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Takeaway from Ballmer's WSJ

Correcting rewritten history.


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Monica Langley of the Wall Street Journal published a piece Sunday 17 November on the luckless Steve Ballmer. The piece is written to impress, but there's not a lot about Ballmer that impresses.

'Maybe I'm an emblem of an old era and I have to move on.'
 - Steve Ballmer


That's one way of putting it. Ballmer certainly has not only opposed but laughed at the move to handsets. But the trouble goes deeper still - to the very heart of what's wrong with Microsoft.

Microsoft are the bullies of the Wild West of software engineering for personal computing. They really didn't have a clue in the beginning. Gates and Paul Allen decided to take a chance on the Altair and set up shop in Albuquerque atop a cathouse after dropping out of Harvard. Gates got a flashy new sports car to race about town - got it from his father. Self-made indeed. Allen got a gig with the Altair people; Gates stayed in the offices upstairs from the brothel. They'd contributed code for a BASIC interpreter to be used with the Altair.

Microsoft later moved to a high rise in Seattle. They were approached by secretive representatives of IBM who were looking for an operating system for a coming replacement for the industry standard CP/M architecture. Gates fancied himself as the provider of development tools, not operating systems. He sent the IBM guys to meet Gary Kildall. Things didn't work out with Kildall, so Gates promised IBM he'd look around for an operating system.

Gates found the operating system in one Tim Paterson who'd cross-assembled something he called 'Quick and Dirty Operating System' for the Intel 8086 processor, a fully 16-bit CPU with both 16-bit registers and 16-bit buses. Gates made Paterson a deal. Paterson had such great ideas for his unfinished OS, many of which were later incorporated into the DR-DOS taken over by Novell, things like multiple users, secure user accounts, and multitasking. But Gates wasn't interested in that. He told Paterson he had a small time client who wanted the system and was prepared to pay $50,000 for it 'as is'. Paterson took the bait, only to find out later who that client was: IBM. And so Paterson sued Gates, and Gates settled out of court for $400,000 and a position at 'MicroSoft'.

Gates was a lucky bastard. He somehow got IBM to agree to a nonexclusive agreement which gave Gates the right to continue to use Paterson's code on his own. This is where the money came from. The funny thing is that a lot of the early Microsoft ads said 'after all, we wrote the operating system' when of course they'd done nothing of the kind. The world was only beginning to learn how Gates and his company were going to bully the burgeoning PC software industry.

And everything was hunky-dory until Comdex 1983 when Gates was upstaged by VisiCorp who showed off a graphical user interface for the IBM PC. Gates pulled off one of the biggest bluffs of his career, heckling the VisiCorp demo and closing his own MicroSoft exhibit 'in protest' at the 'unethical' VisiCorp who dared show a product that wasn't at all ready for market. For he, Bill Gates, had a similar product under development at MicroSoft, and they'd come a lot further than VisiCorp, but they certainly weren't going to pester the market until they were ready to release their product.

And Gates, in a flurry, returned to Seattle where he called an emergency board meeting to tell the directors of the threat he'd seen at Comdex. And Windows was born.

What puzzled the pundits was why it took Microsoft so long to get their Windows to market when they'd been in development since way before 1983. The simple truth was that the Windows project began after Comdex, not before it. Finally released in December 1985 to less than rave reviews, Windows 1.02 was an abortion. Ballmer's infamous 'used car salesman' ad, probably more of a joke than a serious promo, has gone to history because it shows how ridiculous the Microsoft product was.

The graphical user interface wasn't very graphical. Instead of a file manager, they had what they called the 'MS-DOS Executive'. Windows that came up on screen could not be moved about: the hapless Microsoft engineers still hadn't mastered the art of 'bit blitting' or bit block transfers. Microsoft APIs later had a window attribute for windows capable of moving - something they called 'overlapping windows'. The attribute was gradually given the value zero (making it meaningless) as the engineers caught up.

Gates had pursued Steve Jobs at the same time. He knew Jobs was onto something big (the Macintosh) and he wanted in, and he wasn't shy about stealing. He promised Jobs a spreadsheet program called Multiplan, and for that got Macintosh prototypes from Jobs. But Gates and his fellow crooks spent more time poking at the Macs to steal the design than they did building the promised product.

