I have previously written about Microsoft’s excellent transformation into a respectable member of our technological civilization. The trend continues with the news that "Microsoft Is Open-Sourcing PowerShell for Linux, Macs". Once again, I congratulate the Nadella Dynasty Microsoft for being intelligent and absolutely doing the right thing. Good job!

The technical details of Microsoft’s latest display of humility are not something I need to elaborate on. Today’s news provides a good perspective for understanding a radical assertion I’ve made now for at least a decade.

Microsoft has retarded computer technology by 20 years.

Because this is so counterintuitive to most people and the explanation is complex, I’ll try to make my case for this idea so that I can avoid long discussions on the topic in the future which, frankly, I’m as tired of as my regular readers must be.

One reason my premise is so shocking is that most people believe the complete opposite. I think this has a lot to do with the cult of Microsoft’s original Khan. When I hear Bill Gates praised as a great personage I cringe. Bank robbers can be philanthropists too, often on the advice of their tax accountants. I think Bill Gates needs to be judged on what he did to get the money, not how he’s spending it.

This completely typical assessment of Bill Gates lists the following "five greatest achievements".

  1. Inspiring the era of the home computer

  2. Commercializing the operating system

  3. Windows

  4. Becoming the richest man in the world

  5. Giving his money away

Although I consider it more cancerous than praiseworthy, number 4 is correct enough. But with Gates still the richest man in the world today by far, number 5 looks a bit dubious.

I am horrified by the shockingly entrenched but false idea of number 1. In my opinion Bill Gates inspired nothing having to do with home computers. If you want the person who inspired the era of home computing, Steve Wozniak owns that like Gates owns the Forbes list of billionaires. Even Steve Jobs deserves way more credit. Woz demonstrated that home computers were technically possible and Jobs correctly sensed that the devastating social stigma associated with them could be scraped off in time. I don’t even give Gates credit for "inspiring the era of the office computer". Clearly that was IBM’s inspiration all along.

It is true that Bill Gates was at the helm when Microsoft produced Windows. But is this genius? Or even benign? Despite no preconceived bias at the time, I found Windows (3.1) to be a complete usability nightmare. My epiphany came when I realized that with Windows, I couldn’t do extremely basic things that I could do 15 years earlier using a Wozniak designed computer. A poignant example for me was that Windows lacked a native (to the OS) way to display graphical images. The list of frustrations was long and with Windows95 the list was enlarged as much as it was reduced. But does Microsoft Windows really explain why computers are advanced now in a way that they otherwise wouldn’t have been? As much as I hate 2-D hokey GUI metaphors based on office equipment, it certainly isn’t right to let Microsoft have any credit for pioneering them. Those terrible anachronistic metaphors are office related because they came from an office equipment company, Xerox. Note that Alan Kay and Xerox created their Alto GUI computer 19 years before Windows 3.1 was released. See what I mean about 20 years? As with almost everything Microsoft did, their GUI OS interface was not some kind of inspired protean innovation. It may be remembered as such because it was ultimately so dominant and destructive to other potential innovations.

The really important item on this list of Bill Gates' alleged accomplishments is the commercialization of the operating system. But "commercialization" is a bit too euphemistic. Red Hat and others have commercialized a free and public domain operating system but that business model hardly allows all competition to be utterly obliterated. What Microsoft did that was truly historic, and this returns to my original premise, is that they seized almost total control over how humanity created and exchanged information. Whether Microsoft understood that themselves or not, they have certainly come much closer to achieving that goal than any entity in history. Computers have become the dominant communication tool of our species. With exclusive unilateral control of and access to the system that manages the computer itself, Microsoft came dangerously close to ruling all information.

And this was bad. I tend to agree with Lord Acton who believed, "Despotic power is always accompanied by corruption of morality." Microsoft may have thought of itself as a benevolent dictator and with the best intentions, but after some serendipitous success, once network effects had eliminated their competition, I feel they focused primarily on stifling positive innovation that could have threatened their dominance. And they were good at that. An example is that there used to be dozens of word processors in a formerly competitive market. The way humanity luckily escaped this oppression was by moving most business from the direct control of the OS to the mediated control of the web browser. This was strongly opposed by Microsoft at the time.

Not only was Microsoft working hard to limit computing choices but those choices were degenerating too. Since every person who needed to communicate would need a computer and every person who needed a computer would need a Microsoft OS, the main focus of Microsoft that might generously be seen as prosocial involved introducing more ordinary people to computers. Since they didn’t have to compete with any better approaches they decisively moved toward the lowest common denominator. As my computer agenda became more technical and serious, Microsoft was doing everything possible to infantilize computer use. In that they definitely succeeded.

It is for these reasons that I believe Microsoft has set us back twenty years. The reason I’m writing this today is to justify the full two decades. OS X was released 15 years ago. I consider this a milestone indicating Apple’s return to competent computing and a competitive marketplace. OS X has always had Unix. There was a choice of shells (the original default was tcsh), SSH client/server, and all the wholesome Unix tools that every sane system should include. Microsoft is just announcing that they’ve seen the light and, 15 years later, they’re working on catching up. Maybe in a couple of years they will. That still leaves a couple of years. Well, OS X may have demonstrated that a mainstream popular OS could be competent 15 years ago, but Linux was comfortably doing it many years earlier. I’m standing by my time frame.