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Counting Microsoft’s Tentacles: Just How Tethered Are We?

Published June 18th, 2005

[My wife] and I both use our home computers to do work-related tasks a great deal. Both of our shops use all of the Microsoft Office applications. … So, practically speaking, because of the demands of my job, I cannot boycott Microsoft entirely on my home computers… Basically, the only Microsoft-produced application I could actually boycott is Windows itself.

Microsoft Embraces the WorldEven a dedicated Microsoft-boycotter like me has trouble avoiding contributing to Microsoft’s coffers these days. On some level, I know my friend worries about supporting Microsoft products, because he uses Mozilla instead of IE, and Quicken instead of Money. But Microsoft’s empire runs far deeper than just Office, Windows, Money, and Internet Explorer. (Oh, that’s right… IE isn’t a separate product. Sorry, I forgot that for a moment.)

Bill Gates and his gang have been focused on defending the Microsoft monopoly for so long, they’ve managed to gain significant shares in pretty much all technologies and market segments that might pose a threat to Windows. Since my fellow Microsoft-watch writers have been kind of quiet on this particular topic for a few years now, I thought it would be good to survey the scene afresh. Let’s take a quick look at the various outposts of Windows technologies and see just how many tentacles we can find (in no particular order):

  1. Handheld computers. This product must have scared Microsoft a little for a few years in the late 1990’s, when the ex-Apple folks who started Palm managed to create a market for their cool little Palm Pilot devices. I remember when suddenly one day in 1998, I became aware that a number of my Citibank colleagues were coming to meetings holding little styluses that they used to tap onto techno-cool, charcoal-colored devices, which looked, interestingly enough, like slimmed-down Apple Newtons. I never succumbed to that particular cool-gadget siren, but Microsoft was worried that if enough people did, they would realize that computing is possible without Windows.

    It took the company way longer than I expected, but just as with Windows itself, their persistence paid off, and eventually they delivered to market a version of Windows CE for handheld computers that worked well enough to compete with the Palm OS. The last I looked, Windows CE had surpassed Palm as the majority handheld OS, and Palm is in a serious run for its life.

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Just say “No” to any device running Windows CE. You can sync up with your office computer using a Palm just as well, and probably more reliably, too.

  2. Cell phones. For Microsoft, cell phones are potentially evil if they get powerful enough to liberate you from Windows. So a couple of years ago, the company introduced Windows Mobile and got a bunch of phone companies to manufacture Windows Phones. Microsoft certainly did a better job in naming this time around, since I don’t think anyone ever really said out loud “Windows CE,” whereas “Windows Mobile” kind of rolls off your tongue. And I really like the idea of a Windows Phone, don’t you?

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Seriously folks, didn’t you learn your lesson with AT&T? Why let the company who has a monopoly on computer desktops gain a monopoly on cell phones too?

  3. Internet Portals. You might think the race to win the hearts and minds of potential Internet-access accounts was almost over, and that nobody actually signs up for Microsoft Network (MSN) or AOL (AOL) anymore. I mean, why do that when you can get less expensive internet service from small no-name Internet Service Providers and use Yahoo or Google, or one of any number of other sites that want to be your Internet portal? But you can bet your sweet bippy that Microsoft doesn’t think it’s over. I mean, they still have a lot of the market to conquer there!

    In case you hadn’t noticed, no less a cultural icon than James Earl Jones has been seen on TV lately telling everyone how wonderful Verizon DSL wireless is. And just what’s so great about it, James? Why, it comes with free MSN, don’t you know! Do you notice how no one says “Microsoft Network?” It’s because they figure no one knows what “MSN” stands for, and if James says it’s OK, why, that’s just fine with me! (Poor James Earl Jones… how the hell did he get rooked into that one?)

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: There are plenty of great internet providers. You don’t need MSN any more than you needed AOL. There are more great web portals out there than you’ll know what to do with. You just need someone to give you an IP address, and try to make sure Microsoft isn’t standing next to them when they do.

  4. Webmail. Why do you suppose people actually use Hotmail, Microsoft’s webmail service? It sure ain’t because it gets great ratings or is considered the best in its category. In a May 2005 study, PC Magazine rates it 4th of the four it evaluated–Google, Yahoo, Fastmail, and Hotmail. In its ongoing rating, CNET ranks Hotmail 6th of the eight it reviews (they don’t include Google because it’s still in beta mode). And so on. But Hotmail is one of the most pernicious outlets for Microsoft technology, and one of the best ways of tying yourself closely to Windows.

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Stay away from Hotmail.

