Looking for Answers

by Doc Searls

It's not easy to talk about Microsoft. As Don Norman says, "Microsoft is a conversational black hole. Drop the subject into the middle of a room, and it sucks everybody into a useless place from which no light can escape."

But Don said that four years ago. Times change.

There's a lot of light escaping from Microsoft itself these days. The brightest is Robert Scoble's Weblog. Scoble is one of several hundred Microsoft bloggers who are, so it seems, changing the company radically from the inside out.

Or maybe not. I don't know. What I do know is it is impossible for a company to succeed to the degree Microsoft has if all they do is suck. Which is what that many of us (myself included) in the free software and Open Source communities have been saying for years. And which is what many people in IT have told me is a blind spot for those communities.

It's a plain fact that nearly all IT shops that use open-source products--even those that aggressively pursue open-source strategies and participate at an official level with Open Source communities--also are Microsoft customers. Both Linux and Microsoft (note the logic; it's not or) have been growing in enterprises. Displacements of one by the other may make for interesting stories, but in general that's not what's happening. Both continue to succeed. Why?

Craig Burton says moral sympathies tend to collapse distinctions. The moral axis runs from bad to good, and its magnetic powers are enormous. If one thing Microsoft does is bad (say, muscling OEMs) or even if many things they do are bad (say, making flaky software, charging good money for it and then raising prices when no customer asks for it), then everything Microsoft does must be bad. Right? We see it in every kind of partisan talk about The Other Side. Listen to right-wing or left-wing talk radio. "The other side sucks" is pretty much all you hear in every partisan echo chamber, including our own.

But is that true about Microsoft? I don't think so. Within the mainstays of Office--Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook--are almost countless inventions, features and innovations found nowhere else, things that customers like. In their own ways, each of these products can be exasperating. But, they provide many highly useful capabilities that most executives (or rank & file business folk) would rather not live without, even if OpenOffice.org or KOffice equal or surpass Microsoft Office in features and functionalities. And how likely is that, given the necessarily derivative nature of both, as they stalk the leader that defines the base lists of expected features and functions?

And what about the influence of the profit motive? Let's face it: without development funded by profit motives, the market would be a much smaller and less interesting place.

We have a useful controlled study of that situation, within Microsoft itself. When Microsoft decided to make Internet Explorer a free product--that is, a noncommercial product--they continued to innovate for awhile and then pretty much stopped, at least relative to the speeds at which they maintain in competitive commercial marketplaces (of which Office is not one; better to look at, say, XBox). Although IE 6 is better than 5, no doubt, it hardly has advanced significantly since IE achieved its market objective of obliterating Netscape as a competitor in the late 90s. (Form elements alone hardly have changed in five years.) Then, when Apple pulled a Microsoft and launched Safari as a free browser (leveraging, among other things, the good work done by the KHTML team at KDE), Microsoft dropped out of the Mac browser market. One guy I know, who worked on the Microsoft browser team, said that IE 6 for the Mac was full of great new innovations that were abandoned when Microsoft decided to pull the plug on the product (leaving the perma-rusty IE as the only OS X browser that can open those IE-only Web pages).

Meanwhile, look at what Mozilla is up to. Mozilla and FireFox quietly have become killer browsers. Better yet, listen to what Brendan Eich of Mozilla and his friends at Opera and Safari are trying to do with the WHAT working group, as they attempt to roll the idle Internet Explorer out of the center of the browser marketplace, which is now comprised almost entirely of free (as in beer) products. They're taking responsibility for developing the market. Very interesting stuff happens in a "commodity" marketplace like this one.

Anyway, while Scoble is on vacation, look at his list of positives about Microsoft and about the advantages of working for the company. Ignore his little knock on Linux, if you can find it. Here's an excerpt of the interesting stuff:

Hmm, come over and talk with Channel 9. Five guys. $500 video cameras. Tell us we haven't made a difference.

Or, go talk to any of the guys over in Microsoft Research. You'll see how they are making a difference. One person at a time.

Or, go visit the Tablet PC team. One guy did the drivers. A very small team did the software.

Go talk to Christopher Brumme about how many people did .NET. Hint, it wasn't very many. More have shown up to some of my geek dinners.

Or go talk to Chris Pratley. He, and a small team, got OneNote out the door (against big odds) and it's turned into a great product.

Then compare that to my NEC experience. There one guy or one team could barely even get noticed, much less change the world.

How many companies let their employees blog? (Heck, no one above my manager ever even talked with me about mine). If you aren't allowed to blog, how can you rally people to get behind your ideas?

Go talk to Gary Starkweather, inventor of the Laser Printer. In my interview with him the other day he told me that his bosses didn't even care about his invention (even at Xerox PARC, he told me, they didn't know how to use it).

Ask him if he can't make a difference at Microsoft. Go ahead. I'll wait for you to get the answer.

The answers I'm looking for here aren't of the "know your enemy" sort. Rather, they're of the "know your customer" or "know your user" sorts. Or of Steven Covey's Habit Five: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. It may sound like sales retreat pablum, but it's also one reason why Microsoft itself succeeds, in spite of the stuff it does to piss people off.

Doc Searls is senior editor of Linux Journal. His monthly column for the magazine is Linux For Suits. His bi-weekly newsletter is SuitWatch. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, a community site for "News, ideas and real world stories about how IT folks solve their own problems".

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