And a testimony to how bad those engineers were is the sorry fact that they got the Mac GUI all wrong. They never understood that the application menu is separate from the application documents and that the application should be able to handle multiple documents at once, with a single load of executable code. Ballmer's Microsoft put the menu on the document window itself, and the PC industry, including Linux, followed Microsoft's lead, and the world has been paying for that blunder ever since.

Ballmer was the one in charge of the Windows project, the first non-techie hired at Microsoft. Ballmer said of himself and Gates: 'he's the visionary, I'm the enthusiast'. People would later learn just how much enthusiasm Ballmer had, what with his wild drugged-out acrobatics on stage in Redmond, flinging furniture about his office when he starts losing staff to Google, and in one famous interview with British media where he was asked about the NT 4.0 preview, and tells them that he himself uses it and that the NT 4.0 preview is absolutely exciting, when there was no way even techies could use it.

The corporate culture engendered by Gates and Ballmer ensured they'd either be worshipped by recruits still wet behind the ears or despised as assholes by the consultants occasionally brought in to help. Gates was described as being cold as a fish and totally insensitive to others, also as a wannabe techie who liked dropping names and techno-jargon at meetings in front of newbies and before the heavies came along. Gates had an ongoing silent dispute with the legendary David Cutler who never quite got the idea behind Gates' game and would innocently correct him every time he stuck his foot in it, this continuing until Gates concluded the smart thing was to avoid meetings where the former DEC engineer might show up.

This in and of itself is bad enough. But imagine what a technical meeting with Ballmer would have been like. Ballmer couldn't even pretend to be technically savvy.

The history of Microsoft is much like the history of a cattle baron, battling the good farmers, finagling deals with the railways, breaking laws both written and not at every step along the way. There are myriad horror stories about how Microsoft ate lesser corporations alive, flirting with them until they'd understood their technology, then dropped them forthwith as soon as they'd stolen enough to destroy them. There's the case of Borland, the case of WordPerfect. There are the cases of broken agreements. The case of the Windows 95 desktop, selling real estate for more real money than all the imaginary money on a Monopoly board.

There's the case of the AARD code, spurious malware prompted by an infamous Gates memo: 'isn't there something we can do about this', meaning 'let's stop new competition from offering an alternative to MS-DOS, even if that means using scarecrows to keep them away'.

The AARD code was an evil hack. The first task at hand was to try to identify a system booting as an MS-DOS clone rather than as the Microsoft version itself. But both versions were in that regard nearly identical - save for one field in a data structure known as a volume control block. Where the trespassers had taken pains to do things properly and fully initialise all fields, the Microsoft software 'engineers', as was their wont, chose the easy way out, leaving 'garbage values' in fields they knew - or at least hoped - wouldn't be used so early on.

Checking such a field became the key to identifying the source.

The AARD code then 'unraveled' in memory in order to execute and freeze the user's computer screen with a scary message about how using an 'unauthorised' product could in fact damage the computer, when in fact no such danger existed.

Several engineers outside Redmond dug into the code and found how it unraveled - how it obfuscated itself so it couldn't be detected on disk - and published their results.

There's the case of Microsoft versus Netscape and The Rest of the World™ where Gates did everything he could to cut the 'intruders' out of the PC market. Navigator was originally developed for Unix; one of the consultants at this site was approached by the Mozilla team and given the inside story. Mozilla decided to go with the Microsoft Foundation Classes as their development tools, a really bad mistake as Microsoft engineers themselves didn't dare touch them. And the leads of Netscape were summoned to Redmond and told in no uncertain terms that they were not to port Navigator to the PC. Naive as they were, unfamiliar with the tactics of Gates and Ballmer, they forged ahead anyway, and history shows us what consequences they suffered.

