How Microsoft became Big Blue

Why have I now completely disassociated myself with Microsoft? (I say disassociate, well I’ve never really been associated properly, just helped support them both indirectly and directly for 25 years by making their software do what companies wanted, whether Microsoft knew how to use it that way or not)

I think the great Shirley Bassey said it best, it is just a case of history repeating itself. Back in the eighties there was a technology company that grew large but was run by people with little vision beyond the dollar signs that were the only purpose of the company as they saw it. (Gawd, I feel like grandad reading a story)

Along came this new breed of technologist. This breed was not going to accept technology being drip fed to the elite and wealthy, this breed was going to give technology to the world and make the crazy dreams of then science fiction into a reality.

That big old technology company was too large, cumbersome and entrenched in bureaucracy to even comprehend the threat that this new breed were going to make to their business. The traditional approach with such people was to lock them in a dark basement, feed on caffeine and give them problems to solve. (see Dan Akroyd’s character in Spies Like Us)

So, Big Blue watched whilst Microsoft and IBM PC compatible hardware manufacturers hit the small markets of home users, new technologists (we’ll include gamers in that field too as the cross over is so close) and any business that realised the benefits that could be garnered by using these effectively highly complex typewriters.

Now this still didn’t really affect IBM as they were deeply entrenched with their super-computers, UNIX (and UNIX-heads we know you did it all before, this article is about Microsoft not BOFH!), programmers and business links that would guarantee their existence. They just didn’t really have any leverage into the smaller profit generating, yet more encompassing markets. Microsoft therefore exploded onto home PCs and into smaller and medium-sized businesses but if you wanted to make your computers ‘talk’ to each other they couldn’t really help. The names Banyan Vines, 3Com 3+ Share, Novell Netware all used to be Network Operating Systems people would deploy to make their DOS and then Windows machines function.

So that’s when Microsoft embarked on what made them the company they are today. They bought an existing product or programmers of an existing product that did something their competitors did and developed it as their own. In this case it was 3Com’s 3+ Open/Share, later known as LAN Manager (co-developed by 3Com and Microsoft), then Microsoft Lan Manager, Windows NT Server and finally Windows Server. The NET.EXE command for example (ok was originally a .com) has been around since the product was written by 3COM in the early 80’s. (I know, I’ve used it and rebuilt 3COM 3Servers from system board up!)

Look it up, there are countless examples of products Microsoft bought, often to the dismay of the programmers. (I will have to write that history of MsMail article I keep promising, as the lack of knowledge within Microsoft about that product often resulted in hilarious KB articles) In saying this though, that was not the main strength of Microsoft and it was the vision of the leaders of the company which enabled them to incorporate these products whilst developing common interfaces and standards to produce a true end to end software solution for any size of organisation. There were so many innovations that some got left by the wayside even though they were way ahead of their time. Products such as the Sidewinder joypad with motion sensors before anyone had even dreamt of a Wii or Microsoft Test which was a product that probably died due to its name making finding articles about it impossible more than anything else!

Beneath all of this was the way in which they took over from existing competitors in the early battles with Novell and Lotus.

People forget or do not even know just how Bill Gates and Microsoft became the eponymous software provider for the majority of personal computers in the world. They let you illegally copy their software!

People talk about how open source Linux is and how wonderful it is not to have to pay for a license to use it. How Microsoft are evil and try to make you pay over the odds for software yada yada yada…

Simply put, early Microsoft software was as easy to install as holding your finger on the ‘1’ key and then clicking ‘OK’ or even simpler. (In fact I think it was any multiple of three put into the serial number for the software hence in that example 111111111 being a valid key!)

This isn’t even just simply Windows or DOS we’re talking about, no, this is Windows NT Server. A powerful, enterprise capable product that was rolled out around the world and inexorably chipped away at Novell and Lotus’ market share. Now we could say that it was early days in software security, it was the individuals and businesses that chose to ‘steal’ this software but there has to have been a longer game in play than could be considered from outside without hindsight. Once you’re running the software and depend on it, you’re going to be more inclined to ‘legalise’ it by buying a later version or a legitimate current version. Once each successive version becomes harder to copy illegally you become more tied into sticking with your comfortable system. Even now, it isn’t really that difficult to get the software running but it is certainly not something many businesses would consider now.

So, what’s happened to bring a similar set of circumstances in IT as in the 80’s, today?

