Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Europe versus Microsoft

At a professional level, I used to be in close contact with Microsoft. Once upon a time (in the early '80s), their spreadsheet tool was called Multiplan (inspired by the grand ancestor VisiCalc). In the context of my initial contacts with Apple France executives Jean-Louis Gassée and Daniel Blériot, I was asked to produce a demonstration floppy (non-rigid disk) of Multiplan on the famous Apple II computer. Shortly after, this primitive hardware/software tandem was replaced by the revolutionary Macintosh and Excel.

Several years later, I wrote stuff about Microsoft tools running on the Macintosh. This work must have been appreciated by the French branch of Bill Gates's corporation, for they offered me a helicopter ride to a journalists' get-together in a fairy-tale castle near Chartres.

That was the time when computer users everywhere were delighted to discover that Microsoft's word-processing tool, named Word, was totally (and no doubt deliberately) unprotected. That's to say, anybody could start using it freely on their PC or Macintosh. That was the ingenious marketing trick that got a whole planetary generation addicted to Word. It was the computing equivalent of free marijuana.

It could be said, retrospectively, that this pioneering epoch of personal computing was an essentially macho affair. For reasons I can't explain, neither the managerial nor the technical levels of the PC revolution seemed to put the limelight upon any outstanding females.

Today, I find it ironical that Bill Gates's arch-enemy in the Old World is a brilliant 66-year-old Dutch woman, Neelie Kroes.

In her powerful role as the European Commissioner for Competition, Neelie Kroes doesn't want Europe to become a capitalistic jungle, where the strong devour the weak. In 2004 she set out to bust the Microsoft trust, by accusing the US corporation of failing to implement system-level interoperability, thereby condemning all competition. A European law court has just confirmed that Microsoft's fine of 497 million euros was justified.

Here in France, to verify that Microsoft is not yet playing the game in the sense implied by their European condemnation, you merely have to wander into a retail store and say that you want to purchase a PC without the Windows software. As a surprised salesman pointed out, that request sounds a little like wanting to buy an automobile without a motor. The analogy, though, is stupid. It's silly to try to compare computers with old-fashioned machines such as automobiles. The motor in an automobile (essentially hardware) is not at all the equivalent of software in the context of a computer. Somebody who wants to buy computing hardware without imposed software is more like a guy who wants to get married without having others choose his wife. But we no longer need such metaphors to get the message across. Today, almost everybody is aware that it's perfectly feasible to envisage buying a PC and installing Linux on it. So, to put it metaphorically, Bill Gates should pull his finger out.

This whole affair might, of course, turn out to be a non-problem... if Europeans were to wake up to themselves, and decide massively to buy magnificent Macs.

No comments:

Post a Comment