Ballmer initiated 'Windows tax' contracts with the OEMs. OEMs had to pay up front for Windows licences. These licences applied not just to computers that shipped with Windows: they applied to every computer manufactured, whether it shipped with Windows or not. Things were so tight in the OEM market that there was no way anyone could have survived without the sizeable rebates Microsoft gave them. Ballmer's 'Windows tax' became an effective barrier to entry: customers who wanted a system other than Windows had to pay double - had to pay for Windows anyway - meaning non-Windows was more work and more expensive.

OEMs weren't given a refund for unsold units. The unused Windows licences could only be applied in credit to a new contract. And further: OEMs were penalised for making it possible for too many customers to access Navigator.

ISPs were treated the same way. Many had links on their sites to Navigator, despite being given 'branded' versions of Internet Explorer, as Navigator was by far the most popular and 'best of breed'. But make it too easy for subscribers to find those links - or more correctly, let too many subscribers actually use those links - and you lost your perks with Gates and Ballmer.

IBM, the biggest and most venerated computer company in history, were perilously close to losing their OEM contract with Microsoft because of such a predicament: too many of their customers found and downloaded the Netscape Navigator.

And where did Internet Explorer come from? It came from the same family tree as Netscape Navigator, via a group from the same university and then via the company Spyglass. Gates struck a deal with Spyglass for their web browser, agreeing to pay Spyglass a nice royalty for every copy of Internet Explorer sold. The trick was of course that Gates never intended to sell Internet Explorer: he only wanted it to drive Netscape out of business. As TP Jackson's DOJ investigation established, Microsoft never tried to make the browser a 'best of breed' product: all they had to do was make it 'good enough' to get people to abandon the $29 Navigator.

And just like with MS-DOS before it, Microsoft abandoned research and development as soon as they'd achieved market dominance, typical monopoly behaviour. The reason Gates needed to get that AARD code out there was that the OEMs had been clamouring for years for improvements in MS-DOS, but Gates, aware he already owned the market, wasn't interested.

The same applied to Internet Explorer once Netscape left the scene. Internet Explorer totally stagnated at that point, and to this day has not become fully standards compliant.

The one product Microsoft can claim as their own - a Ballmer 'de novo innovation' - is Windows. And what a mess it was. Microsoft and IBM shared responsibility and ownership of Windows through version 3.1, as they did for IBM's competitive OS/2. And OS/2 was every bit the mess Windows was until Ballmer called home his team after the unexpected success of Windows 3.0. Left on their own at last, IBM turned OS/2 into a formidable product. But it was too late: Gates had already taken the GUI market on the PC, and Windows 3.1 was a sensation like few other products. The icons were from Susan Kare, the same girl who'd made the icons for the Mac. The system was usable, if wobbly, and it still had to be booted from within MS-DOS, but it had a great file manager that took as many lines of code as the original entire Unix operating system.

Microsoft popularised the GUI desktop in a way Apple would never be able to do, because Steve Jobs was obsessed with the hardware dongle, and only Gates understood that the key was to provide the system only and not chain it to computer hardware. OEMs ensured that hardware prices were competitive, IBM got the industry standard they wanted to outflank Digital Equipment, so everyone was happy. Save for Digital Equipment who got eaten up first by Compaq and then by Hewlett-Packard. The first real competitor ever in a market known as 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' where a new 'minicomputer' suddenly made inroads, DEC ultimately went down the tubes at the hand of IBM anyway with the introduction of the 'PC'.

But now Microsoft were twisting the thumb screws on IBM. OS/2 was never going to get the legs of Windows, no matter the superior technology and better programming brain trust. IBM finally abandoned OS/2 and have since sold off their PC division.

Apple went down too. They were close to chapter 11, and Michael Dell famously quipped that the right thing would be to return the money to the shareholders and close the doors in Cupertino. And Steve Jobs was in Redwood City, not Cupertino.

Apple could have eaten Microsoft alive. Once the ink dried on the 'merger' between Apple and NeXT, Apple owned a technology and a brain trust - and an operating system - that could and should have put Microsoft out of business. NeXT's NeXTSTEP had evolved into OPENSTEP which was every bit as 'open' as its name implied. Sun Microsystems even had a piece of the pie. The OpenStep standard was so far ahead of Microsoft it wasn't funny. NeXT had heavy duty clients like Michael Dell himself, like WorldCom, like a lot of Wall Street firms, and for the first time in their history, were looking at getting into the black with $300 million per year in pure profits. The company and its products were legendary and highly revered. So what did Apple do? Shut it all down. And wasted five long years remaking it into an infantile system more 'Mac-like'. And in those five years, Gates and Ballmer consolidated their hold on the personal computer market once and for all.