  5. Web Shopping and Services. This is an old story, too, but it’s still an important one. Back in the 1990’s, Microsoft went on a spending spree, seemingly buying up every web company that looked like it might actually make money someday. This was the time when they were busy putting Netscape out of business and making sure that everyone used Internet Explorer to browse the web. The two efforts went hand in hand, and they did get the company in a little hot water, however briefly, with the Justice Department. Knowledgeable pundits at the time raised the alarm that it looked like Microsoft was trying to control the Internet and e-Commerce. That didn’t happen, but Microsoft now owns enough of the web that if you want to avoid paying up to Redmond, you need to be careful where you shop. It’s dangerous, too, because as I noted earlier, tech writers no longer seem to worry about it.

    As much as 5 years ago, this growing ubiquity of Microsoft shopping sites was being raised by numerous voices as a potential privacy concern. Since then, all of the security problems with IE and Windows generally have made Microsoft’s strategy less successful than they would have liked. But still, here is a partial list of websites mostly or wholly owned by Microsoft, which may or may not share information with any or all of Microsoft’s other subsidiaries. If you know of others, please feel free to add them to the list in a comment at the end of the article:

    • Expedia
    • MSN Autos (formerly Carpoint)
    • Microsoft Small Business Center (evolved from bCentral)
    • Link Exchange (now a part of Small Business Center, too)
    • MSN Groups (evolved from bCentral and Listbot)

    Microsoft is focusing its efforts on making MSN and Windows itself the portal to these different online businesses, and with the Justice Department now looking the other way, there’s really nobody to stop them from slowly corralling everyone in that direction. Also key to Microsoft’s strategy is to get everyone who uses their service to register for a “Passport” which, innocently enough, will let its customers carry one ID from business to business without having to register everywhere individually. Sounds great on paper, but think for a minute about what power this gives Microsoft! You do realize how valuable customer lists are to retail businesses, right? Well, MSN is not like a big mall where you go to shop for different things from different vendors. Ultimately, it’s more like a huge, virtual Walmart… a department store that will take care of all of your needs.

    Now, you’re still wondering why this might be bad for you, aren’t you? OK, then, sit back and reflect on the fact that the company that owns this mega-Walmart also owns your computer operating system, and in fact has made Windows XP so transparent that they could peruse all of your accounts in Microsoft Money if they wanted to. Take a look through this list at the other ways Microsoft has learned to “interface” with you, and if you don’t see any cause for concern, you also probably believe the “historians” who claim that the Holocaust was a fraud and that Nixon was framed. In other words, you’re someone who just wants to believe the best about everyone and is unwilling or unable to face reality. God bless you.

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Use Travelocity or Yahoo or any other site for booking plane and hotel tickets. You don’t need Expedia. Be careful where you shop, and avoid any place that asks you to create a Passport account.

  6. Communications. If Rupert Murdoch can own his own TV network and TV news show, Bill Gates wants one too. This way, Microsoft can be sure its own messages come across amid the din of dissenting voices (like mine). Again, I think it’s amusing that we don’t have Microsoft NBC… that would be just a little too blatant, wouldn’t it? And so we have MSNBC instead. What’s another couple of capital letters among friends?

    For younger and hipper folks, Microsoft also has Slate magazine. How do I know that Microsoft owns Slate? The footer says it’s owned by Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC. From looking at the credits/staff pages, you’d never know. But unless Slate’s been sold since June 2004, a Slate article from then said so. Does anyone else find it a little scary to think that Microsoft also may own the Washington Post and Newsweek? It’s beyond the scope of this article to fully untangle all of Microsoft’s ownership tentacles… I think you’ll see that the fairly obvious ones already add up to a pretty big empire.

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Fortunately, there are plenty of news sources around. Don’t use one that has a biased view of the personal computer market, or you’ll never hear about how much simpler your life could be without Windows.

  7. Gaming. Once upon a time, Sony and Nintendo had created a kingdom of great gaming machines, divided the kingdom among themselves, and everyone was happy. Well, everyone but Sega, maybe. Then Microsoft decided that since these were “computer” games, it needed to own some of the kingdom, too. Hopefully, all of the kingdom, truth be told. So it entered the market with the very cool-sounding “X-Box” system, which as it turns out is great for running Linux. And now Microsoft is abandoning Intel and going with IBM for the X-Box’s chips, just as Apple is going the other way with its computers. What does it all mean? Who knows, except it’s another great way for Microsoft to tie you in to MSN, IE, Windows, etc., by making the X-Box most useful when you’ve got one of those things, too.

