Poor Dead Microsoft!

Well, by now you all should have seen Paul Graham’s essay “Microsoft is Dead.” You have probably also read his follow on piece “Microsoft is Dead: The Cliffs Notes.” If not, you should certainly go read them (www.paulgraham.com). I tend to agree with the gist of his essay and thought that, this being the Geek Buffet, that we should have some discussion about it (especially since nearly every other tech oriented blog has already jumped on it – “link bait” some have called it).

I was interested in his essay because I had had a similar epiphany at the American Geophysical Union meeting last December. There were 15,000 very geeky geo-scientists and students there and they had a huge area set up with tables and chairs for attendees to use their laptops on the convention center’s WIFI network. It seemed to me that I was the only person there using an IBM laptop running Windows. I was shocked by this and spent some extra time observing the phenomena just to be sure I wasn’t overreacting.  When I looked closely at people who seemed to be using a non-Apple computer, they were mostly running some variant of Linux. This experience has led me to believe Microsoft’s monopoly on operating systems has been broken. Microsoft still has a huge advantage in the number of machines using their operating system versus all of the others combined, but people now believe there is a viable alternative and are acting on that belief.

Another experience relevant to this issue is the effort that I have had to personally put into keeping the Windows machines I am associated with running. The big desktop machine in our house was completely cutoff from the internet by an upgrade to IE 7. I have had to reinstall everything on my office laptop due to a virus infestation that got past my virus protection software and firewall. Even though everything was backed up, the productivity lost to reinstalling the operating system and all of you other software and files is enormous. Now, the latest MS security update has caused a glitch in my Windows 2000 system that makes a startup take 30 to 40 minutes. I see this situation as unacceptable, and expect that many other users see it the same way.

Because of these personal observations, I have bought a Mac laptop and am in the process of moving over to that platform for all my personal work and hope to move all my professional work over to it soon. There is some learning curve to get over, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Personally, I am hoping to consider MS dead soon.

I am interested to hear if anybody else has personal experience that leads them to think MS is losing its importance in the computer world.


12 Responses to Poor Dead Microsoft!

  1. Mark says:


    I had not, until you linked to them, read Mr. Graham’s essay on the subject, but this is a topic I’ve seen discussed in the past. I think what really made Graham’s stance appealing to me is the clarification he includes in the Cliff’s Notes version of the essay. The idea that while it is still breathtakingly profitable, Microsoft is no longer something to be feared by the smaller fish in the pond really resonates with me.

    The company I work for is a Windows shop, and seeing the Mafia-inspired tithes… err, excuse me, licensing fees we pay to Microsoft on a regular basis leaves me in little doubt that the balance sheets in Redmond are not going to drift into the red any time soon. At the same time, over the course of my time here, we’ve moved all of our web servers over from a Windows system to a Linux one, and now that we have Linux boxes running, we’re beginning to host a variety of other things, like our bug tracking system, on them as well. The result is that I feel much less bound to Windows than I did when I started here.

    Of course, I still have to accept the reality that the vast majority of the people who consume the resources I produce will be using Windows as their operating system, and more importantly in my particular field, I can expect virtually all of them to use Internet Explorer as their browser. On the other hand, Matt, who does our interface work, does all of his development using FireFox (which is light years ahead in terms of the tools it provides to developers trying to make things work in the often fickle world of browsers), and then ends up retrofitting all of it back to IE when he’s done. While it is certainly aggravating, it does serve to lessen the feeling that Microsoft actually has anybody firmly in its grip.

    My desktop at home, which I primarily use as a gaming machine, runs Windows. The fact remains that the platform holds such a large proportion of the market share that most of the games I want to play are always released first for Windows, and are then ported to Mac OS much later, if at all. I also use a Windows laptop for work. However, I don’t expect this to always be the case.

    I suspect that the next computer I buy will be an Apple laptop. Now, when I do, I will run Mac OS, but I will also run Linux and Windows on it. Sure, that means I will pay Microsoft for another copy of their operating system, but it means that every time I turn on my computer, I will have a choice. I’ll no longer be tied to their system to the exclusion of any others. You smell that? That’s freedom.

  2. TheGnat says:

    I have to say neither of the tech sites I read every day have picked up on this, and most likely they won’t ever. They aren’t interested in news about yesterday, so to speak. I have, however, noticed on them less and less mention of Microsoft. I also noticed how big Google was getting when GMail hit. I hopped onto GMail right away, and frankly, I’m looking forward to a Google OS.

