Spanking Redmond

I admit it. Even as a tech commentator, I’m getting tired of the Microsoft antitrust case. It’s dragged on for two years as of this month.

And it’s likely the most severe resolution won’t halt the Redmond juggernaut which (through pure momentum) can still maintain some market dominance in desktop operating systems and desktop business applications. You don’t stop a hurtling 100-car bullet train by putting Jello on the tracks.

But whether what Microsoft did in this case was unethical, illegal, or simply evil is beside the point. Microsoft has done other bad things that are far more clear-cut, and for which the company should be seriously spanked.

First: Ever wonder what Melinda Gates produced before she and Bill produced offspring? Microsoft Bob, a 1995 software program that sat on top of Windows to make it more “friendly.” The problem: The animated characters that were supposed to help were condescending, and the PC’s power was hidden behind a cartoonish screen that was embarrassing to use.

This high-profile failure proved that software developers know many things, but not the difference between “cute” and “cutesy.”

Second: Windows 2000. Not the product (which is getting some fine reviews) but the name. I still field questions from consumers about whether this is the upgrade from Windows 98. It was supposed to be, until Microsoft pulled the plug on combining Windows NT and Windows 98.

So now, the name confuses, and Microsoft compounds the error by naming this year’s successor to Windows 98, “Windows ME” -apparently without realizing the Me decade was the 1980s.

Third: Microsoft Agent. Forget that this product takes cutesy characters like those found in Bob and Microsoft Office (as Office Assistants) and puts them on any web site.

Microsoft deserves a major clueless award for timing. Calling a product Microsoft Agent when the industry says Microsoft spies on it, and consumers fear personal info is stolen through security holes in Outlook and Internet Explorer? They might as well have called it “Microsoft Satan.”

It’s not that Microsoft doesn’t also do some things really well that deserve praise. Lately, almost totally ignored seem to be Microsoft’s excellent mice and keyboards. The new IntelliMouse Optical is the first product I’ve reviewed this year that I can’t think of anything bad to say about.

But the hits are countered by the misses: Bob, Agent, Windows 2000’s name, broken promises for OS/2, stalled Web TV, the failed turn-copiers-into-computer-peripherals Microsoft at Work initiative, and the yawn-inspiring “Where Do You Want to Go Today?” Could it be the antitrust effort includes more than a bit of software company psychological displacement? That the industry is concerned about antitrust, but is really pissed that Microsoft has often made the industry as a whole look silly?

If the government really wants to spank Microsoft, spank it for doing stuff that’s stupid. There’s more than enough evidence to support that case. And it won’t take two years to reach a verdict.

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