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Why We Love to Hate Microsoft

Some extremely random observations and outrageous digressions about our cultural obsession with Bill Gates.
 
 
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It was April 28, a Friday, late in the afternoon. I was standing in the service department of one of the few Apple Computer dealers left on the planet, waiting to pick up an iMac I'd brought in earlier for repairs. The technician -- a soft-looking guy in his 20s or 30s, an anti-static strap around one wrist and junk-food detritus spread out on his workbench -- was so excited you'd think he'd just discovered a lost episode of Star Trek.

Earlier that day, the Justice Department had announced it would seek to split the software giant Microsoft into two parts, with one company getting Windows, the other getting everything else: the Office suite (Word, Excel, and the like), Internet Explorer, MSNBC, Slate, and maybe even a few remaindered copies of Bill Gates's hilariously awful 1995 bestseller, The Road Ahead.

Six weeks would pass before federal judge Thomas Penfield Jackson would give the break-up his imprimatur. It could be years before Microsoft exhausts its appeals. The next president, whether it's George W. Bush or Al Gore, may flinch at the prospect of destroying our most successful company and instead order his Justice Department to settle on the cheap. Yet the Apple technician was having none of that. To him, the Microsoft split was a done deal, and it had come not a moment too soon. Chortling with nasal alacrity, he prattled on and on about how it was all over for "Bill" -- that "Bill" had dictated what the computing landscape looked like for far too long, and now it was time for "Bill" to toe someone else's line. I wish I'd been taking notes, but you get the idea.

Later, I was struck by the unreality of our exchange -- or, to be more accurate, his monologue. In the first place, there we were, two people for whom computers are an essential part of our daily lives, and neither one of us was the least bit dependent on Microsoft. I use precisely one Microsoft product -- the Macintosh version of Internet Explorer -- and certainly could get by almost as well with Netscape Navigator were I afflicted with the same purist tendencies I'm sure my technician was. "Bill" has surely done plenty of dictating over the years, but he hadn't done any to us.

More important, though, was the level of fascination that moment revealed. Yes, Bill Gates is an asshole -- an arrogant, screaming, humorless workaholic who, despite his carefully nurtured reputation as some sort of uber-geek programming genius, is actually a mediocre software developer who built his monopoly by stealing others' work when he could, buying it when he had to, and threatening to destroy companies that tried to do business with anyone other than Microsoft.

But so what? I mean, go watch Erin Brockovich. There you'll learn about a utility company, Pacific Gas & Electric, whose toxic dumping killed some people and sickened many more. Closer to home, air pollution from PG&E's two power plants in Massachusetts may be directly responsible for about 150 deaths a year, according to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Yet nobody knows the name of the guy who runs PG&E.

Of course, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world, and in a culture obsessed with wealth, that counts for a lot. Robert D. Glynn Jr. -- who is, in fact, the chairman, CEO, and president of PG&E -- is well compensated indeed, with a reported 1999 income of $2.3 million. But consider that Gates's net worth is an estimated $80 billion. Then, too, the computer industry is sexy, hot, celebrity-driven. Slate editor Michael Kinsley, whose paychecks are signed by Gates (ever the literalist, Kinsley notes that he actually is paid via direct deposit), defines the difference between Microsoft and PG&E this way: "Technology is glamorous. The electricity grid is not glamorous." Bill Gates and Microsoft are the most visible symbols of that glamour, regardless of how unglamorous Gates may be in real life.

We love celebrity and we love wealth. But we love it even more when someone who has it all loses it because of hubris, or looks as though he's going to lose it, or loses it and gets it back and begs forgiveness on Oprah. In the real world, Bill Gates runs a software company. In the pop-culture world, he's the smartest kid in class, the nerd who reminds the teacher she forgot to assign homework, the nudgy little prick who got beaten up on the playground all the time, exacted his revenge by running roughshod over his former tormentors, and is now about to have his ass handed to him once again, like some endlessly looped fifth-grade psychodrama. We love celebrities, and we love to hate them too.

