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In a world where Microsoft is a success story...

While looking through the contents of a CD I found the other day, I noticed this MP3 file, which I must have downloaded from the internet at some point. Dated 17th December 1998, this pastiche of Jingle Bells seems to tell the story of how Microsoft bloatware is the curse of the modern world. This criticism has been made time and time again; Microsoft have regularly been blasted for their huge requirements on a computer's hardware. However, with the benefit of hindsight, this song is actually funnier in itself than the message it tries to convey.

The singer complains of:

Back in 1998, this sounded like crazy talk. However, in 2002, when I will not buy a computer with less than 256 Megabytes of RAM, and where 20 Gigabyte Hard disks DO grow on trees, this seems funnier. You have to wonder whether the singer was making a valid complaint, or simply bemoaning signs of progress and feeling envious of Microsoft's very obvious success.

Let's assume that it is unreasonable for Microsoft to demand so much for its operating system and office software. Let's assume that we could look at alternative software as a better model. The obvious choice would be Linux, since it supposedly embodies the spirit of independent well-written software. Looking at the current version of Linux, which I recently copied (legally, of course).

So... not really much different, then.

This all leads me to wonder why people have a go at Microsoft. It seems odd that even the American government have decided to act against one of their most successful companies. Microsoft has made its fortune by a combination of competent software, good marketing and a pricing structure that enables their software to proliferate and still bring in a lot of money. People complain that Microsoft uses proprietary standards, rather than open standards used in the UNIX world, yet Microsoft essentially is a standard in its own right. Where the folks at Redmond have adopted open-standards, they have often found them lacking and have worked hard to expand them - often to have their extensions either rejected or ignored.

People hate Microsoft because it is Microsoft, and for no other reason. What irritates those who criticise Microsoft the most is undoubtedly the combination of how prolific Windows is and how much of the user experience it wraps up neatly. Windows is not brilliant, but it does the job and often does it more elegantly than the alternatives. Though, on average, a user's Windows experience can be mediocre, they can get along just fine. If you look at this from the point of view of an outsider, who can make certain parts of the user's experience a heck of a lot better, you can easily see where some of the zeal originates. Why should a mediocre product be so popular? This is where the zealots push forward their pet solution - usually something open-source like Linux, or completely noddy like Mac. The problem is that these pet solutions often have heinous foibles elsewhere in them, which Mr Zealout has never really looked at, or has conveniently forgotten. Windows may have its faults, but it is, at least, consistent.

It's worth pointing out that a lot of the problems with Windows stem from its success at being a framework for hardware and software vendors to use for their own ends. Many of the modules and programs you use with Windows, day to day, are provided by third parties. Third parties do not always get things right and so random hardware-related faults (sometimes weird driver issues) can arise. You may find yourself sitting in front of a crashing application, blaming Windows, when it is the application's writer who is to blame.

To state my position on this seems appropriate at this point. I am sitting at a Windows 2000 workstation, using Microsoft's FrontPage software to write this article. In my job I write C++ software, using Microsoft's Foundation Classes, to run on Microsoft Windows. I am a system administrator of various Windows boxes and I'm undergoing Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer training... "aha", you think, "he's just a Microsoft zealot". Wrong! I spent a lot of the past two days working on Linux boxes. I'll be setting up my own Linux firewall. I'm system administrator of a Linux mail-server and I truly believe in the value of Open Source software.

My point is that there's a place for all platforms. You don't need to be a zealot to have a rich computing experience. Microsoft may not do things to everyone's satisfaction, and that's not a problem, since there are other platforms. However, I cannot see anything wrong with Microsoft's approach to producing and marketing software. Indeed, I have a lot of respect for much of their output. When you learn how much Windows 2000 can do, and realise how straightforward it can be to set up, you realise how much other software groups have to learn.

So give Mr Gates a break, even if it's only a little one.

14 March 2002
Ashley Frieze