Specifically Microsoft came out with Windows 98, followed swiftly with Windows 98SE, and then began working feverishly to rearrange the dynamic link library deck chairs. The DOJ trial was underway, and judge TP Jackson was particularly interested in knowing if Internet Explorer could successfully be removed from a Windows system without bringing down the house of cards.

Of course it was possible: the Spyglass browser had nothing to do with Microsoft. But as developers worldwide witnessed, all their link info started changing rapidly even on their legacy products. APIs were moved for no good reason into libraries used primarily by Internet Explorer. So guess what? Try to remove Internet Explorer from a Windows system and unrelated software titles also broke. A typical Microsoft trick - done right under the noses of TP Jackson and the US Department of Justice.

'Mr Ballmer, in a series of exclusive interviews tinged with his characteristic bluster and wistfulness, tells of how he came to believe that he couldn't lead Microsoft forward - that, in fact, Microsoft would not be led by him because of the very corporate culture he had helped instill.'

It's hard to believe Ballmer instilled 'corporate culture'. Gates dicked his best friend over but good. Gates knew the time was running out for Microsoft and so let Ballmer take the rap for the fall. No one really wants a corporate leader like Ballmer anyway. Those whose opinions really count know enough about Ballmer's sordid past to never forgive how he sullied their profession.

Microsoft remained strong in the business sector, mostly because of two things. Apple appealed mostly to small graphics departments, having with Adobe literally invented the DTP sector. And Microsoft's ODBC made sure Sun and the Unix hardware OEMs never had a chance. Windows NT never ate away at the market share of ordinary Windows: it ate away at the Unix market share. By giving corporations a 'cheap-ass' way to not have to buy expensive Unix workstations to connect to their Unix Sybase and Oracle database servers, Microsoft effectively cut the legs out from under Sun as well.

Add to that what Microsoft did to the Java standard and you have yet another white collar crime of unfathomable proportions. As with the Netscape story before it, Gates and Ballmer had to ultimately grovel and make repairs. But by then their competitors had been crushed. And what's a few hundred million anyway?

Microsoft created a ghastly product known as 'Visual J++'. Even the name is cringeworthy. But what they did behind the scenes - and nary a dimwit Windows developer noticed - was corrupt the so-called Java 'virtual machine'.

Java is a platform independent standard. It's meant to run on anyone's machine, anyone's system. The key is its 'virtual machine', a clunk of code that answers the API calls and makes things work in a uniform way.

The Java standard is a closely guarded and protected standard. And corporations all over the world eagerly subscribed to this standard, ensuring that Java code that ran on one machine with one system would do the same on any other machine with any other system. And everybody played by the rules, for the benefit of all, except for Microsoft.

What Microsoft did behind the scenes was introduce new code in their Java VM which only ran on Microsoft Windows systems. Attempting to access web pages using this code would result in failure messages from the remote sites recommending visitors switch to Windows. Naturally this caused a storm of protest and naturally Microsoft ultimately got their knuckles rapped, but Sun, owners of Java and the Java standard, were fatally wounded. They ended up winning a billion dollar settlement against Gates and Ballmer, but the damage was already done. Sun went down.

Microsoft haven't had a good product in all the years Ballmer's been at the helm. The procession of failures is astounding. Attempts to get in the smartphone market. Attempts to resuscitate Windows. Outright lies told by Bill Gates on The Daily Show in 2007 about the security of Windows. It's an endless list. Nothing helped.

'I'm big, I'm bald and I'm loud', Ballmer is to have said of himself. All that is true. Of both him and the company he's helmed as things got flushed down the tubes.