Gates is both the most widely recognized symbol of the computer age and the monopoly-wielding intimidator who has stifled innovation and made mediocrity the near-universal standard. His billions inspire blind worship and bitter envy. He is among the most admired of Americans, yet a small but dedicated minority hates him with such intensity that you'd think he was personally forcing them to use his products. Politicians fawn over him, yet the government wants to destroy his company. It's a love-hate relationship that reflects our own bifurcated attitudes toward technology, celebrity, and wealth. We're prospering, many of us, but we're doing so in a world we don't understand, working too many hours, both master of and slave to the wondrous machines that made prosperity possible.

All of which, in short, is why we love to hate Bill Gates.

Granted, a majority of Americans don't spend that much time thinking about Bill Gates. To the extent that they do, polls show that two-thirds hold a favorable view. And why shouldn't they? Tens of millions of people use Microsoft products without complaint. Though rarely the best in a given category, Microsoft's programs work reasonably well most of the time, they're ubiquitous, and they're cheap. Even an old Macintosh diehard like me has to admit that you can save a lot of money and compatibility hassles by picking up whatever Wintel machine is on sale at Best Buy.

But, yes, we hate Bill Gates too. Go to any search engine and enter the phrase "Microsoft sucks." You will be rewarded with a luxuriously long list of sites. Some let you punch Gates right in the mouth. Some show that infamous video of Gates getting hit with a cream pie in Brussels in 1998. (Incoherent aside: the pie attack was reportedly led by a Belgian author and artist named Noel Godin, who claims to belong to a "gang of bad hellions that have declared the pie war on all the unpleasant celebrities in every kind of domain." Godin's slogan, according to the Netly News: "Let's pie! Let's pie! Nincompoop guys!") You can stare at Web sites that tote up Gates's wealth. You can watch Windows 98 crash on Gates himself, at a corporate unveiling. You can read an anti-Gates comic book at a site called Frankengates. (See "Taking in the Sites," right.)

The anti-Microsoft movement obviously goes well beyond such digital trivia, though. There are the legions of folks urging consumers to boycott Microsoft, ranging from geeky Macintosh and Linux aficionados to geeky consumer advocate Ralph Nader. There are Windows users themselves, such as the New Republic's John Judis, who wrote last year, half in jest, that Microsoft should be broken up because its products, well, suck. There are Gates's competitors, such as Sun's Scott McNealy, who reportedly once called a Wall Street Journal reporter to complain, in a juvenile whine, that said reporter was going way too easy on "Little Billy Big Bucks," or Oracle's Larry Ellison, a reptilian thug who has said of Microsoft's rapacious ways, "It makes me want to puke." And, of course, let's not forget Janet Reno, Joel Klein, David Boies, and the rest of the Justice Department antitrust gang.

There's no question that Bill Gates has become a cultural obsession. Gates is one of our best-known celebrities, as omnipresent as Rosie O'Donnell or Michael Jordan. The legal case that threatens to destroy his company, US v. Microsoft, is the subject of endless, repetitive analysis in newspapers, magazines, and television shows. A Lexis-Nexis search of just one paper, the New York Times, for the phrases "Microsoft" and "monopoly or antitrust" yields 1676 hits between January 1, 1995, and June 13, 2000; 324 of those hits are for this year alone. Gates is a frequent cover boy for national magazines such as Time and Newsweek -- and all over the business and technology press. He is a disembodied presence in Douglas Coupland's 1995 novel Microserfs, whose opening lines include, "Bill is wise. Bill is kind. Bill, Be My Friend ... Please!" Ulterior Motive, a 1998 thriller by Daniel Oran -- a former Microsoft programmer who is said to have "invented" the Win95/98 "Start" button (nothing but a rip-off of the Macintosh Apple menu, snort I) -- stars a Gates-like character who runs for president even while preparing secretly to unveil an operating-system upgrade that will spy on every computer user in the country. How's that for an invasive cookie? And not to give away the ending, but Oran couldn't resist the urge to kill off Gates -- er, Jack Malcolm -- in the closing pages.

