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The Perpetual Microsoft Canard

One of the things I hear regularly repeated as though it were an established and accepted truth is that Microsoft is a legacy company that [take your pick] doesn't understand the Web, doesn't understand consumers, doesn't understand developers. In all scenarios, Microsoft is just a few years away from its inevitable and deserved collapse.

Every one of us has read these contentions: and likely intoned them once or twice ourselves. A new rash of these assertions will surely appear shortly if the recent news that the Redmond giant will let the Zune product line die out is true.

What is fascinating about this point of view is that it is so obviously incorrect. Before the accusations of Microsoft fanboy-ism start up, I should remind you that I was the editor of UNIX Review for years and watched Redmond gobble up that industry. I was not a fan of the then-unstable operating system and I wrote passionately about the feckless response of UNIX vendors in the face of a very dangerous foe. Since then, I wrote a column that analyzed the programming industry — all areas except Microsoft (which was the dedicated jurisdiction of Larry O'Brien, the former editor in chief of Computer Language and of Software Development — both ancestors of today's Dr. Dobb's). Moreover, while I've been to TechEd (and will be there this year), I have never been to the Microsoft campus, nor have I ever been invited. So, I have no special relationship or debt to the Redmond giant, and for many years was a fairly vocal skeptic of their technologies.

This, you'd think, would make me favor the statements I'm about to take to task. But the impassive persistence of reality makes this option impossible. Let's take the consumer space, since this appears to be where Microsoft might be most vulnerable. The Zune will surely be touted a perfect example of Microsoft's ineptness. Agreed. But I should point out that no one in that segment has successfully competed with Apple, so Microsoft is no worse than any other vendor. How about other consumer segments, such as games? Microsoft's XBox 360 is a smash hit. And the Kinect is undeniably one of the most innovative products in several years. I think the company understands gamers.

Outside of gaming, consumers adopted Windows 7 in record numbers. It was the best-selling operating system release in Amazon's history. And it has driven Microsoft revenue to all-time highs, which you'll admit is not among the usual symptoms of a company that's on the verge of obsolescence. A counterpoint to Windows 7's success might be the earlier Vista. But if you've actually used Vista, you know that much of Windows 7 is Vista repackaged.

Moving to MS Office, which is the big ball of mud that everyone loves to hate. But 20 years on, where are the better alternatives? StarOffice was funded by Sun for years and came out with acceptable but certainly not better tools. Likewise all the other OSS and commercial competitors. Writing a really good word processor is astoundingly difficult work, even when you have Word to use as a model. (I work on an open source typesetting project, so I have some sense of the scope of the problem).

Let's get to our favorite part, however: developer tools. I don't like how much Microsoft charges for its tools and how heavy the environment is. But the innovation is definitely there. C# is without question a well-managed language. The addition of intelligent, useful features marks its path. As to other languages, no other major vendor has had the daring to ship and support a functional language in years. But Microsoft did that with F#. How about MSDN? Probably the best run developer program ever.

Finally, let's look at the enterprise. Windows shares the throne with Linux for operating system supremacy. Microsoft has the #3 DBMS. In the cloud, Microsoft Azure is undeniably a player. And according to recent polls cited on our website, the fastest cloud out there.

No other company — not Apple, Adobe, HP, IBM, or Oracle — offers such a wide range of products from the consumer level to the enterprise. In many ways, this exposes Microsoft to criticism from which other companies are immune. For example, no one takes Apple to task for its failed (and now withdrawn) server. Yet it was clearly technology that significantly misjudged its audience. The execrable Objective C language barely raises a grumble. And so on.

The purpose of my comments is not to pen a paean to the Redmond monolith — it no more needs me to do that than you do. In fact, I couldn't, as there are lots of things Microsoft does that truly annoy me. Its deep embrace of proprietary technologies, the enormous delay in putting together an excellent desktop operating system (Windows 7 finally got us there), its odd browser, and so forth. But to avoid reflexive agreement with the widespread bias, I do think we can retire the canard that the company does not innovate or understand its customers.

— Andrew Binstock, Dr. Dobb's Executive Editor
[email protected]

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