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: I have to admit I let my son buy a used X-Box with his own money last year. It galls me having that Microsoft thing in the family room, but honestly he hardly ever uses it, and now he’s talking about trading it in for one of the new Playstations or whatever they are. As a parent, I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many hours this 16-year-old spends gaming, chatting, and listening to music on his G5. I use Macminder to keep his G5 gaming under some reasonable control, but his use of the X-Box has never been an issue. And yet… I thought Macs weren’t supposed to be good for computer gaming? Gee, I hate to think how much time he’d spend playing computer games if he had a machine that was any better!

  8. Digital Media. Same story, basically. Microsoft got tired of hosting video formats they didn’t control on their operating system–primarily Real Technologies Real Media, Apple’s QuickTime, and industry-standard MPEG. Apple was successful in moving the industry toward MPEG as the open standard for digital video, and Real had agreed to support it as well. Then in 2002, Microsoft came out with a new version of Windows Media that was totally proprietary, while being close enough to usable that it threatened to draw users and developers away from Real and QuickTime. As Frank Casanova, Apple’s QuickTime marketing director, noted at the time,
    “They believe they are so big that they can take away what consumers want. They believe their size and momentum can drive an entire industry in a proprietary direction with technologies built by Microsoft. That direction is very much opposite to where most of the industry is going.”

    And that’s just digital video, which hasn’t really taken off in the home-computer marketplace yet. Everyone knows the story behind digital audio, which is an ongoing saga of Apple versus Microsoft. Will the David with his handy iPod and industry standard AAC format win? Or will the goliath Microsoft force yet another proprietary “standard” down David’s throat, ensuring an ongoing revenue stream for its shareholders?

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Even if you are stuck with a Windows computer, use QuickTime for video and iTunes for audio. I don’t say that only to keep you from getting sucked into Microsoft’s proprietary formats, but also because they are honestly the very best applications in their class. If you haven’t seen what QuickTime 7 can do with high definition video over the Internet, you’re missing out on something really revolutionary. And, as I’ve pointed out before, the real power behind the iPod is the powerful iTunes application for managing your digital music collection. Best of all, both are free, and both rely on open, industry-standard formats. And for heaven’s sake, stay way from online music services like Rhapsody or Napster that only support Microsoft’s proprietary audio format and thus completely shut out non-Windows platforms. If you really want to have a new monthly bill for something and covet a music subscription service, please be patient. I’m sure Apple will come out with one soon. In the meantime, remember that you can listen for free to 30-second snippets of any of the 1.5 million songs in the iTunes music store. (Check out this article to read my full rant on this subject.)

  9. Collaboration Technologies. Peer-to-peer clients have really mushroomed in the last 5-6 years as an alternative to the web browser for publishing information, downloading content, and communicating. These things are based on the noble notion that you shouldn’t have to run everything through some big central server in order to get anything done. Very democratic… very progressive… and potentially very liberating. Just look at instant messaging, which was the first big “win” for peer-to-peer. It’s hugely successful, and still dominated (to Redmond’s chagrin) by AOL’s software. AOL doesn’t make money from the software, but you can bet they do from advertising and tie-ins.

    Next up was file-sharing, with Napster showing the world what could be done, as well as how NOT to do it if you wanted to avoid copyright lawsuits. The post-Napster peer-to-peer clients avoid Napster’s fate by taking a central server (which Napster used for user logins, basically) out of the picture, and letting the software find other users and their files all by themselves. Gnutella, Limewire, Acquisition, and some Windows-only thing called Kazaa have been hugely successful in recent years as a way of distributing digital media, primarily music.

    On another level–and in a market segment that still hasn’t really taken off–is a software package called Groove. When I first read about Groove in the late 1990’s, I thought it sounded so cool. Groove was to be a product that would let people collaborate on documents, share screens, chat, and all the rest of it without requiring a central server to host it all. It was being developed by Ray Ozzie, whose previous claim to fame was Lotus Notes, and therefore a guy who clearly knew something about collaboration tools. One big difference between Groove and the other peer-to-peer platforms is that it was specifically designed as a business application, rather than as a consumer app.

    Only one problem: Groove was for Microsoft Windows only. After its release in late 2000, many folks in the industry kept hoping they would expand the platform to run on non-Windows desktops, but it never happened. Finally, some guys in England figured out a way to let Mac users Groove with their Windows peers (for a fee).