What, precisely, is the fascination with this supremely uninteresting man, who is universally described by those who know him as a wonk and a grind, consumed by business and awkward in his social dealings? Much of it involves our ambivalence toward wealth -- other people's and our own. Gates is -- even after the recent drop in the price of Microsoft stock lopped tens of billions of dollars off his net worth -- the richest man in the world. At a time of unprecedented stock-market wealth, Gates is the ultimate symbol, having done much to fatten the portfolios of small investors and large institutions alike. And he accomplished all this when he was young. More than two decades into the Microsoft saga, he is still only in his mid 40s. And when he's not obsessing over Judge Jackson or sleep-deprived or just generally agitated, and the light is just right and the photographer is kind, he very much resembles the gangly, dirty-haired, scuzzy-toothed kid who dropped out of Harvard with a vow to make his first million before he was 25.

Thus, Gates is a symbol for our time. As Gary Rivlin put it in his 1999 book, The Plot To Get Bill Gates (Times Books), "Every age, it is said, gets the icons it deserves. The wide-open Wild West of the nineteenth century gave us the robber barons. The greed of the over-consuming 1980s gave us the rapacious Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky. The money-drenched, harried 1990s, then, demanded a workaholic, unrepentant overachiever worth in the tens of billions of dollars."

Seen in this light, US v. Microsoft is actually two trials. One is the trial in Judge Jackson's courtroom, with its endless testimony, Gates's disingenuous videotaped deposition, and the disastrous Microsoft demo -- aimed at "proving" that Internet Explorer couldn't be separated from Windows -- that was at best sloppily put together, and at worst doctored. The other trial exists entirely in the realm of pop culture. This is hardly unprecedented; indeed, celebrity legal struggles are how we work through, or at least attain a greater understanding of, some of the more difficult issues that afflict our society. In the real O.J. Simpson trial, a man got away with murder. In the pop-culture O.J. Simpson trial, we learned some valuable lessons about race, celebrity, and the shortcomings of the legal system. The real Clinton-Lewinsky drama defies rational analysis. The pop-culture Clinton-Lewinsky drama shed light on issues ranging from workplace sexual harassment and a powerful boss's abuse of his position to the frightening ability of a self-righteous prosecutor-run-amok to destroy people's lives.

Defining the pop-culture elements of US v. Microsoft is somewhat more difficult. This is not, after all, a case about anything as serious as murder or as tawdry as blowjobs. If it's a morality play, then it's too early to say what the moral might be; Gates may, after all, emerge triumphant. Perhaps it's about our ambivalent attitude toward money and success. Gates attained both despite a notable lack of creativity and innovation when compared to many of his digital-age peers, such as Apple's Steve Jobs or Netscape's Marc Andreesen. Gates's legal woes may be a form of rough justice, a cosmic evening-out.

More than anything, though, the Bill Gates saga is about us -- a referendum on the workaholic '90s, when more Americans made more money than at any time in history (while leaving unprecedented numbers of working-class and poor people behind), when personal computers landed on every desk and in every home, when everyone (well, half of us, according to surveys) got into the stock market, and when technology was held up as the ultimate good.

The way Lloyd deMause sees it, what's happening to Bill Gates and to Microsoft is quite simple. We all got rich in the '90s. (Moi?) We feel guilty. And Gates must pay for our sins. "I see Gates as a sacrificial victim," says deMause, editor of the Journal of Psychohistory. "He's our richest man and started from very little. He's the American dream. We're now enjoying the longest period of prosperity in history. We feel guilty about that, and we have to find somebody to pay for that. We're all going along with this. There's no great outcry that we're pinning this guy's balls to the ground. And it's totally ludicrous."

