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The 1995 launch of Microsoft's revolutionary new product, Windows 95 was the biggest event in computing ever.
People used to the clunky (although usable) interface of the even-then-antiquated 3.x series of Windows and its poor stability and 8-bit legacy resource limits of just 64KB (64 thousand bytes, about enough space for a small image) were wowed by the new product's stability, appearance and intuitive interface.
Then, as in the early 80s, when Microsoft were instrumental in the first truly personal computer - the mass-market computer, Microsoft truly brought computing to the masses. For the first time, the elderly, the young, and the technically illiterate were empowered to use computers. Although computers still betrayed some of their arcane origins of a time when computing was the real of those with genius IQs and degrees in mathematics, the computer was now almost as much a part of the home as the television and the microwave.
This was achieved by always providing what the market needed. The Microsoft formula was to pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap. This formula was applied again and again over the years, slashing the price of software until everyone could afford it. Microsoft's success came through out-maneuvering the competition. Revolutionary was the approach that said that a spreadsheet, which at one would have cost over a thousand dollars, could be sold for a fraction of the price. This approach drove the computing revolution of the 80s and the net revolution of the 90s. Microsoft's aggressive approach made computing far more affordable, leading to today's society, where we truly can afford to have a computer on every desk.
While competitors floundered - as IBM pursued their lumbering corporate path, as Apple chose to marginalize themselves by charging a premium for their product, and as the Unix vendors were tied to standardization committees and relics from the 60s - Microsoft recognized the potential of computing for the masses. By the launch of Windows 95 (at which time Linux was little more accessible to the masses than the punch-card computers of the 1950s), Microsoft's approach of providing the product the market wanted right now had made Bill Gates richer than Croesus, and the youngest billionare in history.
Since that time Microsoft have continued to pursue their agenda of expedient computing, empowering thousands of small businesses, often without the funds to employ dedicated IT admin staff, to manage their own computer networks and to sell themselves on the web, via Microsoft's standardized point and click administration interface. Similarly, Microsoft's masterful integration of the internet within Windows means that for most people the internet MEANS Internet Explorer.
This typifies the Microsoft approach - to first bring down the cost for the consumer (in this case to zero - it is now bizarre to think that web browsers could cost money), and to subsequently consolidate their position by making their product vastly superior to the competition. This brilliant formula has never failed - the consumer sees that he is benefiting and is happy to acquiesce.
Over the past two decades, Microsoft have driven the computing revolution, generating billions of dollars in revenue, not just for themselves, but for the companies, small and large, who were able to compete thanks to the low barrier to entry erected by Microsoft.
Fast forwarding to the present day and the imminent launch of Microsoft's new product, Windows XP, described as an end to frustration for the millions of computer users, who, unlike most of the readers of this article, have neither the time nor the inclination to discover the highly logical (but also deeply complicated) way that computing systems such as Windows or (especially) the *nix family of operating systems, work. Millions of dollars of research, of observation, funded by Microsoft's amazing success and commitment to research and development (currently four billion dollars a year), have gone to create an operating system that is the most intuitive yet, especially for people new to computing.
For instance, Microsoft's testing uncovered the fact that 80% of users never discovered the functionality of the right mouse button, which has, since Windows 95, offered a variety of useful shortcuts to expedite common tasks. As such, the new operating system provides a new menu system replicating this functionality.
The millions of dollars of research have been used to find what people do with their computers, and attempt to empower them to do that in an intuitive way, making computers more accessible than ever before. The new operating system is the most integrated ever, pursuing the Microsoft vision of a truly cohesive entertainment and networking center - a product where computing is a natural experience rather than a painful one, with effortless remote maintenance and inter-computer interaction.