    It’ll be a long while before MS starts feeling it’s death throes though. The simple fact of the matter is, too many people enjoy programs they can’t run on Mac OS or Linux. Or for that matter, both OSs are difficult for people used to Windows to use. Mac OS is so user friendly it’s unfriendly, and it’s still not half as good as Windows or Linux for networking. There’s also the problem of price and customization. Yes you can order your Mac to your specs based on what Mac has available, but you can’t cobble together a monstrosity from different companies’ hardware. And Macs are expensive, very expensive. I can’t afford to switch to one even if I wanted to, and I’m not going to bother to check if they’ve reduced their prices until I hear that I can play any game I want to on Mac OS.

    My next computer will be a tower, with my current copy of Windows XP, and built with my own hands so I know I’ve gotten what I wanted, for less than a store tower. Of course if Google came out with a compatible OS, I’d switch in a heartbeat. Sure it’ll be “beta”, but their betas are remarkably bugless…

  3. Mark says:

    Ms. Gnat,

    In theory, those days are already here. With the switch to the Intel architecture, Mac OS is now able to work on a wider array of hardware (though support remains an interesting question for some components). More importantly, though, is the idea that you can now run all of your Windows games on your Mac, because you can go ahead and run Windows on your Mac, either in emulation or just in its native form.

    They are still more expensive than Wintel PCs, but the price gap between Macs and buying a PC from, say, Dell is closing rapidly. No, it is not yet to the point that their prices can compete with a machine you assemble yourself from OEM parts, but as far as pre-built systems go, they are increasingly competitive. I certainly see your point about building a machine yourself, but most people would find that to be a very intimidating task, and would rather pay the premium to have someone else just hand them a box that they can plug in and turn on without any setup.

    Others, such as myself, have discovered that while they have all of the technical expertise to build their own systems, they turn out to have some kind of horrible curse which infects any machine they hand-build. Blame static electricity, strong bio-electric fields, or just the angry ghosts of my ancestors, but I can’t open a case without running a high risk of system death. It never happens right away, always weeks or months later, which makes the angry ghost theory seem the most likely explanation. Either way, I’m willing to pay a small premium to have someone else take care of that. My time is valuable, and as I get older, I find I’m decreasingly willing to save a buck by spending a lot of my valuable time on something.

  4. Mark says:


    While I grant you that the last week or two of frustration is not really solved retroactively, in its latest round of patches, released yesterday, Microsoft claims to have fixed the flaw in their patch released earlier this month, as reported here on the BBC.

    This does nothing to change the parameters of the argument you make in your post, but hopefully it will solve your most recent problem with your Windows laptop.

  5. TheGnat says:

    See, I have better luck with systems I build myself. They become infused with my love! As to Mac prices, I prefer AMD as a general rule. More bang for my buck I’ve found. Besides, if I bought a Mac, I wouldn’t want to have to dual-boot. Or for that matter, if I’m buying the damn brand, I should be able to run what I like on its own OS. I resent anytime I must engage in elaborate software rituals to do what I like. Given how painful installing Windows can be, it counts as one. (It might be noted I’m not switching to Vista until XP is no longer an option).

    Most people find building a computer themselves an intimidating task because 1) computers are still a “magical” technology. Ironically, as more people are learning to work with them on a everyday basis, fewer know how to deal with problems and hardware. 2) For whatever reason, they think it’s difficult, even though they’d buiild an assemble-at-home piece of furniture, which believe me, is quite an ordeal. and 3) People are lazy and don’t want to research their computer purchases much, which you have to do when assembling one so that you don’t end up with incompatible parts (actually, you can be lazy and look up the parts in a store model you like, and then look up what motherboard is compatible and then go buy everything wholesale ^_- )

  6. TheGnat says:

    I thought of one other problem with Mac just now: if hardware goes wrong, you can’t fix it without going to an Apple store. Hard drive on the fritz? You can’t really take it out and have a looksee and replace it. And you can’t install the OS on a different computer. You can’t decide that you want OSX on your happy little Intel computer.

    I keep hoping for an actually user-friendly Linux that works with most video games, but I don’t see it happening yet. There’s also that I’m very fond of Photoshop (yes I’ve used GIMP, and I don’t like it.) and I’ve yet to hear that it works on Linux.

  7. Mark says:

    Ms. Gnat,

    This is a classic trade-off situation. By buying your own OEM parts (and this includes the research needed, in one form or another, to get the right ones), you give up your time in order to hang onto your money. By buying a computer off the shelf (from whatever manufacturer), you give up some extra money in order to retain more of your time.

