One day I was visiting John Markoff at The New York Times
and he told me about the time Bill Gates came to his office and looked
over the big Macintosh he uses. He watched Gates examine the machine for
a few minutes and saw him get noticeably irritated. "He couldn't find any
Microsoft software on the machine. I don't use any," said Markoff, chuckling
I've always remembered this andecdote and recently wondered what the world would be like if Microsoft suddenly disappeared without a trace and the world continued as if the company never existed in the first place.
It dawned on me that hardly anything would be different. This is particularly true on the Macintosh where Microsoft mostly sells Excel and its me-too word processor Microsoft Word. Few would argue that Word is the best processor for the Mac. It isn't. It would NEVER be missed if it never existed. On the other hand Excel might be the best spreadsheet for the Mac, but it isn't irreplaceable. Life would go on easily without Excel. Microsoft brings very little else to Apple's party. In fact Microsoft Windows has probably done more to harm Apple and the Mac than all its Mac support has helped.
Even in the PC World you have to wonder what things would be like without Microsoft. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) might not have been as well developed as it is now that Windows has taken off. It's possible that this is Microsoft's sole contribution to the world of computing. Then again, Windows was a reaction to something called VisiON which was a quasi-GUI/windowing environment first shown in the early 1980s. And for those who like the GUI on the PC there is always OS/2 or Motif which is much prettier. When you combine Microsoft's meek contribution with the negative aspect of the company, namely its buying up of small creative development shops all over the place, you have to ask yourself if indeed the computer scene is now being hampered by Microsoft and its one-man vision.
I think we can effortlessly conclude that the world would not be worse off if Microsoft had never existed. Let's look at some things we wouldn't miss.
1. BATTLES. We wouldn't miss the battle between Microsoft and IBM, and the constant bickering between the old-timers and bureaucrats at IBM and the low-level, know-it-all kids at Microsoft. To fully appreciate this dichotomy go rent the British version of the Max Headroom movie. It's a full-length feature with a few different characters not found in the American series. Besides being a terrific film, the nerdy computer whiz in the British movie is the epitome of a Microsoft kid. Meanwhile the netwok owner is like an old-time IBMer. While funny in the film, their respective presence in real life we can do without.
2. ATTENTION. We wouldn't miss Windows and all the attention it gets at the expense of OS/2. Enough said about that.
3. PAP. We wouldn't miss Bill's Information-at-Your-Fingertips notion. How boring. As an aside I should mention that Fred Gibbons of Software Publishing was telling me one day that Microsoft is so derivative that almost everything they do is a copy of someone else's idea. Windows stemmed from VisiON and the Mac. The term "NT" stems from 386 NT, the name originally rumored for the PS/2 when announced in 1987. I could go on and on with this stuff. So Fred asks me, "Do you know where Gates got the term 'Information at Your Fingertips'? He got it from me! I created the term and mentioned it to him in a conversation. Next thing I know he's using it!"
4. CRAP. We wouldn't miss the offbeat Microsoft de facto standards such as the WORD formatted document. There's a standard that should be tarred and feathered. Nowadays nearly every publisher requires Word files. Few know what the term ASCII even means.
5. PROMOTION. We wouldn't miss the pre-announcement hype surrounding nearly all Microsoft products. They talk about things such as Chicago, Cairo, Win NT 4.0 and the like as though they were actually shipped. Things that haven't even been trial coded are nearly announced products. All these products have incredibly grandiose specifications that can never be possibly met.
6. OH PUL-LEEZE! We wouldn't miss the poor-boy act put on by Microsoft. Bill Gates flies coach. His new bride intends to keep working even though she's married to a billionaire. Gads, why? I'm reminded of the hicks in California who win the lottery. "Gosh, Jeb and I will put this 10 million dollars to good use, but we're going to keep working on the pig farm as hog sloppers. No reason to quit just because we're now rich. We're plain ordinary folk." Give me a break. Why do these boneheads even play the lottery if they aren't going to change their lives? I thought THAT was the idea in the first place! So Gates is going to work his 16-hour days and so will his lovely wife. Get off it. School's out. The bell rang. Check the wallet.
Then again if there wasn't a Microsoft there might still be John Akers-managed IBM, which is something that was going nowhere fast. So perhaps Microsoft did have a reason to exist after all. The reason is now null and void.
John C. Dvorak is a computer columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, PC Magazine, PC Computing, Microtimes and Mac User.