Microsoft are big - they're the schoolyard bullies. They run competitors and intruders out of the market, out of business, and steal their products. They've been building on the Spyglass web browser and never paid a penny for all that code. Gates tricked Tim Paterson on a deal for what became MS-DOS and only paid more because Paterson sued him. Windows came about because Gates saw VisiCorp encroaching on his territory - he certainly didn't do that out of love. The AARD code came about because PC OEMs finally had an operating system their customers loved. Borland disappeared because Gates wanted them gone. They tried merging with WordPerfect who Gates had also decided he wanted gone. Gates and Ballmer made sure they were both gone.

Microsoft are also bald, in the sense of being bald faced liars. Gates and his friends lied their way through the DOJ investigation, worked behind the scenes to entangle Internet Explore into their system so it couldn't be removed, and in general just bullshitted as much as they could. Their corporate mentality has always been 'predator' in nature.

And they're loud too. Gates once went on record to accuse the DOJ of trying to ruin the US economy by investigating Microsoft. Gates and Ballmer started fake grass roots campaigns to protest the DOJ investigation, and it was found that the names on those member lists often came from graveyards.

They planted moles in open source communities to sow dissension. They produced the infamous Halloween Documents which, after admitting that open source had them beat any day of the week, outlined the strategy to destroy confidence in the people in the open source movement, even Linus Torvalds himself. And of course they got SCO to attack IBM with a ridiculous lawsuit for billions of dollars. They've been very loud.

And then as his crowning achievement and a sign of how there can never be honour amongst thieves, Gates turned the corporation over to his best friend, fully aware the good days were gone and Ballmer would get the blame for all to come.

That Ballmer is inept is well known. But that he would have continued for so many years, blindly as it were, not seeing how his good friend Bill had dicked him over, may be his only admirable trait.

By all internal accounts, Ballmer was a terrible manager. He didn't know how to nurture and engender creativity, only rewarding those that didn't deserve it.

That Ballmer is by all appraisals somewhat out of his mind is also an accepted fact. Ballmer wasn't the visionary - he was the 'enthusiast', as he blurted one day, perhaps banging a hole through a table as he spoke. Corporations need visionaries to chart their courses, and the break Gates had when the market was uncharted and lawlessness was the rule of the terrain: that's never coming back again. Corporate leaders in industries that have to be disruptive to survive need to be sound ethical people, and above all they need to be visionary.

Microsoft will not survive. That's the great hope as well of all those who've witnessed what Gates and Ballmer have done. Microsoft - and Ballmer - have been coasting on a pleasant downslope for all these years, their profits based on the sales of products that require the world's only insecure operating system, a system so bad that if Gates and Ballmer had to pay people compensation for damages, they'd owe as many billions as they today claim to have in their possession. No one can adequately represent just how destructive Microsoft have been for the industry and for human history. Yes they popularised the PC and the GUI. To some extent. Even though it was Apple that took care of the GUI and IBM who took care of the PC.

But they also popularised spam, the broken text lines we see in webmail to this day, the $10 billion worm outbreak, the targeted SMB attacks, the money mules, the trojans, the viruses, and all the rest. Malware: that's Ballmer's legacy.

And they were the first company to sign onto NSA's PRISM programme.

They also popularised sabotage of open standards. They introduced a web browser given away in the millions in bins inside computer stores, invested over $5 billion in further development and promotion, all to crush a corporation whose application programming interfaces could have moved the world forward from the destructive Windows standard. They refuse to this day to do the right thing and at least sandbox Windows inside a secure Unix. They continue to lie to customers about real threats and the causes of those threats.

'At the end of the day, we need to break a pattern', Ballmer said. That pattern is the very essence of Microsoft and it needs to be broken. No one can promise that a world without Microsoft (or Windows) will be a better world, but it certainly can't be worse.

'Charge! Charge! Charge! I'm not going to wimp away from anything!'
 -Steve Ballmer

'He has remained active, shepherding a $7.5 billion deal to buy Nokia's mobile businesses and fine-tuning holiday-marketing strategies for Microsoft's Surface tablets and new Xbox game console. At his final annual employee meeting this September, he gave high-fives and ran off the stage to the song The Time of My Life from the movie Dirty Dancing.'

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