    People make evaluations about their priorities in these kinds of trade-offs for a variety of reasons, and the three you suggest are all likely candidates. The fundamental question here is “What is my time worth?” Most people have at least a vague sense of their answer to this question. I actually have a dollar value when I make these kinds of choices, but then again, I think about things too much.

    The same is true of dual-booting, in a slightly different sense. It requires you to invest your time (and money, if you are buying more than one commercial operating system) in order to install the various things you need, get them configured properly, and ensure that everything is running smoothly. In the case of new versions of Mac OS, you have the other option of emulating Windows, which does not require you to reboot to switch between them, may or may not make it easier to set up, and penalizes you in terms of the performance, at least somewhat, of running emulated software.

    Thus, you trade off various quantities of your time and money. In the case of time with dual-boot versus emulation, you trade the time spent to reboot in one lump sum against the tiny increments of time lost to slower-running software, and try to decide how many times you need to be able to switch back and forth in order to determine which of these options is optimal for you.

    Regardless, the point is that you have a choice. You can choose to buy OEM components, assemble them into a working computer yourself, and install WinXP on it. You spend a lot more time that way, but you save money. You are left with fewer choices each time you start your computer, but you again save some portion of both time and money, unless you need something that is only offered on another platform, in which case you lose out in large measure.

    My point is that you have the choice. This is an increasingly viable choice, with the way the market is currently shifting. Sticking with a hand-build Windows box is a perfectly valid choice. The difference is that now, it’s no longer the only viable one you have to choose from. Thus, freedom.

  8. TheGnat says:

    Oh I agree there is choice, but I don’t agree that the choice is varied or viable enough for me to feel computing freedom as of yet. I can, indeed, see it upon the horizon, like a shipwreck survivor floating on a timber watching the steady approach of a rescue vessel. But like that survivor, for the moment, I’m still on the damn timber, and I might even resent it more now that salvation is in sight.

    I think one of those sentences might be grammatically ill-advised at the least, and possibly a run-on at worst….hmm….

  9. Mark says:

    Ms. Gnat,

    Regardless of the precise details of the grammar, the simile was worth the read.

    However, I think your feeling of the viability of the choice again comes back to the particular balance you have struck for yourself in making choices about trade-offs between time and money. You are more willing to spend time than you are willing to spend money. That’s fine, and if you make that choice, a hand-built PC is certainly the more workable option for you (particularly if the goal is a gaming machine). If you were to roll out of bed in the morning and decide that starting today, the value of your time had suddenly tripled, I bet you’d have to sit down and seriously reconsider just how viable your other options were.

    Granted, most people start out with a lower value on their time when they are young. In part, this is because they have less access to money when they are younger. As they get older, they have more disposable income, which reduces the proportional value of their money, but also tends to make them more greatly appreciate the value of their time.

    A student might count themselves lucky to earn $10 an hour (most campus jobs pay less than that, certainly). On the other hand, a fairly middle-class worker is likely to have a salary that translates to somewhere closer to $25 an hour.* Having the amount somebody else is willing to pay you for your time increase two and a half times tends to make you think of your own time as more valuable than it used to be.

    * These are very ballpark figures. Nevertheless, they illustrate my point without complicated math. Round numbers are friendly, and extra-huggable because they don’t have sharp corners and stabbity decimal points.

  10. TheGnat says:

    Oh yes, I agree with you about how being younger, I value my money more than my time. On the other hand, if I want, I don’t have to assemble the computer myself, I could pay a local shop to assemble the hardware and install the software and make sure it all works for me, for about $50. Heck, there’s a store here that will do it free if I buy most of the parts from them. So with my lazy-research method and shop assembly, my invested time is only marginally more. It’s beautiful. And the existence of those options makes me very happy and gives me a lot of freedom, but those options don’t really have anything to do with Microsoft.

    And my point still stands, because, for example, my current computer is a laptop. I needed one for my time in Japan. Mac got crossed off my list because I couldn’t game on it, and when I asked about getting a laptop without an OS, I was told it wasn’t possible. (I also discovered that companies won’t tell you what Motherboard a pre-built has). Perhaps that’s changed in the last couple years, but I doubt it.

    I am, however, glad that the simile was worth the read. I expected you to strangle me for it.

  11. goshawk says:

    Mark and Ms. Gnat,
    Excellent comments!! This is just the kind of discussion I wanted to see. I agree with what both of you are saying. I am unhappy about the need to maintain two operating systems on the Mac Pro Laptop I recently bought – I resent both the cost of buying a copy of Windows and the time involved in maintaining the updates and security on two operating systems. On the other hand, I am glad to have a way to start moving out of the control of MS.

    Thanks for all of the comments, I’ve enjoyed them all.

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