Understanding Microsoft

Part 26. Typhoid Mary

Young Mary Mallon came to America in the early twentieth century and found work as a cook for wealthy New Yorkers. Apparently she did her job well, and she was able to work for several of these blue-blood families in a relatively short period of time. However, despite her best efforts at cleanliness and cooking excellence, nearly everyone she cooked for soon became ill of typhoid fever, and many of her clients died. Public health officials were stunned when they realized what was going on -- a person was running amok spreading disease without suffering from the disease themselves. Thus the notion of a disease *carrier* was popularized, the idea that a person could have disease immunity and yet spread these germs unknowingly to many other people. She became known as the infamous Typhoid Mary, and she was quarantined to a small island for almost the rest of her life.

In the computer field it is interesting to see how this same kind of carrier effect exists among know-it-all computer users. It seems like every community has some busybody who goes around "helping" people. This "help" usually involves insisting that they install some version of Microsoft Windows on the PC, claiming that if they don't do it, something bad might happen. This supposed helping usually doesn't help at all; instead, the computer runs slower or perhaps crashes all the time. Or maybe a favorite program suddenly doesn't work any more. But the would-be helper just goes on his or her own way, blaming the unfortunate victim's PC for the problem instead of fixing it. And of course in many cases it can only be fixed by a trained professional who must wipe the hard drive clean and start all over.

It is interesting to note that most such busybodies don't let anyone else touch their own computers. They don't allow people to put stuff onto their PCs, and they don't try something unless somebody else has done it first. Thus the crew of know-it-all PC breakers acts like a team of digital Typhoid Mary's, making their rounds regularly and messing up things that at least were fairly useable. And of course there are no health authorities to quarantine them and prevent their woeful incompetence from spreading like a disease.

The biggest Typhoid Mary of the computer industry, however, is Microsoft itself. Just when a corporation gets their systems stabilized and working with at least acceptable failure rates, just when the training courses and the unpaid overtime have finally gotten the workforce up to their previous level of competence, just when the bugs and problems have at least become predictable and repeatable, along comes Microsoft with a new version of the operating system, or a new version of the major application software! Just like some kind of digital Typhoid Mary, bringing disaster and destruction to datafiles and departmental networks, Microsoft insists that entire corporations dump their stabilized configurations and start another round of so-called "upgrades" -- or else they won't be able to get the same kind of special "deals" that they were offered on the previous sales cycle. Managers who are offered a price differential of half a million dollars will usually fall for the false economy of the Microsoft offer, sacrificing corporate reliability for a short-term cash savings.

And just how does Typhoid Microsoft avoid this plague themselves? Considering the number of IBM AS400's and UNIX machines used at Microsoft, the answer should be obvious: they choose products which are immune to Microsoft's own self-created plague.

Most recent revision: January 29, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.

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