Sympathy for the devil

I know there are those in the Linux community who will regard this as equivalent to spitting on the cross while blaspheming the holy spirit, but sometimes I feel sorry for the people at Microsoft. They have a tough job and they are frequently blamed for things that aren't their fault.

What made me think of this was Jeff Atwood's follow-up to his Windows spyware post.

I understand the pressure to be backwards compatible. There's no end of Vista blowback based on minor driver compatibility issues. The "if it doesn't work, it's automatically Microsoft's fault, even if the software or hardware vendor is clearly to blame" mentality is sadly all too common. But given the massive ongoing Windows security epidemic, was defaulting regular users to Administrator accounts-- exactly like Windows XP, Windows 2000, and Windows NT before it-- really the right decision to make?

In many ways, Microsoft is in a perpetual no-win situation. On the security front, for example, they are besieged by the evil forces of malware. However, every time they try to improve the situation, end users scream blood murder. For example, was the weird "quasi-administrator with prompting" a good idea? Probably not, but it's better for the average user than silently allowing the installation of spyware, and yet everyone seems to hate it. But what's the alternative? To make accounts regular users by default? How would the average Windows user would feel about that? I don't know, but I have read a many comments by recent converts to Linux who seem to think that entering a password just to install some software is completely stupid and unreasonable, so I can't imagine it would be universally hailed as a great improvement.

And, of course, there's always the breakage that accompanies any OS upgrade. For example, remember Windows XP Service Pack 2? I seem to recall widespread complaints about things breaking when that was rolled out. And we're seeing the same thing now with Vista. And who do people blame? Is it the ISV who are still coding with Windows 98 in mind? No - they blamed Microsoft.

What really kills me about this situation is when I read Raymond Chen's accounts of the efforts of the Windows App Compatibility team. For example, consider this sample chapter from his book. From the cases he mentions there, it is completely obvious that Microsoft takes backward-compatibility seriously. Very seriously. In fact, you might even say they take it too seriously.

Think of it this way. On Linux you're lucky if you can get source compatibility for an application that's more than 5 years old. Microsoft has binary compatibility with a large range of programs that are 10 or 15 years old. They're working with third-party binaries, diagnosing obscure bugs, and implementing fixes to keep the applications working, even though it's by sheer luck that they ever worked in the first place. As a programmer, it's hard to overstate how impressive this is. And yet all anyone ever focuses on is the problems they didn't fix.

Then there's the political angle. There are lots of people out there who seem to think that Microsoft can do no good. Everything they do is viewed with suspicion. Anyone who works for Microsoft has to contend with accusations that he is either in on the conspiracy or is bowing down to "the man" every time he says something they MS-haters don't like. That's got to be at least a little demoralizing. And while a certain degree of animosity is certainly warranted (as it is with practically any large business), it's not like Microsoft has been running child sweatshops or dumping toxic waste in the local drinking water. It just seems way out of proportion.

So no matter what the people in Redmond do, it seems like there's always somebody pissed off at them. And it's a shame, because they really do do some good work. The .NET world has lots of neat technologies and is a very cool place for developers. Even though OpenOffice may be good enough for many, MS Office is by far the best office suite available. And, last but not least, Windows, despite it's flaws (and they are legion) is a very impressive feat of software engineering. Not to mention that Microsoft employs a number of very bright people.

So, to the Linux community, I say, let's give Microsoft a chance. I'm not asking you to like MS, or to start using any of their products. Let's just be honest and realistic. Most people in the community aren't shy about placing the blame on them, but give credit where credit is due. We rightly object when people blame free software for not being a panacea, what with hardware incompatibilities and the lack of certain software. We should at least hold MS to the same standard and not judge them for failing to satisfy everyone.

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