around the corner, and took my seat at a monitor which showed the excruciatingly slow progress of a series of patches that I was applying to a Unix/Oracle database.
A freshly paved walking path meandered through a small grassy area below, which was bathed in soft winter sunlight. In the middle of this grassy area a small flock of wild ducks floated lazily in a freshly landscaped artificial pond fed by an artificial waterfall. Nearby lay a couple locked in an embrace that was becoming intimate to the point that I was beginning to feel embarrassed. They would not have known I was above them. The building was wrapped in one-way glass so new it still sparkled. From my vantage point I could also see a drunk lying behind a hedge with a newspaper over his head. A dark bank of clouds rolled menacingly from the south west. I had arrived back from my coffee break just before the rain did. Soon rain gave way to hail, which rattled against the windows and strafed the area below with tiny pebbles of ice.
The icy blast cooled the ardor of the lovers and woke the drunk from his slumbers. All three had fled from the wall of sleet that drove in steeply from the south west. Only the wild ducks remained, huddling under a willow. At this point the open plan area in which I sat was improbably flooded with bright sunlight. I was in Melbourne, of course. Where else could one get a superb cappucino expertly prepared by an Italian cafe proprietor and then be subjected to rain, hail and sunshine at the same instant? Only in Melbourne, Cappucino Capital of Australia where it is possible to experience all four seasons in one day.
The reason that sunshine flooded into the area was due to the lack of blinds on the still gleaming new windows. Eventually these would be installed, but only just in time, as the company was soon to go belly-up. A storm of a different nature was looming on the economic horizon. I would be able to derive only bleak satisfaction from the fact that the dot com bust that I had been predicting for almost five years, was imminent. One thing that the flood of bright light achieved was high-lighting the phrase DR-DOS, which flashed into my peripheral vision as I hastily rearranged my screen, squinting in the glare from the northern sun. A story had just come in on my Netscape news screen, about the Microsoft Anti-trust case. I adjusted the screen again and read with increasing amazement that the DR-DOS case was far from forgotten (3).
As I read the story and the associated links I began to realise that my scornful dismissal of the American system of justice had been premature. The wheels had slowly been churning all the time. The DR-DOS case had gone through a number of torturous legal avenues, eventually being included in the DOJ proceedings, and along with many other grievances, would lead to a finding against Microsoft. It is with good reason that justice is depicted as a blindfolded woman holding a dagger in one hand and scales in the other. As Citizen Gates steered his Microsoft Juggernaut across the IT landscape of the eighties and went rolling down the information super-highways, crushing all in his path, the little company Digital Research, had been no more than a bug on his windshield. But rather than fading into obscurity, the tiny DR-DOS peccadillo had been archived, then resurrected and added to the scales. It would be a deliciously cold irony if this insignificant item proved the one that tipped those finely balanced scales.
The circumstances of this revelation were visually impressive. With a low dark cloud rolling overhead so close that it seemed I could have touched it. The sound of hail rattling at the windows. And a dazzlingly bright shaft of light stabbing into the large deserted room like a finger from heaven, touching my screen and bathing the words DR-DOS in eerie golden light. Kubrik and a team of special effects technicians could hardly have done better. Although had Kubrik been directing this scene, there would have been a sound track. Considering the themes of loyalty, betrayal, justice and retribution, something from Tosca would not have been inappropriate. Then again Kubrik might have had me wearing my space-helmet by now. And Citizen Gates disembodied voice would be singing A Bicycle Built for Two as I strode purposefully towards the centre of the building, and engaged the sequence labeled Disconnect Microsoft.
If I was inclined to religious experiences this would have qualified as an epiphany. Even my cold analytical heart was not unmoved. The following quotation did occur to me:
Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience he stands waiting, with exactness grinds he all.
Friedrich von Logau, translated by Longfellow.
- The man's name was Arthur Krause. According to a Tribute delivered in 1989, his actual words were: "Have we come to such a state in this country that a young girl has to be shot because she disagrees with the action of her government?". His daughter Allison was 19, about the same age as myself when she and three fellow students of similar ages, were cut down by rifle fire at the Kent State University Massacre. The perpetrators were never brought to justice. Arthur's words were uttered on May 5, 1970, the day after the massacre. An auspicious date, because it probably marks the date the US unofficially lost the war in Viet Nam.
- The author of the article that exposed Microsoft's DR-DOS dirty trick was Andrew Schulman. The DDJ Archives contain an Editorial dated 1998, which mentions an article published in 1993 about Windows AARD Protection Code. It is a fine bit of electronic forensic analysis, and well worth reading even if you are not a tech-head. You will get the gist of it even if you don't fully understand the jargon. The whole incident seems to have been dismissed by the mainstream media as "too technical".
- Oh Ye of Little Faith! It seems that the wheels of American Justice had been slowly grinding away on the DR-DOS case. This Review of the US vs Microsoft goes back to 1995. Ok, I hereby apologise for my lack of faith and for all the tasteless lawyer jokes. It seems that the DOJ has gone soft and mushy on the Microsoft case lately. This may be due to the new administration in Washington or the "war on terrorism". In any case it is too late to put the genie back in the bottle. If the DOJ lets Microsoft off the hook, the way will still be left open for civil and state litigation.
- This is the third in a series of essays on Open Source Advocacy. The Future Looks Bright for Microsoft? examines Microsoft and the lessons learned from IBM. The Second Clone War, ponders the question of whether Open Source Software could challenge the Microsoft heartland, the desktop.