    And then the hammer struck. Even though Microsoft had been trying to build useful collaboration tools into Microsoft Office, it apparently decided Groove was ripe for the pickings and went and bought the whole company. First they merely invested in Groove (2001), and then earlier this year they absorbed the company outright. Gone. Like that. Like Vermeer (Front Page), Visio, Hotmail, WebTV, LinkExchange, Connectix (Virtual PC), and many others. So now it’s Microsoft Groove. Do you think they’ll ever open up the game to other players now? Fat chance. Remember, the whole object of Redmond’s strategy is to protect and strengthen their Windows/Office monopoly.

    Not that there aren’t other peer-to-peer collaboration tools on the market, and some that are cross platform as well as ones that are Mac-only. But Groove has a huge head start in a fledgling market, and stands a good chance of becoming the Microsoft Word of the next generation office place.

    It’s worth writing a few more words on this point. Do you know how, in the game of Monopoly, the time finally comes when one of the players has so much money there’s just no stopping him (or her)? It’s because, that’s the endgame of monopolistic behavior. Microsoft has such a huge, undeserved revenue stream from its original DOS and Windows monopoly, that the point is coming when they can literally buy whatever they want, and stop whomever they want. If they choose to let you continue playing in the game, they can do that too. But get too annoying, and watch out! The only good thing that seems to have come from the antitrust trial in the U.S. is that it’s made Microsoft more circumspect about buying and investing in other companies. Unfortunately, a glance at Microsoft’s investments and acquisitions list suggests it may have been too late, since they’d already gone on an unbelievable spending spree during 1995-2001, probably in anticipation of such an outcome.

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: As nice as it may seem, avoid Groove. Try one of the many other peer-to-peer collaboration tools out there, or use a technology like Wiki instead. For OS X specifically, Apple’s “Bonjour” (used to be called “Rendezvous” until a lawsuit intervened) zero-configuration networking is ideal for collaborative work, and there are a number of new, innovative Mac OS X products coming out to support it. Another recent addition to the field is Near-Time Flow, which appears to be defining a wholly new class of desktop application.

  10. Financial software. Oh, how badly Microsoft wanted to buy Intuit back in 1995. That would have been so much easier than having to develop their own product, Money, into something truly competitive. Fortunately, the Justice Department intervened, and that wasn’t allowed to happen. (A lot of idiots at the time thought Justice was wrong on that, by the way… Take a look at this incredibly wrong-headed analysis as an example.) Still, Microsoft has proceeded to try to take over the financial software market, first by sheer dominance of the Windows platform, and second by purchasing Great Plains in 2001, a company that makes accounting software to compete with Intuit’s QuickBooks. Is Intuit doomed, like so many others who refused to play nice with Bill? Certainly, they haven’t helped themselves win friends among Mac users by continually releasing sloppy software that doesn’t match the functionality of its Windows versions. But at least they do make a Mac version, and are in the best position to prevent Microsoft from taking over the financial software business.

    Frankly, I can’t understand why any intelligent person would use Microsoft Money. Come on… only a total idiot would take such a risk. You’d have to truly believe Microsoft is this nice, big, warm-and-fuzzy corporation that loves you as much as their commercials say they do. Good old nerdy-looking Bill Gates would never take advantage of having a direct line into your home computer running Windows, which his company designed, which has all of your personal financial information stored in a special file format, which they also designed. Would he?

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Whatever you do, don’t use Microsoft Money. I know modern life would be impossible without personal finance software, but just hold your nose and use Quicken instead.

    Warning to Intuit: I keep watching the market for a Mac product that’s better than Quicken. But since every Mac I’ve ever bought, starting in 1996, came with a current release of Quicken for free, I can’t complain too much. :-) Still, Intuit needs to move a little faster if they want to stay ahead of Microsoft Money in this market. And don’t take your Mac customers for granted.

  11. Gaming software. The gaming market is divided into game console play (where you use your TV, typically), and computer gaming. It’s pretty easy to identify games designed by Microsoft for the X-Box, but not quite so easy to know when the game you want to buy was made by Microsoft or not. Did you know that Microsoft makes all of the following computer games? Of course, none of them is available for the Mac:
    • The Lost Chapters
    • Zoo Tycoon
    • Rise of Nations
    • Age of Mythology
    • Flight Simulator
    • Freelancer
    • Impossible Creatures
    • RalliSport Challenge
    • MechWarrior
    • Combat Flight Simulator
    • Dungeon Siege
    • Bicycle Board, Card, and Casino Games
    • Racing Madness
    • Age of Empires
    • MechCommander
    • Train Simulator

    You see, Bill wants to be with you always. At work, at home, in the car, while shopping, at the theater… Well, I think Microsoft is out of DreamWorks finally, so it’s safe to watch Steven Spielberg again. :-)

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Avoid the above titles.

