Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Halloween XII: The Reckoning

I've been working at Google for almost three months now, and enjoying myself immensely. I'm excited about the Android platform and think it has a very bright future. It's also a fun platform to write code for. This post isn't about Android, though.

The title of this post is a reference to the Halloween Documents, the first of which was an internal Microsoft memo leaked by an employee to Eric S. Raymond, who posted it to his website in 1998 (on Halloween), where it was picked up by Slashdot and other sites. The topic of the memo was the growing threat of Linux and the open-source movement, and the ways in which Microsoft could attempt to neutralize the threat to their closed-source locked-in monopoly OS, office suite, and related products. The other Halloween documents are a combination of other leaked memos and commentary on the topic of Microsoft, and specifically their heavy-handed PR (and other) tactics to try to discredit Linux and open source.

I recently reread the Halloween documents, as well as a number of other articles about Microsoft and their dastardly ways, many of them culled from TechRights.org, a site that tirelessly catalogs all of the wrongdoings of Microsoft and related companies. The list is quite lengthy. In a little over five months, it will be the 12th anniversary of the leaking of the first Halloween memo.

My own personal experiences with Microsoft in the past have been mixed. Sometimes their stuff works well, other times it's somewhat buggy, and far too often it's completely broken in one way or another. By and large, I've tried to stay away from their products as much as possible. In July 2005, I was hired as a software engineer at Danger, Inc., a small startup company that had made a splash in certain communities as the designer of the Hiptop messaging phone, better known as the T-Mobile Sidekick.

During my time at Danger, I implemented a number of features and fixed quite a few bugs in the telephony layer of the stack, and I'm quite proud of the work that I did on the six phones that we shipped during my time there: hiptop/Sidekick 3, iD, LX, Slide, 2008, and LX 2009. I would have happily stayed there, except for the unfortunate situation that we were acquired by Microsoft in 2008.

As I described in a previous post, I did not have a very fun time at Microsoft, in any way, shape, or form. It was an incredibly stressful situation, compounded by the fact that I'm a UNIX guy at heart and found the Windows environment we were working in to be woefully primitive and clunky, and this is coming from a guy who actually likes OpenVMS, for God's sake!

I became more and more depressed until I burned out completely and had to quit last summer. I left a few months before Microsoft lost all the T-Mobile Sidekick users' data: I think I would have lost it completely if I'd been around when that happened. I would have probably thrown a chair at Roz and gotten fired or something.

Perhaps you've guessed by now that I was one of the earliest assigned to work on the Kin project (well, it was "Pink" at the time). I have nothing good to say about that phone. There is literally no reason for anyone to purchase one, unless of course you're a Microsoft employee, and you've been brainwashed into "supporting the team".

The sickest thing to me about the Microsoft experience was how incredibly cult-like the company is. Now I know that Apple has been accused of having something of a cult mentality (no non-iPhones allowed, etc.), but if they're the cult of Steve, at least their cult leader has very good taste.

For the record, Google feels very much like a university or research campus, and freedom of thought and opinion is expected, and rewarded. Engineers are an ornery bunch, and we don't have to censor ourselves if we think something isn't right. It's all about making cool stuff that people will enjoy using, and not about "killing" or "dominating" or "cutting off the air supply" of the competition, as Microsoft once liked to talk about. Of course they're not able to do that so much anymore.

One thing that Microsoft seems to do a lot of is "AstroTurfing", particularly commenting on news stories about Microsoft with fawning comments that don't seem like they came from a real person. The big tip-off signs of a comment that obviously came from a MSFT employee are that they refer to the company as MSFT and not MS or M$ or any other abbreviation, they tote the party line, cheerlead for some product or other, and never say anything negative. There is an independent Windows "enthusiast" contingent that likes to pimp Microsoft, especially if they can put down Apple or Google at the same time, but those guys tend to not sound so much like they're from the People's Republic of MSFT. Seriously, if you work at the company, write that in a disclaimer or something... oh wait, you can't do that because your comment would sound even more pathetic. Maybe you shouldn't comment at all then, if you find yourself in that position.

There's a famous quote by John Gilmore of the EFF: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." I'd like to think that over the past 10 years, the entire tech community has decided to interpret Microsoft as damage and has quite successfully routed around them in a variety of ways, starting with Firefox, OpenOffice, and the increasing popularity of Linux distributions such as Ubuntu, and more recently with some of the stuff Google has been doing, such as Android, and Chrome. [edit: and of course all the awesome stuff that Apple has been doing since the return of Steve Jobs. Apple has been the huge tech success story of the past decade (well, Apple and Google), and I can't believe I left them off the list.]

Gmail and Google Docs aren't open source, but in terms of "routing around (the brain damage of) MS Office/Exchange/SharePoint", I can say that I'm enjoying the Google Apps experience far more than I did the equivalent Microsoft version. The Google Docs word processor and spreadsheet are still somewhat primitive, but my needs are generally pretty simple, and if I need more power, I can always use OpenOffice. I wouldn't have thought that I could be so happy switching back to Ubuntu, Gmail, vim and IntelliJ, from using the "latest and greatest" Windows, Office, SharePoint, Visual Studio, etc. at Microsoft. Did I mention how much I hated working on Windows Mobile? That stuff is just broken beyond belief.

And it's in the mobile space where Microsoft has most completely fallen down. One thing I learned about myself from the whole Kin ordeal was that I truly have a great deal of identification with the stuff that I'm working on. If I don't think there's a purpose and a meaning behind the code I'm writing, then I become very upset. Now a company like Google would tend to think that being passionate about making the best possible product is probably a good trait to have in a software engineer, but it's a genuine disadvantage at a company like Microsoft, where all is politics, and the middle management is utterly adrift.

Let me just say that I think that Steve Ballmer is a clown and a buffoon, and he has no idea just how utterly pointless the whole "Windows Phone 7" exercise is. Good luck with that, dude, but I don't see it having any more of a chance than Kin did (i.e. slim to none). The rest of the mobile industry has already routed around your flavor of brain damage, and I hate to break it to you, but I'm pretty sure that your remaining handset and carrier partners are pretty much just humoring you at this point.

In the end, I'd say that Paul Graham called it, when he blogged in 2007 that Microsoft has been dead since about 2005. They've been dead in the sense that the other innovators in the market no longer fear that they'll step all over them and screw things up. Well, they could (and did) do that to Danger by acquiring us, and they stepped all over Yahoo by threatening to buy them, so they still have some power to interfere with progress. They can still bully companies who ship Linux products into coughing up royalties for their alleged Linux patents, but that's not really something to be proud of now, is it?

I am so glad I don't work at Microsoft anymore. Actually, I'm extra glad that I landed a job at Google to work on Android. Google is pretty much the anti-Microsoft, and Android is something like the anti-Windows, and since I was so miserable over there, it's no surprise that I would be pretty happy working over here. Plus, the free food in the cafes is pretty tasty.
Post a Comment