Understanding Microsoft

Part 13. The Whipping Boy

There is a curious apparent paradox in the computer marketplace: thousands of computer dealers buy their operating systems and other software products only from Microsoft, yet these same computer dealers complain bitterly about the weaknesses and the defects in these same Microsoft products. Are these salesmen schizophrenic, or is there perhaps a method to their madness?

You can see computer magazines constantly laud Microsoft as a sort of godlike progenitor of the future, yet within these same magazines there are numerous little slaps at Microsoft and its minions, particularly its upper management. While recommending the products, these same magazines will often point to their flaws and whine about unsolved problems. And if you think the consumer PC magazines are this way, you should try to sample the trade press sometime. There is a sort of love-hate relationship between the press and Microsoft, just as there is between the computer dealers and Microsoft. What is the reason for this seeming dichotomy?

In actuality this is just a new form of fatalism or "kismet," the idea that whatever happens is out of our hands, not within our ability to control, that it's "fate" or "destiny" and therefore we must learn to accept whatever happens as preordained from above. The new fatalism solves a lot of religious problems in the computer industry, like who to believe when a question about compatibility arises. This solves the problem of having to explain the deep technological issues of memory management, operating system design, user interface optimization, and other monopolized elements of the computer business. Instead of having to go out on a limb and make an individual commitment to a particular technology, computer dealers and self-appointed experts can just point to the latest Microsoft offering and bless it as holy.

When confronted by hardware or support problems that are beyond the technical grasp of the sales clerks, this convenient excuse always works: "That's the way Microsoft made it." Instead of having to get their hands dirty and do some real testing, technicians can just blame Microsoft. Computer dealers can offer Microsoft products as "the devil we know" instead of worrying about some "devil we don't know." This makes Microsoft a sort of pacifier or security blanket to be offered to the new customers, while providing a handy whipping boy to heap blame upon for the more experienced customers. Microsoft is a whipping boy that everyone can take their frustrations out on, without actually having to fix anything or solve anybody's problems. And since Microsoft can't solve the problems either, nobody expects things to work right all the time, casually lowering product expectations and allowing misfits and technologically undereducated people to find a niche in a field that they are basically unqualified to work in.

Only in an industry where the whipping boy is a powerful monopolist in control of production, distribution, and commentary could such a travesty take place. In any other field, a set of products so universally acknowledged as brain-dead, obsolete, or at least mediocre would be rejected, and the company that provided them would become a laughingstock instead of a master to be feared. By allowing itself to be used as a whipping boy to let computer industry personnel off the hook, Microsoft is inculcating a culture of mindless acceptance of mediocrity into a misinformed public.

Most recent revision: December 22, 1997
Copyright © 1997, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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