In football they used to call them the ABUs: fans who would cheer on any team that was facing Manchester United. The movement for ‘Anyone But United’ was a revolt against one club’s financial and sporting dominance of the English domestic game but every aspect of life has its equivalent case. In technology, for many years it was a case of ABM – Anyone But Microsoft.
I suppose the hating over Microsoft began in earnest with the success of Windows and Office and reached its zenith in the early 2000s after the company had begun to resemble something between a steamroller and a wrecking ball for the ambitions of smaller companies.
Certainly, Microsoft was hugely successful for year after year, parlaying its licence to print money via DOS as the operating system of choice on IBM-compatible PCs into a two-decade dominance of GUIs via Windows and productivity applications via Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the rest. Not content with cleaning up on the desktop, Microsoft was immediately successful on the server too, beginning with Windows NT and SQL Server. And when other sectors took off it was successful in those areas too, from collaboration software (Exchange) to web browsers (Internet Explorer), games consoles (xBox) and on and on and on.
At the same time, Microsoft was developing a reputation for strong-arming rivals and for playing whack-a-mole with newcomers like Netscape, either by giving away software or for offering it at a price that was tough to compete with, or by throwing in sweeteners. And then there was ‘embrace and extend’, a dubious philosophy that saw ideas and standards effectively co-opted and owned.
Who was to blame? You could say it was a culture driven from the top by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and Gates certainly didn’t help himself with his conduct at the time of various enquiries. Or you could argue, as others have done, that this was often also due to an attitude built up by younger executives.
Anyhow, Microsoft became, and I don’t think the word is too strong, hated by many people who saw the company as The Borg, or the Great Satan of Software. For anybody caught up in this, the name-calling and spittle-flecked expletives became very tiring, very quickly. Journalists who praised a Microsoft product were accused of being puppets, those who lauded its business strategies were apparatchiks of the Redmond state. Even those who should have known better, many journalists among them, were swept up by this righteous fury and when publishing on the web began to displace print, lambasting Microsoft became a useful way to garner hits and ensure a sinecure in the echo chambers where the ABMs resided.
People were wrong not to acknowledge the strength of the partner and ISV ecosystem that Microsoft created and its ability to deliver highly usable products that became the tools billions of us use today. But they were also right to criticise Microsoft sharp practices and I would argue that the eventual fines and damage to reputation suffered by Microsoft led to a partial retreat from its all-out aggression.
But the levels of abuse, ignorance and misinformation were overwhelming, noisome and foolish. Most large companies in technology resemble each other. They start out with an idea and if that idea or business model is not successful they ‘pivot’ to another version. Many fall by the wayside but for those that are successful, the options usually boil down to an IPO or a sale, although a few stick it out and hope not to be trounced by larger organisations. When the first golden ticket earned by innovation and sweat of the brow has been cashed in they will pursue another and a few will succeed. But in the end that will lead to growth and a size that makes it very difficult to focus on innovation and creativity. So they outsource development to partners, expand interests, recruit legal teams - initially to protect IP and later to pursue anybody with similar products - and they hire experienced (read cynical) sales and marketing teams with sharp elbows.
Allegations of using patents, bundling, legal threats and predatory pricing and discounting have a long history. IBM spent the 1970s (and a bit of the decades either side) fighting allegations that it used such tactics to support an effective monopoly. The Big Blue tactic for downplaying rivals by “fear, uncertainty and doubt” became a well-known formula.
The 1980s saw AT&T’s ownership of US telecoms being forced to split itself in to the ‘Baby Bells’ regional telcos. Today, Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others face the same battles and attract their share of contempt and shaming. The hoi polloi of below-the-line commentators and other shouty types is often spurred on by rivals to these giants who themselves are no shrinking violets either. The abrasive effect of all this tends to attract regulators and the IBM/AT&T/Microsoft sequence is repeated. These checks and balances might be rough and ready but they work. Sort of.
Perhaps we should see the ABM tendency as the price of success. It’s hard, certainly, to think of a fantastically successful company in tech (or anywhere else) that has not been subject to vituperation. And it’s notable that in recent years Microsoft, through several failures, appears to have lost some of its magnetic attraction for negativity. As the old Arab proverb (nearly) has it, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond