I know, I know. You hate Microsoft for its bloated, buggy software, its slowness to innovate, and its government-certified, monopolistic bullying. I won't argue with any of those points, or those made last week in the NY Times by former Microsoft VP Dick Brass, who called his former employer "a clumsy, uncompetitive innovator."
But I will say this: All of us in the technology community owe a big debt to Microsoft. Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer shouldered a task that, for all their brilliance, Jobs and his colleagues at Apple didn't take on: making computing ubiquitous.
It's easy to bash Microsoft over its many failings, and I often do--particularly on the consumer front. But the Redmond giant has done an admirable job of getting pretty much every business on earth onto a single, functional platform.
Is that a criticism of Apple? It is not. So hold your fire, fanboys. Apple makes great hardware and software. And not just computers, as its game-changing successes with iTunes and the iPhone--and maybe the iPad--prove. But an essential ingredient in that recipe for success is total control of the platform. Apple has it, Microsoft doesn't. So the very quality that made Apple a better platform than Windows also made the Mac a niche product.
Windows, Windows Everywhere
As computer technology really took hold in the 1980s and 1990s, businesses wanted standard products and standard software at a relatively low price point. Apple didn't offer that. If you wanted to buy an Apple, or later a Mac, you bought it from Apple or an Apple-certified dealer. Except for a very brief experiment, no other company has been allowed to build a Mac.
Since Apple controlled the platform, its products weren't plagued by the panoply of hardware and software incompatibilities familiar to Windows users. But there was a huge tradeoff. Apple had a monopoly on Apple computers. And like all monopolies, it kept prices artificially high. For years, a business-worthy Apple machine cost nearly twice as much as a roughly comparable Windows machine. Faced with that discrepancy, choosing Windows-based PCs was a no-brainer for most companies.
And writing software for the Windows platform instead of the Mac platform was a no-brainer for developers who wanted the largest audience possible. The same was true for makers of all sorts of components and peripherals. Without the ability to sell hundreds of millions of chips for use in hundreds of millions of computers, a company like Intel could never have afforded the immense investment it took to push semiconductor technology so far, so fast. Simply put, Windows spawned a global ecosystem that proprietary Apple couldn't match.
Meanwhile, Microsoft made backwards compatibility a key strategic goal as it revved the Windows platform. Sure, that led to code bloat and a lessening of innovation. But if you were in a business, you didn't have to worry that your old software would suddenly be worthless if you bought a new computer with a newer version of Windows. That was not, and is not, true of Apple.
Over time, the PC became a commodity, which means that the machines were so similar, price became the major differentiator. As those prices continued to drop, computing spread from North America, Europe and Japan, to less developed parts of the world. There are hundreds of millions of computers in use, and the vast majority run Windows and use products like Microsoft Office. And all of those businesses can exchange content because their hardware and software is compatible.
Like it or not, that changed the world in a way that Apple could not.
Now, of course, technology is rapidly leaving the Windows desktop behind and Apple is now leading the charge, changing the world. No one would have thought that a computer company would completely upend the music business--and that's just one example. Dick Brass was right. Microsoft is in danger, not of financial bankruptcy, but of intellectual bankruptcy.
Maybe that won't happen. But whether it does or not, it's worth remembering that Microsoft deserves a vote of thanks along with the well-deserved brickbats.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.