Well, Microsoft does not in any way have as much credibility as a leading edge technology company as it used. Cracks began to form several years ago with the distance between operating system development and application development increasing which led to instability, inconsistency and therefore a loss of trust from technologists that supported Microsoft’s rise. The business has a figurehead leading it now who is doing more damage to Microsoft’s reputation amongst techies than any awful operating system (Vista) could ever do. When one looks at the difference between the quiet, calm authority of Bill Gates compared to the blustering, school bully, car salesman that is Billy B Ballmer, it isn’t difficult to see the lack of understanding in technology and a lot of interest in selling.

Finally, operating systems have now begun to spread from being pretty much Linux or Windows to a plethora of competing standards due to the convergence of mobile and desktop platforms (if we take tablets as pretty much large mobile phones). I would add that there are still a large number of amazingly talented people in Microsoft and many advances they make are still wonderful to behold (as a techie). It is the growing number of problems surrounding integration of these innovations and speed of pointless advance that have led to Microsoft failing to provide cogent reasons to trust in their software portfolio and future offerings.

The great strength of Microsoft in providing cross-platform integration within even their own products has become piecemeal with old innovations forgotten in the bright light of ‘must make something NEW’ whilst customers are forced into constantly changing what works perfectly well in order to stay ‘supported’ by the company which is forcing all the change. When you used to upgrade operating system you’d expect to re-install some programs but not to lose basic, obvious and useful functionality that has been replaced by a gimmick that the most recent Windows Team Leader decided would look ‘cool’, yet is in fact purely, annoying.

Microsoft therefore knew their ubiquitous Windows platform was not as unassailable as it had been. Even though some businesses had taken the Linux/Open Office route, this offered little to compete with the masses of Windows-based deployments around the world. Contrasting with this, Google Apps does pose a risk as it doesn’t depend on Microsoft, can be run without the need for a Windows OS or license and so gives a true alternative to Microsoft for the small customer.

This means that Microsoft are now playing catch up in the one arena they always used to be able to lead or crush (well buy) the opposition in. Look at their desperation to break into the mobile phone market by sending in a trojan horse to destroy a business (Nokia) from within so they could sweep up the pieces and pop them in the Microsoft ‘assimilator’. The ‘popular’ Lumia that gives Microsoft a wedge to jam under the door being closed on them again.. (I really despise Microsoft for what they’ve done to Nokia and heartily and repeatedly shout praise to Jolla!)

I don’t think this is a recent thing though and smacks of lack of clear direction in such a large organisation. Microsoft had turned their focus to the main revenue streams as early as 2003 i.e. larger businesses and had almost forgotten what made them so big, the little guy. A good example to demonstrate this was their response when I tried to sell the idea of Exchange hosted mailboxes for small businesses or individuals  to Microsoft in…2003. The best response I could get at the time from Microsoft was that there was no licensing model to fit what I proposed in terms of effectively leasing Exchange licenses sold through ISPs. The intimation I got was that individuals had no business using enterprise level software and it wouldn’t be worthwhile. Well maybe not for Microsoft but…

Hmm, given the introduction to this article, who does that sound like?

Then along came Vista – so unpopular Microsoft technical staff even refused to evangelise it to customers as they had obviously got their own reputations to consider. What better example of losing one’s way could there be?

Now, jumping forward, in 2013 we see the full impact of Office 365 and hosted versus on-site deployments beginning to bite. Exchange, my core speciality has been most sorely damaged by these changes with even the code base diverging between hosted and on-site for a period before somebody finally heard the techs in the background repeating the mantra “That would be bad” and those words eventually made sense. I personally will be avoiding Exchange 2013 in much the same way as I avoided Exchange 2007 and 2000, unless requested to repair them. The fundamental and brilliant design changes in 2010 lost because Exchange now has to be optimised for hosting services, not those piddly, pointless, badly configured on-site installations.

Instability in rollup updates had become understood for years by the fact that only the foolish install updates automatically and without testing. (Or waiting for the IT grapevine to scream how many things the ‘fix’ broke.) Now that even Service Packs are being released with major and basic bugs, how can one consider trusting to an on-site deployment without massive levels of patch testing equipment and resource time? Well, it generally isn’t practicable in anything but the larger or more wealthy organisation.

So here we come to the crunch.

Now that Microsoft has worked out how to stop losing revenue when they release an awful product(or people just logically CHOOSE to stick with what they have and which works for them), they’ve remembered the 1 to 10 user customer and have hurried to retro-fit a solution to stop losing the market they forgot about.

