Microsoft Versus
Dissecting Microsoft | Directory

Safety - Microsoft's Appeal

From a posting on the comp.sys.mac.advocacy newsgroup (with small edits and emphasis added):

The other day, I suddenly realized something about Microsoft's popularity that to my mind is an important point: The Microsoft monopoly is a reassuring concept to some.

You won't necessarily hear people saying so outright, but the idea of a benevolent monopoly taps directly into Alvin Toffler's notions of 'future shock' and 'neophobia'. What Microsoft offers is not innovation! They offer safety from innovation, and a promise that if you commit to them they will be there, in perpetuity, and a promise that everybody else is also using Microsoft, meaning that you won't be 'stranded on the fringe of technology'.

In this light, even the foundation of DOS in Win95 is a reassuring thing. The usefulness of a thing isn't at issue here - it is the implication that a computer system is solidly linked to history, solidly established in the present, and will remain predictable and supported in recognizable form in future. This is why the greatest insult from a MS-follower is '*fill in blank* is dead!' (or dying, or not long for this world). To one who has bought into this Microsoft promise, the very idea of moving to a new computing paradigm is terrifying and unacceptable. Everything must remain the same- incremental improvements are preferable to quantum leaps. If quantum leaps are being practiced by another developer/platform, such as the cross-platform OpenDoc or the platform-independent Java, they are dismissed out of hand as trivial. Attempts by Microsoft to co-opt such technologies and water them down into mere ActiveX parts or whatever are welcomed by the faithful - it is reassuring because the threateningly new technology is reduced to an unthreatening, safe, weaker form.

This is a real issue, and reading Microsoft hype about new unique Microsoft stuff is not going to tell you about this underlying subtext. People constantly attack Microsoft for stealing everything not nailed down too firmly... consider that this total lack of innovation is subconsciously reassuring to many people. The subtext is 'Okay, so this is solid, proven stuff. Since it is Microsoft, that makes it even solider and more proven, and it can now be depended on to be around forever.'

The irony is that Microsoft is not capable or interested in building programming concepts that will be stable. Microsoft is more likely than any other software company to introduce 'novelties' that force upgrades of software and eliminate the perceived benefits of 'stability'. Their motive is never the dispassionate one of advancing the technology - after all, they are not accustomed to innovating, they buy other companies and integrate them. ('Integrate' is another key buzzword, as it implies smooth functioning within the existing framework, rather than a quantum leap into uncharted territory.)

Indeed, the most common reaction of Microsoft supporters to a undeniable innovation, a true quantum leap, is outright denial and claims that 'this can be done with DOS' or some such claim. The innovation is reduced to a weaker functionality that can be accomplished with MS solutions, and any implications of deeper functionality are firmly ignored.

Many Microsoft supporters are openly proud of MS's ruthlessness. They find the notion of a vast, powerful company whose side they are on reassuring. It does not occur to them that Microsoft is not precisely on their side - they see it as being on Microsoft's side, as supporting the reduction of the computer industry to non-threatening, simple terms.

The emphasis on 'the largest software base' can be seen as clinging to a structure that will not change or be rendered useless- in spite of Microsoft's attempts to render this previous software useless so new software can be sold. In this light, the reality that most of that software base is 3.1 or DOS takes on new meaning, becomes a powerful anchor to depend on.

With all this in mind, ways to attack Microsoft become obvious.

Claims of new innovation, even quantum leap innovation such as OpenDoc and Java, take on lesser importance. The new concepts are automatically rejected, or diminished to comprehensible form.

The key is implying a more solid foundation than Microsoft can offer, and this is entirely possible. Microsoft never stops making its products obsolete, and this is a betrayal of their hidden promise... many other computer solutions are able to remain familiar and useful throughout long lifespans. One telling example is the Macintosh user interface, which has kept the same core functionality for ten years. Another example is Unix, which draws on a vast legacy and is worked inextricably into the framework of the Internet.

The key point to emphasize is that Microsoft is a trap, easily replaced by operating systems and applications that can be trusted to hold their value. Microsoft cannot be trusted to hold its value, because in order to keep growing they have to keep forcing people off of their familiar, existing software and onto the latest Microsoft solution. If they cannot do this by persuasion they will do it by force, creating new and incompatible solutions, and claiming that failing to upgrade will leave users crippled and impotent...

Which directly attacks the neophobia of Microsoft supporters, leaving them vulnerable, feeling betrayed, and frustrated. They did not turn to 'Microsoft for all things' to be left behind: they wished to make a simple decision and be taken care of for the forseeable future. Every MS upgrade is a point of weakness, particularly if there is incompatibility with previous systems. As Microsoft leans harder on its supporters and exerts more force to move them, it becomes more vulnerable to a titanic backlash.

The antidote, the siren song that will convert Microsoft supporters, is not innovation but safety, stability over time.

Depicting, say, OpenDoc as a quantum leap changing the entire nature of computing, is likely to miss the point entirely. Depicting OpenDoc as a system in which you can simply upgrade a part when necessary and leave the rest of the system known and familiar is a compelling argument.

Depicting, say, the Macintosh interface as an environment undergoing radical and revolutionary change and becoming unrecognisable, is dangerous. Depicting the Macintosh interface as an enviroment with landmarks that are set in stone and not changed haphazardly is a compelling argument.

Depicting, say, Java as a revolutionary concept that will change the way we use computers forever is dangerous. Depicting it as a foundation in which you can bring familiar applications to unfamiliar platforms and be able to use them immediately is a compelling argument.

Failing to understand this is marketing suicide.

Jinx_tigr (aka Chris Johnson)

If anyone is interested, this text is hereby public domain and can be copied, put up on the WWW, printed, or whatever, with my blessing.
Copyright © 2004-2007 Matthew Schwartz