  12. Other Desktop Software. Just in case you didn’t know, here’s a list of some other software titles Microsoft owns:
    • Encarta
    • Picture It!
    • Digital Image Pro
    • Front Page
    • Streets and Trips
    • Microsoft Project
    • Microsoft Publisher

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: Just avoid these, too.

  13. Server Software. You’d think that anyone in web publishing and web application development would know by now to avoid Windows as a server platform, but there are so many essentially lazy guys with Microsoft Developer Certification out there that unless their clients are actually savvy about it, they will fill the world up with Microsoft server solutions. Unless you’ve been sleeping for the last 4 years and are just now waking up, the reason to avoid Windows as a server platform is that it’s incredibly prone to attack by both viruses and hackers. And although Windows has grown more reliable, it’s still not as bulletproof as Unix platforms, like Mac OS X or Linux.

    So what do these Microsoft Certified Nuts build with the tools they get from the Microsoft developer network? They’ll build using

    • .NET architecture
    • Windows Server 2003 (web server)
    • SQL Server (database)
    • Active Server Pages (ASP)
    • Visual Studio

    They will also speak mystically of the virtues of Microsoft server products with names like:

    • Live Communication Server
    • Project Server
    • SharePoint Portal Server
    • Live Meeting
    • Office Online
    • Content Management Server
    • Active Directory

    Notice how some of these products have such generic names that customers will get the impression that there are no other products in the category. I mean, why buy “Vignette” or “InterWoven” when you can just buy “Content Management Server”? Besides, whoever heard of Vignette or Interwoven?

    Another vital product in this category is email. Microsoft sells something called “Exchange,” which you connect to with software called “Outlook.” A great many people now use this software in corporate America, but there are still some who use competing products from Lotus (Notes) and Novell (Groupwise). At the very least, even if your company uses Exchange for its mail server, make sure they support IMAP and/or POP accounts, so you can connect using email clients other than Outlook. There really are much better and easier-to-use email clients than Outlook these days.

    The good news is that the Windows security nightmare of the last few years has dramatically slowed the penetration of Windows into the data center, so Microsoft isn’t close to achieving the monopoly there that they have on the desktop. But that doesn’t mean they won’t stop trying.

    Lesson for Microsoft boycotters: If you manage an IT staff, steer them away from Windows-specific technologies as far as possible. Where I work, we finally killed off the last Windows NT box this year and completed migration of all of our Cold Fusion applications to Unix. Now we don’t have to worry so much about the penetration testing the auditors do every year. If you’re hiring a company to build you a web application, don’t let them get away with selling you a Windows-server solution. You’ll be far better served going with one of the many fine java application servers, or with the open-source LAMP (Linux/Apache/MySQL/PhP) platform. Also remember that the AMP part of LAMP runs great on any platform, including Mac OS X. That’s the architecture I’m personally most familiar with as a programmer.

So, this is a pretty extensive collection of tentacles, don’t you agree? And I haven’t even included the software that makes up the company’s bread-and-butter product: Microsoft Office. It’s hard to say no to Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint, especially if your employer makes you use them. But there are a large number of Office-compatible products out there nowadays. And I’ll have more to say about these packages in an upcoming article. If I’ve left something out that you know of, by all means add a note as a comment to this article. I’m sure there are many tentacles I don’t even know exist.

The bottom line is: Microsoft is everywhere in our lives in a way that no other company in history has ever been. And no other company in history has been so privy to all of our personal information–such as the amazing amount of stuff we now store on our personal computers in the form of files, emails, web browsing history, web cookies, software, photos, home movies, financial data, etc–while also being our retailer, our travel agent, our car salesman, our consierge, our therapist, etc. It’s just silly to let this happen to you.

There are alternatives for most of these product lines at the moment, but that doesn’t mean there always will be. So for now, when you have a good alternative to a Microsoft product, take it. Don’t let the winner of this particular monopoly game put all the rest of the players in the poor house. In fact, there’s a reason why in the real world monopolists need to be controlled by the government: The nature of capitalism is such that all games would end like Monopoly if monopolists were allowed to continue growing unchecked. Gaining a monopoly in the first place is also a hard thing to do in a healthy capitalist economy, because competition ensures that no one company can get that big. Microsoft’s monopoly of the computer desktop is a historical fluke, but one that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have played hard (and, I would argue, unethically) to win and to maintain.

It may strike you as just bad science fiction to imagine it could ever happen, but if our government fails to reign in a company like Microsoft, that company could very well end up owning all the others. As in the game of Monopoly, there would be only one winner. Which means that everyone else would be losers.

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