But what about the polls showing that a majority of citizens like and respect Gates? "We like our sacrificial victims," deMause replies. He draws an analogy to the way the Aztecs used to treat their human sacrifices: "They'd wine him and dine him, they'd say he was the greatest person in the world, and they'd pull his heart out. It's the ones we love that we sacrifice. It's our first-born, it's our pride. And Bill Gates is our pride." But -- but -- didn't the antitrust trial show that Microsoft had abused its monopoly position, using its Windows dominance to crush Netscape and to damage Sun? DeMause will have none of that. He notes that the Sherman Antitrust Act itself, passed in 1890, was a product of the Progressive Era -- a "purity crusade," he says, that was based on a sort of cultural self-flagellation, when society banned alcohol and cracked down on brothels. The Sherman Act, he says, is "puritanical, anti-success -- it's an irrational law to start with." (It should be noted that deMause's pro-Microsoft stance may be motivated by a more practical concern. "I have a Mac, and nothing works together," he complains.)

Unusual though deMause's analysis may be, perhaps there's something to it. I may not have gotten rich in the '90s, but maybe, in other ways, I embody deMause's theory. Like millions of other people, I own some Microsoft stock, being perfectly content to let Gates earn me some money so long as I don't have to use his cruddy products. I also happen to believe that breaking up Microsoft would be bad for people who use computers and, thus, for the economy; the Windows/Office standard may be mediocre, but it is a standard, and that's what fueled much of our technological growth in recent years. Yet I'm thoroughly enjoying watching Gates get his comeuppance for decades of sleazy behavior, from putting the screws to the original developers of what became MS-DOS to messing with DOS so that Lotus 1-2-3 wouldn't run to pretending that Explorer was an integral part of Windows in order to destroy upstart Netscape. Gates deserves what's happening to him, and if it's costing me money, well, that's my price of admission.

Then, too, it's possible that deMause is studying the wrong primates. To see what Judge Jackson has said, and to read some of the commentary, it could be that the sort of behavior we're looking at here isn't human but, rather, ape. Government remains the alpha male. If Gates had merely acknowledged that by figuratively flashing his butt to the judge as a sign of simian deference, the antitrust case might have gone away. Instead, Gates flashed his butt in a more human sense -- that is, as if to say, "You can kiss my ass." And Jackson is making him suffer. Look at what the judge did. First he refused to hold any hearings on the proposed remedy of breaking Microsoft into two parts. Then he gave interviews in which he defended his decision to deny Microsoft its due-process rights by saying, essentially, that he was sick of the company's attitude, and they're all a bunch of liars anyway. "Untrustworthy" is the word that he used.

And guess what? Opinionmakers applauded, displaying their own butts to the alpha male. The New York Times' Tom Friedman, on June 9, dropped trou before the end of his lead paragraph, writing that the judge's decision was "an indictment of the attitude of the high-tech community in general toward government" and "an indictment of the particular attitude and arrogance of Microsoft." ("Bless Judge Jackson's heart for that," he added.) Even the Wall Street Journal's Holman Jenkins, in blasting Jackson on June 14 for basing his decision on his "aggravation with Microsoft for engaging in standard courtroom practice," wrote that Gates's real mistake was in failing to play along with the "show trial" aspects of the case and make a better public-relations effort in the courtroom. In other words, you should have shown those cheeks, Bill.

Let's see, now. Bill Gates as human sacrifice. Bill Gates as ape. Did I leave anything out? Well, how about Gates as Bill Clinton? Salon's Scott Rosenberg, whose coverage of the Microsoft case has been consistently excellent, noted the similarities between Gates's and Clinton's courtroom prevarications way back on December 15, 1998. "If you study the transcripts of the Microsoft chairman's testimony, you find a man resolutely unwilling to grant words a common meaning -- to the extent that he questions whether the 'we' in internal Microsoft e- mails actually refers to Microsoft," Rosenberg wrote. "In one hilarious passage, Gates digs in his heels and says he has no idea what a fellow executive meant in writing that 'we're going to be pissing on [Java] at every opportunity.' Bill Clinton and Bill Gates -- inveterate hairsplitters, separated at birth!"

