Taking Microsoft's Rorschach test

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper asks what it is about Microsoft that pushes so many people straight over the edge?

The Monday morning missive got right to the point:

"I find it simultaneously strange, amazing and utterly incomprehensible that your news publications continue to write business articles about Microsoft that appear to elevate and lend credibility to their organization. It's almost as if I am reading something coming out of the Pyongyang press!"

There's no doubt that Kim Jong-il longs to direct technology coverage at CNET News.com, though I can assure one and all that neither the dear leader nor any of his comrades are in line to direct our editorial operations any time soon.

The e-mail was not altogether exceptional, when you consider how Microsoft has become a latter-day Rorschach test for people who are passionate about their technology.

There's a certain something about this particular company that pushes certain folks over the edge.

But it takes on a larger context when you tally in years of Microsoft-hating feedback detailing the enormity of this single company's misdeeds.

Sociologists would need to spend years getting to a root explanation, but this much is incontestable: There's a certain something about this particular company that pushes certain folks over the edge.

Microsoft bashing was in vogue long before the U.S. Department of Justice hauled the company into court on antitrust charges in 1998. Some trace the resentment to the storied 1976 "Open Letter to Hobbyists" in which a 21-year-old Gates publicly chastised a group of developers for pirating his software. The backlash was immediate. (Paying for software? What a whiner!)

The label stuck. In time, Gates--and by extension, Microsoft--came to be viewed through a different prism. Unlike other early PC entrepreneurs doing their thing to make the world a better place for humanity, Microsoft got slammed for conducting business like marauding Huns. They were without morals, they were without ethics and on top of everything else, they made lousy software.

Even the anarchists got pissed at Gates, nailing him a few years ago with a cream pie.

Microsoft has public-relations baggage that's hard to shake. And as the technology industry's most famous convicted predatory

As the technology industry's most famous convicted predatory monopolist, Microsoft will never again have the benefit of the doubt.
monopolist, the company will never again win the benefit of the doubt. Still, the psycho nature of the conspiracy theorists is something to behold.

So much so that even Microsoft's ostensible good deeds only serve as more fodder for trashing. Consider the company's decision to sell Windows XP to developing nations at sharp discounts and expand computer literacy programs in local markets. To be sure, there's an element of self-interest involved. But when was the last time you read about Oracle or Apple Computer doing something on the same scale?

It doesn't matter, because the wackos already uncovered evidence of Microsoft's nefarious hidden hand. Dim the lights, tune the music, and insert Bill Gates into the starring role of Ming the Merciless.

Thus we are told that Microsoft won the legendary operating-system war against IBM's OS/2 because of dirty dealing. Forget that Big Blue was utterly incompetent in marketing its software against Windows. Forget that Windows finally improved to the point where it became a better product. All that pales in comparison with the Microsoft's indelible malevolence that attends the company's business dealings. Similar ravings have informed the debates about Microsoft versus Mac or Microsoft versus Linux--or Microsoft against anything, for that matter.

Back on Earth, I don't think there's anything wrong bringing Microsoft down a notch or two. As a charter member of the Monday Morning Quarterback Club, I've thoroughly enjoyed holding Gates Inc. up to public ridicule for poor behavior and appallingly bad judgment. I'd still like to know why nobody in Redmond had the brains--let alone the guts--to stop its home science project (aka MSNBC) from hiring a knucklehead like Michael Savage.

None of that should detract from Microsoft's track record as one of the great corporate successes of this--or any--era. Comparing Microsoft with the likes of Enron and WorldCom speaks volumes about the relative immaturity of the computer industry. Unfortunately, I know it's only a matter of time before somebody drops me an e-mail claiming to possess proof that Gates was on the grassy knoll in 1963.


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