Micro World

I'm just about old enough to remember how IBM behaved in the 1970s and 80s.

If someone else came up with a good idea, they'd make their own version of it. By which I mean: Copy it, screw around with it just enough to make it incompatible with the original, screw around with it some more to make it's most useful features unusable, announce it as IBM saving the world again, and try to force the entire marketplace to use their inferior version.

As market leaders, they'd succeed just enough to split the industry, and a few years later they'd either screw around with the idea again, just enough to make the new IBM screw-up incompatible with the old IBM screw-up...or abruptly stop all support for the whole scheme, pretend it had never happened, and leave anyone still using it in the lurch.

Sound familiar? Nowadays we call it the Microsoft pattern.

The C and C++ programming languages had been established and standardised for years - before Microsoft created the entirely unnecessary C# variant, and tried to make it the industry standard. They failed, but they succeeded enough to mess up the lives of C programmers.

C# is just different enough from C that programs written in one won't work in the other. C# has quirks added seemingly just to be different from C, but if you program for Microsoft in C, you're obliged to use the sharp version.

Webpages are written in HTML, and it's grown and developed from a simple way to format documents to a complex but logical way to design interactive websites. Older ways to format are discouraged, but supported.

And then there's the Microsoft version of HTML. Nevermind that there was exactly zero need to have a second formatting language with the same name, Microsoft made one. Or rather a dozen, because each version of the Microsoft browser understood a different dialect of MS HTML, none of them fully supported by any other browser, and each not even supporting the previous version.

That means if you design a webpage to display in Internet Explorer 8, it will probably (a) not display correctly in Firefox, Chrome, Opera or any of the other browsers which all speak the same core language, and (b) not display correctly in Internet Explorer 9. Or 7, or 6.

Most of the 'interactive' parts of webpages are written in Javascript. Guess who has their own version of Javascript? And guess who's browser won't always work with guess who's own version of Javascript?

Two decades ago, we got the MP3 audio format, which at a stroke removed most of the confusion of sharing audio files over the net. Which promoted Microsoft to launch WMA, bringing the confusion back without giving us greater audio fidelity.

We got MPEG4 for video. So Microsoft invented WMV, and tried to make us use it instead, making absurd claims that WMV files of half the size gave you twice the quality.

There are lots of other audio and video formats for specialist purposes, but you can avoid a lot of confusion by putting them into a uniform container format, and the default one is AVI, or at a pinch you can use FLV.

Unless you're Microsoft, in which case you invent ASF. Which wouldn't be such an inconvenience if they didn't miss the whole point of container formats, and make it extremely difficult for you to make ASFs than don't contain WMA or WMV.

We've had Android smartphones and iPhones for a while now, and the market is pretty standard. So guess who's producing the Windows Phone? Incompatible, less powerful, less well supported, and answering no apparent need.

If we had a government that behaved like this, we'd be wheeling out the guillotines. As it is, we seem content to sigh in exasperation and shrug that it's not what we wanted, but if we didn't have Bill Gates, anyone else would have been a whole lot worse. Somehow.


  1. ... which is probably why Microsoft - who used to have 90% of the browser market - now have less than 20%. Luckily, Billy baby retired, in the nick of time, before the guillotine was wheeled out.


  2. It's down to 20% now? I didn't know that. Good.

    Congratulations on the gig, BTW. So the band are now a 5-piece...and Howard Jones is a fan!

    One of my tiny claims to fame: I once took a degree with a slightly mad woman who was a friend of Howard Jones. A 50 year old who gave us a lecture on the subtle subdivisions of Drum'n'Bass.