In fact, Rosenberg didn't push the Clinton analogy far enough. Gates shares not just a proclivity for questioning the meaning of simple words (for Clinton, "is" and "sex"; for Gates, "we" and "piss"); he also shares a roughly equivalent position in pop-cultural terms. Both men have absolutely exasperated the majority of elite opinion -- i.e., the Washington-based political-media class that seems to care more about their behavior than anyone else. Both are pursued by crazed conspiracy theorists who believe the two Bills embody evil on this earth. And both are nevertheless broadly supported by the public, which understands their flaws but thinks the good outweighs the bad.

I asked Wendy Goldman Rohm, author of The Microsoft File: The Secret Case Against Bill Gates (Times Books, 1998), an anti-Gates screed, why there appears to be such a split between elite and popular opinion. She replied like an anti-Clinton zealot, arguing, in essence, that if the public knew what we know, it would demand that he be impeached and removed from office, damn it! "There may be some people who think they're untouched by what's going on, but it's untrue," she says. "They [Microsoft] have abused their monopoly power over and over again. Most people don't know anything about the facts of how Microsoft conducted business."

No doubt that's true. But it's probably equally true that if they did know, they wouldn't care. After all, look at the generally favorable view most people hold of Clinton. Likewise, the public has been told that Bill Gates is a greedy bastard who's tried to use his control of Windows to destroy would-be competitors. But they also know they can buy a computer for less than $1000 and it will be loaded with all the software they'll ever need, direct from Microsoft. And as far as they're concerned, it was free: Microsoft already got its money from the computer manufacturer. To top it off, their stock portfolio or mutual fund is probably a little richer because it contains some shares of Microsoft.

Fast Company columnist John Ellis, who uses words such as "horrible" and "unbelievable" to describe Microsoft's anti-competitive behavior, nevertheless has no problem understanding why Gates and his company retain broad popular support. "In the great value equation of the consumer, which is both money and time, Bill is on our side," Ellis says. "Microsoft is a company that a) works and b) makes you wealthier. So what's not to like?"

There's a joke about Microsoft that goes like this: "Q: How many Microsoft engineers does it take to change a light bulb? A: None. Bill Gates will just redefine Darkness(TM) as the new industry standard." Like many jokes, this one is based on more than a little truth.

Go back to early May. Millions of computer users around the world found messages in their e-mail boxes titled "I Love You." They opened them, ran the attached executable file -- and did enormous amounts of damage to their hard drives.

As it turns out, not everyone who received the Love Bug was hurt. You had to be using two products from Microsoft in order to be infected: the e- mail program Outlook, running under Windows. And it wasn't just that the Filipino hacker accused of writing the Love Bug wanted to hurt Windows/Outlook users. It was that Microsoft made it easy for him. Outlook allows users to write "scripts" that can automate any number of routine functions. The Love Bug included a script that sent out messages to every person in a user's address book, with copies of the virus attached.

On May 5, Boston Globe technology reporter Hiawatha Bray wrote a piece in which he quoted computer-security expert Richard Smith as saying that Microsoft should rethink its approach. But Scott Culp, a program manager at Microsoft, struck a defiant tone, telling Bray, "This is not due to a flaw in a Microsoft product" and "The technologies are there because the customers have asked us to put it there." Incredibly, Culp even went on to say that users need to be taught not to open e-mail attachments unless they're from people they trust -- ignoring the fact that the Love Bug, by using Outlook's address book, guaranteed that people would get the virus from people they trusted. Just call it Automated Virus Replication(TM), the new industry standard.

Which means that Wendy Goldman Rohm is right when she suggests that the public needs to pay more attention to Microsoft the company and maybe a little less attention to Bill Gates the icon. Pop-culture references aside, we have vested an enormous amount of power in the personal computer and the Internet; and Gates, in turn, has managed to grab far more than his share of control. Forget about Netscape, the proximate cause of the antitrust case; that's the past. The future is in the way Gates -- even in the midst of his legal travails -- continues to try to enhance his monopoly by any means necessary. The Microsoft mantra when encountering new technologies that it didn't develop is "embrace and extend." What does it mean? Marvelous Marvin Hagler said it best many years ago when he told boxing writers that the only two things on his mind were "destruct and destroy."