It will therefore, over the course of the next few years, become more difficult, expensive and time-consuming to maintain an independent, on-site, Windows and Microsoft Server based IT infrastructure. In the background is the now eternal chant from Microsoft “Go to 365, go to 365…”, “Give us a monthly fee, direct debit will do nicely”. “We need to pay for all those Surfaces we splodged in the TV ad.”

All the investment in local architecture, processes, methodologies gone. Bang goes all the investment in skilled IT technologists who protect organisations from the privations of money grabbing software vendors. In fact, bang goes control of your IT strategy. Why? Because from the day you drop your local software licenses and are on 365, you will use the software that Microsoft decides you can use. If they retire a function, command or even version of software as only a million people use it, you will lose it or change to the new version, when they decide. It will be down to groups of users and organisations lobbying to retain such functionality and perhaps winning, not leaving you to choose the solutions that fit your requirements best.

Yes there is a massive place for the basic and simple services from Google or Microsoft (or even to include iOS, Android, Sailfish et al) which the majority now expect to provide certain basic functions in the same way a phone is almost expected to have a camera, GPS and internet browser. What is not required is taking away control of IT from smaller organisations by forcing unworkable support contract criterion and hard selling a service just to benefit Microsoft.

That is why, I now hope that the individual teams in Microsoft (Exchange and SQL spring to mind) take upon themselves the challenge that the Jolla developers did when forced to by Nokia’s board’s sellout and consider what they could do if they were not constrained by the whims of a senior management team that have no ability to conceptualise or understand the business they are a part of. An interesting comment about how large a business just the Exchange team would make if splitting from Microsoft was even touted at a recent conference. Many a true word said in jest?

I’ll still support Microsoft software, that’s kind of my main trade although I have others. I have been supporting their software for organisations long after Microsoft had abandoned their own ‘obsolete’ versions, (…if it is obsolete why are so many companies happy to still use it?). It is probably not helped by having seen the quality and perhaps pinnacle of Microsoft’s email system development – Exchange 2010 be ruined in ‘Hostedising’ it into the skewed mess of 2013. (In some cases letting the code diverge would perhaps have allowed on-site development to continue to be innovative and left the hosted code version to plod along as it wanted) I still also dream there will be a continuation of the historical Good/Bad version quality of Microsoft’s email platforms and ‘Exchange 2016’ could rock again! We’ll see.

I just wouldn’t want to be seen to be supporting the mess that has developed in their offerings in recent years and feel for those who have to suffer the embarrassment of working for an organisation with such a figurehead at the top, supposedly leading them. I’ve spent 25 years fighting Microsoft’s corner where it was justified and have helped maintain their systems to a level that people depend on them never failing and therefore trust in Microsoft (and seen enough awful deployments that one could see why people mistrusted Microsoft unfairly). That confidence in Microsoft was built and earned over long years of mutual development. Now it is being eroded away, I certainly wouldn’t defend anything beyond the technical staff still stuck there.

The final hope, the shining light perhaps. I’ve been meeting a new generation of technologist recently. They are learning about technology, not how to pass an MCSE exam. They are playing with technology and experimenting with new ideas yet have an understanding the historical ‘secrets’ of IT and are similarly eager and excited about it, as I was. There’s a buzz in the techie air that hasn’t been the same since the 80s. So, although again the media will be way behind the reality, I don’t think there will be a void in technology skills, I think it may be about to be filled by the next generation of technically minded and the new way will wipe away the old again (yes to ultimately become it but isn’t that the point?). It will be interesting.

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2 Responses to How Microsoft became Big Blue

  1. Viswakarma says:

    You hit the nail on the head!!!

    • Hi Viswakarma,

      Thank you, not least for managing to get to the end of the post!

      People often confuse honest observations with cynicism and whilst I have seen enough to be negative about the IT industry as a whole, the positive application of open sharing of knowledge and mutual education both from myself and every burgeoning technologist I work with keeps the field alive.

      Having a sense of humour is invaluable also. Recent evaluations of Azure and 365 services needs it whether in watching service names change quicker than even MS can keep up with or whilst giggling on mute while sitting on a call with MS technical specialists who have obviously been heavily indoctrinated as ‘Sales Techies’ or in noting the new terminology of an Operating System Environment which, when applied to the fact that what we are really talking about is the old Network Operating Systems now moved to the cloud, we can all now be called NOSE specialists!

      So, keep making it all work and smile at what impedes you..

      Regards,
      Napoleon

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