Microsoft’s temper tantrum

Microsoft is throwing a temper tantrum that if the states’ current proposal goes through, the company will be forced to withdraw Windows from the market.
Pay no attention, move along, there’s nothing to see here.

Remember, this is the company that didn’t sign an agreement with IBM for a Windows 95 OEM license until the day it was launched. At one point during the negotiations, Microsoft told IBM it could buy it at retail. As hard as it might be to remember now, at the time, IBM was still one of the top 5 players in the U.S. PC retail market.

This is a company that plays hardball. It says unreasonable things to get its way. And it’s used to getting its way. And even when it doesn’t get its way, it still says stupid things. Remember, in 1994 Steve Ballmer said a court’s decision against Microsoft in Stac’s favor would be reversed as soon as they found a judge with actual brains.

Reality check: Microsoft can very easily comply with the states’ demands. Or reach a compromise that will benefit everybody. Once upon a time, long long ago, when you installed Windows, you could tell it what you wanted. If you didn’t have any use for Calculator, you could click a little checkbox next to it, Windows wouldn’t install it, and you’d save about 200K of disk space. Hey, back when people were trying to run Windows on 40-meg hard drives, it was nice to have that ability. Or, if you already had a third-party calculator app that put Microsoft’s to shame and thus had no need for the one that came with Windows, you didn’t have to install it.

The same was true of DriveSpace and all the other bundled stuff. I mean, let’s get serious here: Is there any reason whatsoever to install Space Cadet Pinball on your domain controller?

But with Windows 95, Microsoft started to get unreasonable. Yes, you could uncheck that little box next to MSN, but when you did it, Windows didn’t actually seem to do anything. Regardless of whether you checked that box, when Windows was finished, you had an MSN icon on your desktop. If AOL continued to exist, Microsoft’s very existence was threatened. In order for Microsoft to survive, AOL had to die. So you got MSN whether you used it or not. (Some idiot with a journalism degree figured out how to remove it a couple of years later.)

With Windows 95B, things got more sinister. Netscape replaced AOL as the imminent threat to Microsoft’s very survival, so you got Internet Explorer whether you wanted it or not. This time, Microsoft didn’t even bother putting in a checkbox for Windows to ignore. You just got it. With Windows 95 OSR2.1 and 98, Internet Explorer became increasingly more entrenched.

Once it was evident that AOL would never die and Netscape would never rise again, RealPlayer and QuickTime became threats to Microsoft’s existence. So, with Windows 98, we got Microsoft Media Player, whether we wanted it or not. Never mind that the basic Real and QuickTime players are free and both companies would have loved for Microsoft to deliver them with Windows and it would have saved the company development costs.

Microsoft could go a long, long way towards appeasing the states if they’d just put in little checkboxes that let you decide whether Internet Explorer or MediaPlayer was installed, just like Calculator. There’s no need for 8,000 different versions of Windows, like Steve “The Embalmer” Ballmer wants people to believe. Let the consumer decide what pieces he or she wants. Does a deaf person need MediaPlayer? It’s questionable. Does a file server really need Internet Explorer? Absolutely not.

And while there are magazines and book authors who want you to believe otherwise, thousands of people have removed Internet Explorer from Windows. And guess what? The sun didn’t quit rising. The world failed to fall apart. The stock market didn’t crash. Their computers didn’t fall over. The applications they needed to run still ran. In fact, the applications ran better once they got the unnecessary machinery gone. Imagine that, a basic engineering principle applying to computers!

Microsoft execs have complained about a double standard, because Apple, IBM, and Be all shipped Web browsers with their OSs. Of course, there was a big difference. In the case of MacOS, BeOS, and OS/2, you could tell the OS not to install the browser, and it didn’t do it. The same for their other components. In the case of OS/2, you could even remove the entire Windows subsystem. You lost the ability to run Windows 3.1 programs, but you gained speed and stability. I knew people who did that. I’ve done minimalist Mac OS installations that took up less than 20 megs and were completely useless because they lacked the drivers needed to install other software. But if I want to be stupid enough to install a completely crippled OS that can’t do anything besides boot a computer and let me look at its empty hard drive, Apple’s not going to stop me.

The overwhelming majority of people will just leave things alone. But the people who like to get into the nuts and botls of things want (and deserve) the opportunity to change how their computers work. They want Microsoft to fight its battles in the marketplace, not in the memory and CPUs of their computers. I don’t blame them in the least. Of course, I’m spoiled. IBM and Commodore let me have it my way, back when I was buying my operating systems from them.

So, Microsoft has a history of threats, and a history of following through with them, even when the reasoning behind them is totally ludicrous. But in the case of IBM, they ultimately budged, albeit 45 minutes into the 11th hour, and they didn’t budge much. But you don’t just shut out the #3 or #4 PC maker in the country. At the time, Microsoft still needed IBM, and IBM needed Microsoft, as much as both companies hated to admit it.

This is no different. Microsoft can’t just pull Windows off the market. Windows is still its main source of revenue, and Windows runs on more than 90 percent of the computers on the market. Microsoft isn’t going to just give that away. Sure, they make some Mac products, but the Mac is 5 percent of the market on a good day. The cheapest and easiest replacement for Windows, in the unlikely event Microsoft pulled out, is Linux, where Microsoft is a non-player. Microsoft could still sell Windows software to the existing installed base. But it’s ludicrous. Pulling Windows off the market is corporate suicide.

I really don’t think Microsoft would have made IBM buy its copies of Windows 95 at retail. Not everyone remembers it now, but there was some resistance to Windows 95 initially, and a company the size of IBM not shipping Windows 95 on its new computers would have given way to much credence to the naysayers. Microsoft was counting on Windows 95 being big, and it wasn’t going to take any chances. It had spent way too much money on research, development, and hype. Microsoft made that threat to see just how far IBM would go. And that’s what Microsoft is doing now. It’s trying to see how much the states are going to budge.

And that’s all there is to Ballmer’s rhetoric. Nothing more. And nothing less.

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