Look at Sun's Java programming language, intended as an Internet lingua franca that could make Windows obsolete. Microsoft cut a deal with Sun, then unveiled a Windows-specific version of Java that was incompatible with non-Windows machines. Or look at the latest brouhaha, over Kerberos, a security standard for servers -- the high-capacity computers on which much of the Internet actually resides. Kerberos, a freely available program associated with the so-called open-source movement, was altered by Microsoft so that the version used in Windows 2000 is incompatible with the rest of the world. And according to Declan McCullagh, writing in Wired News on May 11, when users of the hard-core tech site Slashdot.org exposed Microsoft's perfidy, Microsoft threatened to sue them for copyright violations.

Keep in mind, this was Microsoft engaging in exactly the kind of behavior that has brought it to the brink of a break-up, and doing it while waiting for Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's final ruling. Incredible.

"Anybody who has been watching the business for a couple of years has seen countless generations of superior products plowed under," says Atlantic Monthly staff writer and Industry Standard columnist James Fallows, who actually worked for six months as a Microsoft consultant last year, hoping to improve Word.

It's what Microsoft may do next that worries Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, director of the Berkman Center on Internet and Society. The incredible growth of the Internet has been driven by principles antithetical to Microsoft, such as open standards and open access for all. The Berkman Center is already fighting the cable companies, which seek to restrict high-speed Internet-by-cable to service providers of their own choosing, and to ban or limit content -- such as streaming video -- that may compete with their own cable-TV offerings. Nesson sees Microsoft in much the same light as the cable companies, and he's concerned that Gates, whose Windows monopoly is threatened by the Internet, will find ways to bring the Internet into his domain.

Noting that the late Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. believed that "law should be judged by how it affects the 'bad man,' " Nesson says, "Gates has always struck me as Holmes's 'bad man.' I don't think he's an immoral figure. He's not out there bloodletting. But he is out there at the limit of what the law allows, doing whatever he can get away with. To me, the big issue is the conflict between the public domain and the proprietary domain. Gates has become the lord of the proprietary domain."

In the end, then, there are some important connections between the Gates of pop culture and the Gates of real life. The Gates of pop culture is the richest, best-known figure of the computer age. The Gates of real life got that way by stomping anyone who got in his way, ethical and legal implications be damned. The Gates of pop culture is a benevolent geek, fattening 401(k) accounts across the land by building a phenomenally successful company. The Gates of real life is able to shower wealth upon us because of our tacit acquiescence -- through our willingness to put up with inferior products in return for standardized computers and a few crumbs under the stock-market table.

Toward the end of Pirates of Silicon Valley, a third-rate made-for-TV movie about the war between Apple and Microsoft, Steve Jobs (Noah Wyle) and Bill Gates (Anthony Michael Hall) confront each other backstage, shortly after the 1984 unveiling of the first Macintosh. Jobs realizes that Microsoft has been using the prototypes he sent over not just to write Mac software, but to study the operating system with an eye toward designing its own, similar interface: Windows.

"We're better than you! We've got better stuff!" screams Jobs.

"You don't get it, Steve," Gates replies, just before slinking away. "It doesn't matter."

Dumb-ass dialogue aside, it really never has mattered to Gates. He became king of the world by selling inferior products copied from someone else. Maybe, when we look at him, we see not just the celebrity and the wealth, but the willingness to cut corners, to be seen as the best without really being the best, to do anything to win except fight fairly. In this most narcissistic of times, we look into his bland, dorky features and see ourselves looking back. We love him. We hate him. He is the best of us. And the worst of us, too.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com. This article originally appeared in the Boston Phoenix.