At the same time that Microsoft is on the brink of launching of a product that makes them feel 'super super excited', the competition is still hopeless, incapable of competing against the company that ensures its success by daring to give the consumer what he wants and at a price he can't refuse - Apple is still determined to occupy an overpriced niche, while the 'great open source hope', Linux, looks as far off as ever from being something your granny or a class of 11-year-olds could use. Particularly for Linux, the outlook looks bleak. No longer buffeted by the heady currents of the internet goldrush, Linux-based companies - which have never made any appreciable amount of money - appear to have reached their darkest hour yet. Just as the markets have started to recognize the absurdity of valuing websites with no apparent means of making money at billions of dollars, and are instead examining the underlying worth of companies, they are also recognizing that companies required by their underlying philosophy to give their product away, do not have significant revenue opportunities.
As a result, the development of the interface (the most important part of a system for end users) of open source products - without a cent to spend on research - relies on ideas stolen directly from Windows. Despite this blatant copying (seen in all the popular open source desktop environments such as KDE and Gnome) and enormous goodwill to shoddy workmanship and incomplete and buggy software (the likes of which would not be tolerated from commercial software), even in supposedly 'complete' distributions, these desktops seem but a pale shadow of the real thing. The in-fighting and lack of commercial rigor of the Unix and open source world has left a system of wild inconsistencies and rough edges, with little consistency between 'competing' 'toolkits' and 'desktop environments' making Linux an operating system suitable only for those with patience with computers, a good deal of computing experience, and a stubborn streak. For everyone else, Linux remains something that is frustrating to use, with its bewildering array of arcane concepts (file permissions, symbolic links and compilers to install software (something users used to InstallShield would find troubling)) and inconsistencies that, because of the lack of revenues to fund research, haven't been ironed out. And although use of Linux would certainly be painful for most people, administration would truly be a nightmare. The almost total lack of co-operation between projects means that there is no consistent graphical configuration tool to match Windows' Control Panel.
Despite all this, the overwhelming majority of those in the nerd and geek community - experts on computing who take joy in computing for its own sake - harbor deep-seated resentment of 'Micro$oft', peddler of 'Winblows', a resentment most ordinary people are unware of, and one that would they not understand if they were. The cause of the massive hatred of Microsoft is not entirely clear, but it appears to be a combination of factors.
The ultimate cause of it in many cases is probably human nature, as there is no doubt that we are programmed to be resentful of success and to be envious of those who succeed - the hatred directed at other successful people demonstrated only too well how personal insecurities and feelings of inferiority, and, ultimately, that the person has failed as a human being by not succeeding, manifest themselves in hatred of people who have succeeded. That these feelings should be directed at a company largely responsible for the massively improved levels of prosperity brought by bringing computing to the masses, and without which, the world as we know it would be drastically different, is of no consequence, since as humans are essentially selfish beings, personal reassurance is a far more important emotion than altruism.
There is no doubt that this is a very powerful emotion behind much of the Microsoft bashing - in the same way that other successful and life-enriching companies such as Starbucks have been attacked, apparently purely on the basis of their success, Microsoft's overwhelming success has also attracted it hatred.
But it is more than that. What many geeks object to is Microsoft's new broom approach. For instance, there is a great deal of resentment at Microsoft's 'replacement' of the Netscape browser with a free alternative. For the end user, for the consumer, this was an enormously positive event, just as the advent of the mass-produced Ford motor car was a positive event in the early years of the 20th century, or Kodak's affordable camera was a positive event for mass photography, providing access to a camera for just 5 cents, the overpriced products made obsolete by a high-quality mass-produced and, most imporantly, dirt-cheap replacement.
The resentment, which probably was in the past confined to those involved with the makers of the products that were made obsolete, now finds voice in a wider community of highly intelligent and articulate 'geeks', resentful in part that computing should become accessible to the uninitiated, thereby devaluing their skills, and in part too of the lack of regard for the old institutions - the willingness to boldly sweep away the archaic relics of the computing past, just as Henry Ford swept away the expensive and unreliable handbuilt cars with his production lines almost a century ago.
And all the while things continue - small businesses and stock traders with adoration for Microsoft, the
ordinary person with blithe indifference, and the geek community with pure hatred.